Edinburgh

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More photos! Those who follow me on twitter might have seen one or two of these already, but here they all are together. Photos from a recent visit to Jupiter Artland, a cool privately-run art park/estate just outside Edinburgh. It’s a place with a fantastical, surreal vibe – big art installations scattered through the landscape, mostly wooded, nestling in with Nature.

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… recent developments in Edinburgh connect to stuff that happens in that book.

Someone who gets quite a bit of mention in The Edinburgh Dead – even though he’s long dead at the time of the story – is Major Weir, Edinburgh’s most infamous, notorious warlock. The book’s hero, Adam Quire, even ventures into Weir’s derelict, haunted former residence. I had to improvise a bit for that scene, since Weir’s actual house isn’t there any more. People who tried to stay there after his execution reported all manner of distressing manifestations and supernatural goings-on, and it was eventually demolished.

Or was it? Someone thinks it survived, and they reckon they’ve identified it. So perhaps Edinburgh’s most famously haunted and creepily-historied building is, in fact, still here. Amongst us. Watching us. It was apparently absorbed into the building pictured on the right.

I’m instinctively a bit sceptical, to be honest, but who knows? Anyway, if true, it amuses me that Weir’s house was apparently incorporated into a chapel building, which is now the Quaker Meeting House. I confess, that building’s not quite where I chose to put Weir’s house for The Edinburgh Dead, but I was only off by about fifty yards, which isn’t too bad I reckon.

The tale of Major Thomas Weir is, by the way, crazy and creepy – worth a read if you’ve not heard of him – and also perhaps kind of sad, since it seems more than a little likely he was, like many people in the past, unpleasantly executed basically for being mad.

Slightly more tenuously connected to The Edinburgh Dead, but included here because it’s pretty: there’s been an exhibition of Chinese lanterns in the University’s Old College this week.

The Edinburgh Dead‘s based on the true history of grave-robbing and the illicit trade in corpses for medical dissection, and quite a few of those corpses ended up in Old College. Indeed, in one of fate’s most wry and satisfying twists, William Burke – who was one half of the Burke & Hare duo who murdered to meet the demand for corpses, and who appears in The Edinburgh Dead – ended up on a dissection slab in Old College. After he was hung, his corpse was publicly dissected there. There was such demand to witness the butchering of his body that there was a near-riot when audience space proved inadequate.

Anyway, nice lanterns don’t you think? Based on the famous terracotta army, of course.

Check out the Edinburgh Dead photo-trailer for lots more visuals and history that connect to the book.

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The Frosts Have Come

The weather’s given us an occasional glorious Edinburgh day in the last week or so.  If, at least, there’s a certain kind of weather you like (as I do).

Pristine blue skies, still air that’s clear and sharp enough to make you feel you might see forever.

These are the small gifts Nature gives us hereabouts to compensate for the less than delightful weather that often also shows up at this time of year (rain, gales, cloud, that kind of Autumnal thing). That’s my theory anyway, and I’m sticking to it.

The days are beautiful, but their mornings are made more so by the magic that Nature weaves at night. I’ve been seeing stars of late, more often than is usually the case, and that means clear, cold nights. And those nights mean morning frost, of course, which delivers tiny, tiny wonders. Little paintings and sculptures that are things of beauty when you get close. Cue an outing at the weekend, getting close.

When the frost gets to the grass, it does pretty things:

But when it gets something more basic to work with, in a nicely sheltered and shaded corner, it drapes whole coats of frost hair over surfaces:

Or encrusts fallen trees with thousands of ramifying crystals:

It’s all free, this stuff. The most delicate and infinitely varied of shows put on for us. All we have to do is wrap up warm and go look for it. Which I’m more than happy to do, but maybe not again for a few days. It’s c-c-c-cold out there …

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… looked like this for me:

And since it’s a reasonable time of year for a bit of reflection, here’s a piece I discovered the other day that I reckon is rather well-written, and although it might not be the kind of challenge to our habits and behaviour and priorities that I guess Easter is really meant to be, it’s certainly a challenge.

