Sinful Davey Haggart

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John Hurt in his pre-chest burster phase.

Back in my post Phrens like these“, I discussed the phrenologist George Combe who had Corstorphine and South Gyle connections.

“George Combe was no stranger to [controversy]. In fact, on one occasion he examined the head of one David Haggart, a nineteen year old pickpocket and murderer from Dumfries. Combe claimed Haggart had developed “secretiveness” written on his skull. Haggart was later to be executed, but would write a moving autobiographical account, explaining how the murder had not been premeditated and that he was deeply sorry for it. News of Haggart’s account reached Blackwood’s Magazine and others, who used it to attack Combe.”

Sinful Davey

A friend of mine specialises in digging up obscure films, and recently, he found one from 1969 called Sinful Davey, also known as the The Sinful Adventures of Davy Haggart. Having more than one title is never a good thing for a film, and I doubt it did much good for Sinful Davey before it sank into oblivion…

It took me a while to make the connection between Sinful Davey and the David Haggart I mentioned above. There is a very Barry Lyndon-esque flavour to the story-line. This film doesn’t really deliver on the “sinful adventures” that it promises, apart from a few robberies, there is less smuttiness than a Carry On film, and it looks quite tame in this day and age.

The penny only really dropped when a phrenologist came in to measure the character’s head in Stirling Gaol. Unlike much of the film’s narrative, this appears to have happened.

Sinful Davey boasts a well known cast, and some awful attempts at Scottish accents. The main character Davey Haggart is portrayed by a baby-faced John Hurt. His love interest is played by the under-rated Pamela Franklin (who you may remember as Sandy in the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie). Supporting roles are played by Ronald Fraser (who does the most convincing of the Scottish accents), Robert Morley (hamming it up as he always did), Nigel Davenport, and Fionnuala Flanagan. It seems to have been entirely filmed in Ireland, and while Ireland looks reasonably like Scotland, the Irish extras seem to make little attempt to put on Scottish accents.

The film was also Anjelica Huston’s first role, although I was unable to spot her. Her father John Huston directed the film. (Huston’s films recently featured on the Pointless recently, and Sinful Davey wasn’t even mentioned among the “pointless” answers!)

David Haggart

According to his Wikipedia article (!), the real Davey Haggart seems to have originated in Goldenacre in Edinburgh, of all places…

“Twelve days before the trial he was visited in prison by George Combe, the phrenologist, and between the trial and his execution he partly wrote, partly dictated, an autobiography, which was published by his agent, with Combe’s phrenological notes as an appendix, and Haggart’s own comments. It is a curious picture of criminal life, the best, and seemingly the most faithful, of its kind, and possesses also some linguistic value, as being mainly written in the Scottish thieves’ cant, which contains a good many genuine Romany words. Lord Cockburn, writing from recollection in 1848, declares the whole book to be “a tissue of absolute lies, not of mistakes, or of exaggerations, or of fancies, but of sheer and intended lies. And they all had one object, to make him appear a greater villain than he really was”. On the other hand, the contemporaneous account of the trial, so far as it goes, bears out Haggart’s narrative ; Cockburn is certainly wrong in describing Haggart as “about twenty-five”, and in stating that the portrait prefixed professed to be “by his own hand”. This autobiography later served as the inspiration for the 1969 movie Sinful Davey. It is available in several reprint formats, but no new edition has ever been issued.

WS Graham at 100

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Happy belated birthday to the Scotto-Cornish poet, WS Graham (1918-1986), who was born a hundred years ago yesterday. Graham is one of the twelve poets represented on herms out at Edinburgh Park. I provide a full map & listing of the poets, sculptors in my book. (I’ve written previously on some of this in my “Corporate art of South Gyle” article )

WS Graham is away from the main body of the Kirk, hidden in a corner of railings, which fence the poor man in. If you fancy practising limbo dancing or have a pair of binoculars handy, then it shouldn’t be too hard for you to read the poem and the info on the side of the pillar.

Graham is not a poet I am very familiar with. He appears to have been very underrated within his lifetime, perhaps even after. Both Hugh MacDiarmid and TS Eliot were admirers of him. He probably escaped notice to some extent in his native Scotland, because he spent much of his working life in another Celtic country – Cornwall.

