First, a warning: I’m afraid this is a ridiculously long post – but there was no way round it as it contains seven books and several discoveries. I went to Edinburgh recently and, as always, based my reading on the rhyme from The Stockmistress of the now-closed QI Bookshop in Oxford:
Something old, something new, something made-up, something true, one that’s here and one that’s there and one that could be anywhere.
Something old: Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
I have not read this since I was about ten but an erudite friend who is a poet rereads it every year. I was curious as I simply remembered a rather charming story about a capable water rat, an over-excited mole and a ridiculous toad. How wrong. The descriptions are the things that make this book special; wonderful glimpses of countryside, waterways and picnics:
The Water Rat’s picnic for the Seafaring Rat: ‘Then he got out the luncheon-basket and packed a simple meal, in which, remembering the stranger’s origin and preferences he took care to include a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which lay down and cried, and a long-necked straw-covered flask containing bottled sunshine shed and garnered on far Southern slopes.’
Or the Otter’s description of snow: ‘My! it was fine, coming through the snow as the red sun was rising and showing against the black tree-trunks! As you went along in the stillness, every now and then masses of snow slid off the branches suddenly with a flop! making you jump and run for cover. Snow-castles and snow-caverns had sprung up out of nowhere in the night – and snow bridges, terraces and ramparts – I could have stayed and played with them for hours.’
Something new: Caroline Scott, The Photographer of the Lost
Three brothers enlist in the army during the First World War and, predictably, not all return home. Harry, now a photographer, is searching for his elder brother in France, whilst Edie is searching for the same man, her husband. A man who quotes Yeats to her on their first meeting, telling her to ‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams’. Caroline Scott is a historian so, as one would expect, the story rings true but what is remarkable about this book is the extent to which she has recreated the feel of the period and landscape of war-ravaged France. I really cared about the characters and I found myself sitting for hours in Edinburgh cafes, never quite able to tear myself away from the intertwining tale she so skilfully weaves.
Something made-up: Philip Pullman, The Ruby in the Smoke
In July I rather rashly said that I would buy ‘fewer books’. There were lots of exceptions and a complicated set of rules regarding what I was allowed (known only to me) but I have pretty well stuck to it. This has allowed time for rereading. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials easily stood up to the umpteenth reading, so I am now rereading the first in his Sally Lockhart quartet. It is a Dickensian mystery with Indian palaces, opium dens, a charming photographer and, at its heart, a heroine with a pistol. And yes, it’s well worth a second read.
Something true: Gillian Tait, 111 Places in Edinburgh That You Shouldn’t Miss
I wish this book had been published when I lived in Edinburgh. Admittedly that was years ago and many of the recommendations in the book didn’t exist or were lying forgotten but it is packed with things you might otherwise miss so I’m sure Gillian Tait would have found the same number of interesting things then.
I rediscovered the Stockbridge Colonies; small, affordable dwellings built for and by skilled workmen and artisans in the nineteenth century. They are ingeniously-designed terraces of ‘flattened cottages’ with raised front doors on one side of each terrace so each flat has its own private entrance and garden. Situated alongside the Water of Leith, these properties are now ‘highly desirable’ in estate agents’ parlance and humble artisans have probably been priced out.
The book also introduced me to Dunbar’s Close Garden, just off the Canongate on the Royal Mile. The series of courtyards looked lovely, even on a cold, damp, foggy day (the Scots have a word for this: dreich, which perfectly describes the grey skies and thick mist which is almost rain but not quite). In the seventeenth century this area was outside the city, just beyond the grand but heavily-fortified Netherbow which was one of the six points where people could cross the city walls. The area consisted of spacious mansions, outside the cramped city and conveniently close to Holyrood Palace. Forty years ago Dunbar’s Close Garden was created to give an idea of the terraced gardens attached to many of these houses. The structure ensures it looks good year-round but the planting merits several seasonal visits.
Another discovery was Dovecot Studios. This is a swimming bath converted into a weavers’ studio. You can look down from the gallery, which also hosts exhibitions, and see the weavers at work. It’s fascinating to watch them but the building is also a stunning piece of Victorian architecture with graceful arches and rooftop windows.
One that’s here: Alexander McCall Smith, The Importance of Being Seven
Whenever I go to Edinburgh I read one of the 44 Scotland Street books. Many years ago I lived a couple of streets away and Alexander McCall Smith captures the area and its residents perfectly. Starting one of the books is like meeting up with an old friend after a long gap; there are no unpleasant surprises, it is gentle, funny and yet surprisingly thought-provoking. If you have ever stayed in, lived in or even just visited Edinburgh’s New Town (actually largely Georgian) I cannot recommend them highly enough. But you must read them in the correct order: 44 Scotland Street is the first.
One that’s there: Kate Atkinson, When Will There be Good News?
When the fifth Jackson Brodie novel Big Sky was published this autumn I decided to read the earlier ones again. Each story is complete but the back story about Jackson develops through the series. In this, the third, he is again embroiled in a slightly unbelievable series of coincidences but it doesn’t matter. The books are excellent and definitely stand up to the test of rereading. The crime is there but doesn’t dominate and Jackson definitely passes the charisma test – I’m not a huge fan of crime unless there is a charismatic detective (Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti, or Kyril Bonfiglioli’s the Hon. Charlie Mortdecai: ‘Degenerate aristocrat, amoral art dealer, seasoned epicurean, unwilling assassin and knave about Piccadilly….’).
One that could be anywhere: Neil Gaiman, Stardust
A young man goes on a quest to find a star to win the heart of the woman he loves. So far, so usual. But this quest involves the land beyond the Wall – the land of faery, and three princes and a witch are racing against him. Reasonably enough, the star herself does not wish to be taken by anyone. The story gallops along with the urgency of a traditional fairy tale enlivened by Neil Gaiman’s amazing imagination. Another book which gives more with each reread.
These books should be easily available at ‘all good bookshops’, please buy them there, if you can, rather than from a characterless online site.