Thursday, 27 September 2012

We're not in Kansas anymore...


It is a curious fact that in Edinburgh, it can take some time to find oneself on speaking terms with other bus users--about 18 months would be a conservative average.  It makes sense when you consider that Edinburgh has long and often been associated with the phrase:  ‘you’ll have had your tea then’.   This is usually taken to reflect the Scots’ reputation for being  careful with their money, which apparently  becomes an art form in Edinburgh (though to be fair, I think it may be more an indication of caution than cupidity). 
A good example of this prudence has been demonstrated by our own Hamish and Dougal (characters from the Radio 4 programme - ‘You’ll Have Had Your Tea’, a spin-off of ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’) who I see most mornings on the bus. They are so unfailingly cheerful and entirely lovely I tend to think of them more as Bill and Ben the flowerpot men, but we have only recently reached a nodding acquaintance...and it has taken two years to do it.  I am not certain I want it to advance beyond this as I so enjoy their morning conversations, which are like the Today Programme-- if the Today Programme was broadcast from Brigadoon.  
Do not think that this seemly reticence means the good citizens of my adopted city are unfriendly—far from it.  But there is a certain reserve, which may just be natural courtesy: one would not wish to be too forward and shock the horses.  So we will greet each other most pleasantly at the bus stop for many, many months before conversation is initiated—generally with an observation about the weather.  And of course, one’s familiars on the bus will merely nod, pleasantly, in greeting.   In exceptional circumstances this will expand to encompass a few words on the situation in hand...but the following day it will be nods and wordless smiles again, as everyone overlooks any unseemly attacks of garrulousness. 
One is much more likely to fall into conversation with someone who is not a regular, or is only seen sporadically.  This comes under the ‘ships that pass in the night’ heading.  Conversation is fine, but only if you are not hastily committing to having to do it every day.  If only we applied the same caution when selecting a mate, I hear some of you saying to yourselves... 
There are two exceptions to these rules of silence:  one being if you take your dog on the bus.  I have never seen anything to match the ability of a dog to inspire strangers to fulsome forwardness.  All inhibitions are shed in the face of a friendly dog and much as I love my hound (who makes only occasional visits to the big city, but happily slips into the role of full-on metrosexual whenever he is in town), I find the wildly sentimental attitude of your average Briton to animals disturbing as well as puzzling, from the nation that invented fox-hunting. I feel fairly certain that most of my countrymen, if they were holding a bowlful of water on a hot day and forced to choose, would give it to a thirsty Andrex puppy rather than throw it over a spontaneously combusting OAP. 
The other exception to the no conversation rule is weather related.  All bets are off, all reserve abandoned in the face of extreme meteorological events.  So in this week of wild, autumnal storms (which left me expecting to find flying monkeys in Princes Street Gardens and Munchkins running Starbucks--the streets and pavements of my neighbourhood were so covered in leaves it looked as if a scout troop had been given LSD in their ginger beer and let loose with weed-whackers), when  a charming stranger turned up at the bus stop with his even more charming black labrador, conversation was more or less guaranteed.  It turned out his lovely dog (rather unimaginatively named ‘Isis’, for all you Downton Abbey fans) was a guide dog puppy, who unfortunately failed her exams and was rusticated from guide dog school.  (I managed not to ask if Isis suffered from self-esteem problems or if she had been offered counselling).
As you may imagine, every person who got on the bus had a word to say...to the dog. 

Friday, 21 September 2012

It's all about the image

‘This bus isn’t going for three minutes,’ said the bus driver, pulling the bus to the front of the stop and switching off the engine.  ‘I’m just gonnae get off and have a fag.’ 

This unexpected turn of events clearly confused the swarm of Italian teenagers on the bus who no doubt had just been to the Auntie of all Parliaments and were like bees on sugar having sampled cans of Irn Bru as part of their cultural indoctrination.

