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A love-hate relationship #Edinburgh #RobertLouisStevenson @RLSonline

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Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes by Robert Louis Stevenson

Just over a year ago, I took a trip north with my Aged Parent; our road (or, rather, train) trip was to revisit the city of our birth, the very beautiful and atmospheric Edinburgh. My mum had been back more recently; I hadn’t visited for decades; and it was an emotional visit for both of us.

However, one thing I wanted to do while up there was to connect with the cultural aspects of the city, and in particular her famous son, Robert Louis Stevenson. It took a while, but I eventually tracked him down via the Writers’ Museum, just off the Royal Mile, as well as passing by his childhood home in Heriot Row. I came back with a collection of his poems, which I dip into regularly; and of course I’ve followed his journeys through the mountains of France with a hapless donkey… However, a browse online earlier this year reminded me that I wanted to read his little book about our home city, “Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes“, although getting a nice edition was not quite as straightforward as you might expect – more of which later…

… for after a hospital, what uglier place is there in civilisation than a court of law?

Anyway. RLS’s book was published in 1878 and was actually his second work to make it into print. Drawn from a series of essays, it takes a look at the city of Edinburgh and although described as a paean, RLS is not always complimentary about the place – which actually makes entertaining reading! There are ten chapters, focusing on different aspects, and RLS delves into the history and legends of the city, the famous characters who’ve passed through, the customs of the people – and of course, the weather, which is a recurring issue… When ruminating on the effects the climate has on the populace, driving them to either hearth or drinking establishment, RLS is very funny:

To none but those who have themselves suffered the thing in the body, can the gloom and depression of our Edinburgh winter be brought home. For some constitutions there is something almost physically disgusting in the bleak ugliness of easterly weather; the wind wearies, the sickly sky depresses them; and they turn back from their walk to avoid the aspect of the unrefulgent sun going down among perturbed and pallid mists. The days are so short that a man does much of his business, and certainly all his pleasure, by the haggard glare of gas lamps. The roads are as heavy as a fallow. People go by, so drenched and draggle-tailed that I have often wondered how they found the heart to undress. And meantime the wind whistles through the town as if it were an open meadow; and if you lie awake all night, you hear it shrieking and raving overhead with a noise of shipwrecks and of falling houses. In a word, life is so unsightly that there are times when the heart turns sick in a man’s inside; and the look of a tavern, or the thought of the warm, fire-lit study, is like the touch of land to one who has been long struggling with the seas.

Stevenson was only 28 when this book was published, but he’d already started to display the restlessness that would lead him to travel for the latter part of his life. It’s clear that he had a complex relationship with Edinburgh, and his continuing ill-health must have had a lot to do with this (hence the constant grumbling about the weather!) He can be forgiven for being snarky about that, after all, and he obviously still had a great affection for the place which does show through. His writing about Edinburgh is often lyrical, he knows its history well and is happy to share to share stories and opinions on the city, the Scots and their habits. I had to laugh at his asides about the horrors of eating Black Bun, and his pithy commentary on the gruesome architecture of Scottish churches and graveyards was a joy.

Setting aside the tombs of Roubiliac, which belong to the heroic order of graveyard art, we Scotch stand, to my fancy, highest among nations in the matter of grimly illustrating death. We seem to love for their own sake the emblems of time and the great change; and even around country churches you will find a wonderful exhibition of skulls, and crossbones, and noseless angels, and trumpets pealing for the Judgment Day. Every mason was a pedestrian Holbein: he had a deep consciousness of death, and loved to put its terrors pithily before the churchyard loiterer; he was brimful of rough hints upon mortality, and any dead farmer was seized upon to be a text.

And yet, he’s always a thoughtful observer. He’s realistic about the hardness of life in the Old Town, and even-handed in his discussion of the New Town. It’s worth remembering that the building of the New Town, a long and complex process, was only really completed around the time of Stevenson’s birth, and Princes Street, with its Gardens constructed on the bed of the drained Nor’ Loch, was still a shiny new thing. Stevenson was therefore writing about relatively recent changes to the city, which had not always been popular, and it’s fascinating to read his take on it.

