There are far more coffee shops where I live than there were twenty years ago. Many of these are run by chains such as Costa, Starbucks and Caffè Nero. But there are independents too, some of them excellent. In the past, patrons used to gather in coffee shops and discuss burning issues of the day – the use of gas for street lighting, the benefits of laudanum in the creative process. On occasion, they even discussed books. But now, as far as I can tell, the emphasis is on coffee, pastries and other such delectables.
These three Chinese girls are at the counter of my favourite independent, the Kilimajaro in Edinburgh, clearly suffering from the existential agony of choice. So many goodies to choose from, what should we have?
And did I just mention Chinese? In the past three or four years, there has been an noticeable increase in the number of tea shops here. This is very evident in the part of the city I inhabit, the south side. And I am amazed to find the great variety of teas on offer.
The reason for this increase in tea shops seems clear. The south side is home to the University of Edinburgh which, every year, recruits a large number of Chinese students. And where there is a market, someone will try to cater for it.
So the next time you visit us here in Edinburgh, don’t hesitate to pop into one of our new tea shops. You don’t have to speak Mandarin or Cantonese, you can always point to the picture of your brew of choice.
Is it important to be accurate when setting a scene? Opinions will vary. Writers of fantasy, sci-fi and the like cannot be expected to be accurate, though they should be consistent. If the planet Zog has five moons in chapter one, it should still have five in chapter 9 – unless, of course, four have been vapourised by the evil Kung Fu Manchu – last seen signing off at the end of the eighth reel with the dread words I shall return.
But if you’re writing in a more realistic genre, then a different approach would be more appropriate. A crime novel set in Seattle should accurately reflect that city, likewise a literary novel involving Vienna (and I am not referring here to Rigsby’s cat) should portray that city with an accuracy which reflects the time in which the events are set. The Vienna of Mozart was very different from that of Robert Musil.
I can’t deny being a bit inflexible when it comes to this aspect of the writer’s craft. I have published four novels. Three of them are set in my town of Edinburgh. But the third, The Ears of a Cat, is set in various places including Berlin, Los Angeles and Charmouth, a town in Dorset in the south of England. And while I’ve been to Charmouth, a favoured location for fossil hunters (and I myself am now more of a fossil than a hunter}, I have never set foot in Berlin or Los Angeles.
In the past, I might have gone to the library and taken copious notes from travel guides. But now, thanks to the web, I can visit these places with such immediacy that I can travel down streets, check out the buildings, and supplement what I see on Google Maps by referring to photographs taken at the various locations by helpful travellers who have actually been there.
But for my most recent paperback, Interleaved Lives, I have reverted to my usual practice of visiting locations and documenting them with photographs – for reference only and not for inclusion in the book. And I have done this even though I know most of them well.
This is the house where our hero, Douglas Hunter occupies the upper floor.
And here is the back garden of his house, where a workman investigating a blocked drain makes a troublesome discovery.
Next to Hunter’s house is the disused church where significant action takes place.
And here is a grille which gets an honourable mention.
While casing the joint, Hunter notices new pipework strangely at odds with the rest of the building, with its noticeable outbreaks of moss.
And here is the side door through which Hunter and co enter the church.
Some might say What does it matter: if the story is fiction why not the settings too? I’m not sure why, but to me a degree of accuracy matters.Which is why the pictures shown here are only a selection from a much larger group.
There will be exceptions, no doubt, but ever since Theodore Roosevelt lent his name to the Teddy Bear they have been popular. Disney helped too, many decades ago, with footage of bear cubs falling out of trees for the amusement of the cinema-going public.
The bear below was owned by a notable soldier, Kermit, son of Theodore, and now lives on a restricted diet at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. He looks a bit morose to me, as Kermit himself sometimes did. (He committed suicide in Alaska.)
And bears have been popular ever since, most notably with excellent peedie folk like this.
However, the bear I have in mind here, the real subject, was Wojtek, who led a remarkable life. During World War II, he accompanied Polish soldiers to several theatres of war and ferried munitions during the Battle of Monte Casino without, we are told, ever dropping any.
