Wednesday 9 August 2017

Going to Edinburgh

I came across this passage recently and something stayed with me, particularly as I've just returned from Edinburgh, a city that was relatively new to me: “Psychogeography: a beginner’s guide. Unfold a street map of London [or, for the sake of context, read ‘Edinburgh’], place a glass, rim down, anywhere on the map, and draw round its edge. Pick up the map, go out into the city, and walk the circle, keeping as close as you can to the curve. Record the experience as you go, in whatever medium you favour: film, photograph, manuscript, tape. Catch the textual run-off of the streets: the graffiti, the branded litter, the snatches of conversation. Cut for sign. Log the data-stream. Be alert to the happenstance of metaphors, watch for visual rhymes, coincidences, analogies, family resemblances, the changing moods of the street. Complete the circle, and the record ends.” – Robert MacFarlane, ‘A Road of One’s Own: Past and Present Artists of the Randomly Motivated Walk’, TLS, 7 October 2005. 

After buying the hideously expensive train ticket and packing a miniature wear-the-same-thing-every-day suitcase, I’m on my way. Edinburgh is around five hours away on the train, plus a forty-five-minute wait in one station with a burning-hot coffee to wake me up. Another friend is also on her way, on a different train speeding through the hills and fields to intersect here. We sit at a train table and play cards and exchange stories. We report job hunts and applications, and each new tale seems more farcical than the last. Even success-stories are comical now. Collected at the other end, we find ourselves in a beautiful, spacious house – staying with another friend, temporary members of the family (or, perhaps, invaders of the kitchen). Two foil-wrapped loaf cakes emerge – we’ve both brought near-identical offerings from home, though the tokens were uncoordinated. Excited younger cousins run around the garden. For a few minutes, we are invited into a game of bubble-chasing, and are ordered to punch and kick escaping bubbles by an angelic four-year-old. We retreat into the city, inspired by poetry in a cave behind a pub. Browse posters and invitations and smiling faces and endorsing phrases that adorn the walls. A man eats dog-food onstage, and the smell takes hours to dissipate.

In the morning, we hover in the kitchen with toast and pyjamas. Released from the house, so much to see, and no sense of direction yet. Walking around an unfamiliar city with a blue and dog-eared Free Fringe map, half in pursuit and half aimless. Wandering this way and that, absently wondering where the next steep-stepped alley leads or which bar will lure you in and hold your attention for the next fifty minutes. The most precious thing you have to give is your time. And a handful of change at the end, if you can. Occasionally there is a goal in mind, a circled point on the map and a hazy sense of which turning to make to reach the show that starts in only ten minutes, tickets bought but still uncollected. A street of bookshops or an invitingly narrow, old-tabled, eclectically-furnished coffeeshop draws the eye. Money-saving lunchbox lunches already bagged, as we walk down a bustling thoroughfare with sweet things baking and fast food in polystyrene waiting to be bought on either side. Old friends cropping up unexpectedly, appearing from the crowd with flyers in hand, in a hurry or pitching themselves, asking you to take a chance and detour to this show, here, starting soon, tickets two-for-one today. Can’t see everything, smile and thank you, but no thank you, we’re on the way to something else. A mess of flyers already scrunched and raindrop-stained at the bottom of my bag. House-bound again. We drink a lot of tea.

It is so busy that sometimes the buildings, the streets and multicoloured shopfronts, the array of vegetarian, vegan, enticing cake-filled cafés become a blurry backdrop that’s hard to remember or visualise. Cameras rarely come out, leaving us with no visual record of what we pass as we hurry to the next time-slot, or meander back home along a memorised route as the evening darkens. Spoken word rhymes still on repeat, punchlines already half-forgotten as we struggle to remember what made us all laugh when the drawing of snow white flipped into view. A confusing miscellany of photographs are assembled at the end of the day, to be deciphered and explained, but they are only really funny if you know the right in-joke. A lot of laughing. No crying, though we were promised heart-wrenches. Perhaps we saw the wrong things for that, but there is always next year.

A day at the beach to escape the crowds. Watch dogs running back and forth instead, and smell the seaweed-air and sleep soundly for it. Taking off shoes to feel the sand and playing throw-and-catch with a perfectly spherical rock. Singing and humming and planning. Paddling for less than a minute in the too-chilly (it’s still Scotland) sea. Speaking nonsense in French and unpicking a joke made in the local chip-shop. Standing in the line of the sunset and picking pink, blue, and yellow flowers as an offering to say thank you so much, before goodbyes. Writing in an old notebook with an enormous museum poster looming from the building on the other side of the road, we plan our return next year. We all go our separate ways with a bundle of ideas to be mulled and explored. See you soon. Waiting for the train home again, in a café for too long but this coffee is strong and it takes time to cool. An hour nearly passed, as the crowds stream from the station and up the hill, to join the general roar that I can hear as I hurry to the train, just announced, sounding from the distant royal mile.


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