Waverley Books, 7.99
The Edinburgh Literary Companion
by Andrew Lownie
Auld Reekie: An Edinburgh Anthology
selected by Ralph Lownie
Timewell Press, 12.99
by Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Rankin and Irvine Welsh introduced by JK Rowling
Edinburgh: A Miscellany
compiled by Julia Skinner
Francis Frith Collection, 5.99
CHRISTMAS AND HOGMANAY CLING TO Edinburgh perfectly; theirs is a seasonal match designed and written in heaven. A publisher's dream. Outside, in the purlieu of the city, in Leith or Bruntsfield, in Cramond or Colinton, down the byways of the New Town, among the Old Town's wynds and closes, the salt wind whips itself to life; a heavenly swirl of tumble-dried snowflakes fills the haloes of the street lamps. Here is the stage-set against which the murmur of indoor life takes on a studious, readerly, almost Victorian, raptness as drams and tomes are consumed by firelight and ghosts are summoned, welcomed, fted: Stevenson, Conan Doyle, Scott, Barrie, MacCaig and behind them the live and kicking, modern, Johnny-come-latelies: Rankin, Rowling, Welsh, McCall Smith. A seasonal wordfest. A Scottish kyst.
Well, Scottish mostly.
Of these five, seasonally marketed, yet all-year-round reads, A Sense of Place is the single exception to the "Edinburgh" rule. It celebrates Scotland in near-totality, (cities included), offering 25 wide-ranging essays, each of them telescoped over corners of the country, from Assynt to Lanarkshire to the Solway, each place held dear. The most resonant of these pieces evokes not merely a sense of place, but the sense of sensation of place - a force-field mingling history and locale, with imagination filtered through memory, or vice-versa.
A clinging seductiveness fills the lovely "Our Secret Spaces - Campsie Fells" by David McVey, which teeters perfectly on the brink of being effusive, but keeps its feet - a feature that typifies much of the sometimes nostalgic writing throughout the collection.
Then again, "in every Eden there is a serpent", as Bill MacKenzie points out in "Farm Boy" - a balancing sharpness found in Paul Johnston's "Infinite Scotland" and Susan Mansfield's "A Magical History Tour of Edinburgh", delightful for its playfulness and wit as the past is glimpsed from the stony present and ugly modernity squeezes history's lumpen gargoyles.
Here and there the spoken voice - as in "Whuppity Scoorie" by Henry Shanks - makes a poignant reference that stops you in your tracks, or something homespun is given universal weight. It's "the way things are said," writes Janis Mackay in "Held up to the Light", the voices, the names, the sounds of a place that give us our sense of it, our homecoming. Whether you choose to read it in Scotland, or abroad, at night or by day, or in sobriety, A Sense of Place infuses, at its finest, a light-headed, wry intoxication that makes it absorbing.
The same is true of the latest edition of Andrew Lownie's The Edinburgh Literary Companion and, to a lesser extent, of Auld Reekie: An Edinburgh Anthology, by Lownie senior, published last year, but peculiarly timeless. Ralph Lownie's Auld Reekie, an anthology of telling, pithy, evocative reflections on the city's chequered history and life, on its village entrails, its tribulations, its towns old and new - where famous visitors (Thackeray, Burns, Carnegie and Wordsworth) left their calling-card-quotations in prose and verse - is a kind of ticker-tape of Edinburgh incarnate over five centuries. From the scholarly to the vernacular to the heretofore unpublished, torchbeams of scrutiny mingle with echoes in different accents. Lownie even quotes his son's Literary Companion describing Milne's Bar - one of the many excerpts gleaned from a range of sources that are included in both books.
Unlike The Literary Companion, Auld Reekie comes without glossy photographs. Here all the pictures bloom entirely inside our heads. From John Wesley's journals to Chiang Yee's travelogue ("The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh"), to Betjeman's appraisal of "the most beautiful city in Europe" to Richard Demarco's questions - "Why is Edinburgh not at least as well known as Paris? Why has Edinburgh not produced her Pizarro, her Monet?" - one finds a startled, sometimes amused and often inquisitive, yet beguiled, appreciation of the city. Dorothy Wordsworth's inclusion exemplifies Lownie's laconic sense of humour: "Drove to the White Hart in the Grassmarket ... Drank tea, and walked up to the Castle, which luckily was very near. Much of the daylight was gone, so that except it had been a clear evening, which it was not, we could not have seen the distant prospect."
