Thursday, 28 June 2012

Weed, words and wellingtons

For the past few weeks (months?), Edinburgh—in common with much of the rest of the UK—has felt like an aquatic city.  I expect to see Kevin Costner wandering around Princes Street Gardens in a pair of flippers any time now.  The air feels saturated with moisture, so that when we do have the occasional half-day or so of blessed respite the ground isn’t the only thing steaming as people come blinking into the light of the day, expressions of wonder on their unnaturally pale faces and an impulse to celebrate while the going is good to firm.
 But for the most part,  it is just day after day with selections from the great dictionary of rain:  showers, drizzle, mizzle, sprinkles, deluges, downpours.  Curiously, forecasters make distinctions in regard to downpours, rating them ‘light’, ‘moderate’ or ‘severe’.   Surely a downpour is an absolute, making a light downpour something akin to being a little bit pregnant?   Another rain word, which I heard for the first time on Radio 4 last week, is ‘plothering’.  I am not entirely sure what plothering is:  a combination of plodding and bothering?  It reminds me of when my youngest daughter (who was 4 years old at the time), came in from playing on a rainy day announcing that she was ‘sodding wet’. 
Despite my fears that we will soon all become so water-logged we will look like a nation of prunes, I had the pleasure of walking in the aftermath of a thunderstorm last week.  The lurid light seeping under the bruised plum clouds tinted the world with a greenish-bronze cast while a cool breeze teased its way through the sticky warmth:  now you feel it, now you don’t.   The Water of Leith was high--choppy and brown and flecked with dirty, creamy foam.  A swan stood on improbably green grass next to the river looking deeply affronted, as if it had forgotten that its feet had alternate uses to paddling.  All the dogs in the neighbourhood, out for a quick post-inundation walk, looked about with cautious expressions, as if they knew something we didn’t.  I expect they probably did.
Meanwhile, the local library closed for ‘emergency repairs’.  I can’t help but picture soggy books floating between pillars and librarians wearing snorkels.  But in the great British spirit of being ‘good in a crisis’, the library is bivouacked in temporary accommodation across the street and the mobile library was alongside, open for business on Saturday, all light and warm and welcoming, when I went to return my books. 
I remarked to the driver what a nostalgic pleasure it was, having used the mobile library service in Skye for many years.  He said to me that he too, had used the mobile library service all his life—but in Edinburgh.  ‘You have no idea how many areas in the city didn’t have libraries and relied on the service...they still do.  We go all over the place, get to know people—it’s like a party on here, some days,’ he said looking fondly at the neatly arranged shelves.  ‘It’s the best job I’ve ever had,’ he continued.  ‘The best job in the world.  The wheels on this bus never stop going round.’
 At this point a very skinny man with lanky unwashed hair and a hunted expression climbed on, looked around and asked if there were any books on growing things indoors, ‘under lights, like’. 
The mobile bus driver and I looked at each other and I could see we were thinking the same thing.  Come the deluge, I know which bus we’re going to be on.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Fools rush in


On one of the miracle days of summer this week (there have only been two), I found myself in a bus shelter next to a woman who smelled distinctly of bog myrtle.  At first I could not understand where the scent was coming from, as bog myrtle isn’t exactly what you expect to smell in the middle of a city.  I looked around, but there were no plants or trees anywhere nearby the scent could have come from.  Yet there it was, utterly distinctive and unmistakably coming from the only other person in the bus shelter.
The smell of bog myrtle makes me think of Skye on a warm summer’s day on the hill, the gnarled fists of dusty heather punctuated by tufts of springy bog myrtle, it’s sweet, pungent scent rising headily as you crush it beneath your feet.  I associate it with skylarks singing, so high they are mere pinpricks on the blue vault of the sky and the spasm of skin-contracting shock diving into a deep, dark hill loch on a hot day.   It is my Proustian equivalent of a Madeleine, transporting me to long summer days in the sun as surely as the coconut- oil scent of gorse.  
What I do not associate bog myrtle with is the tinny smell of hot exhaust.  I was desperate to know how this woman managed to smell like a hot day in the Highlands (in a good way...).  Unfortunately, I couldn’t see that saying ‘gee, you smell good—just like bog myrtle,’ was going to be a particularly successful conversation opener.  Even, ‘golly, what is that scent you’re wearing?’ feels intrusive at a bus stop.  It is strange but true that something you might ask someone next to you in a queue at Marks and Spencer is just not allowable in a bus queue.
I think this might be connected to the cloak of invisibility we sometimes wear— the one you put on when you are picking your nose in your car.  The sort of invisibility worn by the girl who moisturises each morning on the bus—I had no idea  anyone could spend so much time and effort rubbing a cream into their face--  before putting on a full coat of slap (she is wonderfully brave—I can’t think how she gets the mascara on without poking her eye out.  I have also watched her varnish her nails--the mind boggles--with hands that steady she should be a brain surgeon). She pulls faces, inspects her pores and squeezes her spots, all in the privacy of her own seat-space, oblivious to the other passengers.
I, on the other hand, am most assuredly not invisible to the woman at the bus stop.  She glares at me disapprovingly as I perch next to her, despite my being at least two feet away from her.  This does not invite confidences, or even eye contact; never mind questions of a personal nature.  
Nor is she the only bus-goer who seems inclined to disapprove of me.  Most mornings when I get on the bus I walk past a woman who looks me up and down with an expression of what I can only describe as complete contempt.  Now, I am the first person to admit that I would never be mistaken for a clotheshorse, but nor do I dress as a short-sighted bag-lady (at least not most days and not on my way to work—though there is a bag lady who sometimes rides the bus who wears fantastic outfits...but that’s another blog).  I really have no idea why my very existence seems to offend this woman so much that she feels compelled to look at me as if she is an Elvis impersonator practising lip curls.  I wouldn’t mind if her own presentation was unimpeachable (and I hope she will forgive me if she is an Elvis impersonator who any day is going to break into a chorus of ‘All Shook Up’  on the bus), but I refuse to be judged by a woman (younger than me) who wears a silver and purple fleece, baby pink and blue boat shoes and elasticated trousers .  
Clearly one of us needs a cloak of invisibility...and I don’t think it’s me.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Burgers in the Burgh