When the Polish soldiers who had adopted him sailed from Egypt to fight with the British 8th Army in the Italian campaign they had to cut through the inevitable red tape to get him aboard a transport ship. To solve this problem he was officially drafted into the Polish Army as a private and was listed among the soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps. He was later promoted to corporal.
When the war ended, Wojtek the bear was stationed with his unit in the village of Hutton, near Duns, As you would expect, he was very popular, and in November 1947 he was entrusted to Edinburgh Zoo, where he spent the rest of his days and was often visited by former Polish soldiers. As a serving soldier he had ‘enjoyed’ the occasional cigarette. But now they had to be thrown to him over the fence. It seems they were still gratefully received, but because there was no one in his enclosure to light them for him he ate them instead. Wojtek died in December 1963, at the age of 22.
On September 16, 2013 the City of Edinburgh Council approved a bronze statue of Wojtek to stand in Princes Street Gardens. The statue represents Wojtek and a Polish Army Soldier walking in peace and unity.
A four metre long relief represents his journey from Egypt to Scotland with the Polish Army.
And here he is with one of his army friends.
So thanks to Wojtek the Bear we now have an image of a Polish soldier in the centre of the City of Edinburgh. This is just as well because, sad to say, when a victory parade took place in London after the war Polish forces were shamefully excluded following pressure from these nice people in the Soviet Union.
In our area, there was a manor house, a manse, a farmhouse and a farm toun, the last being a collection of buildings used in the running of a farm – barns and the like. The picture below shows part of the original farm toun, now demolished, attached to the farm.
Until recently, we lived in the farmhouse. The farm toun had already given way to housing, but when we looked out of our kitchen window, that at least was still there, our local hotel which, in days gone by, had been the manse, the home of a minister of the Church of Scotland. And a cold and draughty home it doubtless was.
We know exactly when the building was completed.
When we moved to the farmhouse in 1980, any minister who had once occupied the manse was long gone (I will not speculate where), and the building was occupied by an actuary and his family. When they decided to sell, a businessman bought it with the intention of turning it into a hotel. This he did, and a succession of people have run it as a hotel since then.
The prevoius owners added a conservatory, which greatly increased the number of people the kitchen could cater for. They also held quiz nights there which, according to the lady in charge, were ‘famous’.
The present owners expanded further with an outdoor area, also visible in this picture. It seems there may have been occasional instances of anti-social behaviour, hence this sign, which will disappear with everything else when the hotel is demolished to make way for student accommodation. Because this, we learn to our dismay, is the plan.
We have had many meals in the hotel over the years, and held the reception there after my mother’s funeral. But even before the virus struck, the restaurant had ceased trading for the general public and catered for hotel guests only.
Sadly, with the coming of the virus, bookings were cancelled even before the lockdown got going so, for the time being, the hotel has not been a viable business. Now the present owners, having gone over the figures, have concluded that this sad state of affairs is likely to continue.
As for demolishing it and replacing it with student accommodation, it is not clear that this will be viable either. In recent years there has been an outbreak of developments for the student market in Edinburgh, many offering a complete range of services including that modern must-have, free Wi-Fi and, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn, full body massage with essential oils. Ylang ylang, anyone?
So it seems to me that this market is already saturated, and given the fact that universities will not be returning to ‘normal’ any time soon, there is likely to be an oversupply.
And it gets worse. Students can join online lectures from anywhere, from Wuhan to Albuquerque, without shelling out over £600 per month for the privilege. Since it will cost a fortune to demolish the hotel and construct the proposed student accommodation, I cannot see the delevopers getting a return on their investment. But that is their problem, right?
Times change, not always for the better. We have to put up with it but we don’t have to like it.
We used to live in a farmhouse on the outskirts of town. There was considerable hedging and many trees which I used to climb to prune. Two cats and one pheasant lie buried in the grounds.
