The journey to Edinburgh concertinas down into a short and minor series of motoring vignettes. Crowded Brum at 7a.m., the world weaving from lane to lane without lights. A stop for horrid coffee and a dreadful burger in a cafe at Knutsford Services. The mines of Wigan, the machine shops of Preston. Lakes, then a delightful winding road through Biggar. No traffic: village nameplates and signs thanking me for driving carefully flash by seconds apart. Then jerking awake as the car parks itself in a quiet side-street near Leith.
Midday heat and humidity wrenches my door open and pulls me to my feet. The sun is like a hot, wet hand on my bald head as I stagger, too demoralised to try buses, into the centre of town. I buy a street atlas at the Waterstones opposite the castle, then fall into a dark pub in Shandwick Place. My pint of lager sweats at me, and I sweat back.
Edinburgh is the colour of moonrock.
I have what’s left of today, tomorrow, and Friday to find us somewhere to live. I have a list of agency addresses and phone numbers. I even have my phone.
But it’s all leaving home, and I don’t want to. After ten years stuck in a malicious, violent, miserable and passive-aggressive part of South London, I’ve had six months back in Zone 2. The best months of my life, and I want to be back in them. Back in the Prince Regent on a sunny afternoon waiting for K or H; back shortcutting through cobbled mews full of wisteria on my way to work; back in Black and Blue listening to rain lash against the window; back in the back room in lazy sunshine with the cat asleep on my chest.
Just living somewhere where you are like most other people and can vanish into the background is a blessing, but here I am plotting to put all that behind me already: it feels far, far too soon.
And yet: Tim Newman has to cope with bloody Sakhalin, a place so remote that they imprisoned Erich von Stalhein there. Remember, James, you’re British. And a Britisher is worth two _______, four _________, and a dozen ________. So pull yourself together! I think of K in three years time, in doctoral robes, the reason we’re doing this, and surge with anticipatory pride and love and pleasure. Get on with it: you’ve less than three days.
In the event, the job takes me two hours, and I make it to my guesthouse five minutes before the deadliine for check in. My room is a mildewing garrett – the last room in the city with the Festival pending. I have a shower smaller than my wardrobe, a kettle wired directly into the wall, a map chest and, high up on a shelf, a large 1970s television with a tuning dial.
Mine host tells me that I can eat either out of what he calls the “ned-haunted Paki shop” opposite, or I can follow his directions to “a good curry house” nearby. Edinburgh, he tells me, has the “best standard of living in the UK.” I opt for the curry, and although I fail to find the place, it takes me into Leith.
Leith, they say, has come up in the world. What on earth was it like before? The new blocks look like cheap glass coffee tables knocked onto their sides. The dust from fresh building sites puffs rudely into the faces of dirty, neglected sixties tenements. Men with nineteenth century faces smoke outside battered pubs.
Tired woman corral children at the bus stop I wait at to escape back to the city centre. They do it kindly, not with the slapping and screeching of south London. Our bus will indeed get us to Prince’s Street, but first the suburbs. Depressing, creepy almost. It’s like Oxford here, isn’t it – a glorious, world-famous centre, surrounded by mile upon mile of middle-class ideas about working class housing, which, oops! didn’t quite come off. Never mind: the contract paid well, and now I’ve got this Queen Anne house with its pretty unexpected patch of vivid garden..
I eat alone in Cafe Rouge. They treat me well. Edinburgh is being dug up for trams. This gives certain streets a peculiar backwards-Blitz air, in which the bombers have smashed the road completely but left the surrounding houses untouched. I am told that the Fire Brigade is having trouble navigating its way around all of this. The trams will be ready in 2011, but bus routes to the suburbs are being cut back for lack of funds. And the vanished routes don’t follow the proposed tram routes. They’ll just have to club together for a cab. Won’t they?
I do not spend the evening with Oxford friend Z and girlfriend W in that authentic drinker’s bar in the docks with its piano and ceilidh, and while I’m not there, I don’t meet advocate F and go back with her to guitarist X’s flat and drink whisky till dawn. Instead of these things I choose to shoulder my way into the “ned-haunted” shop, which is manned by an intelligent and utterly miserable Sikh, and purchase four cans of Lech lager to carry me through a long evening alone.
Later, I watch the shop from high up behind my Velux window. Groups of teenagers take it in turn to surround the door and shout insults. One brave soul will dart inside, and bounce out waving a trophy – a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread – and issue challenges: come and get me, call the police. A group of girls arrive and the taunts turn sexual. This must be it every night: my instinct is to go down and give them some back up, but my sense is that I’ll just make things worse. They bring the shutters down at eleven. Quiet descends.
Edinburgh, then, has the highest standard of living in the UK. Who for, exactly?
The next day is too hot to do anything sane. “A hearty Scottish breakfast” I’m told “will set you up for the day.” What’s Scottish about it is that it includes haggis.
Why not add whisky, while you’re about it? The breakfast sits uncomfortably on top of the memory of cheap Polish beer. I take in a gallery, then buy a book about World War II and read it in a Rose Street pub. In the evening, I go back to the ned-haunted place and buy a steak pie, a steak pasty, a mince and potato pasty and more beer. Rain gives the shop respite for the evening.
Twelve hours later, I’m in De Hems on Shaftesbury Avenue with human rights lawyer M.
I hate the West End. We decamp to the cooler, fresher climes of Lambs Conduit Street. M is in Edinburgh a lot; loves it. We can meet up, he says; do Kay’s Bar and Bell’s Diner. These are good things: and there’ll be Waitrose just around the corner, and Inverleith and the Botanical Garden and coffee with poet J at Florentin and the family reunion in October and the sound of tyres on cobbles and Valvona and the agony of hail on my bald patch.
Like it or not, we go in the first week of September. Berlin by Christmas; hah. We came out here for a job. Here’s Christmas by Berlin: