Saturday, 26 May 2012

Miracles, makeovers and mammon

It has not been possible to pass St Andrew’s Square the past week or so without noticing that it is to be transformed to a ‘spa in the city’, this weekend.  The large, pristine white tents dedicated to indulgence look a sharp contrast to the stalwart (if often absent) Occupy Edinburgh army who pitched up in the square through some of the worst of the winter weather.  
There will be, we are told a ‘vintage glamour’ theme, promising 1930s style makeover and retro hair styling (it seems unclear whether the style will be vintage or the hair—I keep thinking of scanty blue and lilac rinses with marcel waves and pin curls...).    One can’t help but wonder what St Andrew’s brother, St Peter—the apostle who believed it is ‘better to marry than to burn’—would have to say about this celebration of female pulchritude.  However, if ever there was a woman in need of a bit of pampering, it must have been Andrew and Peter’s mother.  Can you imagine—two saints in the family? She will have worked herself to the bone keeping those robes white and those halos polished.
 I obviously prefer St Andrew to St Paul--what woman wouldn’t? I am pretty sure St Andrew was a bit of a party-boy at heart: he was, after all, the one who suggested to  Jesus that he could feed 5,000 people with five loaves and the two fishes (I believe the organisers of the spa day are hoping to perform a similar miracle with cupcakes).   I suspect there were more than a few people who, looking back, rather wished Andrew had mentioned the thing with the water and the wine as well, but with miracles, as with so many other things in life, it is important to manage people’s expectations.  
I can’t help but wonder what the founders of all those Edinburgh Financial institutions that surround St Andrew’s Square make of this frivolous (and free) activity at the very heart of a place long dedicated to the multiplication of money.  Having said that, they might want to keep in mind that St Andrew is also the patron saint of Greece--surely enough to make a banker’s hair curl...without the assistance of the good ladies in the square. 

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Wooed you?

Each working morning I pass The World's End on the bus--a pub that marks the site where Edinburgh ended and the rest of the world began.  The pub's  foundations are on the Flodden Wall at the site of the Netherbow Port (the main gate into Edinburgh).  It is, of course, a wonderfully Edinburgh notion--the world ending on the wrong side of the wall.   In an action that reminds me of my daughter, who when she was three years old thought if she faced a tree or a wall and hid her eyes no one could see her, the wall was quickly thrown up after the Battle of Flodden (a section of the wall is visible further down the street at the Pleasance, which you can look at while you are waiting for the traffic lights to change).   In the event, it was rather better at keeping smugglers out than armies.  In 1544 the Earl of Hertford had only to huff and puff to blow the defences to smithereens and take the town.  It was said that after three days "neither within the walls nor in the suburbs was left any one house unburnt".  

The attack was early in the 'War of Rough Wooing', as it was called, thanks largely to Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall who used it in 1906 in her book 'Scotland's Story for Boys and Girls'.  I wonder how many Edwardian children grew up thinking 'wooing'--whether personal or political-- was accomplished by pulverising the object of your desire...and how many languages the book was translated into in the early 20th century.

A few steps along the street will bring you to a small antiques shop, outside which there is often an old-fashioned pram with a boar's head where a baby should be.  I like to think this is an homage to the Clan Mackinnon, whose crest features a boar's head with a bone in its mouth.  I have a particular fondness for the Mackinnons, if only because their ancestor, Findanus (who I suspect invented the fish finger long before Clarence Birdseye ever came on the scene), had the good sense to marry 'Saucy Mary', a Norwegian princess, entrepreneur and role model for girls, who stretched a chain across the Kyle of Lochalsh in order to collect tolls from passing ships.  It must have been a clever political alliance--and being both saucy and savvy, she was surely a bit of a catch.  

 Next you come to a bagpipe maker's shop, which for tourists, must be like coming across a man wearing a Breton t-shirt and a beret, selling onions on a bicycle in France.  It all looks rather idyllic, but apparently there is dissent even in the world of piping.  It would seem that in the west, the Glasgow pipe-makers and players are lamenting the passing of the fellmonger--who traditionally prepared the sheepskin bags used for pipes.  Now many sheepskin bags come from China, so an important traditional skill is in danger of being lost.  There is also a threat from the synthetic bag.  Over in the west they are saying that, particularly at competition level, this matters; that you will not get the same sound from a synthetic bag that you would from a traditional sheepskin bag.  However,  I see the pipe maker on Flodden's Wall is an advocate for the virtues of the synthetic bag:  you don't have to season them and they have a 'moisture control system'.  It would appear many pipers are 'wet blowers', though I do not know whether this problem is constitutional or geographical. 

