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.

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