The American tourists behind me expressed their outrage-- ‘No wonder this country’s economy is all to pot.  If they get independence they won’t last a minute,’ the husband said.  ‘And the maps are wrong.’ Quite frankly, in their place I would have been somewhat bemused as well. 

The sight of a traditionally built bus driver leaning against his bus, face red and cheeks concave with the effort of achieving a new personal best time for finishing a gasper, might not be the enduring image one would necessarily want visitors to take with them (although it fits in well with the deep-fried Mars Bar and Buckfast zeitgeist), from their visit to Scotland.

 Obviously in Edinburgh there are any number of iconic images that everyone carries around in their heads, whether they’ve been here or not:  the castle and Princes Street Gardens, Arthur’s Seat, the Royal Mile and all.  The Scottish Tourist Board takes full advantage of the language of the shortbread tin, as will our visitors on the bus—on their iphoto pages and facebook, if not in their memories.

 But image is, of course, about more than how things are seen; it is about how we wish to be seen. A sign on a bookshop door between the Grassmarket and Tollcross says:  ‘Please do not piss in the doorway.  It runs under the door and makes the place stink’,  telling me as much about the shop and its owners as it does about the problems of location.  I think it is safe to assume a faint whiff of anarchy comes with every purchase (with or without the smell of piss). 

However, I am not sure the proprietor of the soon to be opened ‘Extravaganza Hairdressing’ in the West End has pitched the image entirely as intended.  Do I really want to get up every morning and deal with an extravaganza on my head?  Surely just the cost of a haircut is extravagance enough in these straightened (sorry, straitened) times? Or are they trying to say, ‘don’t come here if you want a conventional haircut?’

 Similarly I have reservations about the new sandwich shop called ‘Pinnochio’.  Why?  What has this to do with sandwiches?  Is the owner’s first name Gepetto?  Do the sandwiches dream of someday becoming real? Is there a member of staff with a wooden nose with an unfortunate tendency to grow?

A notable failure of image-making is to be found in Charlotte Square where on one building the beautiful, restrained face of Georgian architecture is marred by window-boxes that look as if they more properly belong on Wisteria Lane—the National Trust Georgian House on the other side of the square must be having a fit of the vapours every time its shutters are opened.  I can only assume the investment management firm are trying to look friendly and accessible, but for my money (and they certainly aren’t getting any of it), it indicates a confidence-sapping absence of judgment.  One feels certain the fund managers within still wear red braces, drive Porsche 911s and have Jacuzzis with gold taps in their en-suite bathrooms at home.

There are, of course, happy instances of successful image-making--like the elderly woman I saw from the bus on Hamilton Place.  She had scanty but fabulous bright orange hair, was wearing a turquoise coat and carrying a flowered walking stick.  Everything about the way she looked said something about her--she elevated ‘elderly’ to ‘iconic’. 

Similarly, the tenement on St Mary’s Street with its fanciful turrets and finials and the engraving over the door saying:  ‘This building was erected under the Improvement Act of 1867’ tells us that the good burghers of Victorian Edinburgh believed they could not only recreate the past, they could improve on it.  Like the sign on the bookshop door, the plaque is culture written in shorthand; a statement of intent.

A different, but entirely appealing statement about Edinburgh (or Edinburghers?) was made by the single desert boot I recently spotted, carefully placed next to the similarly booted left foot of James Clerk Maxwell on his statue on George Street.  Did the imaginative opportunist sacrifice a shoe and hop home?  Did he pinch one from one of those stands outside shoe shops that only have a right or a left? Or did he find an abandoned shoe and have a eureka moment?  Whatever the explanation, it certainly brought new meaning to the expression—‘putting the boot in’.    I was disappointed that it was so quickly removed--presumably because city councils have no vocabulary for wit or humour.

