chance alignments ii: leith
There’s something thrilling about the perceptual melting of solids into aether; in seeing taken for granted, constants swirling like ignis fatui over the surface of your rationalising mind. What is your home but the interception of flows, the confluence of identities, energies, genres and economies, all condensed and congealed into the very walls of your room? What are you but a phenocryst in a slow-moving mountain?
While dropping acid may certainly encourage and accelerate the kicking out of perceptual jams, your mind can be altered as described in much more ordinary ways.
Consider the city of York. It exists today because over two thousand years ago, a populace congregated around a meeting of two rivers, the River Foss and River Ouse (pronounced /ˈuːz/, like ooze, or “to flow or leak out slowly, as through small openings”), which sustained the settlement until the age of rail.
If you were to compile a graph of word usage in Edinburgh in the past week, you’d see a spike in “bye,” “take care,” and “see you soon;” it’s the end of summer, and for most of my friends and acquaintances, that means the end of leases and the end of postgraduate study. I’ve been surprised by the intensity of feeling that’s come out of me and others in these ‘End Times.’ Last-minute bonding, a confession or two over one more drink, the most impressive of man hugs, one final fist-bump; our behavior seemed incomprehensible, especially when many of us had knowingly conspired to avoid each other during the year. As one friend put it, we favored text messages for the time they allowed for coming up with the perfect reason to say “no.” Faced with something oceanic, I ran through a checklist, trying to pin it down: it’s the alcohol, the nostalgia, the intensity of one-year programs abroad, or the fear of having to, yet again, make new friends in a new city. Finally, I succumbed to the feeling, drew faint contours around it and accepted it as genuine and mutual.
From the perspective for those beyond the departure gates, I am now—to use another friend’s expression—one of the “remainders.” I’ve left the Old Town for the inner city, but have the luxury of walking past my old room and seeing my old view. Perhaps one day I may even meet the student who will peer out my old window. While my friends fly off to kick-start new plans, I stay behind and reflect, finding myself invited to housewarmings.
I spent the last two or three months before my trip to Beirut hunting for an apartment in Leith, that port burgh (/ˈbʌrə/) made famous by Trainspotting and The Proclaimers. The village-turned town-turned neighborhood is itself a material exemplar of the hard-to-code and -parametricise, its geographical contours fuzzy for centuries. Your expectations of the place will also shift according to your milieu; some will tell you over and over again how Leith is where the cool kids of Auld Reekie hang out, while others will describe it as “dangerous” or “rough.”
Go for a walk and you may stumble upon the Autonomous Center of Edinburgh, and on the corner of St Anthony Lane and St Anthony Place, adjacent to a supermarket parking lot, you’ll find “a purpose built Masonic temple bearing carved images of the pentangle and Templar Tau crosses under the roof.”
Though I’m currently in a room not quite within its borders—wikipedia defines this fuzzy region as the “inner city area between central Edinburgh and Leith”—I’ve found myself obsessing over Leither history. It reads like the story of an old dog that’s been kicked around too many times:
Recurrent destruction? Sectarian conflict? Intrigue with foreign powers, military occupation, and a war ending in stalemate: no victors, no vanquished? Sounds like a place I know.
Leith was officially incorporated into Edinburgh in 1920 despite the fact that “the people of Leith had no wish to see their town lose its identity,” voting an insane 26,810 to 4,340 against the amalgamation. As consolation for their forced marriage, the city gave Leithers a public library that just celebrated its 80th anniversary. To mark the occasion, at 11 a.m. on 20th July, that same library hosted a ceremony in which one portion of Leith’s distinct identity—its ‘heraldic rights’—was returned. A historian had been fighting for this for a while, bringing new meaning to Leith’s old motto: “persevere.”
Indeed the tensions between Leith and Edinburgh are centuries old. As far back as 1398, “Edinburgh got its first foothold in the port,” when the local feudal laird “sold the superiority of the Shore, with the right to free access thereto through the village of Leith” to the city. Over the years, Edinburgh — though a royal burgh entitled to many trade advantages — grew weary of having the lesser “burgh of barony only a mile and a half from the city itself. […] Edinburgh complained that Leith tradesmen undersold their city counterparts, and alleged that the standards of Leith incorporations were inferior to those of the city” (Marshall, 1983: 4).
If this ancient parable of the big fish eating the little one weren’t enough to suck me in, the very act of reading about it flares up strange pleasures in me. Reading about this place triggers the erotics of an Edgar Allan Poe short story—a particularly obsessional one, like The Gold-Bug—or Danielewski’s House of Leaves. “With the existence of [A], one can confirm that Leith had become a [B]; and since [C] claim to have been formed in [X], there is no good reason to question this date.” The very form of the narrative (like a five-and-a-half minute hallway, not quite making sense), and the sheer complexity of it all is half the fun of navigating this town.
Leith is full of stories, like the 1609 show trial of “the skeleton of Robert Logan, laird of Restalrig, who had died in 1606.” Stand near the intersection of Easter Road and Duke Street, and you’ll see a tourist information sign nonchalantly highlighting this bizarre tale: Logan was exhumed and tried for allegedly taking part in the Gowrie conspiracy of 1600, in which King James accused the Earl of Gowrie of having attempted to kill him while at his residence. The good king managed to escape and “ther wes sic dancing and mirrines all the nicht,” though many were suspicious of his story as he was known for being “an excitable, highly strung man who was permanently in fear of witchcraft.” Furthermore, “Logan had a bad reputation, but his involvement with Gowrie was completely unexpected at the time.” (Marshall, 1983: 23-24). David Lindsay, friend of the king, conducted a mass of thanksgiving for the his well being; Lindsay was the minister of the South Leith Parish Church, the same church where Logan’s skeleton, now the remains of a traitor, but also the bones of a Freemason, were found in 1847 during renovations. Supposedly his jaw was missing, which apparently is a masonic punishment. As you can imagine, some have been obsessing over the dark meanings behind this grisly affair ever since.
You may be reading all this and wondering about the point. All places have secrets and all cities are interesting; why choose one over another? Why feel anything for anyone, really? There are too just many faces to absorb, too many moments to share, too much empathy to offer and receive; you cannot possibly give it all. This is why city life in many parts of the world seems to revolve around the systematic ignoring of others; we glance fleetingly, sometimes catching a smile, other times even responding with one of our own, but always selectively. This is not because the city is inherently cold; it’s because there’s too much love in the world. We cut off the flow to redirect it most intensely to those we choose to keep within our bounds.
Faced with something oceanic, you run through a checklist, trying to pin it down. There’s so much more I could tell you.
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