Thursday, 12 December 2013

The difference a day makes


The past few weeks in Edinburgh, as if to offer recompense for the advancing winter darkness, we have had day after day of technicolour Turner sunsets and the sort of Rococo dawns that cry out for a few artfully placed putti—fat little boys lolling about on the tender pink clouds wondering if they should cut down on the carbs.  But about this time last week we woke to a wild wind roaring its terrible roar and showing its terrible claws, rain sluicing and slashing its way through the city in the very teeth of the fierce gale.  The streets were littered with the shrapnel of broken slates and sticks and even small stones—every kind of detritus.  A single shoe tumbled past me as I walked to the bus stop—I could only hope the owner had not been blown out of them.  I was wearing my emergency red shoes, just in case I needed to click my heels in order to get home again at the end of the day. In the New Town daintily dressed Christmas trees lay—baubles blown and lights dangling--in careless attitudes of dishabille, like drunken debutantes after a raucous night out.

The bus arrived at the stop, pushing a bow wave in front of it that surged across the street to join the small lake on the other side.  When I staggered aboard there were at least twice the number of people normally on the bus.  It was like climbing into a lorry-load of sheep being taken to market—people crammed in, smelling of wet wool and baa-ing frantically down their mobile phones, if only to say ‘well I’m on the bloody bus, so you take care of it’.  Most of the city, it seemed, had left for work early or left their cars at home and were heading for Waverley Station where they would stampede off the bus, elbowing aside the Big Issue seller in their haste to get down to the platforms where they would hear the announcement that every train in Scotland had been cancelled.  In the harsh interior light of the bus faces were grey and grim as they complained, carped or just bemoaned their bad luck at having to try to get to work on such a filthy day while they worried about their roofs blowing off or wondered if they should have built that ark in the garden.  People moved up the bus to let others on with sighs, mutters, filthy looks and trampled toes as they were briefly distracted from shouting down their phones or surreptitiously shaking their blown-out umbrellas onto their neighbours’ shoes.  Unable to see anything outside through windows as befogged as early-morning brains, the cold, wet, noisy bus lumbered along the stormy streets cold—a miserable ship of the self-absorbed damned.

The following morning it felt as if normal service had resumed.   Completely still, as if the world was holding its breath, the slowly paling sky in the east looked a tender, washed-out shade of blue.  Unlike the overcrowded assault course of the day before, the bus was unusually quiet.  No one was talking; there was no tinny rattle from the girl with the ipod turned up so loud I fear for her hearing.  No Kindles, no open computers, no ipads, no paperback books with the covers folded back.  No one putting on their make-up or surreptitiously eating their breakfast or even gazing absently out the window.  But every passenger had a copy of the free newspaper given away on buses and in train stations, the same photograph on the front page repeated the length of the bus. And as people stood up, got on, got off, we each looked up--only briefly--but long enough to make eye contact with someone; long enough to share the message.  Nelson Mandela 1918 – 2013. 

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Getting carried away


It has been a more surreal than usual on the bus this week.  I saw a dog wearing a hat:  neither rain hat nor sun hat but a rather snappy fedora.  He was travelling in a Tesco’s supermarket shopping basket tied to the back fender of, appropriately enough, a ‘sit up and beg’ bike.   I also saw a man riding a bicycle carrying a birch tree in a bag.  Not a sapling, you understand, but a tree of substantial height waving its silver leaves gently about ten feet above the cyclist’s head.  It was a curiously soothing sight.

Another day, over the course of one journey I saw no fewer than eleven sofas, all of varying sizes, shapes, colours and conditions, tied to the tops of cars or lolling in the backs of small flatbed trucks of various design and headed east down Ferry Road.  Do sofas lead secret lives, I wondered, attending raves when their owners aren’t looking?  Is other furniture involved?  Is there a secret movement of radical armchairs holding rallies in the dead of night in a Safestore in Leith?  

