Edinburgh. A city for old souls. The haunt of writers and ghosts of writers. Streets built upon the bones of something older, an open book where chapter titles are written with invisible ink.
Three days here was a dream. I watched, slowed to the pace of a curious wanderer. Forgot the things I’ve seen a thousand times. I let one of those blank chapters fall open in my hands and noted down what I saw.
Here is the fruit – one blustery September in Edinburgh, seen through the eyes of an autumn-souled writer.
A slow morning in the city
We awake in our loft bed to the soft, berry glow of fairy lights. A luminous September morning crowns the graves of the kirkyard opposite. Peaceful, unhurried mood. I pad about the tiny kitchen in pyjamas, making tea and coffee. Breakfast is pastries, porridge and writing wishes and observations in my notebook. It’s Monday and I feel like I have escaped something, savouring the morning from an atmosphere of dreams. This is the Edinburgh I want to know; a tiny flat with wooden floorboards and cracks in the ceiling, a quiet corner with a different rhythm, less manic and more homely.
Before leaving the flat I pack an old copy of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. Today, I decide, Edinburgh is Gormenghast, in all its gloomy, eccentric glory.
Afternoon of light & shadow
Outside the air is chill and golden. We approach the familiar from new angles and find a different city. I feel upside down. The Scott Monument is a staggering ode to Groan. Never have I seen so many crows, university black, accents ranging from wooden-croak to rusty gate. Each tenement, close and cobbled wynd is a page waiting to be turned. We linger on stone staircases, algaed with age. A young couple kiss at the bottom and disappear. A painter eats his pieces on the step. In another blink, he is gone. Folk take flight with the shadows, leaving nothing behind but spots of light. Blurs of colour streak the old town’s sober autumn coat. I am glad now for that still morning.
Edinburgh is a literary city, and the ghosts of Scott, Stevenson and Spark haunt me. What can I possibly say that has not been said before? I try to remember that all perspectives are valuable, and that today is not for saying anything at all. I’m just looking.
The other golden hours
Equilibrium is found in cafes and bookshops. Bottle the scent of musty pages and freshly ground coffee and I’d wear it all day. Outside it’s blowing a hoolie, so from a cosy nook on Cockburn Street we take shelter and watch the world slip by. The skoosh of a milk frother never fails to bring comfort on a chilly autumn day. I try to commit sentences to memory, having forgotten my notebook (!). I’m so often in my own head that turning attention outwards is a joyful relief that quickly turns addictive.
It’s a cliché but the more you look the more you see, and until this trip I had never really looked at Edinburgh. I’ve been visiting since I was wee, and now that Edinburgh is so iconic I see it almost daily on my Instagram feed. This creates expectations but perhaps also a blasé ‘seen it before’ attitude. However, as a writer in search of everyday magic I subscribe to Anais Nin’s belief that there is always more mystery.
We make the coffee last. I read lines from Gormenghast to suit the moody atmosphere of the day. Pictures are taken (a good substitute for a notebook) and once more we let the city swallow us. It reveals surprising things - a village of quaint calm on the outskirts of town; ornate marble and celestial splendour within the walls of a bank; craggy steps off Belford Road, a haunt for Steerpike.
11am and 4.30pm are the golden hours for cafes. Quiet enough to slow down, people watch, write or take photos. It’s hard to get your eye in if you feel like you are taking up a seat. Another benefit of arriving at a café half an hour before closing time is that you might become the recipient of a plum Danish that was going to be thrown out!
Stories by firelight
The autumnal night curls around us. Our flat has a wood-burning stove so it’s back into pyjamas to drink beer from champagne glasses in front of the fire. We talk about make-believe maps and all the places we want to visit in the next ten years. The radio cycles through classical, folk and jazz. No phone, no television, not even a book for distraction.
Sometimes life is not about rushing into the night seeking bigger and better experiences, it’s about going deeper with what you have, creating the atmosphere of creative reflection that’s necessary to breathe. Writing offers that opportunity but so does one-to-one conversation, observing the world and appreciating what is immediately around me. And I find that the more deeply I engage with life, slowing down to properly notice people and places, the more I grow as a writer.
Sitting in front of the fire reflecting is a form of writing too, I think. You cannot expect a place to hand you a story. You must watch, listen and then craft something out of your own personal experience. Impossible to do if you’re chasing someone else’s idea of fun.
Night descends. These day are moments, over too soon. I close my eyes and see a city under water, the ghoulish face of the Balmoral Hotel clock, an autumn day that smells of gold and streets transfigured blue under moon-spell. My intention was to ask nothing, to simply watch. Be curious and slow. The returning gift was a notebook full of words, impressions that leave a mark beyond the page.