Notes from Scotland (It’s near England)

flag-of-scotland

Arriving at Edinburgh Waverley Station I was unable to receive the city in the thoughtful, kindly way Bryson had, who noted commuters shuffling home happily to have haggis and tatties and cock-a-leekie soup, whatever the hell that is. Instead, I walked in rain along South Bridge and Nicholson Street, noticing nothing, until I came to my hotel (the Ceilidh Donia), where I was told I could take breakfast at 6am with a group of Belarusian swimmers in town for a breaststroke gala. My room had all the things vital to effective travel: biscuits, several dressing gowns and a hair-dryer. Portsmouth had lost at home to Newport that afternoon, which really was saddening, given how weird and shit Newport is. To console myself, I ate the biscuits and dried my hair in a dressing gown.

I walked down the Royal Mile towards the Palace of Holyroodhouse, where the Queen comes every summer to illustrate her importance to Scotland by having a square-sausage sandwich in the rain. I passed many shops selling the Scottish Experience, which seems to be limited to wearing cashmere and eating shortbread. At the bottom of the Mile I came to what I thought was a very large Vietnamese restaurant, but was in fact the Scottish Parliament, where only the day before the leader of the Scottish National Party had suggested that the case for independence had never been stronger, on account of strong shortbread exports and the Queen’s failure to finish her most recent sandwich.

alpen

I saw the tombstone of Adam Smith (I think he played for Leeds), which is the size of a breakfast cereal bar. Four Spanish physiotherapists asked where they might find somewhere to eat fish and chips and ‘compressed peas’ and I said you’ll not find anywhere open at this time but why don’t you come with me instead to the Brew Dog bar on Cowgate where we can talk about ligament damage and the intercostal muscles in broken English. They said they’d rather keep looking for the compressed peas.

intercostal  Intercostal Muscles

***

At breakfast I decided that haggis is better suited to loft insulation, before heading up to Arthur’s Seat, passing a young boy halfway up moaning about the climb to his mother. ‘Just think of the sense of achievement,’ she told him. ‘I don’t care about the sense of achievement.’ I went to St. Andrew’s Square in the New Town, where there was a shortbread festival carrying on. On one corner of the square is a pub called Tiles, where twenty years ago Bryson had a piece of haddock and found everything ‘cherishable’ and ‘fetching’, but the place promised about as much serenity as a Job Centre in Middlesbrough so I carried on along Princes Street, which is still waiting for its new tram system, a hundred years after councillors first dragged themselves out of bed to okay the project. (What a cynic! Lighten up, Ben, for God’s sake.)

dogs Dennis and Margaret, by Will Collier

Downstairs at the Royal Scottish Academy, where Bill had another piece of haddock, all the artworks are numbered and available to buy, as they were in 1994. I fancied number thirty – Dennis and Margaret – a shot of two dogs sat outside Greggs the Baker moaning about the prevalence of Eastern European biscuits, but it was four thousand pounds or something. I asked what they had for under fifty quid and was directed to a blank space on the wall. There’s nothing there, I said. ‘Exactly. You can have that for fifty quid if you want.’ Cheeky bitch.

I went in the rain to the renovated Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street (shut) and then to a bar called The Villager (open), where I spent a couple of hours speaking with a philosophy student (handsome) who plans to be a freelance political analyst when he graduates. I asked him whether he was up for independence. He ran a hand through Harry Styles hair, before confessing that he hadn’t really thought about it. ‘In which case,’ I assured him, ‘you’ll almost certainly become a political analyst.’

harry Harry Styles and Hair

I gave the castle a once-over and liked it on facebook and then headed down the steep curve of Ramsay Lane, thinking to myself that here is a city to fall in love in, to hold hands in, to decide upon life’s project in, to dream, to climb, to invent. Something of the city’s scale and beauty and epic topography must find its way into the daydreams of its people, its small fleeting ordinary people, who walk its streets and cross its bridges and skirt its puddles with a spring in their step, sensing in spite of the steady cloud cover, perhaps because of it, that all is possible. At least that’s how it seemed to me this evening, as I drifted down the Lothian Road, tempted by a strip-club called G-String in C-Minor, which offers a pre-theatre menu.