Apologies for any misspellings in this post. You can thank autocorrect – I’m sure others out there can sympathise. I can’t find any way to switch it off.

External Links

WS Graham on Wikipedia

*WS Graham on Poetry Foundation

For a Multilingual Edinburgh

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A “shelfie” of part of my library including Gaelic novels, alongside Mencius, Cervantes, Goethe, Patrick Süskind (the painting is Das Parfum), Turgenev etc in the original languages… an interest in Gaelic does not somehow block other languages…

I have tried hard to steer clear of party politics on this blog, but it greatly saddens me to see our MSP Alex Cole Hamilton try and use Scottish Gaelic as a soft target for campaigning. He seems to think if you are interested in Gaelic, you can’t be interested in other languages, despite all the research saying otherwise. Children in Gaelic Medium Education consistently outperform the other schools when it comes to learning French, German, Spanish etc. Frankly, ACH’s tweet reeks of  the “many of my best friends are […], but” mentality.

I am glad to say this attitude has not been shared by all of his party. Christine Jardine MP has said that she is supportive of Gaelic, and both Donald Gorrie and Margaret Smith have been positive about it too. The late Iain Farquhar Munro (Iain Fearchar Rothach) was a native speaker and a champion of Gaelic in the Lib Dems, and will probably be turning in his grave at these comments.

Well, I happen to be one of Alex Cole Hamilton’s constituents. I vote in pretty much every election. I think I have only missed one in twenty plus years. I have my own views, but I am not currently a member of any political party. I have voted for several different parties in the past, and yes, one of them happened to be the Lib Dems. Comments like this don’t endear me to them.

Literary Corstorphine will always back the Gaelic language. Many languages can be seen and heard in this constituency of course, and it is wrong to pitch them against each other, to say Polish is better than Cantonese or Urdu is superior to Broad Scots. Yet that is precisely what has happened here, and it seems to be becoming more and more common in British politics.

Our local Gaelic heritage

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Lennie and Cammo on the western edge of the city. Both of these names derive from Gaelic – Lèanaidh means a meadow or land in a river bend, while Camach refers to the meanders themselves.

Does Corstorphine have a Gaelic heritage? Yes, more than you might think. Names like Drumbrae (Druim Bràighe), Cammo (Camach), Lennie (Lèanaidh), Carrick Knowe (Carraig) and Balgreen (Baile Grèine) all originate from it. Go up to Edinburgh Park and you can find busts of poets such as Iain Crichton Smith and Sorley MacLean, while more recently Gaelic writers such as William Neill and Màrtainn Mac an t-Saoir have lived locally.

I write about Corstorphine’s Gaelic links in my book.

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.

Corporate Art of South Gyle

Does the public notice public art? Not much in South Gyle it would seem, and there is a lot of it.

20170520_194046.jpgWe were on assignment, trying to kill two birds with one stone. Destroy a piece of corporate art and trash a franchise coffee bar.” – Fight Club

In a memorable scene from the film Fight Club referred to as “Operation Latte Thunder”, a group of urban guerillas decide to destroy a franchise café by rolling a giant spherical corporate sculpture into it. The whole thing goes awry, ending up with the death of one of the main characters.

A similar hatred of corporate artworks is exhibited in the Simon Pegg vehicle, The World’s End.  It is about a school reunion – and pub crawl – gone horribly wrong. The characters spend much of their time moaning about the changes that have occurred since 1990. One of these changes is an oddly bland looking metal figure about twenty or thirty foot tall. It features heavily in the plot later on, and not in a good way.

South Gyle is full of corporate and public artwork, some of which is more successful than others. Many of these artworks lack plaques, or any other obvious indications, as to where they came from. In these cases I have had to use nicknames or guess.

There is an odd sense of Soviet-style decay about some of these areas. For sure, the USSR fell in 1991, and a lot of these places seem to date from the early to mid nineties, but the decay is already there.

I apologise again for the quality of some of these images!

Lead in

Our journey begins on the South Gyle Access road, opposite Forrester Rugby Club. Here to the west, we see our first sculpture, a set of stainless tubes, which I call “the Pan Pipes”, reminscent of the Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik.