But some of the most pleasing images are those that just quietly happen, ephemeral and easily missed.  Double-decker buses on a rainy autumn evening, their brightly lit windows prisms of condensation; the faces behind the glass briefly glimpsed portraits in an exhibition of life in the city.  Or walking home on a chilly September afternoon and seeing two swans flying low against a pearly sky—pictures of ponderous grace.  Nearby a young girl in school uniform is practicing the trumpet, standing next to an open window.   The rough, sweet sounds fly out, as if she is summoning the swans who honk distantly in reply.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Dead funny


Last week I was unable to get to the Gallery of Modern Art (or One and Two, as we must call them now), along the Water of Leith.  There was a notice on the path saying access to the Gallery was blocked by a landslip, which made me think of whole hillsides tumbling onto the Karakoram Highway rather than a slight inconvenience off the Belford Road.  However this turned out (as detours so often do) to be a good thing, as my new route took me past the gates of the Dean Cemetery.  
I like to think most right-minded people like a good cemetery, though we seem to have lost the art of designing really pleasing graveyards.  Perhaps this goes with modern attitudes to death:  in life, it would appear, we are no longer in the midst of death...mostly just up to our necks in denial.
The Victorians, of course, really knew how to ‘do‘ death.  The Dean Cemetery may not have the faintly hysterical sentimentality or gothic excesses of Highgate (this is Edinburgh after all), but it does have its own douce charms.  The grave of George Aikman - Surgeon, sports a statue of a woman leaning her elbow on something that looks like an early George Forman grill.  Her forehead rests on her hand, as if she is either feels a migraine coming on or has burnt the chops waiting for her husband who is late for dinner, yet again.   
An early autumn day, all soft and faintly melancholy, is an ideal time to visit an old cemetery, particularly one as beautiful as this.  There are conveniently located benches on which to sit in the vapourous sun and think about life and death or the price of tomatoes.  Rather than having regimented rows of graves, the Dean Cemetery is a series of grassy peninsulas and islands--an archipelago of graves, all curving lines and graceful trees of appropriately weeping varieties .  The meandering paths are laid with small, quiet gravel--presumably so as not to wake the dead.  
The Dean Cemetery was, apparently, the fashionable place to be buried in Victorian Edinburgh, as well as the most secure--the spectre of Burke and Hare clearly loomed large in the 1840s when it was established.  (The cemetery website describes the famous body-snatchers as ‘resurrectionists’--a splendid generic term for grave robbers who ensured their victims experienced the second coming a little sooner than expected).  
The very tall stone walls surrounding the cemetery support enormous memorials that look like giant headstones.  Clearly in Victorian Edinburgh you could tell a lot about a man by the size of his monument--although James Haliburton, whose headstone informs us was:  ‘A zealous investigator in Egypt of its geology and antiquities’, ironically has one of the smallest obelisks in a cemetery positively littered with the things and I am sure is very annoyed by the polished marble pyramid marking a large family plot not far away.  
The gravestones (the men’s anyway) tend to focus on occupations or achievements.  I sat opposite Christopher Johnstone - General Manager of the Caledonian Railway from 1856 to 1867.  There is no other information about him other than some very small letters at the bottom of the headstone saying he died in 1984 at the age of 67.  
Another favourite of mine is General Sir Archibald Alison, who was a Colonel in the Seaforth Highlanders, Honorary Colonel of the 1st Volunteer Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry and whose surprisingly small sarcophagus is crowded with information:  he ‘served in the Crimea 1885' at the 'capture of Kertch and Siege of Sebastopol' and was military secretary to Lord Clyde, Commander in Chief of the relief of Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny--(lost left arm) it says in parenthesis.  There follows a whole list of battle honours from all sorts of exotic places, with a sentence squeezed in right at the bottom saying:  ‘Thanked twice by both Houses of Parliament’.  Well, quite.
Women’s graves tend to give a date of death and say simply 'beloved wife' or 'sister' or 'daughter'; women being given no further distinguishing characteristics (parenthetical or otherwise), unlike in the splendid ‘Merry Cemetery’ in Sapanta in northern Romania. Here the cheerful, colourful graves of men and women alike have splendid naive paintings which tell a story or in some way depict the resident individual’s life--not just what they did, but who they were and what they loved.  They are joyful, celebratory things and often funny, as are some of the epitaphs -
Under this heavy cross
Lays my poor mother in-law
Three more days she would have lived
I would lay, and she would read (this cross).
You, who here are passing by
Not to wake her up please try
Cause' if she comes back home
She'll criticise me more.
But I'll behave so well
That she'll not return from hell.
Stay here, my dead mother-in-law!
It all seems very far from sober Edinburgh where, as the poet Andrew Marvell put it, ‘the grave’s a fine and quiet place, But none I think do there embrace...’  Though I daresay there’s a coy mistress or two to be found, even in the august precincts of the Dean Cemetery.  
I  found a pleasing epitaph on a small memorial set into at the bottom of the wall on the outer side, where the path is almost overgrown and the ground falls steeply away to the river.  Kelly Susan Dikeou's grave gives her dates of birth and death and simply says:  'Born of American parents'.  
I think the same would do nicely for me...unless I decide to use my other favourite:  'I'll be right back'. 