It reminded me of a dark, fiercely cold afternoon a couple of winters ago when I was walking through the tunnel out of the Grassmarket where a busker was exploiting both the shelter and the fabulous acoustics playing ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ on his saxophone (which was accurate as well as enjoyable).  Heading up toward the Lothian Road I was pushed into the road by a three piece suite hurtling down the pavement, their little caster wheels practically smoking they were in such a rush.  It was quite a disappointment to discover someone at the back, pushing. 

Of course, one always expects to see unusual sights during the Festival, so the hats, dogs, trees and sofas might have gone relatively unremarked, had I not seen several bus spotters in the same week as well.  Easily recognised, they travel in pairs, discussing buses in a technical sort of way and have notebooks and stubby pencils and copies of ‘Buses’ magazine (which is apparently the world’s biggest selling bus magazine--although I expect this is only really impressive if there are other bus magazines?).

I should not, of course, be surprised to discover there are bus spotters, if only as a sort of logical extension of train-spotting (and what could be more appropriate in Edinburgh than Trainspotting?).  There is even a GB Bus Group, which describes itself as ‘a bus enthusiast society founded in 2006 aimed at those interested in the modern bus scene.‘  I hadn’t even realised there was a ‘bus scene’; the very words make me think of go-go boots, beehive hairdos and lots of polyester velour--like the stuff they use to upholster bus seats.  Maybe that’s where all the sofas  were headed:  to a totally groovy omnibus/furniture Velvet Underground fringe event at the Lothian Buses depot called something like ‘Transports of Delight’? 

Edinburgh is such a Salvador Dali sort of city just now that on Friday I came home from work, put my feet in the kitchen sink and read a book*.  But seriously, who would want things any other way?  Even the crankiest Festival nay-sayer could not fail to be charmed by the bus driver who, after a short debate with himself, decided he could allow a duck on-board...and he didn’t even make him pay a fare. 

*an act of homage to ‘I Capture the Castle’--a novel about, among other things, the importance of eccentricity.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

What a mashup...


I saw my double on the bus yesterday morning.  I must tell you that it is unsettling, seeing your doppelgänger; especially if you have not had your breakfast.  It makes you immediately want to get a radical haircut...or a paper bag.  It makes you wonder what they see when they look at you, or if they see you at all.

And it isn’t just my own double I’ve come across.  This afternoon I saw the spitting image of someone I worked with recently.  I’m thinking of emailing her to ask if she knows she has someone wandering around Edinburgh impersonating her, right down to her fashion sense.   It's downright spooky. I am now wondering how many other people I know who aren’t them I might come across in the next month,  because if there is ever a time and place appropriate to finding  long-lost twins, ghosts or android facsimiles; it has to be in the vast mashup of festival Edinburgh.   

Mashups seem to belong in Edinburgh:  that quirky combination of a pre-existing classic with something from another genre entirely.  Think Little House on the Prairie with Pa as a werewolf, or Alexander McCall Smith and vampires:  ‘Bertie Plays the Bloodsucker’.  Can’t you just imagine 18th century society hostess and poet Alison Rutherford welcoming the Ladyboys of Bangkok to her intellectual soirees along with Walter Scott and David Hume?  

In festival Edinburgh you can be Dr Jekyll, Mr Hyde and Joan Rivers all at the same time (you could call your show ‘Monster Mash’, or you could team up with the Ladyboys and  call it ‘Sausage and Mash’)...and possibly make a profit doing it, if you can find a cheap venue, enough friends to distribute your snazzy flyers and, most importantly, catch the Scotsman critic when his judgement is impaired by too many cheerful blues singers, garrulous mime acts and plays about women talking through their lady gardens.  

The festival is the zombie in Jenner’s hat department.  It’s what stops dour old Edinburgh getting too stuffy for its own good.  Despite the complaints from over-worked taxi drivers and those who face life with a  frown at the ready, just in case they need to disapprove of something, most of us love it really.  Just the way we love our city when it returns to normal again.  

It seems entirely fitting that Edinburgh’s mainline railway station--Waverley--is named after  a  novel about a young man who reads too much poetry and falls in love with a Jacobite heroine and her cause.  For a time all is romance and adventure, but in the end reason prevails and he marries more rationally--a pragmatic union that will get him places.   I expect if Scotland votes for independence Alex Salmond will want the name changed.   Something just as meaningfully Scottish, but modern, of course.  ‘Trainspotting’ springs to mind.  All aboard for Begbie Station?  

