Thursday, 4 June 2015

Twenty Years Ago I Moved to Edinburgh

We would sit at the top of our fire escape and drink red wine from the bottle. Up here we were far above Thistle Street and Hanover Street, level with the purple slate of the rooftops and the honey coloured lights in those lonely cobbled alleys. I used to think the lampposts looked like illuminated giraffes peering into our warehouse windows at night.

Ours was the coldest flat I’d ever lived in, even in the height of summer. Edinburgh was a shock to the system at first. I loved it all: the hops in the air from the brewery and the garlicy steam from the Italian restaurant kitchen at the bottom of our narrow lane. I loved the ice on the tall sash windows in the morning and the simplicity of having five pounds a day to live off. It was my first time in a new city, apart from my university town of Lancaster. This was a place I’d chosen to live in myself, and it was somewhere that had nothing to do with a course or qualifications or any kind of work other than the writing I wanted to do.

We would go to the Blue Moon café on Broughton Street, at the apex of the city’s gay Triangle, and sit in the back room, where they played records all night and served pints of lager and nachos dripping and molten with sour cream and golden cheese and fierce jalapenos. Any time of day or night we would sit at their glossy tables on rickety kitchen chairs and talk about where we thought we were up to in our lives and what we wanted to do next. It was one of those times of trying to figure out just what to make of it all. We were in our mid-twenties. It was 1995. Everything was cool and easy. It was all about Britpop and loving new pop music and digging out the Beatles and the Stones LPs and glorying in being Common People, like Pulp reminded us to do, and at the same time there was a buzz in the air about Scottish stuff, about Scottish fiction and films and dialogue-heavy prose, stiff with sweet and sour dialects. Arriving right at the start of the summer, with all the arty festivals and stuff about to begin, it felt as if we were bang in the middle of something.

And what was I doing? I guess I was on a mission. I was writing my journals in cafes. I was drawing everyone I could see at the tables around me, whether I was sitting in the Blue Moon, CC Blooms, the National Portrait Gallery or the Filmhouse café bar. I’d have a pencil case crammed with felt tip pens, some missing tops and bleeding colour everywhere, and I would scribble away, drawing details from life, capturing every quirk and expression of the folk I was earwigging on as they forked up sticky cake or slurped pints of bitter or genteely sipped their cups of tea. Each day I’d pack my haversack with books and pens and novels and set forth, exploring each corner of the city. Drinking it all in, cup after cup. I wrote down almost everything I heard, glorying in the gossip once I keyed into the various accents. I thought long and hard and listlessly and let the thoughts just tumble through my head and onto the page. I made myself over-excited and crazily inventive, letting my diaries and stories go wherever they wanted to go. I also made myself thoroughly upset and miserable sometimes, dwelling on the past and things that had gone wrong, or those that had never been right. I depressed myself at times in the way that you inevitably do when you think long and hard about your life and what it’s all adding up to and you start to realise with horror how lonely you actually feel, sitting there amongst strangers with your coloured pens and scribbly pages and a cooling cup of coffee.

But mostly I was excited. I was deciding for myself where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. I wanted the life of a writer and I wanted to find a boyfriend. I wanted to grab hold of the next bit of my life. I put myself out there into the world and all its dizzy silliness, determined to make sure that when I bumped into the rest of my life and my future I would recognize it. I wouldn’t be tempted to remain sitting indoors and missing out on it all. I would stand as good a chance as anyone of being in the right place at the right time and welcoming happiness in.

So, I was at every fringe play I liked the sound of – traipsing up staircases into attic theatres high above the city; I was making dates to have coffee with men I chatted to in bars, I went to parties with friends and friends of friends, meeting lots people my own age and getting along and finding that they were just as mad with indecision and excitement about life as I was. Those that weren’t as dizzy were those who’d already embarked on their careers and they were harassed and tired and they couldn’t wait to get out at the weekend or every week night, downing tequila slammers or staying up all night dancing in dry ice in underground car parks that boomed with ambient noise.

I wrote until my fingers were sore and I learned to switch to my other hand to draw. I made myself ambidextrous because I wanted to fill even more of the time and even more of the pages with everything I could record or make up. I drank myself stone drunk night after night with my flat mate and we’d roll back through the Old Town and the New Town, hooting with laughter or inconsolable with misery and then we’d help each other clamber the six deadly flights of fire escape to our flat at the very end of Thistle Street.

Whether we got home at two, three or five in the morning, and whether we were doleful, gleeful or numbed by exhaustion, we would put the same record on several times, full blast, before bedtime and bounce up and down, jumping on the sofa and the armchair until the springs and cushions went shapeless. Our song was Love is in the Air. It was our song for those months of feeling utterly free, despondent, poor and queasily smashed and like we could do anything, anything at all. It was our song for quite a long time that year. Love was in the air. More than anything we were in love with the idea of at last becoming ourselves.

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