Aug 16 2010


It feels somewhat pointless to write about Edinburgh. It has all been admired, photographed, written about before, done to death. Camera lenses shine predatorily down the little cobbled alleys, which look untouched and ignored since the 18th century but whose images are saturated into millions of eyeballs across the globe. Tourists stop in the middle of the road to point or goggle, stride casually out in front of swerving cars and Scottish accents are about as common as a pint under three quid.

But I utterly love Edinburgh, feel like a walking cliché for doing so, like someone in love with a high class escort, want it to be my lovely little secret and not flaunting its wares for everyone and anyone, I should be rhapsodising over the dumpy one in the corner with hidden charms, Motherwell say, not worshipping this overpriced gilded tourist trap museum with the fucking bagpipe music squalling from every shitty tartan splattered shop on the Royal Mile where a can of coke is one pound fucking eighty and you can’t move for some dim-witted buffoon uncurling a map or expensive camera to take a shitty picture of something that Google images will throw up a thousand better images of.

And lurid placards for ghost tours take every inch of mystery or mystique away from the thought of a secret underworld that can now be summoned up by a spotty student on a work placement scheme at eight pm every night once you have paid your eight quid. There is such fierce competition that flyers all but guarantee a free supernatural entity with every booking.

There are mannequins in tartan mini dresses in shop windows and heaven forbid even tartan Doc Martens, what a wonderful way to combine two national stereotypes; over confident students with white made-up faces hurl flyers and extravagant lies about the genius of the fringe shows they are promoting at you whilst talking to each other in strident smug voices.

Oh yes, Edinburgh knows how to fleece you. But it does it so prettily.

Look, how can you be angry when no matter where you are, you can see Arthur’s Seat looming grandiosely over you, when the sea suddenly shimmers at the bottom of every steep hill, when buildings wear their ancientness so damn casually-a wonder down a fag strewn close towards the train station and there is a dark sooty building, not a famous one but just your average Edinburgh building, about as common as a New Look cardigan and I happen to see the date 1563 above the door. It is mind-blowing in its nonchalance.

I love the way the stairs down the steep closes are swayed and humpbacked by the centuries of feet traversing the same journey, such everyday casual history in the everyday not locked behind a museum cabinet.

And talking of museums, the National Museum of Scotland is superb. Utterly enormous and impossible to find ones way around like some sort of Escher doodling bought to life, it contains a formidable amount of Scottish history, the most terrifyingly exciting being The Maiden, a huge iron guillotine used, actually used to slice the heads of the unfortunate of yore. And you can actually touch this antiquated piece of murder, the last thing some people ever saw. That so beats a stuffed fox.

Death begets hunger and so off the main drag where I am starting to loathe humanity, especially posh humanity from the Home Counties and their sodding flyers. And why fly half way round the world to a new country and then queue to go into a bloody Frankie and Bennies?

There are some wonderful places to eat in Edinburgh that aren’t Frankie and Bennies and whereas you are robbed for snacks, drink and booze, a decent meal can be had for five or six quid. Khushi’s Diner is our first port of call, veggie curry, deep fried bread, some wonderful fried heart attack Indian street food with relish and two soft drinks come to a tenner and are served in a gloriously decorated room, all Indian bling and opulence.

In Delhi also comes highly recommended, a dangerously material and candle bedecked room  serving exquisite Indian food for about a fiver a head. It is exotic, womblike and snug, yes the Home Counties accents prevail but it is Festival season and there is no escape apart from when actually inside the magic of the theatre. Henderson’s is another superb vegetarian restaurant and deli, no ethnic nick knacks or clumpy lentil burgers here, it is white, clean yet unpretentious serving excellent food for around seven or eight pounds. I got cheese and biscuits for around two quid and so huge the chunk of cheese, I ate my fill there and then, gave some to my partner, wrapped it up, ate some with the napkin sadly still attached to it on the train going through Penrith then finished it on a crumpet the day after that in bed in Lancaster.

Around Haymarket, and up Lothian Road there are enticing charity shops, cheap cafes and takeaways and more an air of shambolicness and grubbiness. There are less tourists here and thus actual real Scottish accents ca be heard. It being Edinburgh there are still plenty of arty cinemas and bars though, cuddled up next to places advertising mighty fry-ups and cheap haircuts. A bakery has luridly hued cakes toppling towards the sky-they have an actual sheen on them. I yearn for the explosion of mock cream in my mouth and the accompanying familiar mixture of nausea and delight.

