Sheena Blackhall on Angus Calder

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Sheena Blackhall

Chapman  magazine has produced a commemorative issue celebrating the life of Angus Calder (1942-2008) – number 110, if you wish to seek it out. I have discussed Angus a wee bit previously in my piece on Byron and Scotch Reviewers, and I give him a substantial entry in the book. It is quite amazing to think that it is nearly ten years since he passed away. I have many thoughts about how he was treated by certain people later in life,  especially certain academics, which are not fit to repeat… however, Joy Hendry, who edits Chapman certainly never fell into that category, and I witnessed her myself visiting him right up until the end.

 

Angus Calder

It is very difficult to pigeonhole Angus Calder. He was a poet to some people, a literary critic to others, a historian to yet other people, and an Edinburgh character to others. You find him in many places – he wrote an episode of The World at War; he was instrumental in helping modern East African literature emerge; he wrote on Byron, and he was also an erstwhile political campaigner. He could sometimes be mercurial and controversial, other times friendly, sometimes highbrow, and sometimes his common touch belied his background and career. His knowledge of sport was also frighteningly detailed.

As I say, there isn’t really enough space here to discuss him fully.

Sheena Blackhall

Ms Blackhall is probably the most notable living poet from the north east, and often writes in a very natural form of Doric. I was interested to see her poem Woodland Burial: Angus Calder 1942-2008 was included in Chapman, as I happened to be at the funeral at Corstorphine Hill Cemetery myself. It captures much of the atmosphere of Angus’ burial, his family members, his ex’s, and the songs and poetry.  She says, “You lie near a row of Polish generals” – these are very much visible as you enter the woodland burial section of the graveyard. One or two details have been excluded from the poem – the man who asked Angus’ son Gideon to “speak up” is mercifully missing.

Picture Credits

Sheena Blackhall  / CC BY-SA 2.0

The picture of Elizabeth Gaskell originates on Wikipedia, and falls under the creative commons licence. The picture was uploaded by the subject herself.

External links

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It’s here

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After much ado, Literary Corstorphine is here. It’s taken too long, I know… but further details will follow, when I get a few more things ironed out. Many thanks for your patience.

Goodbye Centurion!

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Goodbye Centurion!

It’s been all change on the local pub scene in the last decade or so. The latest casualty is the Centurion Bar, long a landmark on St John’s Road, and which is featured in the book of Literary Corstorphine.

Bedroom Secrets

The Centurion provided the scene for part of Irvine Welsh’s Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs (2006):

“Brian Kibby pulled his lumbering, shivering bulk into the Centurion Bar on Corstorphine’s St John’s Road. On entry he was hit by a smoky fog even more pervasive and impenetrable than the frozen fog he’d emerged from.”

This was obviously written before the smoking ban, which occurred a year or two after it was published.

The Centurion and other Locals

What to say about the Centurion? Well, I was never one of its drinkers, to be honest, so perhaps I’m partly responsible for its demise. Still, I hope all of the staff find new jobs in the near future.

Since mid 1990s, we’ve seen the following changes:

  • The Gyle Inn has shut. It stood near where “American Golf” is now.
  • The Rainbow Inn at Drumbrae, now a very good Indian restaurant.
  • The Corstorphine Inn, “the Corrie”, has had many changes made to it, including having its skittle alley ripped out.
  • The Oak is now gone, and replaced by the Torphin.
  • Agenda has been replaced by the White Lady.
  • The Carrick Knowe Inn is now called the Terrace.
  • The Maybury Roadhouse has ended up as a casino.

The obvious culprits are chain pubs such as The Corstorphine Inn and The White Lady, which have various means to outcompete their smaller rivals.

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A blurry picture of the new mural at Westgate Farm, South Gyle

Winstons is still happily with us, and a new carvery has opened in South Gyle called “Westgate Farm”. Then there’s another two, hidden up the hill in the housing of East Craigs – the Mid Yoken and Clermiston (the “Clerrie”). I’ve never been into either of these.

The bars of Roseburn and Murrayfield seem to do well enough – helped by the regular influx of sports fans and concert goers to the local stadium and ice rink.

External Links

Walking ways

You might not associate north west Edinburgh with long distance walking trails. Here are two which pass through it, and both are named after major writers.