View of the Pentland Hills – cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Anthony O’Neil – geograph.org.uk/p/5835135

However, it was the final chapter, “To the Pentland Hills”, that spoke to me most personally. The southern edge of Edinburgh is bordered by that range, and I grew up in a house overlooked by them. When we returned to it last year, mum and I stood and studied them, and she recalled looking out of our home’s window at the hills all those years ago. Maybe that’s why I’m so fond of hills and mountains to this day… The area we lived in was the Colinton Mains one, and that of course is a very recent development – in fact, mum revealed to me that my great-uncle’s building firm constructed the house we lived in, which she had lived in with my nana, so I learned a new bit of family history. Anyway, in Stevenson’s time the area was of course undeveloped country, but the following passage caught my eye:

The district is dear to the superstitious. Hard by, at the back-gate of Comiston, a belated carter beheld a lady in white, ‘with the most beautiful, clear shoes upon her feet,’ who looked upon him in a very ghastly manner and then vanished; and just in front is the Hunters’ Tryst, once a roadside inn, and not so long ago haunted by the devil in person. Satan led the inhabitants a pitiful existence. He shook the four corners of the building with lamentable outcries, beat at the doors and windows, overthrew crockery in the dead hours of the morning, and danced unholy dances on the roof. Every kind of spiritual disinfectant was put in requisition; chosen ministers were summoned out of Edinburgh and prayed by the hour; pious neighbours sat up all night making a noise of psalmody; but Satan minded them no more than the wind about the hill-tops; and it was only after years of persecution, that he left the Hunters’ Tryst in peace to occupy himself with the remainder of mankind.

We got about by bus while in Edinburgh (the Lothian Bus app is amazing!) and frequently jumped aboard conveyances with “Hunters’ Tryst” on the front (the number 27 – our favourite one!). I checked out Wikipedia and the inn is still there and in use – so that was a lovely little case of synchronicity and I felt rather happy about discovering another connection with RLS.

Edinburgh Castle from the illustrated Seeley edition

This post seems to be drifting off in a weirdly autobiographical direction, which wasn’t quite what I intended. However, it was inevitable that I’d have a deeply personal response to this book, and I loved following Stevenson round my home city while he shared his thoughts on it. It’s a wonderful city and what a marvellous writer he really was!

*****

As a coda, I do feel I need to have a word about editions! When I decided I wanted to read this book, I did a bit of an online search as I couldn’t find anything in a bricks and mortar shop. As I’ve grumbled about before, if you go on Amazon there are all sorts of odd and nasty-looking editions; if a book is old and out of copyright, I guess people think they can produce random copies all over the place, and there’s no real guide to what they’re like. But I could see no decent, modern edition, so I turned to the rather wonderful Robert Louis Stevenson Club (who can be found here) and dropped them a message asking for advice.

The cover of the illustrated Seeley edition

Their very helpful Duncan Milne confirmed that there was no decent modern volume, so I followed his suggestion of picking up a pretty second-hand one. He recommended the Seeley edition of 1903; mine is actually from 1910 and alas lacks the illustrations. However, archive.org to the rescue with a scan of the 1903 Seeley complete with lovely engravings and etchings! So I had the pleasure of reading a pretty vintage edition obtained at a Very Reasonable Price, and looking at the illustrations I’d found online. Which just goes to show it’s worth researching a bit to find a nice copy which makes the reading experience so much better!

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‘To become what we are capable of becoming is the only end in life’ – #RLSDay 2017!

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I discovered recently – lord knows where, but I think it had something to do with moustaches…. Anyway, as I was saying, I discovered recently that there is a rather wonderful Robert Louis Stevenson Day, celebrated every year on his birthday which happens to be today, 13th November. So I thought I would join in a little, as RLS is an author who I’m keen to explore more of, having loved what I’ve read so far!

On my recent jaunt to Edinburgh (his home city) I was keen to look for traces, as I mentioned, and fortunately the very lovely Writers’ Museum had a whole room dedicated to him. The Museum itself was a beautifully atmospheric place, and I really felt the presence of RLS in the room – here are a few pictures from the visit:

The lovely Writers’ Museum

Way into the RLS room

One of the exhibits

Another exhibit!

