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Edinburgh is a Unesco ‘City of Literature’ – for an excellent reason

By October 8, 2018No Comments

Source : Business Standard WEEKEND

The Writers’ Museum proves an effective springboard for learning about the varied backgrounds, lives and skills of Scott, Burns and Stevenson

Irish comedian and actor has lived in since 1999, choosing it over London where you are forced to live in a “paper cup at the bottom of somebody else’s garden in Balham”. I watched him perform his latest special, Dr Cosmos, with all its surreal and poetic flourishes at a theatre in the British capital, where I had, of course, been staying in student accommodation roughly the size of an industrial elevator. It prompted me that very weekend to board a train to the Scottish metropolis, which in no small way had inspired Moran’s superlative 2000 sitcom, Black Books, about the misadventures of a curmudgeonly bookshop owner.

The four hours and half on the train, where large windows livestreamed tranquil meadows and countryside, were a significant improvement over the time it typically takes to check into a gloomy Ryanair flight. The busy railway station in Edinburgh, named after Walter Scott’s Waverley novels, appeared to neatly showcase the city’s breezy temperament and gift for architecture. On the nearby road, men, women and horses had dressed up to commemorate the centuries-old tradition of protecting towns from encroachment by English troops, reiterating Scotland’s uneasy past.

Later, unprompted, some locals offered a surprising word of advice to “skip the castle”, suggesting its payoffs were quite limited for the £19 entry fee. So I hiked, free of charge, instead to “Arthur’s Seat” in the rolling Holyrood Park, where it was possible to take in the breathtaking skyline and plan the mere two days I had there.

Many things about Scotland stand out — the colourful kilts and bagpipes, the history with Vikings, whisky, haggis, the Loch Ness Monster. Of particular interest to me was its long-standing penchant for writing and humour. It is no WhatsApp fable that Unesco counts among its “Cities of Literature”, for its nurturing of such greats as the lovelorn poet and wordsmith R L Stevenson, and more recently hosting authors including creator J K Rowling and crime writer Ian Rankin.

The Writers’ Museum proves an effective springboard for learning about the varied backgrounds, lives and skills of Scott, Burns and Stevenson. It contains their manuscripts, photographs and personal items ranging from the curious, like Scott’s chess set and a lock of his hair, to the delightful, such as handwritten records that Burns maintained while working as an exciseman. Just outside this museum is the Makars’ Court monument, where famous lines by classic and contemporary Scottish writers are etched on flagstones.

The city’s numerous bookshops, housing collections bigger than their bodies, was reason enough to plan a sojourn. The people who ran them were of a much less rumpled and bitter disposition than Moran’s fictional character, Bernard Black. Students and artistic types thronged the aisles and asked for obscure titles. Rummaging the bargain bins at Till’s secondhand store is highly recommended, as is looking through its selection of vintage posters, film journals, comic books and vinyls. The antiquarian Armchair Books, or the charity shop Barnardo’s, are fine places for collectible editions of Scottish classics.

Not all of is straight out of a pristine First-World postcard, though. Alcoholism is a serious problem, and the drunken excesses of the night become apparent in the morning as pools of vomit dry in some of the city’s “closes” and “twists” (close-set and crooked alleys, respectively). So the city’s erstwhile nickname, Auld Reekie, which was born because the lake Nor’ Loch used to take in effluents and “reek”, still holds at times. This is something that guides of walking tours mention in self-deprecation, a staple of Scottish humour.

For most of a month every year, all major shops and establishments in Edinburgh turn into venues for the “Fringe” festival, considered a make-or-break event for aspiring stand-up comedians. Open mic nights happen throughout the year, however, and the most popular among them is “Red Raw”, hosted every Monday by a basement establishment, Stand Comedy Club, where new and seasoned comics alike test out their material. The audience, which must patiently queue for as long as 30 minutes, is a mix of locals and tourists, although South Asians might feel rather conspicuous here. Some comics come in simply for research; one of them, I noticed, filled a yellow notepad through the night, the glass of wine at his table mostly untouched.

The lineup that evening featured a dozen comics, including from Canada and Australia, who broached topics of sexuality, mental health and disability, with varying degrees of success. Less pressing subjects were covered, too, as one comedienne from the remote Orkney Islands wondered, apologetically, if her jokes about sheep and chickens would resonate with audiences beyond northern Scotland.

A highlight of the night was another Scottish comic’s attempt at Brexit-themed gallows humour: “I request anyone from Britain in the audience to please ‘remain’ seated. If you ‘leave’, then for some reason, we have to, too.”


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