Gillian Glover: Edinburgh, a walk on the dark side

Edinburgh has certain 'Jekyll and Hyde' characteristics. Picture: Contributed
Edinburgh has certain 'Jekyll and Hyde' characteristics. Picture: Contributed
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Edinburgh may have been voted the most sensible of cities, but it has a hidden underbelly that belies its genteel image, writes Gillian Glover

Everyone has a favourite snapshot. I can picture yours now. Excellent hair day. Firm chin, dazzling smile, and slender as a tube of toothpaste. This is the Dorian Gray portrait which we all cherish, while age, gravity and chocolate Hob Nobs systematically rearrange the living reality. But it was only when announced the results of a new nationwide survey (see table below) that I realised whole cities could exhibit the same sort of vanity.

Was anyone shocked to learn that the citizens of Edinburgh are the most sensible people in Britain? I think not. And why? Because these same sensible citizens have been publicising their probity at every opportunity, and for so long, that the rest of us have finally accepted the propaganda.

Memorable moments in Edinburgh financial history may necessarily include the Darien disaster and Fred Goodwin’s calamities at Royal Bank of Scotland, but as soon as we hear a douce Edinburgh accent in a television advert, we know that someone is trying to sell us the notion of carefully-managed money.

Caution, restraint, prudence. These are the qualities that Edinburgh has chosen for itself. (Glasgow made a rather different selection.) Do the sparrows in Morningside really go “tut-tut” instead of “tweet-tweet”? The residents certainly hope so. To paraphrase Rupert Brook, these are people “magnificently prepared for the long littleness of life” for the simple reason that they are acting the part.

Edinburgh is not a “fur coat and nae knickers” city at all, despite the mutterings from the other end of the M8. It’s more a tweed coat and scandalous scanties sort of place. The evidence has been accumulating for centuries. We may celebrate the genteel elegance of an Edinburgh dinner party today, but the “golden age” 18th century model, as attended by those heroes of the Enlightenment, Lord Kames, David Hume, William Fergusson and any of the “50 men of genius” said to be within arm’s reach of anyone standing in the High Street, was a rather more robust occasion.

Alcohol flowed in truly formidable quantities. Courtesy required the host to offer a toast to each guest in turn. The guests then each did the same. Consequently, as Henry Cockburn noted in his journal, a dinner party of ten involved drinking 90 toasts – and this at the end of a meal, during which claret would have been served unstintingly. So, temperance was never considered an essential aspect of intellectual debate in the city. “Just a very small one” is a phrase that must have demanded a great deal of practice in the intervening years.

Trainline did not base its questionnaire on the nation’s drinking habits, however. It was more concerned about sleep patterns, financial planning, and how often respondents consulted the weather forecast before leaving the house. It was replies to these questions and not the remarkable redemption from 18th century dining debauchery that led to Edinburgh’s winning the not-exactly-coveted title of Britain’s most sensible city.

And I must say I was looking forward to confirmation that Glasgow, the city of my own birth, had lived up to its own vigorous self-promotion as the least sensible. But no; unaccountably that dubious accolade went to Bristol.

Now, this is quite distressing. What little I know about Bristol is comfortingly straightforward. If one wishes to be admired in nautical circles, one should aspire to the Bristol fashion.(I regret I had to look this up to discover that wide tidal variation means that Bristol ships will often lie aground, and, therefore, their tackle must be extra-carefully stowed). If a city lends its name to a ship-shape methodical style, it is very annoying indeed for it to then be revealed as Britain’s least sensible metropolis. What use are stereotypes if we permit them to be so easily eroded?

Clearly, they understand this in Aberdeen, which came second to Edinburgh in the league of sensibleness. Aberdonians, I’m sure you know, are famed for a certain thriftiness.

American travel writer Paul Theroux acknowledged this after a visit to the city which delighted him so much he wrote: “An Aberdonian is a person who would get down on his knees to retrieve a penny from a dunghill with his teeth.” Such a memorable image, but for some reason Theroux has not been invited to return to the city. The poor chap has to make do with living in Hawaii.

I’m not really clear where Hawaians slot into the international league of prudent citizenry, but my guess is that sensible would not be the first adjective that leaps to your mind on reading Honolulu on an airport destination board.

And those first responses are important. This was one of the few aspects of geography that George W Bush truly understood. Any time he wanted to terrify Republican middle America, he only had to say “San Francisco values” and he could make an entire room shudder.

Of course, it takes both time and effort to achieve this sort of instant recognition, and it should be remembered that the effects can dissipate very quickly. Threaten an English comedian with a week playing Glasgow today and he probably wouldn’t even weep. It would take the mention of Cowdenbeath or Kirkcaldy to prompt any real begging.

Quite simply, Glasgow has allowed its mean city reputation to flag and nobody over the age of six is scared of it any more. It’s a dreadful shame, and Edinburgh should really take note if it wants to continue playing the role of the nation’s elderly auntie.

There’s the distracting superfluity of festivals to consider for a start. How sensible is it to host the world’s largest arts jamboree year after year? Some might say that all this fun is balanced out by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, but a small measure of dolefulness may not be sufficient to quash accusations of frivolity.

Then there’s the crime. It is an unfortunate fact that writers such as Ian Rankin and Kate Atkinson have caused all the classy crime fiction to migrate from Glasgow and settle in the capital. Edinburgh’s dark side is spreading like a stain.

These are dangerous characteristics for a city so dedicated to propriety, however recent that preference. The 17th century English traveller William Brereton described the Edinburgh populace as “the most sluttish, nasty and slothful” that he’d met.

But that was before the New Town was built and the great rebranding of the capital began. Were he to return now, he could choose to stay with the same fearful Mr Hyde that he met before, or move in with that nice Dr Jekyll. A very sensible chap. Doesn’t get out much, though.