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Edinburgh Moon
Stan Howes

Like most things in life I came to Edinburgh late. I might have seen it twenty-five years sooner if whim had not cajoled me into taking a different train. People said you must go there, you would enjoy it and I said yes maybe one day in a nonchalant kind of way.

Then a few years back I started reading the Rebus detective novels of Ian Rankin which are set in that city. I thought they were a cut above the ordinary run-of-the-mill detective stories, in fact they transcended the genre by having more of a well-rounded novel feel to them. I now felt I needed to see Edinburgh with my own eyes and in particular to visit the pub –the Oxford Bar- in which both the sleuth and his creator drank.

I remember that wet December night when I first arrived in Edinburgh. Armed with a map I went forth to find the Oxford Bar, but like any city that is new to you it is very easy to become lost. So it was with me. I later found out that it is an easy fifteen-minute walk from my hotel but I turned it into an hour-and-a-half’s head-scratching search. In that time I must have asked directions from half a dozen people, from a down-and-out to an Australian barmaid.

The bar is located on a corner of cobbled Young Street in what is called the New Town, made up of mainly smart Georgian buildings. (You can see Robert Louis Stevenson’s childhood home nearby.) The Old Town around the Royal Mile is medieval in origin with its closes and dark passages or wynds.

I must be honest, I had read only a few of the Rebus novels and some short stories, but had found the character, partial to a smoke and a dram, a penchant for contemporary music, not living an altogether happy life but enjoying it all the same, a hero for our times. Underlying his dogged crime solving you sense a set of ideals and personal principles which harsh life may have forced into the background yet remain firmly embedded. He is a character in short we can identify with and be fond of. Wedded to Rankin’s narrative skills it is not surprising the books have become bestsellers.

With all of this in mind I pushed open the door of the Oxford Bar and peeped inside. I was greeted by a babble of voices. It was a small, some might say pokey, bar. There were about ten people in it mostly standing and a few seated at the bar itself. There were more people in a small side room. A TV above the bar was showing a cricket match which nobody seemed to be watching clearly preferring the pleasures of conversation. The lady serving behind the bar met every customer with a cheerful smile, including myself. I felt instantly at home, bathed in a warm humanity. I was content to stand, sip my red wine, and begin to understand why Ian Rankin thought so highly of the place.

It was clearly a magnet for a devoted clientele of varied social mix. It wasn’t long until I had met Willy and his friend Ian, both regulars. I estimated they were around the fifty mark. They knew Ian Rankin, who despite his fame, continued to visit the bar. According to Willy the bar dates back to the 1830s. It is only in recent years that it has had literary celebrity thrust upon it by references to it in the Rebus books. A few weeks before a TV crew had made an intrusion into the bar. Both Willy and Ian seemed ambivalent towards such celebrity. I suspected they were flattered by the interest shown in their humble local, yet keen that it should not change the essential character of the place. I would be at one with them in that.

Before long Willy, Ian and I found ourselves pressed up against the wall by a steady stream of regulars. There were also a few newcomers like myself. The enforced intimacy was eased by perfect courtesy and politeness to one and all. I felt I could have stood all evening among those happy and gentle people, but after about two hours I took my leave, my quest complete.

I suppose that was the start of my love affair with Edinburgh, a beguiling, multifaceted lady. I found my visits becoming more frequent, wanting to indulge myself more often and never short of excuses to offer to friends or colleagues. One female work mate even got into habit of saying when I mentioned the subject: ‘so you’re visiting your floozy again’ which made me smile because it had an element of truth. Of course in a capital city you can see many pretty faces to stir an unattached male.

And then there were the walking tours: ghost tours, history tours and my fondest, the Literary Pub Tour conducted by two actors. Essentially it was a playlet which they performed as they took a group of people around four or five local bars. It was acted out mainly among the moody tall tenements of the Old Town which gave the dialogue literally and figuratively a greater resonance and what a backdrop it is! Not only was the tour a good introduction to the city’s rich literary past and got you into the spirit of the place, (no pun intended!) it was also a chance to meet people from all parts of the globe. I could not resist going on the tour several times over the years for this reason alone.

It was curious the friendships that you would strike up with absolute strangers during an evening, the openness and the passionate talk you would engage in. Yet they were oh so transient friendships. In the morning the people would be gone and you would never see them again as if the night before had been some wonderful elusive dream.

Of those I met and got to know so fleetingly there was Bob an engineer from Michigan, Annie an attractive English cello player, Justine a lovely Dutch girl and her sister who taught me how to pronounce Van Gogh, and the person I met on my very first literary walk, Kozi from Japan, a law student who had taken time out before his finals to tour the UK.

Kozi’s English wasn’t great and of course my Japanese was non-existent, but we managed to communicate over the evening with the help of signs and broad smiles. Toward the end of the tour we got split up. While I drank and talked with the actors Kozi drifted off with a small party of nice-looking girls. As I walked back to my hotel I thought it was sad I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to him. Then next morning as I trudged up the Royal Mile a tad bleary-eyed I met my friend of the night before. Kozi was going to climb Arthur’s Seat while I was making for the castle. We talked briefly and wished each other well. I thought later I should have invited him for a coffee, but then that might have spoiled the magic of our short friendship.

I’ve always had a passion for good theatre. I think it is primarily the immediacy of the live performance and the proximity of the actors. I also take my hat off to actors for their devotion to their craft. The best performances and plays leave you on a high, but it is a high that dissipates after a day or two and your craving, even addiction soon requires another fix. So it is with me.

On one of my later visits to Edinburgh I discovered the lovely old Lyceum Theatre in Grindlay Street. It is one of those beautifully ornate Victorian theatres with its colonnaded façade encased in glass just round the corner from the Usher Hall. In recent years the theatre has provided some excellent classic theatre such as Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, but increasingly it has a lively programme of thought-provoking modern plays. There is always a frisson as you settle into your seat and watch the lights dim….

Edinburgh is very much a city of contrasts like the Old Town and New Town. It is a modern prosperous city and yet it has its Big Issue sellers and down-and-outs. Sometimes you will hear ‘any loose change mate?’ as you pass by an almost unseen figure seated on the ground. On a winter’s day you might see the occasional wan figure perched in a doorway swathed in blankets adding a biblical touch to their appearance. Most times you will scurry past and try not to think about them. However, sometimes pity, compassion gets the better of you and you drop a coin in the plastic cup placed at their feet and quickly turn away.

I did enjoy Edinburgh as people suggested I would though I wonder sometimes how things would have turned out if I had taken a different train and arrived twenty-five years earlier. Who knows? That’s one of those unanswerable questions. In the end you have to take the cards you have been dealt and all in all mine were a pretty good hand.

In summing up Edinburgh I have one warm and abiding memory. It is that long walk to my hotel along Princes Street when coming from the Lyceum Theatre feeling both elated and pensive. I am alone and it is late. The crowds have thinned out and disappeared, the traffic has gone quiet. People on their own or in small knots pass by. They are usually a mix of locals and tourists. It always seems to be a clear night, the leaves swaying in the lamplight and making patterns on the pavement, the castle on its high hill looking imposing and slightly intimidating and above everything else there is a bright moon on my shoulder…

Stan Howes

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