Not saying whether I agree with some or all of it or not, just that it’s good to read something now and again that makes you think, and this made me think if nothing else: David Cain of Raptitude.com on the subject How To Make Trillions of Dollars. Actually, all of Raptitude.com is nothing if not interesting, provocative and well-written, and it has a handy Best Of page if you want to explore it further. I think it makes really quite appropriate Easter reading, in many ways.

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I’m a curmudgeon, so the profusion of Christmassy stuff that starts to pop up everywhere around the end of October/start of November turns me into a grumpy old man. But now it’s December, so as far as I’m concerned we’re all allowed to start getting Christmassy. Every year, around now, a market and funfair-type stuff pops up in the middle of Edinburgh, around the base of the Scott Monument. A visit is the official start of my personal ‘gearing-up-for-Xmas’ process.

Eat roasted chestnuts (nice but, of course, horribly overpriced).

Admire the Monument.  Is it the most gothically substantial monument to a writer ever erected?  Pleases me to live in a city that – not now, but once open a time – thought a writer could be worthy of such gargantuan commemoration.  (Though it’s true that the importance of Sir Walter Scott to Edinburgh’s and Scotland’s history goes rather beyond his literary contributions).

Note, in passing, that the Monument does not appear in The Edinburgh Dead because it wasn’t built until the 1840s, more than a decade after the year that novel’s set.  But Princes Street, beside which it stands, does, and the man himself makes a fleeting appearance.  In fact, I found a place for him in the book through one of the funnest little facts I uncovered in the course of research: turns out, he was a supportive patron of the legendary American bird artist John James Audubon, who – I never knew this before research – was in Scotland around the time of The Edinburgh Dead.  There was an exhibition of Audubon’s painting at a big gallery just a stone’s throw from where the Scott Monument now stands; in the novel, all the city’s great and good are at that exhibition, including the august Sir Walter Scott.

Gaze up at the wheel, and ponder a ride.

Jump on wheel, rotate up, and get a view of the city that’s usually not there for the getting: across the lofty shoulders of the Scott Monument, looking down and to the East.

That gandiose slab of stone pretending to be a building in the middle distance is the Balmoral Hotel, by the way.  Traditionally – I guess it might still be true, though I don’t know – the big clock you can just about make out up on its tower was deliberately set just a little bit fast, so that Edinburgh’s industrious folk would not be late for their appointments.

And, in departing, suitably freshened by the chill air, reflect on one final thought: Edinburgh + a cold clear winter’s day = some of the finest light to be had anywhere in the world.

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A mere four days late, it’s time for … Moving Pictures on a Friday, on a Tuesday.  No point in being overly literal about these categories, I say; go with the flow.

A friend of mine was a point of light in this rather crowd-sourced performance, called Speed of Light, during the recent Edinburgh festival.  It’s a fun show, made by the context: a big dark hill, with an illuminated Edinburgh as the backdrop.  Especially cool: the point just over a minute in when fireworks start erupting from the Castle (a fortuitous part of an entirely unrelated show):

And in other news: if, a couple of weeks ago, you had asked me whether I had read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, I would have unhesitatingly, confidently said ‘Yes. Liked it quite a bit. Literary fiction with an SF spin. Jolly good.’ Then I saw this trailer, and I was befuddled:

It looks like a pretty interesting, ambitious, thoughtful bit of sf movie-making. And it bears almost no relation to my memories of the book I thought I had read. Now, those memories are decidedly vague, more to do with the overall tone and feel of the book than its details, but even so it’s amazing how little overlap there is between them and the content of the trailer.

What am I to make of this?  Have the film-makers produced what you might call a ‘loose’ adaptation, working some kind of transformation on the source material?  Have the trailer-makers gone nuts and cut together a completely misleading (though really quite interesting) advert for the film?  Or, as seems more likely, is the problem at my end?