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From the Flassches Yard (industrial estate) side, we see that the artwork is complimented by the inclusion of three metal bollards, which align perfectly with the symmetry of the Pan Pipes. The South Gyle Access side is obscured somewhat by a set of three young pines. It is unclear if the Pan Pipes are solar-aligned or not.

From here, we can proceed in two different directions:

  • Along South Gyle Access. This leads us to the Lightning Roundabout, which is so called because of the fighter jet that used to be mounted on the top. There are three cedars at the top, and the footings of the pedestal can still be seen if you are brave enough to get on top of the roundabout (I don’t recommend it). The arms manufacturer has been replaced by Tesco Bank. From here, turn left onto South Gyle Crescent.

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  • Along Flassches Yard, which is the industrial estate to the rear of the Pan Pipes. This leads us by a mounted clock, the Big Ben of South Gyle, and straight onto South Gyle Crescent.

South Gyle Crescent

The first section of South Gyle Crescent takes us past one of several food vans. The first one is called the Chargrill Company, which sells a selection of hot meats and sits outside the College of Animal Welfare. (A similar juxtaposition can be seen over on Hanover Street where a branch of Oink Hog Roast sits above a health food store offering various vegan products).

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Across the road, a bit further down is a Chinese takeaway van, which for some reason is called “Noduru”- a Japanese word, and which is also written in pseudo-Hiragana (a Japanese script). Japanese/Chinese – these daft westerners will never know the difference!

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Behind one of the buildings, we find three endearing sculptures, one of a pigeon and two other birds. Their effect is somewhat undermined by the boarded fences nearby and the wasteland beyond, part of which is guarded by an entry post which would have not been out of place on the Iron Curtain.

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Sie verlassen den Amerikanischen Sektor…  Papieren bitte!

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Redheughs Avenue

We then walk down South Gyle Crescent, past the flying saucer like Bank of Scotland buildings, the well-hidden Edinburgh University archive library, until we reach a small roundabout, and the former headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Turn left here and you are on Redheughs Avenue.

Here we see easily the greatest artwork in South Gyle, Eduardo Paolozzi’s Wealth of Nations (1993). It is nicknamed by some people “the Chiseller” due to its proximity to the big bank building and the objects in its hands. Below its feet is a quote from Einstein, “Knowledge is good, but imagination is better”. If you’re going to look at any artwork in this area – check this out, and the herms of the poets in Edinburgh Park.

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Further down on the left (south), one finds another sculpture outside an RBS building, this one I call “the Screw”. Perhaps another banking metaphor. I have never been right in to look at it, since there is a security guard posted at the gate, and hmm…

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We then reach another roundabout, this one an attempt at some kind of Zen garden, basically gravel and large rocks scattered at random controlled by weedkiller.

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Edinburgh Park

Edinburgh Park has a different feel to it. It begins just after “the Screw”, and is leafier. Most of the trees here too are stunted though. The bus shelter pictured used to have poetry on it many years ago, but this is all gone. There is a history of Edinburgh on it (and near another bus shelter further down), but you are more likely to see adverts for yoga here than literature these days.

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Down at Loch Ross, the pond in the middle of Edinburgh Park, one can find the herms of numerous 20th century Scottish poets. Along with the Paolozzi behemoth, these are the most interesting artworks in South Gyle. This is the herm of Meester W.S. Graham. Another poet can be seen in the foreground. If you wish to know more about the sculptures, or see more pictures, you’ll have to buy the book!

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“Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Cygnet-fying nothing…” – Shakespeare (kind of).

Wildlife occasionally wanders into Loch Ross. I have seen swans, geese, oystercatchers, moorhens and frogs in this area.

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This could be just about anywhere…lochrossgrey.jpg

A moorhen…

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And yes, I had to photograph one of these. We paid enough, didn’t we?

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How’s that Zen Garden working for you? (It is unknown if the owners of Nudoru Chinese takeaway contributed to this landscape sculpture in any form.)lochsidecres1grey.jpg

The Gyle Centre

The artistic contents of this carparks include a kinetic sculpture which no longer moves…

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A mottled  cube called Concrete Jungle by Alan Watson (1994)…

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Stacked Stades by Marion Smith (1994)…

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A former fountain and waterway, now filled in with plants…

20170520_194633.jpgA giant chessboard near the bus stops, which I have never seen anyone use in over twenty years… although you can apparently request giant chess pieces inside the centre.

