Why I lament transformation of Stockbridge into scene from Richard Curtis movie – Aidan Smith

Aidan Smith lived in Stockbridge, recently ranked as the least deprived area in Scotland, for five decades and remembers it fondly as a more ‘edgy’ neighbourhood.

In days gone by, this area of Edinburgh seemed a lot edgier to Aidan Smith (Picture: Neil Hanna)
In days gone by, this area of Edinburgh seemed a lot edgier to Aidan Smith (Picture: Neil Hanna)

At the Sunday market, the pheasant-burgers were flying off the shelves. No one was being stung by the nettle moisturiser’s asking price and hot cakes – warmed-up croissants with whisky-laced marmalade, organic of course – were selling like the proverbial.

The beautiful people were out in force, snuggle-buggled up against the cold as they moved round the stalls – at least when their £900 Canada Goose jackets and voluminous scarves weren’t causing a blockage in the lanes. It looked like a scene from a Richard Curtis movie and no one happening across it could have been surprised that Edinburgh’s Stockbridge had just been named the least deprived community in Scotland.

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Meanwhile, I was trying to remember what the place was like when it was plain and humble Stockaree. On the site of the market there used to be tenements which were pulled down in the 1960s amid high excitement. Kids walking to school for more arithmetic, semolina and the belt had never seen a wrecking-ball do its thing before.

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Across the street was a toy shop which only seemed to sell plastic and tin weaponry. We were all desperate to own a Johnny Seven – “Seven guns in one … let’s count ’em!” went the ad – but my pocket money would only stretch to a flame-thrower for Action Man. This did nothing, of course, least of all shoot fire. Essentially, as my father would teasingly point out, Action Man was dressing-up dollies for boys. But I never got the accessory home as I was jumped by the Cumbie Street gang and had it nicked.

Enviouos, acquisitive and smug

Half a century ago, Stockbridge probably wouldn’t have figured quite so high on the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) which puts it top of the pops while Greenock languishes in bottom place. Fifty-odd years ago, viewed from the perspective of a fur-trimmed Canada Goose hood, you would have called Stockbridge “edgy”. No one used such terminology then, of course. Wherever was home you simply got on as best you could with living, learning which streets to avoid. Now, though, we’re obsessed with league tables and where we figure in them. We crave surveys which tell us how much better we’re doing than some poor schmucks. We get to enjoy European football; they suffer relegation.

SIMD is supposed to highlight which communities need more help to alleviate poverty and you really hope it fulfills this function. But there are critics who argue it’s flawed, that in high-density areas well-off families can be ranked as deprived, enabling them to play the system.

Should it be published, though? Or rather, why is it published in full? We should know which areas are at the wrong end and they shouldn’t feel any embarrassment about this. But what’s to be gained from listing the least deprived? If a newspaper turns round the findings and calls Stockbridge the most affluent – not The Scotsman, but a rival title did this – then SIMD starts to read like one of those frivolous lifestyle studies or deeply unscientific reports into property trends. Result? More envy, more acquisitiveness, more smugness.

I don’t live in Stockbridge anymore. The family suddenly got bigger and we couldn’t afford the larger house we needed. Did I, for the best part of five decades, enjoy the best of it? I’m not going to claim that for fear of being seen as smug but it was certainly different.

How to pronounce Stockbridge

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There wasn’t a branch of Farrow & Ball offering the on-trend, must-have paint colour called Economy Mince, but we had a flea-pit cinema with lax usherettes so we could hide under the seats and watch Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC, fighting T-Rex in a fur bikini, many times over.

Where once there was artisan housing along the Water of Leith – trim dwellings built for the working-class by philanthropists – now there are many opportunities to buy artisan bread and coffee from men in beards who don’t seem to be able to afford socks so that’s a link with the past, I suppose.

For those of us growing up in EH4 – when everyone pronounced Stockbridge with the emphasis on the first syllable rather than the second which is the incomers’ way – a rite-of-passage was Madam Doubtfire’s second-hand clothes emporium. Were you brave enough to venture into the basement blackness, down among the mangy cats? Could you ask for something the stone-faced proprietress patently didn’t stock, like a Johnny Seven gun or Cremola Foam? Then could you run away before she hurled her clay pipe at you?

She wasn’t Stockbridge’s only ‘madam’. For 30-odd years, Dora Noyce was in the rather different business of running a brothel in Danube Street which was hugely popular with sailors dropping anchor at Leith.

Some time after she died, when one of my four Stockbridge addresses was just round the corner, I would be stopped by panting men in full naval uniform looking for an Edinburgh attraction every bit as renowned on the high seas as the Tattoo.

Gradually Danube Street pulled up its knickers and became respectable. Cumbie Street reverted back to Cumberland Street and the toerags stopped dropping penny bangers in the metal dustbins of New Town residents further up the hill.

Gentrification has smoothed away much of Stockbridge’s supposed edginess and there are estate agents on every corner. A couple of old-skool pubs hang on, as does the hardware shop where the welcome is just as challenging as Madam Doubtfire. But even the river is respectable now, no longer capable since flood prevention measures of flattening the Antony Gormley statue near to the site of the market.

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I do miss Stockbridge, but only when it was affluent in local colour, a shade you cannot buy in Farrow & Ball.