I guess it’s possible that I got completely the wrong end of the stick about the book when I read it, and consequently have an accurate memory of a completely inaccurate impression of it.  I don’t think that’s the answer.  It’s also possible I’m an idiot, and have never actually read Cloud Atlas.  Maybe I saw it at the time and thought ‘I really should read that’, and the progressive degradation of my brain has somehow convinced that I did in fact read it, and enjoy it, and formed an opinion about it.  Yikes.  I wish I could be absolutely certain that’s not the answer … but I don’t think it’s impossible.

Most likely, though, seems that I’ve forgotten far more than I would have thought plausible about a book I have indeed read, and enjoyed.  That seems a pity, if true.  Has my head space reached saturation point, where stuff – even stuff that’s worth remembering – is getting squeezed out to make way for new stuff?  It’s not just book-reading, but experience in general: if something has given me pleasure, I want to be able to remember it.  Is an unremembered pleasure worth as much as a remembered one?  Does it even exist, as an experience, if I’ve forgotten or misremembered it?  Memory.  It’s not a simple thing.

Anyway.  Cloud Atlas.  Good book.  I recommend it, to anyone who likes literary fiction with an SF spin.  At least I think I do.  Not really sure.

So, I know I suggested yesterday that you might all be blessed today with the sound of me talking at you out of your computer/mp3 player, but it’s not to be. Not today, anyway. At least, not in the form I suggested. The debut of an audio file here on the blog is delayed in favour of … my TV debut. I know, I know: just when you thought you’d made a lucky escape …

What happened, in short form, is that Saint Bryan (fine, fine name, don’t you think?), a reporter for a Seattle-based NBC affiliate station, was over in Edinburgh for a Pixar PR blitz about Brave. He was casting about for other interesting mini-stories he could put together quickly, stumbled across my blog, and e-mailed me. The result is … well, you can see for yourself. Sorry about the advert at the start, by the way; can’t get around it, but it’s very brief.

If there’s one thing more destructive of one’s happily delusional self-image than hearing your own recorded voice played back, I can confirm that it’s seeing and hearing your recorded self played back. However, it was quite good fun doing the taping. Unbelieveably, staggeringly easy to get TV broadcast-quality pictures these days; seriously, this was just two guys wandering round graveyards with mikes pinned to chests and a tiny hand-held camera. Amazing.

Also amazing it wasn’t pouring with rain, the way this summer’s been going so far, but never mind that …

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Happy 2012, People

Something of an edinburgh tradition, for those not incapicitated by the excesses of the night before, to take some fresh air on New Year’s Day.  Most often it means stretching your legs on Arthur’s Seat, our local hill.  Provides some nice views, as well as a bracing introduction to the year just begun.  Here’s what it was like on January 1st, 2012.

Bright and breezy and c-c-c-cold.

Here’s to 2012, anyway. Who knows what it’ll bring, but I hope it’s a good and happy year for all you out there.

As a sort of addendum to The Edinburgh Dead photo-trailer, I thought it’d be fun (for me, anyway) to run through a few of the people, and maybe a couple of the places, appearing in the novel that – it might surprise some folk to learn – I didn’t make up, but plucked from the real and true history of the city.

Burke and Hare, of course.  Don’t need much of an introduction for most people: infamous murderers, who killed at least 17 innocent folk and sold their corpses to the anatomists of Edinburgh for dissection.

All I’ll say about them here is that I think, despite its notoriety, their story has actually received less popular attention than it deserves.  Jack the Ripper is often thought of as the first ‘modern’ serial killer, but Burke and Hare predate him (whoever he was) by decades, and there is – to me, at least – something fascinatingly modern about their crimes.  They killed for financial gain, in the ‘service’ of famed and ambitious scientists, preying on the vulnerable.  When their misdeeds became known, the public uproar was pretty much unprecedented, and prefigures the kind of media-driven hysteria we see nowadays, including exclusive confessional newspaper interviews, exhaustive reporting of every gory detail, public disorder and so on.