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There is also a metal relief map of the Gyle Centre.

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Who knows what this is? The plaque is missing and no one has bothered replacing it for years on end. Note the face at the top. Presumably 1994 like the rest…

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Veil by Jake Kempsall (1994)…

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Fossil Tree by Bill Scott (1994)… a hard one to photograph, surrounded by bins, lights and hedges.

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Ian Hamilton Finlay?

Near the Gyle Centre Petrol Station, we encounter this structure. The basic form suggests a Greek temple. Inside are a set of Stelae which resemble Ian Hamilton Finlay’s work. The inscriptions are hard to read but refer to the likes of Ariel and Hesperus. These deserve a return visit from me, but I didn’t have much time to look at them. I have seen them many times before, thought they were just bollards and never properly considered them.

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Appendix: The Badlands of South Gyle

This is the area to the north of Edinburgh Park Station. It is not really worth visiting. Here you can find numerous spaces which have been empty for years. There is a large substation, with some trees, what look like crosses between bomb sites and rice paddies. Happily this area has been colonised by spiky teazles.

More bizarrely two hotels overlook this wasteland.

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Teazles – dipsacus – a plant formerly used in wool carding and a good coloniser of the badlands.20170520_191501.jpgOther flowers and rushes have colonised a few areas.

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20170522_184038.jpgBurdock and broom…20170522_184141.jpg

And here is a mysterious pay car park in the middle of nowhere.

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And a rarely used putting green near Loch Ross and the Edinburgh Park Central tram stop.20170522_183916.jpg

Ghost Hedge in South Gyle?

A little bit of ultra-local non-literary history and a bit of an anorak post. I hope it is of interest to somebody.

 

South Gyle was once described to me as a “new town” . I can’t disagree with this assessment. But over the next couple of posts I will look at a few aspects of its history, with a very dodgy camera – and my apologies for that.

Recently, however, I think I have uncovered an aspect of

Old South Gyle

What are some of the oldest features in South Gyle? Given that most of the area was truly a marsh, there is very little evidence of ancient settlement.

  • A bronze age sword was found in the former Gogarloch. This was presumably a a votive offering to the loch.
  • In a previous post (link here), I mentioned that Roman coins have been found in the area, and it has been claimed that a Roman road ran near it. There are one or two pre-Roman remains, but that it for another time.
  • Geoff Holder in The Little Book of Edinburgh, mentions that when Wester Broom was being built that the footings of an old castle were found, but there seems to be no contemporary record of the edifice.
  • The Knights Templar held land just to the north east of the Drumbrae Roundabout. No idea whether they had any in this area.
  • Last but not least, in my post Phrens like these, I also discussed the connection of the Brothers Combe and their connection to Redheughs.

There were a few farm buildings here in the recent past. Most of which have gone, except for a stretch on South Gyle Road which I mention later. The railway line was built in the nineteenth century, but appears to have gone numerous improvements and South Gyle Station was opened in 1985. Except for the section on Glasgow Road, most of the other buildings in South Gyle originate in the late twentieth century.

The bypass dates to the 1980s.

South Gyle Road

Currently, South Gyle Road runs westwards from Meadowplace Road on the edge of Broomhall, and continues more-or-less in a straight line through the Wester Broom Estate built by MacTaggart and Mickel in the 1970s. To its north west is South Gyle Gardens and Gylemuir School which I imagine to be ’70s or ’80s in origin.

South Gyle Road then crosses South Gyle Station. The station itself was opened in 1985, but the bridge looks to be earlier. At South Gyle Station, the road is blocked to large vehicles. On the other side, it provides access to the South Gyle Mains estate again built by MacTaggart and Mickel, this time in the late 1980s-early 1990s. “Mains” is equivalent to the “home farm” south of the Border. (The same company has built estates at the Paddockholm near Station Road, and another in Craigmount – their post-1980s architecture is distinctive and partly based on Scottish baronial.)

On one side of the road, we see a row of farm workers cottages, covered in beautiful red ?pan tiles, which has survived well into the present day. I’m guessing that these date from the 19th century, although they may incorporate even older features.