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

A nation of 'fash-ists'


A woman tried to use a lottery ticket to get on the bus yesterday, which you might say re-defines the whole concept of luck.  I thought the bus driver was brave to enter into debate with her (with commendable delicacy) as she looked as if she might be monumental--at the very least-- in her displeasure (and she did have a tattoo on the back of her neck saying:  ‘get tae f..k’).   She was an altogether awe-inspiring figure, moving with space-eroding, ponderous dignity.  An Easter Island statue, she wore a pink scrunchie in her hair, a pair of lilac leggings (which should be used in the future to build all suspension bridges given their apparent ability to take an impossible amount of strain without giving way) and completed her 'Jordan meets Vicki Pollard' look with a white t-shirt in which her bosoms fought like two spaniels in a hammock.  
She was understandably cast down that her lottery ticket would not buy her a place on a Lothian Transport bus.  But she did not rage--only seemed, as they occasionally say in these parts, a little fashed about it.  I could not help but sympathise—if a lottery ticket has not brought you your fortune, the least it can do is get you a seat on a bus.    But she found some change and eventually took her seat, reconciled it would seem, to the situation...or perhaps she was still hoping it would turn out in some way to be a winning ticket.  Her face settled into monolithic repose and she tucked both tickets carefully away in her change purse.
Hope is not a word I necessarily equate with Edinburgh; it sounds too chancy for a city built on reek and reason.   But I would like to believe that the word  fash originated in Edinburgh  (it appears to come from the verb facher -- we Scots do like our French words, putting our gigots of lamb on ashets). In Edinburgh when things go wrong (or gang agley), more often than not we say, dinnae fash yoursel, which means--essentially--‘don’t have a cow’.  
Our lady on the bus might well have reacted rather more strongly to the bad news that her ticket was no good, rather than being merely fashed.  But I think this is part of the fundamental pessimism that is ingrained in the Scottish character (think of Private Frazer in Dad’s Army with his constant refrain - ‘We’re doomed, we’re doomed’).   It might be something to do with the weather, or having a national hero who talked to spiders, or having to raise  an army for a Prince who was named (according to Billy Connelly) after three dogs:  Bonnie, Prince and Charlie.  At any rate, it is all about hedging your bets (which is no doubt why Edinburgh prospered for so long as a financial centre).
Do not misunderstand me--I think pessimism is a good thing.  Recent research shows that pessimists are happier than optimists, which makes perfect sense to me.  If you are always prepared for the worst, anything short of disaster or despair is a bonus.  A pessimist is never disappointed--or at least not for long. Manage your expectations and you will almost always be pleasantly surprised. 
 Your lottery ticket may not win you a fortune, it may not even get you on the bus, but dinnae fash yoursel, at least you didn’t miss the bus.  Things could always be worse--that could be the SNP's campaign slogan; it's what it should say on the Scott monument (with a pink scrunchie on top, of course). 
(with thanks to Stefan and Sheila, who reminded me about the history of 'fash-ism')