We treat ourselves to a meal at L’Artichaut, a renowned veggie restaurant but where the lunchtime meals are six fifty. It is wonderful. I have seldom eaten anywhere with linen napkins. They even have a little paper ring with a picture of an artichoke on. I feel a bit famous before realising I cannot afford to eat and have a drink of wine at the same time and reality dawns. Then I realise I am actually eating lime meringues with pink peppercorns and feel like a fatter Paris Hilton.

The charity shops in nearby Stockbridge add to the illusion as I pick up a coat to find its £250. Well heeled is not the word. My partner says he has never seen so many waistcoats in one place.

Then down towards Leith along the river, past beautiful old world cottages, estates and swans. Leith has become more and more gentrified but still has charity shops where things are under a tenner and workers cafes battle with bistros. Nearby Portobello has amusement arcades, a fine sandy beach and an air of old fashioned seaside charm. There are no yuppie flats here. Yet.

A recommendation also takes us to Duddingston a mile or so of curiously countrified walk from Edinburgh. It is an idyllic village but much like the rest of Edinburgh hides behind a façade of normality because I suspect that in order to live here, one must have to be very very rich. Time makes everything quaint-an iron collar outside the church used to punish long dead ne’er-do-wells is a cutesy relic to photograph although there are few tourists here, heaven forbid actually walking, leaving The Real Loch Ness Experience behind and stepping into the Frankie and Benny free countryside…

The Sheep’s Heid is meant to be the oldest pub in Scotland and is certainly dark and antiquated, furnished with what looks like the entire contents of an auction room. The prices are modern enough though.

That’s Edinburgh for you. A place where even the ghosts come at a price but you can’t get your wallet out quickly enough. I would move here tomorrow if I could.

Aug 7 2010


Grab a selection of your favourite architecture, whether it be red brick decaying factories with trees growing on the roof, Tudor quaintness, Georgian splendour or immense glassy skyscrapers from the future. Give them a shake, add some grubbily enticing looking Kebab houses and randomly plonk down in a dazzling array of whirls, lines and patterns. Congratulations. You have made a Manchester.

I love this place; it constantly changes and evolves, new bars and skyscrapers soaring from the remnants of cotton factories and warehouses, antiquated little streets, poncy bars next to wholesale fabric shops and curry houses. There is a sense of urgency, something is always happening or about to but with none of the smug self satisfied trying too hard to be edgy side of London. It is shambolic, retro, futuristic, and a living breathing place. The centre is not a ghost town on the weekends; people live here in the gluts of fancy apartments now going for a song and behind the bedraggled curtains of rooms above gyms and takeaways.

The Northern Quarter is my favourite, swanky looking bars but where a bottle of wine can be had for eight quid, dingy merry pubs filled with human flotsam and jetsam, retro boutiques and chi-chi cafes alongside places where the menu is advertised on faded fluorescent stars. The five story shrine to Emo-hood is here, Affleck’s Palace, I feel old here yearning at the multitudes of sparkling hairclips and brightly coloured hoodies as dazzling flocks of over-confident teenagers cackle and shriek past.

You can afford to live here, it is not a tourist attraction for the moneyed, it has not all been developed and redeveloped ad infinitum, real history pokes out on every turn and makes the modern all the more vivid for it. A microcosm, a kaleidoscope, a journey through the people’s history.

Museums often seem only to tell the stories of the rich. The glazed glass eyes of dead animals shot by gouty dead cowards, enormous dingy paintings of a florid bearded man or simpering rich woman in extravagant skirtage, gilt and cornicing, nothing to relate to, nothing to make me feel these were people like me.

The People’s History Museum in Manchester is different. It shows the lives and deaths of the real movers and shakers, the strikers, the martyrs and the rioters, the people in the street trying to earn enough money to pay for tea.  There are coffins you can open, clothes to try on, vintage Gay Rights banners and not a dead polar bear in sight. It is interactive without being patronising, interesting and ambitious and makes you realise the gaping void at the centre of how history is normally presented. People whose lives we look on now because they actually did something, something important and brave and innovative that actually affects us now, were not just inbred lucky sperm with silly hair* poncing around on horseback.