On the other side, we find Gogarloch, named after the marsh. The streets here are named “Syke” (a ditch), “Haugh” (a meadow) and “Muir” (moor or heath). This was formerly “Westholme” and was built in the mid 1990s by Wimpey. The rest of the road curves round to become Gogarloch Road, and the so called west end of “South Gyle Road” is swallowed up in an extension of the Gogarloch Estate and is blocked off.

Finding a ghost hedge?

It is always great to see trees flowering in this area. While the cherry trees along Meadow Place Road are fantastic, I also like seeing the hawthorns in bloom. They are the real Queens of the May. They are often known as “quickthorn”, because they can produce a spiky hedge fairly rapidly – certainly faster than beech, but not as quickly as leylandia perhaps. That said, it is often hard to age a hawthorn tree, because they don’t tend to produce a single large trunk.

In old Scottish folklore it was considered bad luck to cut down hawthorn trees. (A similar taboo applied to dookits/dovecots – which is probably why Corstorphine’s dookit has long outlived its castle.) While I doubt the hawthorn tradition is well remembered in Edinburgh, I was amazed to see that some local trees may have survived the MacTaggart & Mickel and Wimpey developments of my lifetime.

Recently, when I was passing the South Gyle Roundabout, I noticed a solitary hawthorn flowering in the middle of it. What drew my attention to it, was that it seemed to line up with other hawthorn trees that ran along the south side of South Gyle Road. South Gyle Road is blocked off to the rounabout now, but sure enough, where it was blocked off, there was another hawthorn. The roundabout itself presumably dates to the 1990s.

The flowering hawthorn in the middle of the South Gyle roundabout.

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Here I have taken a shot from the end of South Gyle Road. There is another hawthorn here in the vegetation, which lines up with the one on the roundabout, and some of the others further down the road. South Gyle Road is blocked off from the roundabout.

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Looking in the other direction down South Gyle road to the east, one can a couple of flowering hawthorns. They are surrounded by other trees, presumably planted by MacTaggart and Mickel, or maybe Wimpey. It is unclear whether the hawthorns were but they seem to line up with the other ones. (The road curves around to become Gogarloch Road near the red car.)

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The same two hawthorns from the back. There is no hawthorn hedge on the other side of the road.

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Continuing further down, where South Gyle Road curves off and becomes Gogarloch Road, there are no hawthorns at all.

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Further down the road, on the same side, they reappear. This is the first real “hedge” we see on this road heading east since it consists of several trees.

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There is another grouping of them, they seem to be tidier, but it is unclear if these were planted more recently or are original parts of an older hedge. These look younger.

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Here you can see the old cottages on the left which are the oldest buildings in this locality. Opposite them, the best preserved piece of hedging can be seen. This is definitely older than the South Gyle Mains estate, but perhaps not as old as the cottages. This may be the only bit of very old hedging, but it does seem to line up with the hawthorns further down, and even the one on the roundabout, suggesting they date back to when it was a mere farm track.

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The same section photographed from behind… apologies for the glare.

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And the same section again, looking back westwards from over South Gyle Station carpark.

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There’s a big row of them there. These are mixed in with elderberry trees and do not look well managed. Certainly in the nineties it was possible to see the remains of what looked like an old farm fence with posts and barbed wire, possiy dating back to when the South Gyle Mains really did have a “mains”.

Finally there appear to be two lots of hawthorns next to the station.

This hawthorn between the gates does not look like much, but before the gates were built it used to be two or three times the height. I used to call it the bag tree, since bits of old shopping bags used to flutter around in its upper branches.

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Finally, there are some along the embankment before the bridge. It is unclear whether these date to the building of the station in 1985, or back earlier to when the bridge was built.

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This is the view of this row from the other side. It is not so clear due to the camera problems. The other trees appear to be beech.

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Lastly, down the side of the railway line, along the path which leads from the station carpark to the Gyle Centre, there are some other hawthorns mixed in with other trees. These I can date with reasonable certainty to the 1990s. A few older specimens may have remained by this stage, but most of the specimens appear to be younger and their trunks are smaller. This section appears to be unconnected with my suspected ghost hedge, and is a complete mess and badly maintained.

So any literary connection? Well, I could add William Neil lived further along South Gyle Road, but that is for another day.