Then, under the heading "Boys Will Be Boys" he wryly includes, from "Annals of Edinburgh", a reference to the shooting of a magistrate during the riots at the High School in troubled 1595. Did the magistrate die, was the boy arrested? We are not told, but, like all good snippets, this one brims over itself with suggestive possibilities. It ricochets with life. Alas, in the section "A Final Tribute" there are inclusions that brim with platitude. Was inertia - a drastic full stop - this shrewd anthologist's stealthy objective? If so, Dwight D Eisenhower and Joseph Patrick Kennedy (the father of JFK), have nailed the book to its final rest.
There is little rest in Lownie Jrs The Edinburgh Literary Companion. Despite its use of the definite article this is not a definitive guide. It is, however, as near to a pocket-sized, comprehensive introduction to the "literary" city as might reasonably be sought.
In excess of 500 novels have taken the city as their backdrop (100 of them published since 1990), and Lownie encapsulates the flavour of much of their coverage. In essentials this is a walking guide which maps an intricate, footsteps-trek through the literary and geographical byways of, consecutively, the Old Town, the University Quarter, the New Town, the Villa Quarters and sundry Edinburgh Villages. Barely a stair, a close, a church, a palace or graveyard has been omitted.
Lownie writes as though this heartland is still alive with the shades of infamy and tragedy, and his route in each case is as practical and sequential as might conceivably be devised. It is so well written that its pleasure is doubled. Reading it far from the city itself provided the instant flashback-reward of evoking old journeys, with added perceptions and new revelations. Lownie performs an almost archaeological feat, to which he appends swift thumbnail sketches of many writers, plus lists of "Edinburgh" novels, collections of stories and volumes of verse, together with websites to guide us through Rebus-land and pub tours. A perfect gift for the book buff at large.
NOT INCLUDED IN LOWNIE'S COMPANION is One City, three snapshot-versions of Auld Reekie that vary from the douce to surreal. Neither the finest of tales, nor the worst of tales, they fail to exhibit their authors at their sharpest. McCall Smith's "The Unfortunate Fate of Kitty da Silva" portrays the start of an Indian doctor's sojourn in Edinburgh. He is advised of racist beatings. "We keep to ourselves," a fellow Indian advises. Despite this the doctor begins a friendship with a young woman, a strangely sterile affair. Neither he, nor she, nor the world of the university which he inhabits, come alive. It reads like a blueprint tailored to signal the plight of the stranger. A touch programmatic.
This could not be said of "Showtime" by Ian Rankin, in which a Big Issue seller, beguiled by the world of illusion and magic tricks, takes on the guise of Tiger the trickster-entertainer. Again, at the heart of the tale is the sense of the individual placed on the margins, while the story itself exemplifies, in its narrative, the deceptiveness of a world in which all is not as it appears. But "Showtime" is curiously thin, as if written too swiftly; the central character's inner life lacks the basic richness to make us connect.
In "Murrayfield (you're having a laugh)" Irvine Welsh fares rather better with the story of a tiger eating its way through a quiet estate until it meets its criminal owner and bites off more than it can chew. Comic darkness provides the plot's illumination, Welsh's vernacular does the rest.
But best of all is the introduction to the book by JK Rowling, a personal testament to her difficult pre-Harry Potter days in the city she now calls home.
She writes with candour about her struggle, a literal tussle for survival as "a single-mother, broke and jobless", who understood, and still understands, that the fate of others was, and is, worse. The OneCity Trust - which stands to benefit from publication of this collection - must be very grateful for Rowling's eloquence.
Finally, Edinburgh: A Miscellany, compiled by Julia Skinner, is a stocking filler, bolstered by dozens of photographs from the Francis Frith Collection. Some of its details are at odds with those purveyed within Auld Reekie. Take your pick. It is, as it claims, a brief glimpse, no more, of the city's "fascinating characters and events". Most of its pictures are monumental if not momentous. Its text is lean and economical - as is its price.