Yesterday morning I was accidently just in time to see the Olympic torch being handed off in the middle of the road outside my office.  As we got off the bus an aggrieved passenger complained to the driver:  ‘oh, it’s that torch again.  The bloody thing’s following me around’.  I wonder if there is a medico-psychiatric name for athletic-related paranoia?
There was a straggle of spectators--not exactly lining, more sporadically pocking—the pavements, with the occasional corporate balloon and inevitable coca-cola promotional hand-outs.  Isn’t it a comfort to know that hosting the Olympics has offered our children a new message about how to be a winner?  Drink coca cola, eat at Macdonald’s and waddle, toothless, around a track—there could be a special medal for the kid with the biggest liver.
It is therefore somewhat heartening to see the streets of Edinburgh even fuller than usual of people running or sitting on kerbs stretching their legs under the watchful gaze of personal trainers with calves like condoms full of door furniture.  I think some of this may be down to people training for the ‘Speed of Light’ event on Arthur’s Seat during which we are promised:  'The iconic mountain... brought to life in a mass choreographed act of walking and endurance running, as part of Edinburgh International Festival and London 2012 Festival.  A mesmerising visual display unfolds each night on the ascent to the summit as hundreds of runners wearing specially designed light suits take to the intricate path networks below'. 
Members are the public will be able to part as well:  a ‘walking audience’ carrying portable lights—assuming they haven’t given into the subliminal messages of all that advertising from our sponsors during the Olympics and are unable to get up from their sofas, never mind stagger up a hill.
An possibly more physically demanding pursuit is coming to the streets of Edinburgh in the European Cycle Messenger Championships next week, with a one mile sprint up Arthur’s Seat, a track event and a delivery challenge.  Evidently any cyclist can take part--if they think they’re hard enough.  Sadly, Edinburgh appears not have  taken part in the World Naked Cycle Riding event last month.  I think Macdonald’s may have missed a unique advertising opportunity--all those buns...
It all reminds me of the brilliant  slogan devised by an advertising executive who has had a nervous breakdown in the film, ‘Crazy People’:  "Volvo — they're boxy but they're good."  The corollary for another well-known Swedish car might be:  ‘Saab - if this car was a woman, it would wear big pants.’   Perhaps  our corporate sponsors should try something similar for the Olympics:  ‘Junk food—it kills you, but it’s good’. 