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.

Phrens like these

 

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Andrew Combe

Andrew Combe was born in 1797… like most of his siblings he was at first reared in Corstorphine by a jolly, energetic tailor’s wife, who habitually took in so-called middle-class infants until they were weaned.” (Cosh, p226)

Some of my posts may have left you scratching your head. But have you had the actual shape of your head investigated? Strange as it may seem, this was once the “in thing”.

If the past is a foreign country, then its science is even more foreign to us. A lot of the “science” of the nineteenth century is either obsolete, or has become the pseudoscience of today. Phrenology is a classic example of this. It is perhaps less mystical than palmistry, and a good deal less smelly than reflexology, but it works on similar principles. It involves fondling the bumps on someone’s head, and determining someone’s personality from them.

Two of the most prominent phrenologists of their day were the brothers Andrew and George Combe.* George is the main player in this story, more so than Andrew, but had a similar upbringing. Their success was mixed to say the least.

Edinburgh: The Golden Age

william_hazlitt_portrait
The Head of Hazlitt

Having passed a significant birthday recently, I was very grateful to be given a number of good books as presents. One of these was Edinburgh: The Golden Age by Mary Cosh. It is one of those books which is so big you could probably crack walnuts with it. But I don’t intend to. I suspect it must have taken Cosh a decade or more to research it.

It is a real mine of information. The vast majority of it is accurate – although there does appear to be one or two mistakes, for example, Lady Nairne does not appear to have lived on Corstorphine Hill. But this is perhaps inevitable in a book of over a thousand pages. But if you can get hold of it, do. It is not a book one reads end to end

ETGA discusses the Combe family at length. Andrew and George were just two out of seventeen children, several of whom died, as was often the way at the turn of the nineteenth century. Their father, also called George, was a brewer. The family had relatives at Redheughs (South Gyle), and they were occasionally sent out of the city to live there during their holidays. (I don’t know where the “jolly, energetic tailor’s wife” of Corstorphine who raised Andrew lived precisely- or if she was connected to Redheughs herself.)

George appears to have been ill at ease as a child, and he was sent off to Frederick Street to be taught by George Hogarth – who was Charles Dickens’ father-in-law. Andrew seems to have had similar issues, being listless and when he was asked what he would do as an adult said “I’ll do naething“. These days a psychologist might attribute their problems to their harsh upbringing and education – but these were not unusual for middle class children of the period. Then in 1812, Andrew was sent to work with Henry Johnston, a surgeon on Princes Street.

George published Essay on Phrenology in 1819. His phrenology had attracted scorn from Francis, Lord Jeffrey of Craigcrook Castle, but also quite a lot of popular support. Amongst these was William Hazlitt. George describes Hazlitt as being “short and of a moderate thickness“, and the bumps on his head indicated:

Acquistiveness: large… Individuality, lower, large… the mouth speaks Combativeness and Destructiveness very strongly.”

During Hazlitt’s visit to Edinburgh, his wife was out wandering Corstorphine Hill, and other by-ways.  Mr and Mrs Hazlitt were divorced shortly afterwards, an extremely serious matter at the time.

Space does not permit me to describe the adventures of Andrew and George much further. Suffice to say, theirs was a colourful story, full of controversy, schisms and criticism. Jeffrey’s Edinburgh Review would not touch phrenology – but it would seem many others did, and well known people too.

The Rise and Fall of Phrenology

Like a lot of these things, it starts off from a reasonable enough premise. Certain medical conditions do causes changes in the skull shape. If you have ever known someone with Downs, for example, you will have noticed their facial features are quite distinctive. However, phrenology has taken this idea several steps further, into much more dubious and dangeous territories. One of its earliest applications was to try and determine who criminals were before they had committed any acts. We can see where that might lead. Straight down the road into eugenics.

George Combe was no stranger to this. In fact, on one occasion he examined the head of one David Haggart, a nineteen year old pickpocket and murderer from Dumfries. Combe claimed Haggart had developed “secretiveness” written on his skull. Haggart was later to be executed, but would write a moving autobiographical account, explaining how the murder had not been premeditated and that he was deeply sorry for it. News of Haggart’s account reached Blackwood’s Magazine and others, who used it to attack Combe.