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

How to stop a bus in the rain


Summer is making a (very) belated appearance in Edinburgh this week, but all of us who live here know that the only thing that truly unites Scots as a country is a healthy pessimism about the weather.  The Picts did not tattoo themselves with red paint to match their sunburns; they painted themselves with blue because it tones so nicely with the national complexion.  Highlanders are the only people I have ever seen who can hide in a bucket of skimmed milk.

We embrace warm weather with an enthusiasm little short of insanity because we know in our hearts it isn’t going to last.  However, what this means is that we are really, really good at rain...because we get lots of practice.  We have skills, whether for maintaining a water-tight integrity at all times or for complete and utter, sodden denial.  And if skills and the good offices of Mr MacIntosh fail us, we have attitude.

 I saw a recent demonstration of this during the last monsoon when I watched a man walk along the side of the bus, smiting it with his umbrella.  It was difficult to determine who he was remonstrating with:  the bus, the rain, or God for sending the rain.  

A few moments later a woman stepped daintily into the road and walked up the street at the bus, flourishing her umbrella and having at the number 29 like Errol Flynn in drag. The bus driver did the unheard of and opened his doors between bus stops, either in admiration, or because he did not wish to have to explain squashed septuagenerian on his paintwork.

In any case, tilting at windmills (or buses), is a noble hobby for one’s advancing years.  I consider this woman a role model, unlike the very small, very elderly woman who sat down next to me at a stop during a subsequent downpour.  Her plastic rain-bonnet should have been a clue--Don Quixote would never wear a shower cap in the rain (though Sancho Panza might...). The rain was sluicing into the shelter, but we had to wait for the driver to come back from having a pee before we could get on the bus.  Evidently we could not be left on the bus, lest we hot wire it and drive to Morocco.

’Well, everyone has to go, I suppose’ she said sighing.  ’And at least he’s not doing it in the street.  They do, you know.  Pee everywhere. There’s no decency nowadays.’ 

Settling like a broody hen on her perch, she took an iced bun out of her shopping bag, took a bite and chewed meditatively, licking the icing sparkling in the whiskers on her upper lip before replacing the bun in its bag.

’No decency’, she continued.  ’Like my neighbour.  She’s only young...but she’s no better than she should be.  Men in and out of her flat at all hours and I’m sure it’s for money, otherwise they wouldn't be so quick.  Her on the other side told me there’s a sauna in there as well.’  She paused before saying the word ’sauna’, lowering her voice conspiratorially.  

It occurred to me to wonder how the neighbour knew there was a sauna--had she noticed men coming out demonstrably cleaner than they went in? Or pinker? 

’But that’s not the worst,’ she said.  ’Not the worst at all.  I went away to my cousin in Broughty Ferry for the weekend and what do you think I found when I came back? ’

I cannot imagine, I said, entirely truthfully. 

There was another pause, for dramatic effect. ’She only went and hung her washing on my bit of the line!’  

She looked at me closely, as if to gauge the effect of her shocking revelation.  ’ Those sheets could have seen almost anything. '

She paused. 

 ‘That girl's a whore,’  she declared matter-of-factly.  ’But we all love her wee dog, so that’s alright,’ she added, smiling sweetly and reaching for her bun.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

What's black and white and wrong all over?


A few weeks ago I heard a news item as I rode the number 42 over the King George IV Bridge, saying that Scots scientists are creating genetically modified chickens whose eggs could hatch into any number of birds:  ducks, blue tits, swans, hawks... Evidently there has already been a chicken fathered by a duck--which I can only think of as the bird world equivalent of Colonel Saunders fathering Heston Blumenthal.  Leaving aside the endless possibilities (would crossing a bustard with a turkey give you a thanksgiving bastard?),  it seemed particularly fitting that we should at that moment be passing the location of the Frankenstein pub, with all its associations with poor old Victor Frankenstein’s fatally flawed creation.  