I also discovered that the walk down the long hill from Henderson’s Salad Table to our holiday rental took me past Heriot Row, and it was at number 17 that Stevenson grew up. On my last night in Edinburgh I had a quick peep at the place (which is apparently a family home, but used for RLS events).

Heriot Row picture c. Scotiana

You can read more about the place here:

http://www.cityofliterature.com/a-to-z/17-heriot-row-stevenson-house/

Finally, I have been dipping randomly into the book of Selected Poems by RLS which I picked up at the Writer’s Museum and I wanted to share one rather poignant verse which really struck me:

I SAW RED EVENING THROUGH THE RAIN

I saw red evening through the rain
Lower above the steaming plain;
I heard the hour strike small and still,
From the black belfry on the hill.

Thought is driven out of doors tonight
By bitter memory of delight;
The sharp constraint of finger tips,
Or the shuddering touch of lips.

I heard the hour strike small and still,
From the black belfry on the hill.
Behind me I could still look down
On the outspread monstrous town.

The sharp constraint of finger tips,
Or the shuddering touch of lips,
And all old memories of delight
Crowd upon my soul tonight.

Behind me I could still look down
On the outspread feverish town;
But before me, still and grey,
And lonely was the forward way.

If you want to read more about the RLS Day, there is a site devoted to it here:

https://rlsday.wordpress.com

and of course there is masses more online. I’m just wondering to myself why it’s taken me quite so long to explore the work of this great Scottish writer more deeply! Happy RLS Day! 🙂

Home is the weary traveller…

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…though I suspect that not all of me made it back – I think I’ve left my heart in Edinburgh…

I think the trip can be regarded as a success as far as its original intent, in that I got mum to all the available remaining memory points (and more than originally planned!) She was so happy to have revisited places like the house we lived in and the church she was married in, and so that was a job well done! I hope she created new memories, because I certainly did…

Edinburgh skyline from The Mound – the weather was amazing all week…

The trip was not without its problems and conflicts, mostly arising out of her physical restrictions at 83, her general stubbornness and intransigence (which always brings out in me the baggage I have with her) and the fact that she had to be reminded occasionally that the trip was not all about her and what she wanted to do but that I had needs too..

Mum enjoying a cuppa in a posh place called The Dome which was once a Bank head office she worked in.

However, Edinburgh seemed to win out over all obstacles, and some of the highlights were:

  • The train journey itself, though fraught with Seat Wars, went through some amazingly beautiful scenery. We travelled the East Coast Line and particularly after Newcastle (a city I haven’t visited in decades but should really revisit) the views out to the North Sea were stunning!
  • repeated visits to Princes Street and the gardens (a strong memory from my childhood) where I found myself constantly looking up unbelievingly and thinking “Fuck! That’s Edinburgh Castle!!”
  • seeing the house I used to visit my granny in when I was small, which was a few yards away from the lovely basement flat we’d rented
  • finding out that it was very much possible to be a vegan in Edinburgh!

    Inside the wonderful Henderson’s Salad Table

  • leading on from that, the discovery of the very lovely Henderson’s Salad Table on Hanover Road. I ended up taking myself out into the Edinburgh night on a couple of occasions as mum refused to go out in the evening and I hadn’t come all the way to my home city to sit indoors while she watched Eastenders. Edinburgh felt an incredibly safe city to wander around at night and I ended up eating at Henderson’s a couple of times. It was cosy, beautifully welcoming and the food and staff were perfect. The kind of place you can relax in and feel unpressured about eating out on your own while scribbling up notes in your journal on the day and drinking gin…
  • The National Gallery on The Mound – I visited on a Thursday where they have a late night opening and spent some happy hours with the paintings – particularly four wonderful portraits by one of my favourite painters, Allan Ramsay .