John Muir Way

The great Scottish-American conservationist, John Muir (1838-1914) once wrote:

‘Going to the woods is going home, for I suppose we came from the woods originally. But in some of nature’s forests, the adventurous traveller seems a feeble, unwelcome creature; wild beasts and the weather trying to kill him, the rank, tangled vegetation, armed with spears and stinging needles, barring his way and making life a hard struggle.’

The John Muir Way only supplies a few of these challenges. It has its share of “rank, tangled vegetation”, “spears” (brambles) and “stinging” (nettles), but the badgers, foxes, deer and rabbits are unlikely to bother you. Other than the route named after him, I am unaware of any other connections between him and this area. (If you know of any I shall be pleased to hear from you.)

This trail starts in Helensburgh on the Firth of Clyde, and finishes at the East Lothian town of Dunbar, where Muir was born and raised. It traverses the Central Belt, taking in the likes of Strathblane, Cumbernauld, Falkirk and Linlithgow in the west, and Prestonpans, Aberlady, Gullane and North Berwick in the east.

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The Zoo’s Back Fence

In the middle, we find Edinburgh. The Edinburgh section of the John Muir Way is a “Curate’s Egg”. It is hard to see what what the great man himself would have thought of some of it. Muir was very much a man of the wilderness, and it takes in far too many busy roads and built up areas. Edinburgh has a lot of green spaces*, and you’d think it would be fairly easy to hop from one of these to another avoiding most of these.

There is a beautiful section leading from South Queensferry along the coast to Cramond. Then, it travels from Cramond along the back of Barnton, and ends up going along a bit of Queensferry Road on to Clermiston Road, up past the hotel. This route not only manages to bypass the northern woods of Corstorphine Hill, but leaves out Clermiston Tower, which is one of the most interesting local landmarks, and which is dedicated to Walter Scott. It then goes down by Rest-and-be-Thankful, cutting down Balgreen Road, and joining the old railway path near Pinkhill. From there it follows the tramline for a short distances, backs up on itself, going into Saughton Gardens, follows the Water of Leith up to Slateford, and eventually heads down the canal, completely bypassing Craiglockhart Hill, before crossing Bruntsfield.

It is fair to say that the Edinburgh route is bizarre in a way that only bureaucrats could have dreamt up. Signs for the route appear and disappear in various seemingly random locations all over Edinburgh and it is hard to work out how the route joins together from them alone. Somewhere around Portobello, the route begins to become fairly simple again, and follows the coast of the Firth of Forth until it reaches Dunbar.

Stevenson Way

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An inaccurate drawing of “Rest and be Thankful” showing the sea lapping over Blackhall and Arthur’s Seat in Stockbridge.

The second route is the Stevenson Way, which is based around the journey taken by David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart in the novel Kidnapped. It does not appear to have official recognition (correct me if I’m wrong).

I feel that Robert Louis Stevenson would approve of this route a bit more than John Muir might do of his, even though the two routes share a considerable overlap in the Edinburgh area

The Stevenson Way is certainly dramatic: it starts in the Inner Hebrides, crosses Mull, Glencoe, the barren wastes of Rannoch Moor, before descending through the Trossachs, across Bridge of Allan and Stirling, and across the Forth Road Bridge to the Hawes Inn in South Queensferry, and thence to Edinburgh. It is much more well thought out than the John Muir Way.

The east end of the route crosses Corstorphine Hill, which is mentioned near the end of the novel:

“We came the by-way over the hill of Corstorphine; and when we got near to the place called Rest-and-be-Thankful, and looked down on Corstorphine bogs and over to the city and the castle on the hill, we both stopped, for we both knew without a word said that we had come to where our ways parted […] Then I gave what money I had (a guinea or two of Rankeillor’s) so that he should not starve in the meanwhile; and then we stood a space, and looked over at Edinburgh in silence.

“‘Well, good-bye,’ said Alan, and held out his left hand.”

The route doesn’t really take in Drumbrae, but it is worth repeating that Hoseason Gardens and many of the streets behind the Drumbrae Library are named for people and places in the novel. An obvious finishing point for this route would be the statue at Western Corner. The final place mentioned in the novel is not Rest-and-be-Thankful itself, but the Linen Bank, which is where David goes to get his savings.

Walk and be Thankful

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There are numerous other options within a short distance – the Pentland Way and the Fife Coastal Route. The Southern Upland Way is less than an hour’s drive away, and manages to take in some of the remotest scenery in the south of the country… We are spoilt for choice, so what are you waiting for? Get yer boots on!

