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“There really aren’t any plaques around for these things. If you were gonna put a plaque up everywhere in Edinburgh Rabbie Burns got drunk you’d need five thousand of them, and there ain’t anyone’s got that kinda money.”
On Saturday I went with a group of students from my residence on a literary pub crawl around Edinburgh. The tour was led by Allan Foster, the author of The Literary Traveller in Edinburgh and The Literary Traveller in Scotland. He greeted us on the Royal Mile, then took us to a tiny pub called The Royal Oak often frequented by Ian Rankin, author the hugely popular Inspector Rebus novels. If this little pub had been completely empty when we got there we still probably wouldn’t have all fit in.
The locals responded with slightly hostile bewilderment when thirty students came to loiter in the doorway and take turns to shuffle to the bar to buy a pint. “What? Did you all just get off a bus or somthin’?”
First stop after The Royal Oak was the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, where Arthur Conan Doyle studied with Doctor Bell, the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. Right behind that is a building where Charles Darwin studied, which is right next to the private medical school where Burke and Hare sold the bodies of their victims for dissection (the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story The Body Snatchers), the same building that Stevenson visited to see a friend recovering from a leg amputation. A man who became the inspiration for Long John Silver, probably the world’s most famous fictional pirate.
Then we headed over to a pub called The Maltings, previously frequented by a Scots language poetry collective. Inside we found Ian Rankin. Unsurprisingly Rankin didn’t introduce himself to our gaggle of literary tourists, but stayed hunched over the bar with two wizened looking men who looked like they could have easily been the inspiration for the cranky, drunken detectives from his books. He didn’t participate in the Hens’ night karaoke either.
We then ambled through George Square, the heart of the University of Edinburgh’s main campus, where Sir Walter Scott lived and Alexander McCall Smith was first published. We heard stories about J.K. Rowling, J.M. Barrie and the world’s favourite bad poet William McGonagall.
The tour was great fun. I really couldn’t be studying English Literature any place better than Edinburgh.
Reading The Scotsman over breakfast on Wednesday morning I noticed a report on a new craze sweeping Scottish university campuses – drinking (or imbibing I suppose) vodka by pouring a shot straight into one’s eyeball to allow alcohol to enter the blood stream directly through the capillaries of the eye. The possible side effect? Permanent blindness.
Welcome to Scotland.
Later that morning I went over to the National Museum in the old town, a large new building between the University of Edinburgh Old College and Greyfriars Kirkyard. The museum has many interesting exhibits on early Scottish, royal and military history, but what I found most amusing were the upper floors, devoted to the place of Scotland in the modern world.
Various exhibits cover everything from Scottish inventions to Scottish airlines and covering the careers of any famous people who were born in Scotland, lived in Scotland, visited Scotland, or even had the vaguest fondness for tartan.
One of the funniest displays was a case displaying a pink women’s suit – caption reads:
Suit. Paris, 1931. Fabric may have been sourced from one of Scotland’s many wool mills.
The one thing not glossed over with lashings of Scottish pride were the rather depressing health statistics for the country. In some areas of Scotland average life expectancy is as low as 57 for men and 59 for women. Even for the overall population life expectancy figures are some of the lowest in Europe. The exhibit attributed this to the high incidence of smoking, poor diet and alcohol abuse (through the eyeballs too now).
Self destruction seemed to be theme of the day, as that night I trotted off to see Matthew Bourne’s new ballet, Matthew Bourne’s Dorian Gray (Bourne’s branding of his own name is very comprehensive) based very loosely on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. I was excited to see it having heard about Bourne’s version of Swan Lake with all male swans (and hadn’t made the mental connection that he was also responsible for the ridiculous looking dance adaptation of the film Edward Scissorhands that toured to the Sydney Opera House in May).
This year I’ve seen my fair share of very well intentioned, but nonetheless awkward and unsatisfying dance. Dorian Gray was the opposite. Brilliant dance based on a slightly dull concept. That might not be entirely fair. Wilde’s novel is potentially a great inspiration for dance, but the way it was translated by Bourne into a story about the faults of hedonistic celebrity culture was a bit disappointing. In this ballet Dorian is scouted by a photographer to become the face of a new fragrance “Immortal”. Sex, drugs and ballet follow.
I happened to be seated in a cheap seat at the back of the stalls behind a group of high school students. I don’t think I’ve ever actually heard school-girls titter before, but some of the more adult content of the ballet seemed to be a bit much for them at times. Otherwise they seemed well behaved. At interval their teacher came over and asked for their opinions.
“I dunno miss. But we’re liking the fit bodies.”
Never in my day. Anyway, the teacher did discuss with the students a problem with the ballet that I had also been thinking about: the essential gothic image of the novel is the eerie contrast between the eternally youthful Dorian and the rapidly decaying portrait – and this is barely represented in the ballet at all. Dancing Dorian’s poster image promoting the fragrance is clearly the equivalent of the portrait in the novel (and this is displayed towards the end of the ballet covered in graffiti) but ‘handsome man goes on a drug binge and kills some people’ seems to be a slightly different story. Although it’s certainly a story people like to tell.
That said, the choreography was spectacular. And beauty is the point. Right?
Matthew Bourne’s Dorian Gray