I was on a No 24 bus travelling through the Meadows when I read the news: Edinburgh had been voted the best city in Britain. Right at that moment, gazing across this fine public park though the heat haze, it was hard to disagree. Sunbathers basked, children yelped with glee, the queue for the tennis courts almost matched that for the ice cream van, hot-pants got a first outing of the year, office workers removed jackets and revved up barbecues, mums fed babies in unison in a circle on the grass – and bare-chested students played a game of 50-a-side football, attempting overhead kicks from halfway in the finest undergraduate tradition.
Then – whap! – my bus hit a giant hole in the road. Now I was wondering who compiled those stupid surveys. How comprehensive were they? Were they even remotely scientific? Who were the respondents – incomers or tourists or a non-rigorous mix of both? Were they even asked what they thought of the city’s world-class potholes?
I love Edinburgh. I must do, I’ve lived here all my life. But those who don’t know it that well – perhaps working in London and living a hellish strap-hangingcommute away and encouraged by such surveys to relocate – should be aware that it isn’t perfect. The old duchess’s petticoats are voluminous and can hide many potholes, real and metaphorical.
Yes, Edinburgh has a tram system, but the £776 million question is: why? No-one uses it, or no-one I know, and I know lots of Edinburghers. It doesn’t go anywhere, apart from along a more or less straight line from the airport to the east end of the city centre. It’s not a sexy bullet like trams in Japan and elsewhere. It sounds its bell, muted after complaints, in a self-conscious manner, as if to say: “Sorry the system took so long to arrive, sorry shops on the route went out of business during the delay – and, yes, sorry about the route which, I agree, does seem of most benefit to staff at the big bank building at the Gyle who thought they might spend their bonuses on chic new waterfront apartments in Leith, although if it’s any consolation, the bank went bust, the snell east wind howls through these unfinished flats and the line never made it down as far as them anyway.”
Edinburgh, unique in many ways, is not unique in them all. It can do gargantuan mince-for-brains municipal vanity-projects like other duller, less beautiful cities. One of the ways it is unique is in having a celebration of the arts that is of world renown, or at least this was the reputation of the Edinburgh Festival back in the 1970s when brutalist shopping centres were erected and “kinetic sculptures” were supposed to light up at every whim of that wind but rarely did – only the opera house never got built.
The empty Castle Terrace site became Edinburgh’s most notorious pothole until being snapped up by the voracious financial sector. For a while the Festival continued to attract top performers who remembered how it had been established with the aim of helping heal the world after the Second World War – and then some of them stopped coming, unwilling to put up with its basic facilities any more. The high-art drawbridge was lowered and stand-up comedians thundered across, many from England, who only needed a room in which to hang a black drape and plug in a mic to tell us how much we loved eating deep-fried confectionery. No-one calls our Festival “elitist” anymore; meanwhile rival cities continue to grow theirs with daring programmes.
Edinburgh’s cultural panoply extends to its senior football teams. The slightly bigger of the two likes to lord it over the neighbour, in common with clubs everywhere, but it is the other one which is the special case – the basket-case, as other lot would have it, which drives its supporters demented and then to the grave, without having the chance to see them win the Scottish Cup. As luck would have it, this is the team I follow. At my age, I should have put away such futile pursuits and discovered opera. Well, there’s a good reason why that never happened. But – hey-ho – my team have reached the final again.
The failure of its footballers, among many other perceived shortcomings, persuades a big, ruff, tuff place like Glasgow to claim that Edinburgh is not really a city at all and presumably therefore should be barred from taking part in surveys to find the best. No more than a big town, Glasgow will say – and full of big jessies. Show us your urban motorway! There was a plan for one – which would have crossed the Meadows on stilts and altered the view from my bus window somewhat – but in a visionary moment they’ve rarely matched since, the city fathers rejected it.
Sometimes the smallness of Edinburgh frustrates me, though this isn’t reflected in the cost of parking. I pay a small fortune for a permit which gets me nowhere near my front door and so the car is left in a snobby avenue where its at risk of being gouged, doubtless by the correct kind of fork for eating halibut.
The local fishmonger survives but every other shop is a charity shop and the one next door is an estate agent. Edinburgh’s obsession with property is matched only its obsession with schools. In my neighbourhood I know of parents who cheat the catchment-area rules to send their kids to what they believe to be the superior state primary, which they’ll almost certainly quit early for private secondary.
Across the road from my house is a rugby ground – venue of the first international, no less – which will probably end up a Tesco. Uptown, Princes Street is an embarrassment. Best city in Britain? Of course Embra is. But I’m not telling you what’s great about it, otherwise you’ll all want to move here.