Catcalling the Capital

WHO would have thought it possible? Maisie, the cat from Morningside, has untypically been baring her claws and the city of Edinburgh - along with some of the people who run it - have deep scratches to show for it.

In reality, it’s the author of the big-selling Maisie children’s books, Aileen Paterson, who’s doing the caterwauling, but she’s so upset by the state of Edinburgh that she’s sent Maisie across the pond to New York for her latest fun-filled adventure.

"So many things have broken down in Edinburgh," she wails, "that there are days when you feel that the whole system is tottering, that it will get to the stage of complete anarchy."

There’s nothing of the anarchist about Aileen’s persona. Not on the surface. "I fell in love with Edinburgh when I was a student at art college and I still feel the same way," she stresses, almost in the same breath.

She is, rather, piping up as an ordinary citizen. She’s vigilant and responsible, she says.

We are in the cluttered lounge of her two-room garden flat in Abbeyhill’s "colonies". With no need for prompting, she is ranting about the Capital. So many aspects need addressing and in so many instances nothing is being done.

"Edinburgh seemed so much more solid, more Scottish when I was a student in the 50s. This city council is so fortunate in that the city is so beautiful. But see what they and their predecessors have done to it and what they are trying to do to it. Fortunately they can’t dig up Princes Street Gardens - they would if they could.

"The underground shopping mall palaver rears its ugly head every so often. Who wants to shop underground in Princes Street? Look at the street as it is, one of the most beautiful in the world, we keep hearing. Always there are shops to let, quite a few large shops empty, and temporary lets selling rubbish.

"I remember Eric Milligan was in New York and maybe it was diplomatic of him to say he does his Christmas shopping there. ‘We go shopping at Christmas in New York’ . . . well, lucky you! If you want to boost Edinburgh shops, shop here."

Ironically her creation Maisie is currently going down a storm in the Big Apple. New Yorkers seemingly can’t get enough of the Morningside cat and thousands of copies of Maisie Goes To Hollywood and Maisie’s Merry Christmas have vanished from the city’s bookshops.

Maisie Bites the Big Apple is the 24th adventure for the kitten from "the tiny farm in a distant glen" who came to the posh Edinburgh suburb of Morningside more than 20 years ago. She was created after Aileen’s 11-year-old son, Max, died of leukemia in 1980, as the former art teacher tackled her grief by drawing.

This time Maisie is involved in a crime caper featuring a haughty opera singer and a thief called Salami Sam. Aileen says she stopped working on the book after September 11: "I checked my skyline drawings for the twin towers but thankfully I hadn’t put them in."

It’s not the first time Maisie’s been abroad - Japan and Paris have also been visited by the furry feline - but, like Aileen, her heart is in Edinburgh.

And Aileen is just warming to her theme. "When I’m in Austria or elsewhere on the Continent, the cities are as beautiful as they ever were, why not here? There’s a feeling of a kind of impermanence. Can you imagine the traffic congestion if they started drilling to make an underground shopping centre in Princes Street?

"I can go on," she says, and does. "Pavements - chewing gum’s everywhere. A few years ago I suddenly looked down and found these freckles everywhere, flattened blobs of gum. Too many inconsiderate citizens just spit it out and I wish they’d ban the stuff altogether.

"The Government should outlaw chewing gum, make it no longer available.

"The streets are dirty all right, but I blame the citizens. My street, a cul-de-sac, is swept once a week but we have a lot of fast-food shops here and we have the hoi poloi dropping litter from the kebab shop, the Chinese takeaway, the fish and chip shop and the late-night grocer. The temptation is to just chuck it.

"How do you enforce consideration for the environment? My son, in his 30s, says London, where he lives, isn’t perfect but he finds Princes Street so depressing. It’s gone downhill fast in five years, he feels."

She adds: "I drive but I don’t keep a car. There are loads of buses. For long journeys I hire a car. The proposed 2 toll on drivers coming into town is an utter nonsense, it’s just going to antagonise drivers.

"I’d like to see a decent tram system, as on the Continent, where the tram has right of way. In Glasgow, they’ve knocked down houses to build concrete highways, but it’s choc-a-bloc too."

Choc-a-bloc like this Abbeyhill flat. Room enough, though, for Maisie and her creator as well as two wally dugs in the fireplace. "There’s too much bric-a-brac and jumble, maybe, but I moved here 17 years ago from a big Georgian flat in Leith, after my partner died in a car crash, and I brought so much stuff with me. I suppose I’m magpieish. I give away bits to Oxfam."

Aileen, with Maisie’s apparent approval (or relief?), pauses to draw breath. "I’m turning into one of these disgusted colonels who writes to the papers. Not Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, rather Appalled of Abbeyhill.

"Okay, call me a grumpy lady, a harridan. But I’m quite happy being a harridan. I come from a long line of harridans. Listen, a lot of my Maisie books are in praise of Edinburgh. I make fun of pan loaf Morningside ladies, as Maisie’s readers well know. But that’s done with affection.

"Actually I’m a Fifer, Burntisland-born, but I lived in Morningside’s Maxwell Street while my kids went to primary school and from there I moved to Leith."

Then she’s off again. "What’s happening to Edinburgh’s wonderful buildings? We’re losing the old infirmary, replaced by offices and more flats. I’m not happy with what they propose to do with that huge, most desirable piece of land from Lauriston down to the Meadows.

"I thought Scotland’s economy was on the wane, so who’s going to move into all those offices being slapped up? Offices are the new rock ’n’ roll. Everywhere you look they’re springing up - big glass edifices.

"And right now the city is festooned with scaffolding and plastic wrap . . . Rose Street, Leith Street, bits of Princes Street, the old GPO. I don’t expect any modern city to stay as it was 50 years ago but, as I say, so much seems impermanent, in a continual state of flux.

"I’m glad to see something being done with the GPO, such a handsome building before it was afflicted with green mould, with plants growing out of it. This is a country with a postal service that has fallen apart. A city of Edinburgh’s standing should have a proper GPO, like other cities do. A group of Italians asked me: ‘Where is the post office?’ and I directed them to a tiny Formica office in the shopping mall across the road.

"I’d like to see the Government and the local council, whatever their political views, show common sense. It’s a wonderful attribute but it doesn’t seem to prevail. If you’ve got authorities with no aesthetic sensibilities, keeping an eye on things, you’ve no chance."

At least Aileen and Maisie are there to keep an eye out. Mind you, can you blame a cat for getting away from it all when her creator is having kittens about what’s happening to Edinburgh?

Maisie Bites the Big Apple, out now, published by Glowworm, priced 4.99