Book review: Umbrellas of Edinburgh, eds. Russell Jones and Claire Askew

The Edinburgh skyline as seen from Calton Hill  PIC: Steven Scott Taylor
The Edinburgh skyline as seen from Calton Hill PIC: Steven Scott Taylor
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Alexander McCall Smith has famously described Edinburgh as “a city so beautiful it breaks the heart again and again.” That quote was carved into the walls of the new Atria office building near the EICC in 2013, and I usually allow myself a wry smile whenever I walk past it, the building in question being an edifice unlikely to break anybody’s heart with its beauty either now or at any point in the future. Still, McCall Smith’s words certainly apply to the city in general, if not that particular corner of it; in spite of some recent architectural misadventures, Edinburgh remains a beautiful place, and – to judge by the writing in Umbrellas Of Edinburgh – its beauty does indeed seem to have a melancholy quality.

It would be unfair to characterise this anthology of new writing about the capital, edited by Russell Jones and Claire Askew, as reflecting this melancholic aspect in its entirety – it’s far too multifaceted for that – but there is definitely a melancholy seam running through the book. Seventy writers were invited to “choose a location in Edinburgh and write about it”, either in poetry or prose, and in the work that results the mood is frequently elegiac, whether in Iyad Hayatleh’s catalogue of Edinburgh Airport partings, “Her Last Laugh,” or in Anne Ballard’s “Meeting Places” in which she notes sadly that the Nicholson Square fountain is “agley, its flower petals / won’t glisten with water again.” For Chris Powici, there’s even something a little sad about the city’s weather – he describes “the hurt, the heartsick Edinburgh wind”.

Perhaps one source of all this sweet sadness might be the fact that so much of Edinburgh’s history is still visible in its architecture – a constant reminder of all the lives lived here before, now ended. This sense of layers of history physically represented is explored in Peter Mackay’s response to the Union Canal, Colin Will’s wistful reflection on the changing cityscape of Tollcross and Christine De Luca’s “Behind The Scenes”, inspired by the Bedlam Theatre’s unhappy past as an asylum. There is work here that is more celebratory in tone – JL Williams, for instance, brings her characteristic energy and sensuality to “Making Love In Ferns”, an evocative vignette of a night spent in the Botanics. But the most effective piece in the collection, Douglas Bruton’s short story “A Man’s A Man For A’ That”, inspired by Lothian Road, is again bittersweet. Its hero Tam, a man coming to terms with the things he has lost, both encapsulates the experience of living in the city - his personal history etched into its streets - and transcends it.

*Umbrellas of Edinburgh, Eds. Russell Jones and Claire Askew, Freight, £9.99