  No doubt controversy rages in piping circles, with internecine conflict a clear and present danger.  One can only imagine the scenes:  bag sellers wooing wet blowers on the pavements of St Mary's Street.  Worrying really, when the end of the world is, quite literally, nigh...

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Like a moth to an undertaker...

This week, I saw a dire warning in the window of a dry cleaner:  'They are back!  Mild winter moths'.  I have heard tales of the marauding moths of Edinburgh before.  They appear to target particular areas of the city in all-out campaigns of holey terror before, sated, they move on to the next natural fibre-loving neighbourhood.  The fashion for bare floorboards must have been a grievous blow to the moth community, but they have come back harder and stronger than ever thanks to supermarket cashmere, wooly throws and those tweedy handbags from Anta and Ness.  They have, of course, always had a steady diet of tartan to rely on (which may be why they congregated in Edinburgh in the first place--there is probably a scourge in Inverness as well).  I can imagine a moth who has eaten too much tweed being advised by NHS 24 to eat two plain pashminas and call the doctor in the morning.

The problem is, because of the (admittedly) peculiar way my brain works, when I see a perfectly understandable sign warning me of 'mild winter moths', I immediately picture some really chilled out moths who, when they bump into a light bulb say 'excuse me', before incinerating themselves with as little fuss as possible.  I imagine moths who call each other 'dude'  and say 'let it go, Louis' when some single mother moth comes along and lays her eggs all over the family angora while Mr and Mrs Moth nip out to share a romantic  sock for two before settling down.

I had a similar problem with a white van which had 'Unfinished Business' written on the side. 'For all your small jobs that need finishing', it helpfully added.  Now clearly this is a very useful business offering to complete those DIY tasks that most of us think we can do, but can't.  So why is it I immediately think of two gentlemen in dark suits and sunglasses,  offering (for a cash consideration) to take care of any little problems I might have?  In my mind's eye they have a violin case, an umbrella with a poisoned tip,  a good supply of heavy black plastic refuse bags and two shovels in the back of that van...

There are similarly perplexing things to read inside the bus, on those little cards in the slots above people's heads advising us of fare changes and special services, with occasional adverts thrown in.  There has been a card saying:  'Everything is going to be alright'-- which, when you think of it, is a pretty sweeping statement.  It continues:  'when the World says 'give up', hope whispers 'try it one more time'.   Now, is it just me, or have they done themselves out of a job?  They have already told us what we have to do, so do we still need their services? 

 Having said that, as an advertisement it works--I did have a look at their web site and discovered that they offer to change my way of thinking.  Well, QED:  I obviously need some help with my way of thinking.  Perhaps they could help me see that the 'mild', in 'mild winter moths' refers to the weather, not the moths' disposition.  

My problem is that the life coach on the site, who is rather intriguingly a 'master practitioner in neural linguistic programming' (okay, I admit it--I am really struggling not to think of Orwell and '1984'), is also a 'chartered public finance accountant'.   I am sure she is very good at her job, but I am afraid I would feel that asking a public finance accountant to help me change the way I think about money is a bit like asking a violinist on the Titanic whether I should stay for the last dance.

As you can see, there are plenty of reading opportunities when you are on the bus, without ever having to open a book or a copy of the Metro.  I will leave you with my favourite news hoarding of the past couple of weeks:  'Rain Stops Asparagus Festival'.  Really puts those moths into perspective, doesn't it?