Graphology is interesting by way of comparison. You may have noticed that when you are frantic, or even suffering from illnesses, that your handwriting changes. This basic principle has been extended into a complete system, which goes far beyond the original idea – whole personalities are supposedly deduced from the strokes of t’s and dots of i’s. However, graphology still enjoys some popularity – and is even used by certain employers – while phrenology has well and truly bitten the dust.

The demise of phrenology is almost total. It didn’t help that it was beloved of the Third Reich. in fact, Germany would send out phrenologists all over the world just to measure people’s heads. There is even old footage of Nazi scientists in Tibet, trying to determine how Aryan its ancient inhabitants were, using a pair of calipers. There are also Nazi propaganda posters of particular people with different shapes of head. Needless to say, anything closely related to Nazism is out of season.

Phrenology is not even particularly widespread in the New Age/Alternative Health communities. There are vague notions of something similar in traditional forms of Buddhism. But the average New Ager these days seems more interested in the colour of your aura than the shape of your head.

My head is an odd shape. I wonder what Messrs. Combe would have made of it.

Footnotes

* The Combe Brothers were, incidentally, related to Sarah Mair, whom I discussed earlier in this blog. The connection is through marriage, and the actress Sarah Siddons, who was an ancestor of Sarah Mair. Edinburgh’s High Society has frequently been a small society.

Picture credits

Photograph of Andrew Combe’s bust, by Stephencdickson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

References

  • Cosh, Mary Edinburgh: The Golden Age (2003)

External Links

One Boy’s Dinner

contentI’m just having a look at One Boy’s Dinner Please by Alan Bews.. Interesting account of how the author went to work at Gylemuir Works as a brass turner in the 50s in his mid teens, and how he encountered sectarianism there.

Part of the reason people asked you what team you supported was to find out what religion you were” (chapter 15), urgh! That kind of crap never changes… and is part of the reason I’m not much into football… the other thing they still ask is which school you went to, but let’s not go there…

There are other mentions of Corstorphine in the book as well.

The book was published in Australia, where the author now lives, so not readily available here, but if you want a look at a copy, it’s in the National Library now, thanks to my request!

External links

Picture Credits

The cover picture falls under copyright, but hopefully is considered fair use, as it promotes said item. No infringement is intended, and it will be removed on request.

Jardine’s Round

Thursday Legends

Many years ago, probably the best part of twenty, I walked past a very tired-looking Quintin Jardine sitting on his own at a table in the Gyle Centre, outside what was then James Thin’s Bookshop*. Mr. Jardine had a soaring pile of brand new books beside him – possibly Skinner’s Round (1995), the Inspector apparently likes golf – and he was busily signing them all. How well that particular scheme went, I’ve no idea, but suffice to say, James Thin’s bookshops are now long gone, and Quintin Jardine’s novels still very much with us.

In Jardine’s 2000 novel, Thursday Legends, we find the following.

The fund manager… headed downhill, and across Belford Bridge, the temporary resting place of Howard Shearer… until he turned into Ravelston Dykes.

“Where’s he going, d’you think?” Wilding mused.

“Maybe he’s off to the casino to lose another couple of grand, we’ll see.”

 They tailed Heard to Western Corner and then along Corstorphine Road out of the city. “Aye,” McGurk muttered, as they swept past Murrayfield Hospital…

Heard doesn’t end up going to the Maybury Casino. He ends up in the Zoo, looking at the penguins. However, any good Edinburgh driver from these parts might wonder why he didn’t take a more direct route through Haymarket. The Zoo is something of a mainstay for tartan noir based in Edinburgh, but that’s another matter.

For my money, I have to admit, I prefer Tony Black to Quintin Jardine. Then there’s my friend Alan Wilde, who’s busy working on a tartan noir novel, which is hopefully a bit outside the usual formula.

Footnotes

  • James Thin was roundabout where the escalators are now. I think there is a branch of the Early Learning Centre there now. Not really sure.

Picture Credits

The cover picture falls under copyright, but hopefully is considered fair use, as it promotes said item. No infringement is intended, and it will be removed on request.

External Links

Quintin Jardine Official Webpage

QJ’s Wikipedia entry

Skinner’s Round (official)

Thursday Legends (official)