Footnotes

*  When the council doesn’t destroy it or block off access to such green spaces for months on end. Part of the Water of Leith pathway near the Dean Village has been shut off for three years, and another section through Roseburn & Murrayfield has been blocked off for months. Likewise the Union Canal towpath near Thorneil Village has been inaccessible for a while. As for the council’s idea of tree surgery – let’s not go there!

Picture Credits

  • The John Muir Way sign is taken by me, but is free to use.
  • The image from Kidnapped is out of copyright.
  • Rest and Be Thankful (Ronnie Leask) / CC BY-SA 2.0

External links

Big Gold Dream & a few other thoughts

Big Gold Dream broadcast on BBC 2 last night discussed the Edinburgh & Glasgow post-punk scene. It featured interviews with Clermiston’s own Tam Dean Burn, Russell Burn, and Davey Henderson.

Craigmount High, cultural hothouse

You might laugh when I say this, but Craigmount High in the seventies produced some pretty amazing people. Big Gold Dream featured three of them: actor Tam Dean Burn, his brother Russell, and Davy Henderson who were responsible for groups such as the Dirty Reds, the Fire Engines and the Sexual Objects. Tam later became better known as an actor, but he was a rock musician back then too. There were some amusing anecdotes on the documentary – including how one of them had to trap and sell rabbits from Corstorphine Hill in order to pay for his first guitar. And how he still owes them money.

Although they were not featured on the documentary, it is worth mentioning that they were not the only significant people to attend Craigmount around this time. Others included:

As you can see, a lot of these folk were contemporaries or near contemporaries. Craigmount had a particularly well respected drama department back then headed up by Ken Morley.

Big Gold Dream

Every music documentary raises more questions than answers. What is the actual difference between post-punk and New Wave anyway? Is there one? Are they just punks in denial? Big Gold Dream never answered this. There were quite a few of the usual tropes you find in such documentaries – the messanic messages (music was crap until whoever it was came along), middle aged rock stars wearing sunglasses indoors (two of them in this case) and of course the messages about how drab Edinburgh was in the 1970s… just to hit the last point home, there was some grainy footage of Edinburgh shown, most of it apparently shot fairly recently. I was amazed though that no one moaned about prog rock on the programme – I thought that was practically obligatory on punk docs.

The drabness of the Scottish seventies seemed to carry over into most of the groups’ dress sense. Even today, many of those being interviewed appear to wear sombre clothes – greys and blacks, like mourning clothes. The clip of the Rezillos offered some brief respite from this drabness. It is a drabness which still exists today, particularly in a lot of Edinburgh’s grey social housing. Edinburgh’s quasi-mods Josef K featured, still playing the rock star game (Franz Ferdinand would have been nothing without them and Gang of Four.)

There were some dubious claims too, e.g. that Scotland had invented indy music, or that punk rock had come and gone in the mid to late 1970s. Both of these can be easily debunked. Punk’s still here. Punk was around in the early seventies. There even used to be an old man who wandered around Edinburgh with a leather jacket saying “punk’s not dead” until a few years ago. As for indy, that was already in existence by the time this crowd came along. That honour probably goes to various American and English groups – the Damned’s indy single New Rose charted back in ’77.

Class was only mentioned once: Tam Dean Burn was keen to mention the working class credentials of the Edinburgh scene versus the more “middle class” Glasgow one. Coincidentally, the heavy role that the College of Art played in the whole thing was played down, although we did keep seeing shots of Keir Street (which i just behind it)

And one of my pet peeves – the annoying Central Belt habit of saying “West Coast” and “East Coast” reared its head. Whenever I hear that I tend to think of Oban and Aberdeen, but no, in this part of the world, people just mean the small bits of Scotland around Glasgow and Edinburgh.  Strangely, none of the Fife and Dundee bands of this period were featured although they included such giants as the Skids. Edwyn Collins was absent, no doubt due to his stroke issues, although he was featured heavily in the promo materials and Orange Juice was mentioned a number of times.

Don’t go back

There is always something faintly ridiculous about older people trying to relive their teens. Given that I’m knocking on the door of middle age myself, and some of the people featured in this documentary are technically old enough to be my parents – and the grandparents of young adult children – you might see why none of this was really my scene.

