Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Essence of Edinburgh

Why do I love this town? It must be something in the air. The cool, clean, crisp, invigorating air. The air in London just isn’t the same. Edinburgh’s air is intoxicating; London’s merely toxic.

It’s something to do with the air, the light, the space and the harmony.

Robert Adam’s elegant Georgian architecture sets the tone: understated, perfectly proportioned, symmetrical and stylish. The most favourable views of the New Town’s elegant thoroughfares are afforded from the summits of Edinburgh’s Volcanic Trinity: Arthur’s Seat, Calton Hill and Edinburgh Castle. The impermanence and nobility of human artifice is here given dramatic relief by a landscape testifying to the powerful volatility of nature.

Man and nature compete for ascendancy yet combine to produce a uniquely beautiful city. The idiosyncratic antiquities and historical treasures of the Old Town complement the orderly refinement of the New. The view from Princes Street is awe-inspiring. Old Edinburgh and The Castle rise up magnificently, looming over the New with magisterial dignity. It has ever been thus. Edinburgh: a city of contrasts.

Aesthetics matter here. The only conceivable response to such an inspiring location is to dispense with the unseemly internecine squabbling of party politics and to institute an Aesthetocracy.

Ever since David Hume’s enlightened scepticism roused Kant from his dogmatic slumbers Edinburgh has been renowned as a city of ideas. Philosophy, literature, poetry and music have competed with, and indeed complemented, science, medicine and commerce. An independent legal system sprang from our philosophical predisposition and who would deny that our jurisprudence is more elegant than the pragmatic English equivalent. Enlightenment and Edinburgh are not merely alliterative: they are synonymous.

And yet, of late, a dissonance between the self-confidence warranted by our illustrious heritage and the self-doubt of a capital-in-waiting of a not-yet-independent nation has sounded a discordant note in our hitherto harmonious soundscape.

Is the fledgling Scottish Parliament our macro-malaise in microcosm? Is it a Harlot in Holyrood or a Diamond in Dumbiedykes? Architecturally astounding, symbolically seismic yet we just can’t seem to shake off that parsimonious Presbyterianism. We’re fixated with cost and impervious to benefit.

Edinburgh is evolving but the transitional pains are severe. The discord between the parochial and the cosmopolitan resonates loudest in Leith. Edinburgh’s once-prosperous port turned down-at-heel elderly neighbour has now morphed into its hip young brother. Leith’s burgeoning eclecticism is redolent of Tribeca, reminiscent of Barcelonetta. Critically acclaimed restaurants, art galleries, designer hotels and vibrant bars smuggle a scintilla of style into a hitherto unprepossessing landscape. Yet it is this dialectic between the indigenous and the extraneous which invests both with vitality. The MTV Awards’ subliminal appearance on Ocean Drive was an invigoratingly ephemeral injection of popular culture but the gravitas of a Guggenheim would provide a permanent infusion of prestige.

If New York has its chutzpah and Milan its élan it seems we’re still searching for the elusive Essence of Edinburgh.

The Edinburgh Festival & Fringe reflect our historic affinity for the Arts. The mood is relaxed, convivial and creative. Everything seems possible and Edinburgh is in its rightful place, at the epicentre of things. But when the culture vultures fly away, its back to business as usual.

Edinburgh’s Hogmanay has been expertly packaged to captivate the globe but 2003’s cancellation was a PR catastrophe. The Scottish climate can be inhospitable but the image of a hesitant butterfly clinging tentatively to the chrysalis is not quite what we had in mind. “Safety first” can never be The Essence of Edinburgh. Time to spread our wings. The world is watching.

Will Edinburgh become a Nearly New York or a Barely Barcelona? We’ve been “The Athens of The North” for too long. With so much vicarious va-va-voom in the room will we ever have the confidence to be ourselves? One day soon a town, somewhere, may claim to be “The Edinburgh of the South.”

Ewan McNaught

1 comment:

Basket Case said...

I don't think I ever got around to retelling you that this was one of the most uplifting home patch pieces that I've ever read. "The air...

Quite superb.