Friday, 8 June 2012

Hairless in Gaza

George Smiley got on the bus yesterday.; or at least a tidier, more stylish version of George Smiley.  George II was wearing an achingly smart Burberry that was emphatically not an Inspector Gadget trenchcoat, but light brown and simple, with an open pleat at the back.  He wore it with the back of the collar turned up in an enviably uncalculated-looking way that made it stylish rather than sad.  He was a masterpiece of quiet good taste, from his beautiful shoes the colour of conkers, to his thick, snowy hair (like Santa Claus, but with a better barber). 
He was carrying a slim, brown leather briefcase—the kind that whispers ‘this cost somebody a lot of money’.  You could imagine it under a Christmas tree in a New Town drawing room with a tasteful black ribbon bow on the handle the only signifier of its status as a present.  It was just worn enough for you to know that it was under that Christmas tree at least a decade ago.  Or given to him when he retired from MI6.
I could not help but contrast his beautiful head of hair with the other chaps on the bus.  I don’t think that hair is of itself necessarily an advantage for men—there are quite a few gents of my acquaintance who are much more attractive bald than they ever were with hair—especially when they are losing their hair.  Unfortunately, a common side-effect of the fashion for shaving heads is that, unless you are blessed with a slim neck, good bones and an attractively shaped cranium, there is an unfortunate tendency to look like an overgrown baby:  all round and pink with bracelets of fat that make the neck look like a joint of meat, tied with string.  Add a round-necked t-shirt and the look is all too reminiscent of a baby-gro.   Team the shaved head with facial hair and you find yourself looking to see if the genie is carrying his magic lamp.
I was sitting behind George II, so naturally took an interest when he laid his briefcase on his lap and opened it.  All of the pockets inside the cover—where you would normally expect to see a Blackberry, a Mont Blanc pen or two, possible a slim file or some sort—were empty. 
I shifted forward ever so slightly so I could see into the body of the briefcase.  At first I thought that too, was empty.  I felt a moment of sharp disappointment:  was George II going to turn out to be all style and no substance?
But then I noticed...there was a single sheet of paper in the bottom of the case, with one indecipherable line of letters and figures written in faint pencil. I began to think of Swiss Bank accounts and left luggage in railway stations.  Disappointingly, there was no small pistol lying underneath the sheet of paper, but nevertheless it was not difficult to imagine George II on his way to explain to some baffled civil service mandarins the meaning and significance of this cryptic piece of information.  He would quietly make intellectual mincemeat of them all, then go to Valvona and Crolla’s where he would buy some nice olive oil and artichokes and go home and cook an exquisite frittata.  Or perhaps meet a hairless Mexican in a bar in Leith to talk about old times when they dropped dogs from planes together in Palestine (prizes to any Somerset Maugham/Aldous Huxley readers who can untangle that bit of convolution).
Or maybe it was just a phone number and a note to buy a pint of milk.  Pedestrian yes, and vaguely disappointing, but at least he was carrying it with style...not to mention a full head of hair.

Friday, 1 June 2012

We can see you...


I worry that one day I may be arrested—not as an art thief, cat burglar or master criminal, but as an altogether less interesting and entirely profitless Peeping Sally.  This was never really a possibility until I moved to Edinburgh--although I do remember a  fortnight spent in a 4th floor cold water walk up in Greenwich Village many years ago when it  was simply not possible to avoid looking in the neighbour’s windows.  As a result of this experience I can state categorically that ‘ugly naked guy’ is not an urban myth—or at least not in New York City.   During this same week I learned always to keep my toothbrush in the refrigerator, having  found a cockroach sprawled across the bristles one morning I.  I also learned to put the light on before getting out of bed at night—the sensation of walking barefoot across hundreds of cockroaches is only made worse by the snap, crackle and pop that goes with it.   The apartment also featured a bathtub next to the kitchen sink under a hinged section of counter-top--something I still consider a remarkably practical arrangement and suspect may be where the notion of multi-tasking originated.   I could have a bubble bath, scramble eggs and chat to the neighbours, all at the same time.  
Edinburgh offers endless opportunities for the casual observer.  Those tall Georgian or Victorian windows  are warmly lit stages on winter evenings--shop windows featuring a selection of room settings  for our consideration; alternative lives  to envy, pity or deplore.  The warm yellow light of these domestic interiors draw us into a series of still life paintings-- infinite and often surprising in their variety. 
 I like to think that Edinburgh is special in this respect and refuse to believe that I would be likely to see a full-size yurt in an elegant drawing room in any other city (with the possible exception of Ulan Bator).  It was there, taking up the whole of what was obviously a very big sitting room, throughout my first winter in the city.  Or the stuffed brown bear wearing a hat and a tartan sash, standing with its front legs (I want to say arms--do bears have arms?) stretched out as if in a welcoming embrace, in the porch of a flat of my acquaintance.   And of course you might see almost anything during the Festival, when drawing rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, and hallways all become Fringe venues and virtually anything is not just possible, but probable.
The bus lends itself particularly well to this pursuit and has the advantage of making Peeping Toms of us all, so that odd bit of peeping or peering goes entirely unnoticed.  Staring in someone’s windows when you are a pedestrian can be a little obvious, but sitting on a bus (unless you are reading) you have nothing  to do but gaze out the window...often into another.  Just as when we are in a car, we seem to feel that the additional layer of glass makes us invisible...or at least unaccountable.  
Trains, of course, offer similar opportunities, though they show us a possibly more intimate, but restricted view of domestic life.  Railway lines tend to run past the backs of houses: from the bus we see the face their owners choose to turn to the world.  Whether carefully or carelessly arranged, they make me think of Eleanor Rigby, ‘keeping her face in a jar by the door’.  
So unless you live above the first floor, or behind a hedge, or keep your curtains, blinds or shutters permanently closed, remember you are a shop window.  You might want to consider having some fun with it—pretend to be strangling someone next time the number 27 pauses outside your window; decorate your sitting room with spray-on cobwebs and black crepe paper and pretend you are either a distant cousin of the Adam’s Family or Miss Havisham.  Startling people can be the joke that keeps on giving. 
 Actual shop owners might wish to join in as well.  Ever since a colleague told me about a music shop she saw featuring sheet music in the window titled:  'Adele  for Ukele',  I have been unable to think of it without imagining George Formby performing ‘Rolling in the Deep‘.   I refuse to look too closely  when I am passing, in case it turns out to be something not at all absurd and that mildly diverting illusion is shattered, just like a great big pane of glass.