Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Brand New Day: Hippies and Homesicklessness in Edinburgh

From my three paned window on Argyle Place I can look down on three green grocers, two organic supermarkets and a sliver of the meadows that runs from the end of my street across to Greyfriar's. This might not sound like heaven but after four months of travelling, the homeliest comforts delight me. I have spent my time in Edinburgh working on my writing in an almost vegetative state.

But I am enamoured with this city; the tan and grey flats with their turreted chimneys seem immune to the anachronism they impose above the mini-vans and public buses. This is Edinburgh – a city of numerous discourses stretching to the bay, the walls of the castle and the peak of Arthur's Seat risen like the standards of opposing armies, man's will and nature's inscrutability sat opposite a grim labyrinth of stone.

It is a profound pleasure to make this ancient metropolis my home.


After four months of travel through South East Asia I arrived in England with a shudder. Lara and I were collected by her uncle and cousin and driven four hours on the A5 alongside moonlit hedgerows and off-ramps to a deep, warm bed in Devon. We spent a fortnight there and on days that we didn't venture out to Dartmouth or Brixham or Paignton we stayed indoors, working on old projects or reading and sleeping in. And then there were the beaches.

When we arrived in Edinburgh I'd grown to love the comfort of Lara's family; Malcolm cleaning your tea spoon the second it touched the saucer, Aunty Chris calling us up for lunch at one o'clock, ham and tomato rolls with packets of crisps on the side. I was going to miss the evening news, toast racks and jam spoons and always another cup of tea. It is indulgent but entirely true that travelling tires you out.

It was midnight when our coach pulled into St Andrew's bus station. Our couch-surfer contact had completely abandoned us earlier that day, explaining that she couldn't put us up for the night, so we arrived with 40+ kilos of luggage, two laptops and a canvas bag of novels with nowhere to put them or ourselves. Finding our way to the backpackers we'd booked for the next night, the staff were kind enough to open the storage room for us. It was the last night of the Fringe but the party had clearly bottomed out. Pubs were shutting and crowds of people were disappearing from the streets.

Only by the mercy of fair Fortuna did we find a bed, crashing with two public school teachers on a rugby field trip. We made with some banter then agreed to pass out together. One of the guys woke up as we were tip-toeing out of the door at nine o'clock and didn't remember who we were. When we explained, he asked the time and on hearing it, rolled back over and went to sleep.

The Hippies

Prepared for a week of house-hunting we actually jigged for joy when the tenants got back to us on the second morning of our search. Lara and I were lucky. The second place we looked at was a beautiful share house next to the meadows with a very laid-back vibe. Five bedrooms with a kitchen on both floors, a massive room with high ceilings and a magical attic full of goblins and mice. But the house also came with a history.

One of the older flatmates, a tall, amiable hippy named John, stayed with us for a week on the couch while he attempted to sort out two years worth of council bills that had been archived in the mailbox. He still drops in from time to time (unannounced of course) and it's never quite surprising to find him at the stove making a massive vegan stew or maybe just smoking in the backyard. It's that sort of place.

5 Argyle Place is home to hippies of all shapes and sizes. We have two long-term lodgers, Andy and Gaton, who have been living in the attic since early September. Their dog Manya, a Husky/Staffordshire puppy, lives here as well, bounding up the stairs and piddling on anything of any worth or value. We live with music – Mike (a housemate) is an accomplished guitarist and gigged professionally until recently. Our lodgers Andy and Gaton still gig for a living and Andrew (the downstairs flatmate) teaches music and plays the Highland pipes in a Ceilidh band during the week. Even the door bell adds a rhythm to the house as it rings off the hook, visitors coming and going at all hours.

Somehow I've been talked into a Samhuinn parade by another former flatmate. Much like the parade of my own life I smile, shrug and get to it. One has few opportunities in life to operate the mechanical right arm of a frost giant.


Meanwhile, I fell into a weird sort of apathy. After a year working full time with Lara staying home to write, when our positions were reversed I found myself doting on her, waiting for her to spend time with me. With no one I knew and nothing productive to do I kept gmail open, hoping for a response to a journal submission or for a friend to reply to a letter. It wasn't until I caught myself pacing the floor that I realised I needed to get out of the house.

Two months later and I force myself out the door everyday, fighting off cabin fever by walking a familiar path over the cobblestones. I write for an hour or two in the public reference library then cross to the museum, walking among Celtic claymores and reconstructed steam engines. There is one exhibit that always holds my attention for some time – the fossilised skeleton of a massive buck, from the ground to the top of the ribs easily two meters, a massive rack of antlers riveted together. The specimen is from a now extinct species of deer, presumed to have lived in what was then Scotland over four thousand years ago.

I think of the men and women who lived in these frozen, fecund isles and I imagine what it must have been like to see that massive buck stepping from a copse of pines, grunting a safety call to his does in the rising dawn. In this gothic, vaulted town I can reach out and grab a handful of history wherever I go. And even better, it's a place to hang my socks.


This is my Edinburgh. A sensate mess that I watch from the relative silence of my window. I have yet to do more than dip my toe into this life, still shell-shocked by my months on the road. I am aware of some invisible festival gathering on the moors but stay inside, shivering as the wind rattles the panes. The sun thrusts from behind a cloud only to be buried in rain an hour later. The ale flows and so do I, down the cobblestones, past the grey squirrels bounding across the grass, over the graves and on, the city an addled and livid dream of some ancient, heavy sleeper.

After so much talk of homelessness, it's nice to feel like the city wants me here.

Daniel East is on Greenwich Mean Time.

1 comment:

  1. I am an artist who wants to move back to my homeland after many you have a spare room?