Will the real Edinburgh please stand up?

In continuation of my recent blog about travels to Scandinavia, I will stay with the theme of northern Europe because I have recently listened to several audiobooks whose locale is firmly rooted in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The books to which I refer, each belong to a wider series. There is the Isabelle Dalhousie series of fiction/philosophy/mystery by Allistair McCall Smith, and the John Rebus detective series by Ian Rankin.

I have been to Edinburgh just once, about 20 years ago as a tourist–so I have a vague impression of Edinburgh. But the depiction of Edinburgh by these two excellent author could not be more different!

Rebus is depicted as a stubborn, aging detective inspector, oft passed over for promotion due to his valiant and sometimes self-damaging attempts to get at the truth, mixed in with a little insubordination and inability to curb his tongue. Rebus’ Edinburgh is portrayed as a grim place, infested with corruption at every level, rife with poverty in the ‘estates’ and teeming with unpleasant people. Not everyone, but enough to give pause to the reader. Rankin extends the grim reflection of Edinburgh further to Scotland in general, and in one scene notes through his characters that Scottish drinking and eating habits have combined to give the country the lowest mean lifespan in Europe (perhaps even the western world–I don’t recall). From bar to bar, cigarette to cigarette, there appears to be a general tendency in public institutions to ignore recent smoking bylaws–if one is to believe Rankin.

In Isabelle Dalhousie’s world, Edinburgh is a charming city–more like a town, where everyone knows everyone else. Isabelle owns and edits a philosophical journal that focuses on morality, and McCall Smith manages to bring a wealth of fascinating issues of morality to the table in each book. Isabelle’s boyfriend is a young bassoonist for the Edinburgh Philharmonic, and she is a patron of the visual and performing arts. The city is beautiful, quiet, civilized and polite, with a wealth of culture  for its residents and many tourists.

I greatly enjoy the Dalhousie series, for although Isabelle is not a ‘scientist,’ she is definitely an academic, and issues of authorship, review and publication issues crop up frequently. The series is charming and uplifting, sophisticated and well worth reading for anyone who wants some light but not trivial fiction.

I also enjoy the Rebus series (which those of you in the UK will certainly know that it’s also been made into a TV series), because the character of Rebus is compelling–sometimes overwhelming in the way he can be irritating–but never boring. This is worthwhile reading for those who enjoy detective/crime fiction. Only in recent years is this a genre I’ve come to appreciate (although I read about 50 Agatha Christie books one after another at the age of 8 when I tired of children’s books). I think my draw to detective stories stems from an occasional desire for something ‘light;’ books that won’t zap me of too much emotional matter at the end of a long day.

But I come back to my main question, in which I solicit information from my colleagues across the pond (and Cath!): what is Edinburgh really like? Which author is right, or who is farther off base?

Will the real Edinburgh please stand up?

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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8 Responses to Will the real Edinburgh please stand up?

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    It is certainly true that Scotland has one of the lowest life expectancies in Western Europe. See:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-12898723 but much of this is due to the very low life expectancy in Glasgow http://www.theguardian.com/society/2012/nov/06/mystery-glasgow-health-problems.

    There is a characteristic life expectancy gap between the better and worse off in all British cities; look at a poor London Borough like Tower Hamlets and you see a similar pattern. I suspect that if you looked at large US cities like NY, LA or Chicago you would see similar gaps between the better and worse-off areas of the cities.

  2. Mike says:

    As a native, I hope you’ll allow my tuppence worth. Edinburgh (often pronounced Embra) is all of the above. It’s a town of ancient and modern history, that has shaped it so.

    A former royal seat and a port city (if you count Leith, which most Leith folk widnae). It currently hosts a devolved parliament (since 1997) and potentially a National capital (from 2014). One ancient, one middle aged and ≥one new universities. A financial centre and one time international European HIV capital (allegedly), it really has everything from appalling and gratuitous displays of wealth, to appalling and grinding poverty. Hemmed in by the estuary to the North and hills to the South, but it’s changed a lot in the 20 years since I left. Gentrification and the investment the parliament brought have improved a lot of things. The never-ending tram-works and the people that came with the parliament have not necessarily.

