How do you describe the indescribable? How would you sum up a city to a stranger who’s just alighted there – by using pictures? Words? Smells, even? If you were given a paragraph – in fact, let’s make it a Tweet – in which to summate your home town, what would you say? ‘Big famous castle, volcanic rock, tartan, tourist, festival, summertime, fireworks, military tattoo’. Is that Edinburgh? Or is that just the picture postcard version of Edinburgh? OK, how about this: ‘Tonic, kickabout, helfi jeeftos, Meadows, sound I’ll get ya later, pretentious wanks, bongo hippies, bloody bagpiper, Muirhoose, but seriously, you shoulda seen the dirties in Cav, Auld Reekie yeah.’ Still not enough, is it?
Is Edinburgh Edinburgh because of an edifice upon a rock or a man upon a seat? Is it the big things that define a city – the vainglorious public works, the testaments to man’s folly, forever hewn (partially) out of stone upon Calton Hill? What truly epitomises the sacred EH postcode – is it a statue of a dog that resides in the hearts and photo albums of every Japanese tourist? Or is it the throngs of Starbucks-clutching commuters pacing towards Haymarket, as surly as their southern Tube-traveling counterparts? Is it the people who make this place so great, or is Edinburgh inherently awesome without human infestation? If you exiled all the Burgh residents and filled the city with Brummies or Weegies instead, would it still be the same?
160 characters might not be enough to capture the essence of Auld Reekie, but then neither’s 1600, or even 16,000. Mere words could never replicate the experience of exiting Waverley for the first time and being hit by that indescribable brewery smell. They could never conjure up the aromas of the Mosque Kitchen or the scent of damp grass and fallen cherry blossoms in the Meadows after the rain. Nor could they do justice to the sound of a dozen angry drivers, honking horns at Tolcross junction as they stew in the rush hour gridlock. The idle chatter of well-heeled lovelies sipping prosecco on George Street’s terraces as they ponder whether to wear the pink Versace dress or the cerise Givenchy number to dinner. Weaving through tourists on the Royal Mile, evading predatory charity workers on Princes Street and ignoring strategically-placed Romanian beggars. Catching snatches of busked melodies in Bristo Square, dodging apprentice skateboarders and battle rappers spitting savage bars. (‘You think you’re higher than me but you’ll drop like a stalactite, shanked when your crew rises up like a stalagmite.’)
Gazing in wonder at statues of generals fallen in battles you’ve never heard of and will never understand. The slurred speech of toothless junkies doing send-ons in the post office for their boys in Saughton, the theatrical overtones of ghost tours on the Grassmarket, amateur thespians recounting tales that have been told, retold and embellished so many times as to bear no resemblance to the original events, but hey, what a story. Jugglers balancing skittles in the Meadows and balance sheet analysts juggling figures on Lothian Road. The boom of the one o’clock gun and the silence of the Edinburgh trams. Strolling past antique bookshops after hours and spying vintage-clothed coteries of ginger-moustached gentlemen and polka dot ladies reading Ulysses aloud. Exchanging glances with androgynous strangers on Leith Walk, spilling out of Easter Road at 4.45 and straight into The Iona. Trying to walk up Cockburn Street in the snow. Ducking down closes to blaze joints and recycle pints. Ogling strangers in the Costcutter. Tagging walls in the Innocent Tunnel. Giving directions in bad French to bemused Spanish tourists. Wondering what the bus terminus at Silverknowes looks like. Using the word ‘barry’. Dodging rickshaws while clutching carry-outs. Passing Parliament and thinking ‘What a waste’. Getting sweaty in Sneaky Pete’s, exhaling as you enter Cab Vol. From the bottom of Leith docks to the tip of Arthur’s Seat, observing everything and yet visiting nothing ‘because that stuff’s for the tourists’ even though it’s just as relevant to Burgh boys and Burgh girls.
How do you describe a city like Edinburgh? You don’t have to really – it describes itself.