Dr Frankenstein would no doubt have called himself a ‘natural philosopher’, which is what scientists who were fascinated with how the world and the universe works were called before physicists and 'The Big Bang Theory' were invented.  My old friend James Clerk Maxwell, he of the delightful statue at the end of George Street next to St Andrew’s Square, was a natural philosopher.  I can easily imagine James and Victor having a pint or two in the eponymous pub, sharing memories of being bullied in the schoolyard for having funny accents and being swots. 

I cannot help but wonder what the philosopher in James Clerk Maxwell would have made of the notion of designer poultry--condors springing from the loins of bantam cockerels, as it were.  No doubt Maxwell would worry about the consequences for the natural world:  what if it all goes wrong (as it did for Victor Frankenstein) and one ends up with eagles who can’t fly but feel compelled to crow every sunrise? Ducks who can’t swim and nightingales who sing like crows?  What would he think of the noble calling of science devoting itself to creating a world where a starlings are crossed with puffins in order to make ‘stuffins’?  Cross again with a chicken and a fulmar* and you get a Sunday roast that  bastes itself.  

I just hope nobody gets any clever ideas about those poor, apparently incompatible pandas who are failing, yet again, to take full advantage of the love tunnel in Edinburgh Zoo.  There is talk of artificial insemination.  I just hope they do not bring in the bird brains from the Roslin Institute...Postrich anybody?

*Fulmars produce a stomach oil that provided the islanders of St Kilda with oil for their lamps

Sunday, 24 March 2013

A tale of two cities: not reading on the bus in London


I find myself very favourably disposed toward the 205 service from King's Cross station to Whitechapel Road, if only because a little girl shares her shiny KitKat wrapper with me (temporarily suspending my boycott of NestlĂ© products, in place since 1975 and making no significant impact on the company) while her harassed mother deals with a screaming baby and her little brother sleeps the sleep of the just, slumped in complete abandon in his seat as if someone has taken his stuffing out, his lumberjack hat askew on his curly head.  

If Edinburgh is a Jekyll and Hyde city, the east end of London is positively schizophrenic: the hip and the haggard dancing cheek to cheek in what must have begun as mutual incomprehension and evolved into an uncomfortably symbiotic relationship.  There is an anthropological thesis waiting to be written on the shiny new Sainsburys supermarket, hard up against the new Crossrail construction site. Supermarkets and transport--the arteries pumping the life-blood of the middle classes deep into the Hackney (or do I mean Hockney?) hipster heartlands.  Profitable for the pioneers, infuriating for tardy trend-spotters coming to the party a little too late, a disaster for the generations whose children must join a new diaspora to ever further flung suburbs  in order to afford a corner of their own.  

As a foreigner in these parts I have no sense of boundaries and, early to meet  a friend and disinclined to kill time in the sacred aisles of Sainsburys, I peer through the steamed- up windows of a hole in the wall establishment where I can see a young couple leaning toward each other across a formica table in a booth apparently made from bus seats--not as a postmodern statement or a design concept as that sort of thing would be one stop of the new Overground line further away, but more a case of necessity being the honorary uncle of invention.

The couple beat a hasty retreat and there is a feeling of low-level consternation, which makes me wonder if they were about to close for the day, so I ask if it is possible to have a cup of tea. I am graciously invited to take a seat at the only other table, which appears to have been co-opted from someone’s kitchen along with three chairs all too literally on their last legs.  

The man in charge spends the next five minutes giving a lesson in how to make a cup of tea to a dark-haired teenager in a standard uniform of perilously low-slung jeans, dark hoodie and black hightops with tongues lolling as if the shoes are dying of thirst.  Never has tea been made with such exacting attention to detail--right down to the way the teabag is placed in the cup before the water is poured on...from exactly the right height.  The young man follows instructions impatiently but respectfully--a thunderous scowl of concentration adding to the general ‘I mug orphans and widows for a living’ look, which completely vanishes when he smiles, shyly, as he hands over the thick white cup and saucer.  