Robert Knox, who the hero of The Edinburgh Dead, Adam Quire, encounters in Surgeon’s Square, is entirely real, and his appearance and demeanour in the novel are – as best as I could manage – historically accurate.  Self-important, abrasive, with only one good eye and a collection of gruesome anatomical specimens.  He did, as described in the novel, treat injured survivors of the Battle of Waterloo during his early years as a surgeon, and was, by 1828, by some distance the most successful and sought after private teacher of anatomy in the city. (A remarkable oddity of the time: there were plenty of such private teachers, operating outside the established University – or any other institution – busily dissecting cadavers for the edification of paying students).

And he was, as the novel hints but does not fully describe, undone by his hubris and his … let’s call it, to be charitable, morally questionable judgement.

And I’ll add in passing that Surgeon’s Square, was, of course, a real place.  It’s been more or less completely built over nowadays (by University buildings), but there’s a plaque on a wall pointing out its site.

Robert Christison.  Easily my favourite discovery in the course of research for the novel.  This guy was, if you ask me, remarkable.  In a lot of ways, I’d have liked to give him an even bigger role to play in The Edinburgh Dead than he has, just because I find him so interesting.  He was one of the great pioneers of what nowadays we would probably call forensic medicine, almost before it existed as a clearly defined concept.

In The Edinburgh Dead we see him pretty early in his career, when he was becoming recognised as a serious expert on things like poisoning.  (He even took poisons himself to more thoroughly understand their effects).  He went on to greatness, producing definitive texts and eventually even being appointed a physician to Queen Victoria.  A perfect example, in many ways, of the fruits of the inquiring, imaginative ambition that took hold of Edinburgh’s thinkers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries: he went after the secrets that the emerging scientific understanding of the human body unlocked, and applied them to the real world.

His expertise led him to be involved in many high profile criminal investigations, including that resulting from the misbehaviour of Burke and Hare.

James Robinson really was in charge of Edinburgh’s police force in 1828, and was indeed a former military man.  What happens to him in the course of the novel is, broadly speaking, what actually happened to him in the course of that year, though it didn’t necessarily happen for precisely the reasons I suggest.

Andrew Merrilees (Merry Andrew) was a real bodysnatcher, as were his cronies Spune and Mowdiewarp.  (They all sound to me like refugees from Gormenghast).  They provided the esteemed anatomists of Edinburgh with a great many fresh corpses.

They’re examples of what you’d call the ‘professional’ corpse-thiefs: a criminal underclass that emerged to service the needs of the professors.  Bizarrely, at least as many corpses were dug up and stolen by the anatomists themselves – or more often their over-enthusiastic and infatuated students – so you almost had two different classes of bodysnatcher operating at the same time: the dodgy and distinctly unsavoury criminals, and the highly educated ‘amateurs’ who moonlighted as dastardly resurrectionists.

The Holy Land, the Happy Land and the Just Land.  I wish I could take credit for making these places up – or at least inventing their names – but I can’t.  They were real, and notorious tenements (i.e. apartment blocks, for anyone not familiar with the term) populated almost entirely by prostitutes, their pimps and assorted criminally-inclined hangers-on.  I have shifted them slightly from their historical timing, since the references to them actually place them a little bit later than 1828, but I don’t actually know when they acquired their unpleasant reputation so it’s not toally inconceiveable they were as I describe them even in 1828.

They’re all named, as I say in the book, with ‘dour irony’, since not a one of them was remotely Holy, Happy or Just, but for what it’s worth, the Just Land was allegedly not quite as bad as the others, since it contained only prostitutes, with no pimps.

The Dancing School was also a real place, but also one I’ve moved back in time a bit, just because I thought it was kind of fun.  As in the book, the teaching of dancing was in fact pretty low down on its list of priorities.