It is always a pet peeve of mine that whenever I go to look up bands from the sixties, seventies and eighties on Wikipedia or Youtube, you see them in their more recent incarnations. I’m not really interested in seeing reunion tours. Blues, folk and jazz musicians can get away with it, but not punk rockers. Big Gold Dream spared us some of that. I made a rare exception for the Scars a few years ago in the Picture House. They were pretty impressive, their support bands not so much. Irvine Welsh was hanging around at the bar, bemused at the attention some of his younger fans were giving him. I said hello to Joe Callis out in the corridor…

My main memory of that Scars gig was a woman with a John Lewis bag slung over her shoulder.

Grunge

There is a good parallel between post-punk of this period, and the scenes of America’s Pacific North West a few years later. Seattle, Portland and Aberdeen were drab, industrial, rainy port towns.

I think Big Gold Dream missed a trick here. A direct line can be drawn connecting the two, through bands such as the Vaselines, which Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain loved. Nirvana always had an interest in Scottish music, which in a round about way is how Shirley Manson migrated from Goodbye Mr Mackenzie into the internationally successful Garbage.

A major difference though is that Washington and Oregon had their own TV stations and proper media, something which has more or less evaded Scotland for the last few decades.

But grunge? Going into all that would prove that punk was still alive and kicking well after the seventies, something Big Gold Dream didn’t want to admit.

External links

Documentary explores birth of Edinburgh indie scene

Hoseason Gardens and Drumbrae

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You may not know it, but a lot of the streets up in Drumbrae/Clermiston area take their names from locations and characters in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.

Some of them are named after real locations e.g. Rannoch Road, Duror Drive, Morven Street etc. but some are also from locations created specifically for the novel – Essendean Place & Terrace.

Up by the Drumbrae Library, we find Hoseason Gardens named after a character in the novel, Captain Hoseason:

With that I brought him in and set him down to my own place, where he fell-to greedily on the remains of breakfast, winking to me between whiles, and making many faces, which I think the poor soul considered manly. Meanwhile, my uncle had read the letter and sat thinking; then, suddenly, he got to his feet with a great air of liveliness, and pulled me apart into the farthest corner of the room.

“Read that,” said he, and put the letter in my hand.

Here it is, lying before me as I write:

“The Hawes Inn, at the Queen’s Ferry.

“Sir,—I lie here with my hawser up and down, and send my cabin-boy to informe. If you have any further commands for over-seas, to-day will be the last occasion, as the wind will serve us well out of the firth. I will not seek to deny that I have had crosses with your doer,* Mr. Rankeillor; of which, if not speedily redd up, you may looke to see some losses follow. I have drawn a bill upon you, as per margin, and am, sir, your most obedt., humble servant, “ELIAS HOSEASON.”* Agent.

“You see, Davie,” resumed my uncle, as soon as he saw that I had done, “I have a venture with this man Hoseason, the captain of a trading brig, the Covenant, of Dysart. Now, if you and me was to walk over with yon lad, I could see the captain at the Hawes, or maybe on board the Covenant if there was papers to be signed; and so far from a loss of time, we can jog on to the lawyer, Mr. Rankeillor’s. After a’ that’s come and gone, ye would be swier* to believe me upon my naked word; but ye’ll believe Rankeillor. He’s factor to half the gentry in these parts; an auld man, forby: highly respeckit, and he kenned your father.”

This is not the only “literary council scheme” in the city. If you head over to the Inch in the south east of the city, there are references in many of the street names there to Walter Scott novels.

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The Smallest Church in Edinburgh? A Baptist chapel on Hoseason Gardens.

The Extraordinary in the Ordinary – Getting a sense of place out in the ‘burbs

Central Edinburgh from Corstorphine Hill, 1824.
Central Edinburgh from Corstorphine Hill in the early 19th Century.

The first real post! This one is going to be longer than a lot of them (except perhaps the Bleeding Ink post coming up soon), but hopefully it will provide an intro to the subject. I’m still getting a handle on WordPress, so excuse any amateurish mistakes. At some point, I’ll be publishing a P.O.D. guide on this very subject.