It is an exemplary cup of tea.  When I compliment them both, the teenager blushes like a girl who has tucked the back of her skirt into her knickers and the older gentleman comes round the counter for a chat.  He is originally from Bangladesh he says,  but has been in London for forty years.  When I say that I am from Edinburgh he tells me that is not possible, as he went to Edinburgh for the Festival once and I sound nothing like Billy Connelly.  

When I remark that he must have seen a great deal of change in the area over the past few years he tells me that it is true, it is no longer the place he once knew, but that ‘change is life’ and he has been lucky.  ‘Where else could I have come with nothing and slowly, slowly built my own business, with hard work alone?‘  But now he does not know how long he will be able to stay, with rent and rates going up every day.  It will soon be retirement and banishment to  Essex.  When I leave I see that his shopfront is squeezed between two ubiquitous, shiny, chain-brand establishments of the kind that will crush his hard-won, hand-made kingdom into oblivion.  

It is with great difficulty that I persuade him to accept the 90 pence the hand-lettered menu board says he charges for a cup of tea.

A few days later I am on my way back to King’s Cross.  It is 8:30 on a Monday morning--rush hour in full flight and the bus is packed.  At a stop in Islington a man pushes his way through the people exiting the middle doors of the bus, so avoiding paying the fare.  He is greying at the temples, wearing trendy spectacles that are too young for him, a dark overcoat that whispers cashmere and carrying a briefcase with a discrete Dunhill logo. He wriggles and slides into a just-vacated seat as if he has been greased, smiling to no one in particular, the faint flush of pleasure on his face the same shade of pink as his copy of the Financial Times.  Clearly the small triumph of dodging the fare has made his day.  I can only assume his wife will not let him buy a sports car. 

Sunday, 3 March 2013

The last Etruscan


For many weeks, before Christmas, there was a young woman who got on the bus a few stops along from me who, despite her softly rounded features, neat plaits and pink hair clips, always seemed regally self-possessed.  Perhaps it was something in the straight-shouldered way she carried herself, or her complete lack of interest in the other passengers.  

Her interest was always outside the bus, at least for the first few yards, when she would be looking intently out the window for the skinny young man with the sparse moustache who would be waiting at the B&B just along the road from the bus stop.  On dry days he would be on the steps; if the weather was very wet, he would be standing inside, looking out the bay window with its small sign hanging from a chain that always said: ‘vacancies’.  

Every morning she was on the bus, always sitting on the left-hand side, he would be waiting to wave as the bus passed. she would always make some small signal--not as much as a wave--but raise her hand as if to wave, then casually tuck a strand of hair behind her ear.

They both looked absurdly young and I wondered if they were guests at the B&B, or if it belonged to family or they had perhaps taken it over (I had noted that the display of dusty plastic flowers in the window had recently disappeared).  

There was something touching about the way he always waited; about her studied nonchalance.  I always assumed from the eager way he waved, set against her evident embarrassment and the small smile of satisfaction--an expression that I have seen on the faces of ancient Etruscan sculptures--that she was the more loved, he the more loving.


But one morning he was not waiting.  She looked intently out the window,  turning in her seat as we passed, but there was no sign of him.  She lowered her head and stared at her phone, fiddling with it,  still studying it as she got off at her stop as if she were willing it to send her a sign.  The next day, and the next and the day after that he was not there, though every morning her head turned.


I was away for two weeks or so and after I returned I did not see either of them, though like the girl I found myself looking in the bay window of the B&B hoping to catch a glimpse of one  or other of them...or perhaps to see them sitting down to breakfast together at one of the white-clothed tables with their bud vases and matching cruet sets.  

After a while I stopped looking, stopped wondering, until a week or two ago when the girl reappeared at her old stop.  She got on the bus and took her usual seat on the left-hand side, though she stared straight ahead for the whole journey.  Each weekday morning she has been on the bus, though there has been no sign of the young man.  She no longer looks as the bus passes the B&B.  She does not wear her hair in plaits with pink hair clips, nor do her lips curve in the secret smile of a woman who knows she is loved.