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Taking it to the streets

There was a tank in Castle Street yesterday afternoon.  Not some piddling little Smart-tank, but a proper, big shiny green thing outside Starbuck’s taking up most of the street and looking as if it was sticking it’s turrets out and daring someone to make a disparaging remark about the size of its guns.  I wondered briefly if some General might have slightly over-reacted to not having enough foam on his cappucchino. Or if anti-globalisation protestors have decided to take things up a notch.  Perhaps putting tanks on the streets of Scotland is a precautionary measure taken by Westminster in advance of the referendum?  Or maybe our First Minister, in anticipation of a favourable result, has already decided to have his flat whites delivered to nearby Bute House by tank.  After all, what is the point of having your own army if you can’t use them?
A more pedestrian, if less fanciful, explanation would be that it was simply there as a recruitment tool.  If this is the case, it was certainly working.  There were two little boys on the bus who were beside themselves with shock and awe; the next generation of Stormin’ Normans in the making.  I daresay there are bigger boys who might have had the same reaction--after all, a great toy is a great toy.  Even I briefly wondered about taking it for a quick spin down George Street to Harvey Nicks to buy some new tights.  
I am no longer surprised by anything I see on the streets of Edinburgh.  A colleague told me yesterday she had seen a horse box in Manor Place (though somewhat disappointingly it turned out to be full of chairs, rather than thoroughbreds going for a quick curry at the Indian Cavalry Club).   
Of course, during the Festival you are likely to see almost anything from a bus:  knights in less than shining armor, bearded men dressed as swans, Henry the Eighth eating a Big Mac.  A particular favourite of mine was the year of the cow parade, when fabulously decorated fibreglass cow ‘sculptures’ turned up in all sorts of unexpected places--crowned, of course, by the  ‘The Three Grazers’ outside the National Gallery--a glorious if not entirely reverential take on the Canova’s Three Graces (personally, I think the cows represented better value for money).
The great thing about cow sculptures is that there are no issues about methane gas, which    The Sunday Times tells me is 21 times more lethal than Co2 in terms of global warming.    This is also a good reason to rejoice at the passing of dinosaurs, who apparently produced five times more methane than cattle, potentially contributing to their own extinction.   Personally, I think this is taking  blame culture a bit too far.  Just think, if dinosaurs still roamed the earth, those shiny big tanks (and all our other cars) could run entirely on ‘natural’ gas; it would just be a matter of getting the dinosaurs to co-operate.  I don’t think anyone should mention this to Donald Trump, in case he decides to open a theme park with added value.  I can see it now:  ‘Jurassic Scotland’--dinosaurs with comb-overs.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Bare essentials

These days it seems you cannot move without bumping into a cupcake, bunting or something with polka dots--or all three at once.  Young women are taking up their ruffled aprons and baking--the very same aprons their mothers burned with their bras.  Edinburgh even has a club--the Edinburgh Cake Ladies--who follow the entirely enviable, if time-consuming, pursuit of eating cake, talking about cake, baking cakes, photographing cake, blogging about cakes (and no doubt keeping all those lovely cakes in those jolly Cath Kidston polka dot tins I keep seeing people carrying carefully onto the bus).  As far as I can see, in these times of economic woe cake has become the new opiate of the masses, bakeries our new churches and macaroons our new communion wafers.   There are pop-up tea parties at secret locations where followers meet in praise of cake rather like some proscribed sect, spreading the gospel according to Flour, Butter, Sugar and Eggs.  

One can't help but wonder if Karl Marx wasn't sitting in front of a lovely piece of Sachertorte when he wrote "Die Religion ... ist das Opium des Volkes".  Interestingly enough, the Marquis de Sade also referred to "this opium you feed your people"--presumably he had his Sachertorte with whipped cream.

Home baking is all part of the new austerity; a return to the ethics of  'make do and mend'.  Speaking as the last woman in Scotland to turn the collars and cuffs on a Marks and Spencer shirt, I cannot help but be a little bit cynical when the 'Lifestyle' pages of The Guardian has an article on how to make your own knickers, by 'up cycling old t-shirts or fabric'.  I wonder how many Guardian readers rushed out to John Lewis to buy a new £300 sewing machine with which to make new pants out of their old Prada?  And in case we find the retail habit too painful to give up, we can feel better about our backsliding consumerism--St Michael is urging us to mitigate our sins by 'schwopping'--taking an old item of clothing to donate to charity so we can feel better about buying new things.   We can stimulate the economy and clear our conscience at the same time.  Turning those collars would be positively unpatriotic now...

Nevertheless there is something comforting about the return to knitted cosies and street parties, Union Jacks and bulldogs in fancy dress.  In times of trouble it is tempting to look to the past, when happiness did not come in shiny carrier bags; when Britain was a nation built on an enduring (and endearing) combination of tradition and eccentricity that is still with us, a fine example of which was widely reported last weekend.