The west of Edinburgh is a land of semi-detached houses, terraces, blocks of flats and shopping centres. As someone in a Stockbridge pub told me, “whenever I hear the word Corstorphine, I switch off.” This is actually a bit unfair. There are a lot of extremely boring buildings out here to be honest, but there is also a rich cultural heritage which is barely remarked on in many books about the city. In general, this blog is going to be about a slice of town running from Haymarket out to the airport, mostly centred on Corstorphine, but taking in surrounding areas – South Gyle, Drumbrae, Clermiston, Broomhall, Murrayfield etc etc. I’ve used the Glasgow railway line and Corstorphine Hill as boundaries to this area, but occasionally I plan to stray into Sighthill, Davidson’s Mains etc when it suits me. When I say “art”, “culture”, “literature”, I’m not always talking in a high-brow, elitist sense. I’m going to talk about them in their broadest senses, i.e. everything from writing groups up to supposedly canonical literature.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Liverpool. It isn’t the most beautiful city in the world, but it makes up for that in other ways, and takes a lot of flak from other parts of England. On a trip to the Isle of Man, I stopped over there once. Amongst other things, I took the obligatory Beatles tour. Now I’m not an obsessive fan of the band – I like some of their later albums – but I found the tour fascinating. Instead of visiting the usual ancient ruins, stately homes, and beauty spots, we found ourselves in working class and lower middle class districts, on suburban streets which could have been in any part of England (or nearly any other part of these islands). Strawberry Fields was a children’s home. Penny Lane is a typical and not unpleasant road with small shops. Yet the Beatles transformed these places into cultural icons. Likewise the childhood homes of the band members could easily have been in a hundred other places. In some way I don’t quite understand, I really liked that.

That’s much the same as what I hope to do here. This part of the world has links to famous writers like Robert Louis Stevenson, controversial writers like Irvine Welsh, up-and-coming writers such as Louise Welsh, cult writers such as Charles Stross, war heroes like Douglas Bader, feminists such as Rebecca West etc. George Eliot, Hans Christian Anderson and Byron all have their links to this area as well. But, somewhat like Liverpool Beatles tour, you’ll find many of the photographs on the blog are of very, very ordinary looking places.

Galloway* is a much more beautiful place. Yet it too has its secrets. When the Scottish Place Names Society had its conference there, local Michael Ansell gave us a fascinating tour of the area. His knowledge of local history and geography was excellent. A pretty, but unimpressive hill turned out to have a link to witchcraft. A small stone seat in St John’s Town of Dalry may have a link to a local sub-kingdom. A clearing in a forestry plantation turned out to be the location of a lost town. We also discussed Òran Bagraidh, which might be the only extant piece of Galloway Gaelic literature, and which appears to refer to places which don’t appear on maps or signposts. Much had been lost, but we could at least pick up some of the remaining fragments, thanks to Mr Ansell and other people in the SPNS.

I’ll probably mention a bit about place names in the west of Edinburgh in many of the posts. The main aim is to talk about writers and writing, but I think these are of interest, and help root the blog in local history. One or two of the street names are relevant too.

Unless they were actually told, not many people would identify a few scrawny trees as the last remnants of Birnam Wood, which was mentioned in MacBeth, or that sprawling suburbs in the English Midlands were once the home of the legendary Robin Hood. Like the Liverpool tour, or Michael Ansell’s, the ordinary suddenly becomes much more interesting. Since Corstorphine lost its oral tradition centuries ago, this is the one way we can try and regain some of that sense of place.

In our remote tribal past, and down even into the Middle Ages, every minor landmark had a name, a bit like each of our small streets do in the present day. Every field had a name e.g. Paddockholm, Tyler’s Acre. Even large rocks were named e.g. Carrick Knowe, East Craigs… and so on. In tribal cultures, this was a way of reading the landscape. Remembering the past of these places was a way of renewing one’s connection with them, knowing how the people who came before you related to them, and so on. Sadly a lot of the books and articles on Corstorphine history seem to be more about old photographs and who ran which shop. Of interest to some people, but not me particularly. Time to talk about something else.

* Note I say “Galloway”, not “Dumfries and Galloway”, which always annoys my friend Michael Conway who comes from Wigtown (Scotland’s National Booktown). The area in question that Michael Ansell took us around was the Glenkens in the traditional county of Kirkcudbrightshire.

Picture Credits

J Clarkscanned from S Sittwell and F Bamford, Edinburgh, 1937. The New Town of Edinburgh sprawls northwards from the Castle with Arthur’s Seat behind; from an aquatint by J. Clark, 1824. Uploaded by Kim Traynor onto Wikipedia.