44 Scotland Street: In the Cumberland Bar

Illustration by Iain McIntosh
Illustration by Iain McIntosh
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VOLUME 10, episode 64: ‘Do people have parties any more?” asked Matthew.

He was sitting in the Cumberland Bar with Angus Lordie and his dog, Cyril. Matthew and Angus were on bent-cane chairs round a small table, while Cyril lay contentedly under the table, one of his paws resting on his master’s foot in a gesture that, although entirely accidental, had a proprietary look to it. A few inches away from his head lay the small dish in which Cyril was served his ration of beer – no more than a few slurps really, but for Cyril the great treat of his life. He liked beer not for its intoxicating effect – and Cyril had only once been drunk, when he had been inadvertently served an excessive amount – but for the smell of hops. Rather like catmint, for which cats would readily commit murder, some dogs find it difficult to resist the smell of hops. Had they the vocabulary, dogs might say: the smell of canine heaven – a place of corners yet to be ­investigated by any other dog; the smell of the field unflushed of birds; the smell of an ancient cherished bone; the smell of loyalty and a warm fireside.

“Parties?” said Angus. “I suppose they do.”

“It’s just that there seem to be so few these days,” Matthew continued. ‘In the old days …”

“Ah,” said Angus, “the old days! How often do we say “the old days”?”

Matthew was undeterred. “In the old days, in Edinburgh, there were parties galore on Friday night. You heard them. If you walked along the street in a place like Marchmont you heard the parties going on. And then people who were a bit more – how shall I put it – “evolved” perhaps – they had dinner parties. ­People went round for dinner at other people’s flats.” He took a sip of his beer. “They just did.”

“Perhaps they still do,” said Angus. “It might just be that we’re not invited quite as much. Or not at all, maybe. Invitations decline, you know – not that that should affect people like you Matthew. How old are you? Thirty? If that.” He paused. “Of course, in your case it may have something to do with your having triplets. I think it probably makes a difference if you have triplets. People must hesitate to invite those who have triplets. They must say to themselves: they won’t be able to come to anything – now they have triplets.”

This conversation, conducted early on a Friday evening, seemed destined to take a melancholy turn, and would have done so, perhaps, had it not been for the arrival of Brian Taylor, a journalist and old friend of Angus’s. Joining them at their table, Brian looked at Angus and said, “Don’t ask me.”

Angus demurred. “Of course not.” 
But then said, “Don’t ask you what?”

“To analyse the situation.”

This brought a laugh from Matthew. “I understand. It must get a bit much.”

Angus smiled. “I was just about to ask you: What do you think of the old days?”

Brian smiled. “Oh, I think they were terrific. We had such fun in the old days. Didn’t you? When somebody says “the old days” I think of St Andrews. I suspect a lot of people do.”

“We each carry our particular old days within us,” observed Angus. “Even Cyril down there. He had quite a time – before he went to the vet. Remember those days, Cyril?”

Cyril looked up and flashed a grin. His gold tooth, inserted all those years ago by an obliging dentist who ­happened to be at a particularly raucous party in the Scottish Arts Club, momentarily caught the light.

“I have yet to find anybody,” said Matthew, “who disliked being at St ­Andrews.”

“They might have existed,” said Brian. “But I didn’t meet them.”

Angus nodded. “Art College dances,” he said, looking into his beer. “They were legendary. Parties that went on until … when however long was deemed necessary. Exhibitions that got people talking. The sense of the world’s possibilities.”

“Yes, it was full of possibilities,” said Brian. “It still is.”

“Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive,” muttered Matthew.

“I went to Dublin once,” said Angus. “Back in the old days …”

Brian smiled. “Ten years ago?”

“About that,” said Angus. “I went to a splendid bar – you know, one of those marvellous Dublin bars, complete with brewers’ mirrors and snugs and a barman with a white apron. Everything. This was called the Palace Bar – it was near Trinity. It had strong literary ­associations – they all went there, including Brian O’Nolan – or Flann O’Brien as called himself. Or Myles na gCopaleen. The funniest writer there ever was. His picture was on the wall.”

“And?” asked Matthew.

“Well, we went there,” Angus went on. “It was just me and a friend from Glasgow. We both had a painting in a show of contemporary Scottish art – or it was contemporary then – somehow I feel that nobody would regard me as contemporary today.”

“But you are contemporary, Angus,” said Brian, loyally. “It’s just that some people these days are a bit more contemporary than you. That’s all it is.”

“You’re very kind,” said Angus. “As ­always. But anyway, we had this ­wonderful conversation with somebody who worked for the Irish Times. It’s their bar, you see – their office isn’t far away. And he said: “There’s a party on at such and such a place. Would you care to come? He then said, “All the ­fellows will be there. Racing ­correspondent. Economics editor. Literary editor. All of them, so they will.” Those were his exact words. The Irish like to add things like “so they will” to what they say.”

“And this party?” pressed Matthew.

“Well, we said that we thought it would be a great idea. So we piled into a taxi and the Irish Times chap gave the driver the address. But the driver said, “But isn’t it a bit early to be going along to a party like that? Sure, wouldn’t you be better to going to another party first?” So the Irish Times chap said to him, ‘You wouldn’t happen to know of a better party, would you?’ And the driver said, ‘As it happens, I do. Should I be taking you fellows along there first?’”

Matthew was intrigued. “So you went?”

“Of course we did,” said Angus. “Those were the old days. You did that sort of thing.” He paused. “How about a party in Scotland Street? Right now? We’ll get a few people along.”

Matthew looked doubtful. “You’re married now, Angus. What about ­Domenica? Wives don’t like parties being sprung on them.”

“But we’ll invite her too,” said Angus. “Why should the Irish have all the fun?”

© 2015 Alexander McCall Smith

• Alexander McCall Smith welcomes comments from readers. Write to him c/o The Editor, The Scotsman, Level 7, Orchard Brae House, 30 Queensferry Road, Edinburgh, EH4 2HS or via e-mail at scotlandstreet@scotsman.com.