Literary Lockdown

Being under house arrest is no fun for anyone (at least with a small home)… However, I have been reading on Twitter that independent bookshops have received a massive boost in online sales during the lockdown. So perhaps there are one or two silver linings, in among the horror.

The other bonus is that I have been rediscovering the local area. I have to walk a couple of miles every day, and “staying in” for a few days, as recommended, has given me one or two non-CV19 health issues. The weather has been generally beautiful, and I have tended to go for quieter places. That means no Water of Leith, no Union Canal (at least from Wester Hailes down), and even staying off St John’s Road most of the time. Instead, I have been to Cammo (which is a bit too busy, but has quiet spots), Gogarbank (which is very quiet), Lennie (which is also quiet), Ratho and so on. All of these have their little secrets. It has also been delightful to explore some of the places near the airport without the constant thunder of planes…

However, I regret to say my personal reading has gone to pot. I am getting back into it, but I have been finding it hard to read, and to write too, because I have to spend a lot of my time walking to compensate for my health trouble. Nothing has gone to plan. (In case you’re wondering, the next book on my reading list is Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke.)

I certainly won’t be reading anything related to the Covid lockdown. This is despite being recommended the likes of the Andromeda Strain and Contagion by Amazon. No Love in the Time of Cholera or Death in Venice either.

Joking aside, CV19 has brought out the best and worst in people. Some folk act as if nothing is happening, and don’t seem to be aware one can transmit it without having little or no symptoms yourself. I have been particularly disturbed by the notion that the disease doesn’t exist. I can assure you it does. A friend of mine in the US has just spent two weeks in hospital with this supposedly imaginary virus, and is spending another week in quarantine at a hotel. He is physically tough for his age, thank God, and is recovering, but CV19  was all too real for him and his family. I don’t doubt that authoritarians would love to use the lockdown as an excuse to clamp down on civil liberties after this is over – more phone tracking, making it easier for folk to be locked up without trial etc…  and all the latent Fascists and Stalinists have been creeping out of the woodwork, but notion that this horrible disease doesn’t exist is just plain wrong.

Anyway, I hope all of you are staying safe and well. Remember this is a good time to catch up on those doorstoppers you’ve put aside for a rainy day, or even to take up a new hobby. Lockdown is horrible, but we can at least make it bearable.

Ottoman Connections: Robert Liston of Gogar

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Sir Robert Liston in 1811.

Thousands drive past Gogar Kirk every week, but few ever notice it,  hidden as it is behind the Royal Bank of Scotland’s ostentatious bridge, and a belt of trees.

But the kirkyard contains a number of interesting graves, including those of the sculptor and writer Pittendreigh MacGillivray, and his playwright daughter Ina.

But today, I want to look at another character – Sir Robert Liston (1742-1846). Liston was quite the diplomat – he was an ambassador to the Ottoman court at Constantinople twice, and he was also de facto ambassador to the USA for some years. I say “de facto“, because the UK wouldn’t have a so called ambassador to the USA until decades later – however, his position, and his role were pretty much the same as one.

Early life

Liston was the son of a farmer from Torbanehill near Kirkliston, the very area his family appear to derive their surname from. Among his school friends was Andrew Dalzell (1742-1806), the noted classicist, and like many of Liston’s other contacts, they kept up a long term correspondence.

Robert proved to be a very able scholar, and had the gift of languages, becoming fluent in at least ten of them. He went to Edinburgh University, and was there exposed to the nascent Scottish Enlightenment.

In 1796 he married Henrietta Marchant. Henrietta was an avid keeper of journals, and it is from her that we learn much about Sir Robert’s career. She appears to have been much more wealthy than him. Like many rich people of the time, there is an unpleasant aspect to her wealth – her family came from the West Indies, and were slave owners there.

Friend of the Founding Fathers

As British emissary to the USA, Liston was popular with many of the American founding fathers. He often visited George Washington, and John Adams, and was friendly enough with Thomas Jefferson for the two to lend books to each other.

