Christmas allows many a bit of a timeout from work and its attendant concerns. The wintry weather provides an ideal opportunity to engross yourself in a book. I was given a copy of A Diary of Edinburgh
(1981) as a present. Compiled by the historian and journalist Trevor Royle and beautifully Illustrated by Richard Demarco, it proved to be an absorbing companion while sipping and scoffing.
Structured like a normal diary, the book has individual entries for every day of the year. It stretches across a wide range of topics, from great cultural achievements to unsavoury aspects of the city. These include 'the fetted streets of the old town' and the various criminal figures who have lurked in its dank closes, including the 'resurrectionists' (aka bodysnatchers).
Though a product of a different era, the form and character of the book is surprisingly contemporary. The short, narrowly-focused entries have a lot in common with the 'listicles' which proliferate online ('10 best Instagram spots in Edinburgh', 'The Most Scenic Walks To Take In Edinburgh', etc). However, the content is much richer and more absorbing than most such articles which often recycle material of questionable veracity. This is a work done by someone with a real feeling and understanding for the city. Even those who have spent many years living in and indeed researching the city, will have many 'I didn't know that' moments. Many contemporary readers will find it amazing that many parts of the Old Town were condemned by the Town Council as being unsafe and unsanitary. Indeed, the book is particularly good in summarising the history behind some of Edinburgh's key buildings and the ways their use and ownership has evolved through time.
The way the book was researched now seems quaint. Royle clearly spent many hours leafing through thick tomes in the NLS and the Central Library's Edinburgh Room ('a mine of information about the city's history') and bundles of press cuttings. Someone seeking to produce a similar book today would find the collation process far more efficient (making use of online newspaper archives, for example) but they may have missed out on some of the serendipity which more old-fashioned research methods may have allowed. In fact, serendipity is one of the great joys of the book, due to the inherent randomness of the entries. This creates numerous interesting juxtapositions. A section on Andrew Duncan and his role in founding 'the City's first humanitarian lunatic asylum', sits next to one on the British Linen Bank.
The book is elegantly written and is judicious in its use of detail – it's no mere 'cuttings job'. Its succinct style makes it a book inherently easy to dip into. It's unsurprising that Royle was, for a number of years, a columnist for the Sunday Herald
, used to chiselling out short pieces. While modern readers might yearn for a detailed index or the ability to search through the text, the lack of these forces you to really focus on the entries, not just idly 'scroll' through them.
Richard Demarco's evocative pen and ink sketches, which punctuate the text, are a real highlight. Demarco produced the sketches in the autumn of 1981, during what he described as 'a 500-mile tour' of the city. As an artist and collaborator, Demarco has been on a constant journey. In his introductory comments, he emphasises 'the need to make a journey through Edinburgh's townscape' on foot to really grasp the character of the city. Edinburgh's inherent 'walkability' helps in this regard.
Demarco has a particular fascination for Edinburgh's closes and sketches of several feature in the book. Though he includes some sketches of the touristy side of Edinburgh (eg Greyfriars Bobby), the sketches give a fairly broad view of Edinburgh, including a number of outlying areas including Cramond, Leith Docks and Colinton Village. Demarco's love of 'the small and secret spaces' of the city predates the now fashionable focus on the 'hidden' or 'unknown' city and its overlooked 'gems'.
A Diary of Edinburgh
is something of a time capsule. It both captures some key aspects of the city's history and also something of the era in which it was researched (and sketched). It takes us back to a time when the airport was called Turnhouse, the Gallery of Modern Art was in the Botanics (in Inverleith House) and when Mary King's Close had not yet been turned into a profitable tourist attraction. The book itself is illustrative of the city's history. Published by Polygon, it speaks of Edinburgh's past as a significant papermaking, publishing, printing and bookselling centre.
There is no shortage of books on the history of Edinburgh but this little gem is well worth revisiting as an absorbing introduction to the city's past.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher based in Edinburgh