As a general rule, I’m not a lover of cities. There are a few exceptions: Sydney, Prague, Bruges and, above all, Edinburgh but, for me, most cities manage to combine the worst of all possible worlds: bad and inconsistent architecture, dismal planning, inadequate infrastructure, grotesque commercialism and, worst of all, crowds. Edinburgh has its faults (ask any resident about the scheme to bring back trams to the city) but it has more than sufficient plus-points to outweigh them. It succeeds in bringing opposites together in a synergy that manages to be both old and dignified, dynamic and developing, conservative and radical, all at the same time.
I first went to Edinburgh in the mid 1970s, working at the Festival Fringe for several years but didn’t get to see much beyond the incestuous bounds of the festival. It was not until my youngest daughter became a student there that we returned. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, these parental visits usually involved cultural activities (a wonderful Ansel Adams exhibition, the German Christmas Market, climbs up towards Arthur’s Seat) and indulgences in food and drink courtesy of restaurants such as David Bann’s and Hendersons and quirky pubs like the Halfway House near Waverley Station. Finally, thirty years after my first visit, I got to explore properly and find out more about the city. Among the surprises was that Edinburgh is a seaside town: we visited the beach at Portobello and found it to be exactly what you would expect of a small seaside town yet one that was a short bus ride from a city centre that gave no clue of its existence.
Perhaps the most amazing thing for me was how Edinburgh transformed itself in the late 1970s and 80s. When I first arrived, it was a dark and somewhat forbidding city, smoke blackened and looking for all the world as if little had changed since Victorian times yet, when we returned, the sooty black granite had been scrubbed pinkly clean and the darkly oppressive city had become bright and airy. This massive cleanup was not restricted to the obvious civic buildings but included much of the city, especially the elegant New Town (although the return of the Scott Monument to its original state was furiously contested and, to this day, it remains defiantly sooty, much as it has always been). And that’s something that I find endearing: a city decides to spruce itself up but still finds space to leave parts in a more familiar state. Progress (if that is what we should call it) is, in this incarnation, neither blind nor inevitable and familiarity is respected and preserved. So now we have a charming mongrel city: bright and sparkling in places yet magnificently and nostalgically dark in others.
In much the same way, the architecture of the city remains a cheerfully chaotic mix of styles that, taken as a whole, speaks eloquently of its history and of the fondness in which it is held not only by those who live there but also vistors like me. Uniquely, it brings coherence from diversity and, in so doing, becomes a welcoming and fascinating source of picture opportunities.
Click here to see a slideshow of favourite images.