Liston’s success in the States was probably partly down to the fact that unlike many other British diplomats of the time, he was not an aristocrat. As a scion of the middle class, and a self-made man, he had far more in common with the American revolutionaries than any of them would have done.

Mon cher Bob

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Novelist and actress Marie Jeanne Riccoboni

When visiting France, Liston was introduced to the French novelist Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni (née de la Boras). Marie Jeanne was 29 years Liston’s elder and died in Paris in 1792. She wrote over 70 letters to Robert Liston, which still survived and she referred to him as “mon cher Bob”.

Riccoboni herself was the ex-wife of Italian playwright Antoine François Riccoboni, author of more than fifty comedies. She would later die in poverty; she had been awarded a state pension by the French government, but the revolution ended that.

It is suspected that Marie Jeanne was introduced to Sir Robert by the noted philosopher David Hume, a mutual friend.

Among the Turks
Turkey’s westernisation is commonly attributed to Atatürk in the twentieth century, however, the Sultans Mahmud II and his successor Selim III had begun the process long before. Sir Robert dealt with Selim III’s government. Selim was a keen patron of the arts, and encouraged a more liberal atmosphere in the empire. Sir Robert’s time in Constantinople (Istanbul) seems to have been more to do with maintaining British influence against that of France.

Visiting Gogar Kirkyard

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Sir Robert’s grave

Gogar Kirk is a delightful little former church. In recent times, it has become a cabinet works, and the church itself is frequently a part of Doors Open Day – check the brochure for details.

The site is an interesting one. The area seems to have been very marshy in historic times, and that probably explains why it is raised above the surrounding ground a little. This could also suggest that it is a very old holy site, and probably pre-Christian. (If you want to hear some of the wilder ideas some people have come up with about Gogar, please read my book!) The placename itself appears to be Welsh and there is some debate about its origins – is it the red (goch) place like nearby Redheughs or the place of the cuckoo (gog/cog)?

Gogar Kirk, funnily enough, is one of the few places in Edinburgh which it is easier to get to by tram. Get off at the Gogarburn stop (just after the Gyle Centre and Edinburgh Gateway), and you’re practically on top of it. There is very little parking.

The bus service is not very good either. However, it may be possible to get a bus to the RBS HQ nearby and walk over. Again, check with Lothian buses for details.

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Scrollwork and carving on another gravestone in the churchyard.

External links

T2: “I’ll Be Back”

Given the rave reviews I kept hearing of Trainspotting 2, I went in with low expectations. I’m like that. I’m not one for hype. T2 has quite a few connections to this bit of Edinburgh, like its predecessor, whether it’s the scenes at the airport, or on the tram. We also get to see Diane Coulston (Kelly MacDonald) again, who is still far posher than the original character in the book who lived in Forrester Park and went to school over the road…

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T2: probably the best thing which has happened to Edinburgh Trams.

The action is supposed to take some twenty years after the original, but includes numerous clips and references to the original film, so that in no way is it a stand-alone piece. (Choose what?) We get to see quite a few actors from the original film too – whether we need to or not – and some of them seem to have a couple of lines (Shirley Henderson’s Gail Houston?) and/or play little part in plot development.

There are quite a few plotholes, loose threads and badly resolved scenarios in T2. They are a little hard to explain without giving too much away. But there are some good points as well. Spud (Ewen Bremner) is the true hero of the story, and is curiously likable.

Trams and Brexit

Heroin addiction and theft may be some of the last things most people could think of as “cool”, but T2 manages to top the stigma of the original by managing to deal with two of the Cinderella causes of the last few years – trams and the EU!

T2 has probably been the single best thing to happen to the beleaguered Edinburgh Trams Project. They have been controversial to say the least, and the city must have leaped at the chance to bask in the reflected glory of a new Trainspotting film. There is a great scene where Renton rides from the airport into town on the tram (which is pretty expensive in real life – ouch!), and you get to see speeded up footage of the journey from a roof cam. South Gyle has never looked so good.