John Ruthven is not real.  But his (presumed) ancestors were.  There were at least a couple of members of the high-ranking Ruthven family, back in Scotland’s past, with a dark reputation for dabbling in the arcane.  They seem to have escaped any of the then-popular punishments for those accused of witchcraft, but got in various kinds of trouble on account of their political manouevrings and conspiratorial tendencies.

And there’s more – quite a bit more – but that’s probably enough for now.  Can always come back to some further examples of historical truth some time in the future, should it seem like a good idea.  Those wanting more on the historical background to the novel can always browse the rest of The Edinburgh Dead photo-trailer.

 

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So what’s the best bit about writing a book? Well, it’s rarely the actual writing, I can tell you that much.  In the case of The Edinburgh Dead, it was the research, so you’ll have to forgive me if I digress from the main thread of the Photo-Trailer in order to dispense some heartfelt affection.

In 1710, the Library of the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh was granted the right to claim, from its publisher, a copy of every book published in Great Britain.  So for three hundred years it, along with a select few other institutions, has been steadily, remorsely amassing a vast, almost unimaginable compendium of the written word.  It became the National Library of Scotland, and in 1956 took up its present abode behind an admittedly somewhat forbidding facade on George IV Bridge (a bridge that, by convenient coincidence, does get a mention or two in The Edinburgh Dead, since it was being built at the time of the novel).

Behind that unshowy exterior lies a world of wonder and dreams. It is the manual, analogue internet, and a place, I think, in may ways far richer and deeper and more intoxicating than the digital version that rules our lives now. There are no hyperlinks to guide you, no Google to impose its presumptive structures upon your wanderings. You have to do the work yourself. Hold the books in your hands; read not short, snappy summaries but page after page of considered text; follow trails through quotations and references and indexes. Map out your own exploration, and do it slowly, with care and reflection.

That modest doorway is the portal to centuries of human thought upon every conceiveable subect. The NLS currently holds over 14 million printed items in their collections. 14 million. And it is freely available to anyone with the inclination and cause to investigate it. What a thing. What a wondrous, wonderful thing.

Within, beyond the obligatory cafe (which does rather good tea, by the way – the diligent researcher must know where his restorative refreshments are going to come from) and cloakroom and exhibition space, a relatively modest stairway leads us up towards the light, towards the doors of the reading room.

That’s the doors there, and I took my camera no further, because snooping around in there taking photos seemed unlikely to be welcomed. So we’ll have to make do with this little snapshot I pinched from the NLS’ own website.

The Reading Room’s a modest space – demure – unlike the cavernous, crowded reading rooms of the British Library in London. Always busyish, but never overcrowded. Wonderfully quiet, of course, save for the tip-tap of fingers upon laptops and the occasional cough from the assembled readers.

Who are a diverse lot, as befits the clientele of a national library. Students and academics, of course, but amateur researchers too, hobbyists and genealogists, writers and readers of all sorts. Each one of them in his or her own world, immersed in the mental space created by printed words upon a page; words that have been brought forth from the vast, unseen storage spaces that reside in that same building or other sites around the city like some titanic literary iceberg whose merest, random tip is each day brought forth into the light by the specific requests of those visiting the library.

And while you wait for the books you have requested to be produced for your perusal, you can browse the shelves, where an eclectic selection of stuff awaits your curiosity. That’s where I found the old proceedings and records of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, which – like George IV Bridge – can be found within the pages of The Edinburgh Dead. The Society was founded way back in 1780, and is still going today, which makes it almost, but not quite, as venerable an institution as the National Library of Scotland.

Above the door of the NLS, obvious to all as they depart, is a map that says as much as any words can about how deeply into the past go the foundations of the building.  It shows Edinburgh as it was three hundred years ago, when the seeds of the National Library were sown.  The city – and the world – may have transformed around it, but the idea that the Library embodies and fulfils is still there, unchanged.  And a jolly good idea it is too.

Previous instalments of The Edinburgh Dead photo-trailer:

Duddingston Loch

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins

Guarding the Dead

Weaponry

So, What’s a Close, Then?

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