We go to look at Art next but the art galleries are all closed because it’s Monday so we go to the Odd Bar in the Northern Quarter and have veggie black pudding kebabs and happily eavesdrop on the swarms on conversation from the chattering classes around us.

The Grade two listed Marble Arch squats on an unattractive road on the way to Ancoats. Inside, one is dazzled by a multitude of tiles mosaics adorning the walls, ceiling and floor. The interior seems almost untouched from its beginning in 1888 apart from the waft of Nirvana and the chalkboard advertising very nice looking food indeed but with the eight to ten pound mark putting it outside the average 19th labourers pay packet. There is a microbrewery attached (Marble Brewery) there is chocolate and ginger flavoured beer and the chips look excellent. Ergo it is a Good Pub.

I will never learn to get my bearings in Manchester, no matter how many times I go, there seems no rhyme or reason to it, it is fluid, changeable and malleable. I just walk, watch, listen and admire.

*The person, not the sperm is the one with hair.

More Manchester pics here

Aug 1 2010

Moniaive, Dumfries and Galloway

Moniaive is in the official middle of nowhere, the prettiest middle of nowhere to ever exist, shimmering through the rain and accessed by a winding road through sparsely populated yet lush countryside unadorned by agricultural clutter and sprawl, just modest white crofts and the occasional imposing driveway leading no doubt to some utopian idyll buried slumbering in the woods. It is countryside that doesn’t reek of money, second homes, stiff new Barbour’s and people from Islington. It is country not countryside and a crow is strung by the neck on a gate in the old tradition of warning other crows of their fate should they try and encroach on what was formerly theirs.

An avenue of trees leads down to Moniaive: it seems almost a vast urban sprawl, this delicate smattering of houses along the road compared to the empty journey but we were driving past a McDonalds in Dumfries less than an hour ago watching big seagulls and people squawk and litter and search for the last salty chip in the red rectangular boxes.

Moniaive has apparently become a haven for the artists, artisans and bohemians of Scotland, a gushing piece about it in the Galloway News led me here and yes, here is the chocolatiers looking like the witches house in Hansel and Gretel, so alluring and pretty but I fear to step within, not because of witches but because I suspect the prices won’t be from a halcyon past. Here are the quiet modest bistros next to spotless simple houses with fake flowers in the window and The Georges Hotel with a beer garden that is simply a field, benches and nature. It also has an excitingly named Tramps Hole and is one of those quintessentially Scottish places that are so steeped in blood and history, it is taken as a modest given, not to be wrapped up in ribbon, glorified, sold to tourists and made into a paying attraction.

There are monuments to martyrs here, graves to the murdered religious dissenters known as covenanters but this is not a hewn from the rocks ‘authentic Scottish Experience’. Many of the voices heard are of the well-fed English variety and charming bistros with prices in the teens are not an integral aspect of every small Scottish town.

But a sign in the village store amongst the ads for folk festivals and art events  warns people that they will not be served alcohol until 10am.

We have heard good things about the Green Tea House cafe  but I am suspicious, as The Galloway News never seems to write anything actually negative about Scottish food establishments. It is however an exercise in how to make your tea room the best damn tea room in town. I did have a slight yearning towards the pub as tea rooms make me think of old ladies in an overheated florid room gorging on crumbling old cakes and talking with sweet venom about their relatives but this tea room is lofty, minimal yet cosy with a garden, a fireplace and big shuttered windows overlooking dark dark trees. The organic menu is a good blend of veggie and non-veggie and my aubergine and tomato bake, salad wedges and salad an immense thing of wonder for under six pounds. There is a slightly awkward moment when having tried the healthy herb salt on the table and declaring it like something used to cut cocaine with, I ask for real salt and am politely yet firmly refused. Not that it needed it to be fair. The cakes are of the sort that would be served at high tea to beaming mop haired children from Enid Blyton, groaning with cream, jam and chocolate and it is everything one could ask for but has spoilt me now as I use it to measure other places and they always come up substandard which fills me with a grim pleasure as I do not know how and if I shall ever be able to find my way back to this strange little oasis in the middle of nowhere.