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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.
He claimed with dreary pride, ‘I suppose I’m real Brighton’, as if his single heart contained all the cheap amusements, the Pullman cars, the unloving weekends in gaudy hotels, and the sadness after coition.
Graham Green’s gang-war novel, Brighton Rock, gives you a slightly different view of Brighton to the Royal Pavilion. A hundred years after George the paint is still cracking, the dirty weekends away still dirty, but Green’s anti-hero Pinkie can’t rely on a Royal edict to sort out his problems.
The novel begins as Pinkie kills a man by choking him with a stick of Brighton rock candy, and follows his increasingly desperate attempts to take out the witnesses. Steadfast in his Catholic faith but resigned to eternal damnation, Pinkie takes the reader on a tour of Brighton’s underbelly in the 1930’s.
While I enjoyed Brighton Rock, some aspects of the narrative are a little trying. All female characters fall into two types: either bony, timid and manipulative or buxom, bawdy and motherly. Both types are viewed by Pinkie with barely contained disgust. It reflects the main character’s fear of women well, but was a bit difficult for me to read at times.
The novel has some really nice poetic parts, like when he’s trying to trick his wife into killing herself in a fake suicide pact: “He put out his mouth and kissed her on the cheek; he was afraid of the mouth – thoughts travel too easily from lip to lip.”
Green divided his novels up into ‘serious’ works and ‘amusements’. Brighton Rock was one of his serious novels. To me it read more like a good tawdry thriller, but I can imagine that for others the story of tested faith in Godless times might be quite moving.
I was interested to read that Graham Green is related to Robert Louis Stevenson. Robert Louis Stevenson is everywhere.
Wandering can be dangerous:
On Tuesday morning I made a quick visit to the Edinburgh Writers’ Museum on the Royal mile to learn more about Robert Louis Stevenson, one of Edinburgh’s best loved sons. A Edinburgh university graduate and passionate writer, Stevenson makes quite a good mascot for my Scottish adventures.
He was also quite fond of a good wander, making his way through the Pacific to Kiribati, Western Samoa and finally Australia:
“…youth is the time to go flashing from one end of the world to the other, both in mind and body; to try the manners of different nations.”
Stevenson’s days as a young man in Edinburgh seem from all accounts to have been dominated by excessive drinking and philandering with local prostitutes. He apparently fell in love with two such women, but wasn’t permitted by his father to marry either of them.
While Stevenson doesn’t seem to have been particularly focused on his academic work during his time at Edinburgh, he did pursue his writing career with single-minded focus. Forced by his father to study engineering, he sat through classes writing stories in his ‘Book of Original Nonsense’ and founded the University of Edinburgh’s student newspaper, The Student.
On Tuesday evening I went back to Festival Theatre to see Rodion Shchedrin’s The Enchanted Wanderer. The opera was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 2002, specifically composed for concert stage performance rather than dramatic staging.
I’ve been living 53 years now – been dying my whole life:
but I just can’t seem to die…
The story is about a monk called Ivan that falls in deep platonic love with a gypsy, who in turn falls in deep passionate love with Ivan’s patron, the prince. When the prince marries another woman, the gypsy (in typical operatic gypsy fashion) tricks Ivan into killing her, so she is not forced by her jealousy to kill the prince and his new wife.
You alone loved me,
sweet friend of my heart.
The prince grew sick of me,
wearied with me.
He loved me, and then threw me away…
Prove your love to me now.
Do what I ask of you.
Effective opera gives you real emotion through unbelievably dramatic stories and transcendent music. The Enchanted Wanderer is really about the sacrifices that true friendship demands, and the overpowering nature of love. It’s hard not to like anything that features frenzied gypsy passion so predominantly.
Musically, parts of the score sounded very modern and while the choral sections were more traditional, the two styles merged successfully into one cohesive sound. The program notes classify Shchedrin as a neo-romantic composer. I’d like to hear more of his work to figure out exactly what that means.
The theme for the Edinburgh International Festival this year is ‘artists without borders’; immigration, war, cultural convergence, geopolitics. But The Enchanted Wanderer isn’t really about that. It’s about an inner struggle and journey, a reconciliation of a troubled mind. It’s the sort of journey that art takes you on.
Which is something Robert Louis Stevenson also understood:
“When I suffer in mind, stories are my refuge, I take them like opium; and consider one who writes them as a sort of doctor of the mind.”
The Enchanted Wanderer
Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra
Festival Theatre Edinburgh