pole dancing

 

The Christmas market was taking up four fifths of the city, and was replete with long sausages and apfelstrudel and mulled wine and mulled cider and mulled chicken soup and everything else that can conceivably be mulled.  Lovers were ice-skating in orange boots, falling deeper into love with each calamitous tumble.  I tried to hire a pair of skates so I could join the lovers on the ice and, by osmosis perhaps, absorb some of their happiness and pride and longing, and maybe collide with one of the Spanish physiotherapists, but they didn’t have my size.

Notes from Wales (It’s near England)

moustache

I had a pie at the Chepstow Castle Inn, where a five-year-old occasionally plays the piano. On the 69 to Monmouth a moustache with a man behind told two ladies about an immigrant who got £10,000 to train to be a pilot. The ladies confirmed that British Airways had gone to the dogs. The moustache then mentioned his nephew who had graduated from Bristol University but couldn’t get an interview at Greggs the Baker. ‘They reckon he’ll jump ship when something better comes up. But it might never. There’s something up with that.’ The ladies reasoned that Greggs the Baker was very well-priced though.

***

monmouth church

I took a walk along the River Wye. As I passed the Rowing Club a dozen Pippa Middletons in identical leggings hauled a boat from its slumber. The boys were already on the water, being told through a megaphone to keep it up, which is surely a given when boating. I saw a small white church and found it pleasing because it was modest. (An important aspect of religion must be humility, and rarely is such a quality suggested by religious buildings. The more ornate the building, it can often seem, the more impertinent its clergy.) My thoughts were broken by the heavy breathing of a dozen Pippa Middletons, and also the A40, with its evergreen cargo hurrying this and that to here and there: pens to Bangor, cabbages to Pembroke, keyboards to Cardiff.

***

I spent much of the one hour journey along the North Wales coast looking out for miserable holiday resorts and talking with a man heading to a town neither of us could pronounce. He was going there to secure custom for his recruitment agency. We discussed the nature of his work for a while, agreeing that agencies are at best a necessary evil and at worst a sure way to drive down standards, waste money and disaffect staff.

toilet 14.20

At Llandudno (pronounced pot-fang-pink, or something equally unlikely) the station toilets are locked at 14.20 each day. It was 14.35 when I arrived. I wasn’t desperate or anything, just fancied going, so I asked a man in the ticket office why it was shut at this time, but failed to understand a word of his response. (Bloody Welsh immigrants.) I tried to perform my enquiry, charades-style, but this only served to embarrass him.

I went to my hostel and was checked-in by the two owners, one of whom was a kindly and soothing lady who quietly got on with the requisite paperwork, the other a younger man who finished all of his utterances, even the most inconsequential, with a short roar of laughter, which I enjoyed very much. I asked whether the continental breakfast happened to include Eggs Florentine (Florence being on the continent etc.) but was soberly assured that it was just Weetabix really, and that I would be sharing with a certain Mr Williamson, who had been behaving well this week. As I unpacked, the younger man acquainted me with the tea and coffee making facilities and demonstrated how a bunk-bed worked, waiting for a sign from me that I had understood perfectly before moving on to the next thing he wanted to demystify, like the sink. It was very sweet, really. I think he was just glad for the company.

ai weiwei The White House, by Ai Weiwei

I found, by chance, the Mostyn Art Gallery, established in the 1900s by the wife of one Lord Mostyn to exhibit the work of women artists. The current Lord Mostyn owns much of the town and much of London besides. I asked one of the gallery staff whether his Lordship cares for much of the artwork, which is of a subversive, anti-establishment bent. She said he comes in now and again, giggles a bit, tells everyone to keep up the good work and then sods off, no doubt to shoot something or fix up a cousin with an Austrian relative or order another miniature steam train for one of his stately homes.

And with that I went to Scotland.