    The Writers’ Museum

  • the discovery of the Writers’ Museum. I came to Edinburgh hoping for traces of Robert Louis Stevenson, but struggled initially – even the large and lovely Waterstones only had the usual two books of his that most shops stock. But as we were ambling down the Royal Mile on the second day, I spotted a little sign pointing down an alley, and tucked away in a funny little tower-like building was the Writers’ Museum. Joy! A whole room devoted to RLS (as well as rooms on others like Burns, of course) and I was able to come away with my only book purchase of the trip – a selection of his poems.
  • I peeked into the National Library of Scotland too which looked rather lovely, and couldn’t resist an RLS tote bag (amongst other things).
  • Monuments! Edinburgh is stuffed to the gills with them and mainly of Dead White (often English!) Men! After all the cogitating I’ve done recently about iconoclasm I tended to find myself looking at them in a very different way: questioning why they were there, what they were intended to say and what they actually said nowadays, and muttering to several of them that they really ought to be torn down… 🤣🤣

But of course the highlight of the trip was the beautiful city of Edinburgh itself. It was slightly weird how instantly at home I felt there, and though I haven’t visited since 1972 it felt oddly as if I hadn’t ever left. Maybe that’s what’s meant by homecoming – certainly I don’t want to leave it so long before I visit again…

Heading North…

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Things may be a little quiet on the Ramblings for a few days, as I’m hitting the road to take my Aged Mother on a trip back to our homeland. She’s Scottish through and through, born and bred there, and having spent most of her early life there. She met my dad at the Palais Dance Hall in Edinburgh, and I was born in the city (as was my Grumpy Little Brother). Our family had to move south when I was 6 as my dad couldn’t find work in Scotland any more, but my mother has never really got over that dislocation from the Homeland, and so while she’s still mobile I’m taking her back to Edinburgh for a trip round those of the locations from her past which still remain.

So in the run up to the #1968club I shall be trying to catch up with some of the titles I’ve chosen; but in the meantime excuse me if things are quiet! I’ll be reading and commenting on the blogs I follow when time and internet connection permit – normal service will be resumed!!

A Dark Inheritance

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The Travelling Companion by Ian Rankin

You know how it is: you amble into Waterstones to have a rummage through the French Revolution volumes when a fetching little hardback, attractively displayed on a table with a lot of other pretties (they do that so well in Waterstones!), calls out to you… And despite the fact that you’re *still* reading “Crime and Punishment”, it somehow comes home with you in your bag and ends up getting in the way of Dostoevsky…

I should confess before we go any further that I’ve never read *anything* by Ian Rankin before; not necessarily surprising, as I don’t read a lot of modern crime novels, but perhaps I should have since he hails from my home city! This little treasure, however, was irresistible: a small hardback with an enticing description of a tale set in Paris but drawing on one of Edinburgh’s finest authors, Robert Louis Stevenson.

The book is actually part of a series of tales called “Bibliomysteries” which take a great work of literature and riff on it, producing a selection of short stories; and having read this one I’m very keen to read more. Set in the early 1980s, it introduces us to Rankin’s narrator, a young man called Ronnie. Taking a bit of a gap year after studying Stevenson, he’s temporarily working for the famous Shakespeare and Co in Paris, missing his girlfriend Charlotte (or perhaps not…), smoking the odd bit of dope and not really knowing what to do with himself.

Stevenson, looking rather elegant and fancy

His boss (apparently a descendant of Walt Whitman) sends him off to meet the mysterious Benjamin Turk, a somewhat mysterious customer who wishes to sell some books – and it’s here that things get a little odd, with mysterious lost manuscripts, too much red wine and a strange woman in a floral dress who pops up here and there…

And more than that I refuse to say!! “The Travelling Companion” (which is supposedly the title of a lost Stevenson story) is absolutely gripping and I would hate to spoil it for you by revealing any more of the plot. Suffice to say, Rankin is obviously a very clever author because the story twists along beautifully to a wonderful denouement, and I ended it feeling I wanted to read it all over again to pick up the nuances and hints I might have missed. I desperately want to discuss how clever it is, how well Rankin portrays the changes that happen to Ronnie, the disjuncture between the life he left behind in Edinburgh and the life he finds in Paris, but I can’t risk spoiling the book. Telling you *nothing* else about it….. 😉

I read “Jekyll” in pre-blog days and loved its atmospheric ghoulishness, but I must admit I’m now very keen to not only read more of Stevenson, but also to explore his life a little more and see whether there are references I missed in this story, and how much (if anything!) draws on fact. A fascinating read, an intriguing story and a very successful impulse buy….!

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