T2 contains some very transparent Europhile propaganda. A bit of a case of too little, too late, you might think, with Brexit and all…significantly, one of the major characters of Porno, Nikki, is turned into Veronica, a “new European” from Bulgaria, and Renton talks with a Slovenian woman near the beginning who welcomes him to Edinburgh. There are two very short scenes which are filmed in Amsterdam and somewhere in Bulgaria (so short I’m not sure what the point in sending a film crew over to either of these places was),but this does seem to tie in with the pointless cameos of certain characters from the original. In another part, the characters apply for an EU development grant and make a sentimental appeal by showing footage of old Leith. (Much the same happened in Filth also an Irvine Welsh adaptation – a few short scenes in Hamburg, that almost seemed tokenistic.) In the original Trainspotting, there is a scene in London and a cameo from an American – maybe this demonstrates shifting loyalties, although the director Boyle is himself English of course.

And there are other things in it. The Scottish Parliament. Harvey Nicks. I’m not much a fan of the latter, but devolution is at least still popular. There are the usual tedious football references (Is Hibs the only team people locally support or have heard of?) and the city’s so called saunas get a look in.

Trainspotting in Time

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Guess who lives in here?

Twenty years is a significant chunk of anyone’s life – nearly as long as I’ve lived where I have – but in some terms, it is interesting to see what has and hasn’t changed in all those years. The airport has become notably stranger – as you can see in the film – and more threatening (ugly security measures everywhere). The actors all look amazingly similar to their old selves – apart from Robert Carlyle – and the film has messages about the danger of revisiting the past.

Although there is twenty years between the two films, the relationship between the books and films are a bit more complicated. Time for a bit of Trainspotting in Time:

  • Trainspotting – Book 1993, Film 1996 (three years between book and film)
  • Porno (Trainspotting 2) – Book 2002, Film 2017 (fifteen years between book and film, a whopping twenty five years after Trainspotting the novel, more if we go back to when some of it was written)

In other words, Trainspotting was a product of the late eighties and early nineties, filmed a few years later. T2 deals with four different time periods –

  • The Seventies? – We see footage of the characters’ childhoods.
  • The early Nineties (and Eighties) – all the references to the original film and novel.
  • The late Nineties and early Noughties – when Porno itself was written.
  • The Modern Day – where most of T2 is actually set.

This mashup can be seen in the soundtrack. Trainspotting mixed up nineties and seventies music, Trainspotting 2 includes music from the seventies, eighties, nineties (1690s?) and the present day. This is probably one of the reasons it is less iconic, along with the constant references to the original.

This may all seem like nerdy number-crunching – it is – but if you’re interested in where and when certain things are based, it leads to some interesting questions. I even suspect I know what the real life counterparts are to certain people and places in the book… but I’m saying nothing.

Secret Edinburgh

51qpkogkwolSecret Edinburgh: An Unusual Guide by Hannah Robinson is a welcome addition to a crowded market place. It is one of a major series of guide books by the French publisher JonGlez. Others in the series include Rio de Janeiro, Tuscany, Prague and Granada – proud company perhaps.

Secret Edinburgh will delight natives and residents of Edinburgh as much as any visitor. While there is a dreary sense of deja vu about most Edinburgh guides, Secret Edinburgh feels fresh. The author has clearly done a lot of research and visited all the locations – as has her photographer. While most of its competitors neglect the suburbs, SE does not. From the shale bings of West Lothian to Cockenzie and Port Seton, this is a book which truly spans this city.

Now, at the risk of sounding smug – and I probably do – I would say that I probably know about 80% of the places listed. But in that sense, I am highly unusual. Most people in Edinburgh will know far fewer, since I’m one of those types who’s gone out of his way to discover such places… through my own researchs and wanderings, and various Doors Open days.

Inevitably there is some overlap between Literary Corstorphine and Secret Edinburgh. Here are a few of the places you can find in both:

  •  Cammo Estate
  • The Dower House
  • Gogar Cabinet Works
  • Saughton Park and Winter Gardens
  • The White Lady of Corstorphine

And while I don’t deal specifically with the Airport Prayer and Quiet Room, and Corstorphine Hill Walled Garden, I do have entries on Edinburgh Airport and Corstorphine Hill.

External links