On Glasgow and Edinburgh


On Glasgow and Edinburgh
By Robert Crawford
Belknap/Harvard University Press – £20.00

And through thy heart, as though a dream
Flows on that black disdainful stream;
All scornfully it flows,
Between the huddled gloom of masts,
Silent as pines unvexed by blasts
‘Tween lamps in streaming rows.
O wondrous sight! O stream of dread!
O long dark river of the dead!

                                                                    ‘Glasgow’/Alexander Smith

Ask almost anyone in Glasgow about how they’d compare themselves to people in Edinburgh, and nine times out of ten, they’ll always come back with: ”we are far more friendlier.” Ask the equivalent in Edinburgh, and they’ll more often than not reply: we are far more cultured.”

As is probably well known, the cities enjoy an infamously internecine relationship; a relationship (if such it can be called) anchored in such other intercity rivalries that persist all around the world to this day – like Barcelona and Madrid in Spain and Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia.

That said, Scotland’s ”sparring metropolises just happen to be so much smaller and closer together – like twins orbiting a common axis.” Clearly, such assessment is forever going to be debatable, although in a round-a-bout sort of way, I have to concur that Glasgow and Edinburgh are reminiscent of twins that orbit ”a common axis.”

On Glasgow and Edinburgh, finds the poet and critic Robert Crawford, divulging all that is attractive and appealing, interesting and idiosyncratic about both cities in equal measure. Hence the book being divided into two parts, wherein its 316 pages (not including Further Reading, List of Illustrations, Credits, Acknowledgements and Index) perceptively assimilate that which is both good and bad. As the author of Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt, Richard Holloway writes: ”This book is a beautiful idea lovingly accomplished. It is high time that the old ugly rivalry between Glasgow and Edinburgh ended, and this book shows us how to do it. Like an inspirational couples counsellor, Robert Crawford suggests that bigamy is the answer: we should learn to love both of these great cities with equal passion. He does, and so do I. You should try it, too.”

As mentioned at the outset, having spent time in both (really terrific) cities, I’d have to concur that people in Glasgow really are among the friendliest I’ve ever come across; while Edinburgh – although clearly not Vienna or Paris – really is something of a cultured confluence of the arts and architecture.

Crawford touches on as much in the chapter, ‘Edinburgh – ‘The Royal Mile: From the Castle to a Song” where he writes: ”Around St. Giles, lawyers come and go as they have done for centuries. Yet for a few weeks each summer since 1947, the Edinburgh Festival has put a very different complexion on things. Once the Festival was all opera and high culture; several of T. S. Eliot’s plays were premiered there. Gradually, however, the official Festival has been engorged by its huge ”Fringe,” which features all sorts of performances, ranging from stand-up comedy to students’ Shakespeare.”

Having spent an entire month acting in a play at the Fringe, I would in all honesty have to say there’s a huge element of much ado about nothing attached to the Fringe.

That’s to say, Edinburgh stands on its own; it really doesn’t need some of the crass injection that the Fringe unfortunately has to offer. After all, ”the Castle Rock called Edinburgh into being. Ever since the first few houses clustered round the castle, no city in the world has had a more spectacular medieval centrepiece. Once crucial for defence, surveillance, and maintaining order, the Castle remains a British military barracks but is now principally for looking at. Unfailingly photogenic, it still appears, as England’s John Taylor put it in his Pennyles Pilgrimage of 1618, ”so strongly grounded, bounded, and founded, that by force of man it can never bee confounded.””

So utterly readable and exceedingly enjoyable, On Glasgow and Edinburgh is more critically astute than a Will Self trouble-shooter.

David Marx


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