The Scottish Outdoor Club on Inchmurrin Island in Loch Lomond is Scotland's oldest naturist resort and has been on the go since the 1940s.  (To be honest, I did not realise Scotland had any naturist resorts, but evidently there are three).  In order to avoid closure, they are desperately trying to recruit new members by having a series of open days.  The club secretary was quoted in 'The Sunday Times' as saying that, in addition to tea and scones on arrival, potential new recruits will be treated to a barbecue and "indoor entertainment with darts and table tennis."

Naked barbecues and darts:  that's the sort of risk-taking that built an Empire.  

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

May Day, fish and two secrets of eternal youth

It is the 1st of May, a day I always associate --not with Russian generals on parade showing off the size of their missiles or Morris Dancers chasing pubescent girls around Maypoles (which, when you think about it in Freudian terms, is the British equivalent of the former Soviets showing off their big guns)—but with our Bella washing her face in the May dew. 
Bella lived with us in the Isle of Skye and spent the best part of twenty years telling me I should get up before dawn and wash my face in the May dew, as she had done all her life.  I should have istened to her, because when she was in her 70s she still had skin like a magnolia petal.  
She also had a fairy godmother present at her birth, who leant over her cradle and gave her the gift of luck.  There was never much point buying a lottery ticket in Portree, or of even having the draw, because nine times out of ten, Bella would win.  You could buy ten tickets, keep nine and hand her one:  her ticket would be drawn.  She had enough bottles of drink to start an off-license and never knowingly bought a box of chocolates.  
 Bella believed that tinkers stole babies (but more or less made up for it by being good at sharpening knives), strange men came to look in her windows at night and that someone was sneaking into her cottage to steal things from her.  As far as the latter is concerned, she wasn’t completely wrong, as when the floor boards were lifted we discovered small bars of soap,  shredded tights, hair, cotton wool, a tattered £5 note and other useful odds and ends, dragged there by a rat building a branch of Boots.
Bella may have had false teeth that fell out if she spoke too hastily and bunions the size of buses, but she also had a sort of ageless attitude to the world, an essentially youthful innocence, which she never lost—perhaps another gift from that open-handed fairy godmother.
One very hot summer’s day, not long after I moved to Edinburgh, I met someone else with the apparent gift of eternal youth.  There had been a minor catastrophe somewhere in the city causing traffic chaos and I was on a bus marooned halfway along Princes Street.  The bus was packed with hot, unhappy passengers all wedged together and shouting on their mobile phones that they were stuck on the bus, and then that they were still stuck on the bus, and get the idea.  I was cursing myself for not walking in the first place and taking a generally janundiced view of humanity when the gentleman sitting on the pull-down seat beside me remarked on the book I had taken out to bury myself in until rescue came.
It was 'Salmon Fishing in the Yemen' (it was only a book then, not a film) and we got into a conversation about fly-fishing—he was a true enthusiast.  Gradually I learned that he had lived, worked and fished all over the world:  Brazil, the Urals, Oman, Botswana, Pakistan, Canada, Iceland and a few other points between. When I asked if he was still fishing he told me that yes, he still loved it and was leaving at the weekend to spend some time fishing in a remote part of Estonia, miles from the nearest town of any size.
This gentleman was immaculately dressed in a dark linen jacket and twill trousers--his creases so sharp you could cut yourself on them, the toes of his shoes as highly polished as a pair of mirrors.  He held a wooden walking stick with an intricately carved ivory handle and wore the sort of hat that only one man in a hundred can make look good.  I just knew he was the sort of man who would have a beautifully pressed clean white handkerchief somewhere about his person.   He was wonderfully well-informed and modest and funny with it.  He could have, as they say, charmed the birds from the trees—he certainly charmed me.  But given his apparent age I could not help remarking on his heartiness in undertaking the trip to Estonia. 
‘I hope you don’t mind my asking,’ I said.  ‘But how old are you?’
’89,’ he replied in a nonchalant sort of way.
‘Good heavens.’ I exclaimed, not very tactfully.  ‘Could I just say that you are remarkably well-preserved.  What is your secret?’
He thought for a moment and then replied:  ‘Good red wine, good books and the company of intelligent women.’