When I came home from work of an evening, the bus passed open fields before it reached us. Below is a small part of what used to be one of those fields, now covered in houses with driveways and garages.
The planners insisted that an old footpath by the impressive name of the Via Regis be kept – and it is still there if you know where to look for it. But now there is no field to either side, as once there was. Dog walkers don’t like this so much. Neither do dogs. I was just chewing over this sad state of affairs with Buster the Staffie the other day when he spotted a lamppost and ran off.
If I stayed on the bus past my stop, (as sometimes happened when I dozed off en route), I would see more open ground on the left. Now this is also covered by a large housing estate.
The same has happened with ground to the right, now another large housing estate called The Murrays.
Its route then takes the bus past West Edge Farm on its way to the town of Bonnyrigg. Bonnyrigg used to have a thriving market on a Thursday morning, but apartment blocks are now being built on the the ground. Though in a nod to history the developer has called this development The Market.
Not so long ago there were fields on both sides of the road, and if the driver of the bus (Number 31, for those who like to know such things) had turned right by mistake at the top of the brae onto the Lang Loan, she would have seen a large expanse of agricultural land to her right. Here is a small part of what is on that land now.
A cottage on the outskirts of one of the fields is now surrounded by construction work and their bus stop has just been taken out of service for eight weeks. There is a helpful sign, though: USE AN ALTERNATIVE. Yes, thanks for that.
Much of the land at the Lang Loan has now been built over and even more is under construction. And the same is true of the land at West Edge Farm.
The collective acreage of all this is considerable, with ground being built on and paved over on a large scale.
At least two questions arise here. Will this land provide a habitat for living things when all this work has been completed? Even if the answer is a limited yes, not so much as before. Hedgehogs used to live here. Now they don’t. It is many years since I’ve seen one and I read that the hedgehog population has suffered a large decline.
The other issue is water. A large acreage of soil which used to absorb rain is now trapped under houses, streets and pavements. Where all the water supposed to go? Floods, anyone?
But people have to live somewhere, right?
Well, yes, they do. Though compared to previous times when tenements were popular, the same number of people are spreading themselves over far more ground than before.
And, to tie in to the theme of The Ears of a Cat, I would contend that there are too many people anyway.
Which makes me part of the problem I am describing.
I live in a city unusually interesting to the eye. One aspect of this is ornamental stonework, of which there are many examples, though most of these adorn older buildings. Spending money on masonry isn’t the fashion these days, and some popular materials such as concrete and glass are not suitable.
Today I give you the Oddfellows Hall. Taking photographs of this building is by no means easy. You can turn up week after week with your camera only to find one or more large vans blocking your view by parking illegally on the double yellow lines directly in front of it. Given the Gestapo-like tendency of the parking ‘attendants’, I’m amazed the drivers get away with it.
Former Oddfellows Hall, Forrest Road, Edinburgh, Scotland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Many natives of the city are blissfully unaware that this hall exists. Walking past it on the pavement outside you are too close to see it clearly. And from the opposite side of the road, if your view isn’t blocked by vehicles then it is by a tree – though complaining about a tree in Forrest Road does not seem reasonable.
Moving in on the front elevation, this is what we see – an uplifting classical scene. I find this both derivative and comforting. The fact that it is derivative doesn’t bother me at all. It is well executed and attractive to the eye. I live in the past. I like it.
And moving to the top of the building, another.
Now, I hear you ask, who exactly were these Oddfellows? The truth is, I don’t know ‘exactly’. In the past they seem to have been more like guilds than Masons. As far as I can discover, they were not given to rolling up trouser legs, greeting each other with unusual handshakes, engaging in arcane ceremonial and wearing aprons.
The present building was used by The Scottish Order of Oddfellows, which seems to have been the original owner of Oddfellows Hall, and had a district and lodge structure by 1870. It was also used by The Independent Order of Oddfellows, whose district headquarters and registered office was also here at Oddfellows Hall.
That was then. The Oddfellows still exist, though no longer in this city. If you want to know more, here is a link to their website.