From Run Like Blazes:
[This is me in 1976, my last year in Edinburgh, shortly before I finished university there and like the hero of many a Victorian novel headed to London, full of hopes and ambitions.]
I anticipated high romance in Scotland, by which I mean not only romance of the winkie-drinkie-nookie variety but also, and mainly, of the windswept, tangle-locked, Manfred-astride-purplish-moors kind of caper, with ivy-loaded monastic ruins in the distance and keening kestrels above. I was not disappointed, for although Scotland as a country has romantic rivals in Italy, Switzerland, Germany and France, and, some would say, Spain, Edinburgh is the most romantic city in the world. When you arrive, as I did, by train, having come north from London through the dreary Midlands and the Victorian gloom of Newcastle and the rain and the mist and the medieval borderlands of Berwick and the Pentlands into the dim brick recesses of the Caledonian metropolis, the city’s profile is revealed like the frontispiece of Ruritania: above, the blackly looming castle atop a sheer cliff of unforgiving rock that on one side mounts step by step to a crenellated summit and on the other plunges into Princes Street Gardens, below. Auld Reekie, the higgledy-piggledy medieval mess where they used to empty their chamber pots with a cry of Gardez Loo, is on the right; on the left is the Athens of the North, the clean, orderly Georgian New Town, that homage in stone to the Enlightenment, where R.L. Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle and Muriel Spark were raised. This split personality appealed to me, and indeed in my mind Edinburgh’s cityscape acquired a metaphorical character as the Dichotomy in the Celtic Soul, a subject on which I was known to dilate to such an extent as to transform acquaintances into strangers, strangers into enemies….but that was later. Early on, I had no time for idleness, or metaphors, and no acquaintances to bore. I was entranced by rainy romantic Edinburgh and moved into a bedsit on East London Street on the fringes of the New Town, and in the early days spent many an hour, as the inveterate window-watcher that I was, sitting at the window staring at the rain sifting softly in the pale purplish streetlights and at imaginary hansom cabs and top hats above swishing capes. As in Geneva, a city with which Edinburgh shares much, the past haunts the present. Indeed, I soon discovered how Edinburgh’s past, to paraphrase Faulkner, is not only not dead, but not even past. At the Registrar’s office in the University, where I had gone to sign up and to pay my respects to Aisling, the fiancée of a friend in Coleraine, an old porter was coming and going and pausing between comings and goings to deliver himself of profound and sonorous coughs that sounded imminently life-terminating but seemed in no way to impede his briskness, as if they were as much a part of his life as breathing, which he presumably managed to do in between. I commented, sympathetically, on the probable effect of the city’s dampness on the lungs, helpfully miming a cough.
“Right enough, it’s a bronchial kind of place,” said Aisling. “Especially in winter. Oh, you mean Old Jock? Och, he’s had that cough since the German gas attacks on the Somme.”
The Somme: 1916. Before me, then, was a living relic of the First World War, walking straight out of the end of the long nineteenth century. Old Jock would have been born before the turn of the last century, and his father a full generation before that, say in the 1870s, when Victoria’s reign, and the Empire, were at their blazing zenith. And so back across another couple of generations to Jock’s grandpa and great-grandpa—who could have fought at Waterloo—to the eighteenth century, the age of Boswell and Hume and Adam Ferguson and the Scottish Enlightenment that in Edinburgh was neither out of sight nor out of mind. In my time there the 1700s still lurked in the wynds and closes—and in the lecture halls, for university life, I soon discovered, was conducted at two very eighteenth-century levels, one of serious learning, the other of flamboyant dissolution. I attempted both and succeeded more in the latter department than in the former (although I probably did more reading there, out of sheer hunger for it, than at any time before or since). My Edinburgh in the 1970s was closer to Boswell’s and Ferguson’s two centuries previously than to whatever boring anti-Vietnam or anti-nuclear binge was going on at the same time at, say, Yale, or Columbia, or at one of those new universities in England—Keele, Sussex—that I’d spurned in favor of Greece. At Edinburgh, like Boswell, we drank deep and quarreled passionately, and now and then studied hard and even wrote a bit, in between drinking and chasing women. We were indebted to politics, especially Scottish Nationalism and old-line Clydeside socialism, both primarily for romantic reasons—Rob Roy and The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists—but we were more receptive to culture and world affairs, so pub talk was relatively elevated when we were sober, and when we were drunk fights could and did break out over such minutiae as (say) Adam Smith’s birthplace (Kirkcaldy) or the date of Wat Tyler’s Peasant’s Revolt (1381) or the typeface used in the first edition of Dorian Grey (Baskerville). Of course, there were also long evenings of utter tedium stretched to breaking point by lust and poverty and the relentless call of the barman at closing time (10 p.m. in those Presbyterian days), but from this safe distance I choose rather to remember the warm muddle of ardent discussion and the light of youth’s magical fire in our eyes as we argued, boosted by the prospect of seduction and/or another round paid for by someone else.