    I miss Edinburgh a lot, but luckily still have family, friends and plenty of excuses to return there.

    However, I should point out that I’ve only read Rankin. I’ve always judged McCall Smith’s books by their covers and never been tempted to buy them. They describe an Edinburgh, on their dust jackets, that I’m sure is there, but have never been interested enough to read further about. Rebus, on the other hand, provides entertainment in an Edinburgh (and its people) that I know and love (and miss). One of my favourite bars also happens to be one of Rebus’ (but probably the other way round). I’m always surprised when I manage to get in for a pint that it’s not busier with Rankin fans. They always have a good range of real ales and a decent Malt of the Month. I’ve never been unable to get a table. That is probably because Edinburgh has so many bars like that – with genuine character and warmth*. It also has horrifically over priced bars full of tossers who are more content showing off their designer shirts than discussing anything of substance.

    I’m getting misty eyed now. And that’s probably more like four quids’ worth than tuppence. Still not enough to get you a pint of pissy lager in those designer bars though.

    *(not necessarily available September to August)

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Thank you for the insider’s viewpoint! I always wondered whether Rebus’ pubs were real or made up–now I know! But I agree, reading (or listening to) these books certainly whets my appetite for a visit.

  3. I’ve been to Edinburgh several times (most recently at the beginning of August), but only for a day at a time, and only in the touristy parts. Those parts, of course, were busy and charming and picturesque, and not at all seedy or dangerous.

    For yet another view, I’d suggest the excellent Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh (or better, the film adaptation directed by Danny Boyle and starring Ewan McGregor in what I suppose was a star-making performance. Desperation fueled by heroin addiction, but also desperately funny. Not family viewing though. The film is more accessible than the book, as Welsh follows the conceit of not punctuating his dialogue, other than a leading hyphen for each line – rather old-fashioned, and rendered even more difficult by the Edinburgh jargon littered throughout. The film, however, is brilliant.

  4. Stephen Moss says:

    Having spent ten years in Edinburgh in the late ’70s and ’80s as an undergrad, then musician, then PhD student, I would agree with Mike that the city has generous slices of both worlds. At least it did back in those days. The first flat I ever bought, in the Rebus world of Tollcross, turned out to be directly above the home of a fairly big time drug time dealer. I only discovered this on the day when a tremendous furore broke out on the street below my window, as the offending individual was bundled by plain clothes police into a car and whisked away. He never returned, but during the searches of his property that followed, they discovered a stash of heroin in a concealed ceiling space, which was also my own underfloor space. If I had only chanced during the preceding months to lift my floorboards I could have become embroiled in quite a story – probably a good thing that I didn’t.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Undergraduate, musician, graduate student, drugs in the floor board? Sounds like the start of a great novel to me. The next great Scottish writer, with the hero a cross between Rebus and Dalhousie, music and science!

  5. I’ve read both Rebus and Dalhousie and I suspect that the visitor to Edinburgh sees little of either of these extreme worlds; you have to live somewhere to really appreciate the nuances. I have visited Edinburgh quite a few times but although I have enjoyed my visits I never felt I really got below the surface.

    Actually my favourite part of visiting the city is the train journey up from London. You get glimpses of many different parts of the UK and the approaches to Newcastle and to Berwick on Tweed are stunning. I also like the waiting room at Waverley station with its panelling and pictures of Scotland, like something from a bygone era.

    Have you come across Tom Stoppard’s character in his play Jumpers: he says something like “People call Edinburgh the Athens of the North but I see it as the Reykjavik of the South”.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I agree; it’s pretty much impossible to get a “beat” on a city without living there. Everything else is superficial. As for the train journey from London–when I made my way north from London in the mid-1990s, I couldn’t afford the train and had to go by bus. It stopped at the central station in Birmingham, affording me glimpses of the underbelly of the UK that I wish I could forget. Not unlike the train out of Washington DC heading north to Delaware, New Jersey and New York. The rows upon rows of boarded up houses and cars on cinder blocks are enough to scare anyone.

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