As a brand-new UNESCO City of Literature, what can Seattle learn from the world’s first City of Literature? A writer spends four bookish days in historic Edinburgh.
Late last year, after a five-year effort, Seattle was named a UNESCO City of Literature, one of 28 world cities honored by the United Nations organization. As an admirer of Seattle’s readers, writers, bookstores, libraries and all things literary I was chuffed, as the Brits would say.
But what IS a city of literature, exactly, and how will Seattle measure up? In late spring my spouse surprised me with a trip to London and a side trip to Edinburgh, the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature! I braced for total immersion in words, authors and literary history in the cradle of Scottish culture. I was not disappointed — indeed, I was overwhelmed — but if I were the folks over at our local city of lit, I would be a little cowed by what Seattle has to live up to. Read along for some highlights of 72 hours in Edinburgh:
We walked out of the rail station and into Edinburgh’s Old Town. A quick primer: Edinburgh’s historic districts are divided into two sectors, Old Town and New Town. Edinburgh is really, really old (1,400 years older than Seattle) and Old Town is its oldest precinct, crammed with looming stone edifices stained black during the Coal Age. New Town, built when overcrowding and filth got so bad in Old Town the wealthy of Edinburgh couldn’t stand it anymore, is less commercial, less crowded, and beautifully laid out, with rows of perfectly proportioned Georgian terraces marching up and down the hills. But Old Town has the deep history of Scotland’s literary past, so we went out into it.
A gorgeous twilight gilded the cobblestones, and my husband, admiring the view, spotted the office of Jackson Brodie, Edinburgh writer Kate Atkinson’s great detective creation, featured in the BBC version of her four Brodie books. I longed for a glimpse of Jackson, one of the great heartthrobs of detective literature, but all I found was a memorial to his possible distant cousin, Edinburgh con man, gambler and thief Deacon Brodie, who went too far when he stole the ceremonial mace of the University of Edinburgh.
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We walked downhill into the Grassmarket, an old town square and place of execution where public hangings were once all the rage. Our tour guides at the Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour put on a “Clart and McBrain” show, which features a literary bohemian and a “clean-hankied intellectual” arguing with each other. They discussed and disputed about Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, two writers I have not thought about in almost 40 years, and there were wink-wink references to “hoorin’ ” (whoring) and other non-literary activities. There was beer — a beer at each stop! I asked “McBrain” if she had heard of Kate Atkinson. “Kate Atkinson?” she said politely. I died a little, but she did own up to having heard of Alexander McCall Smith. More on him later.
We took the double-decker circle bus tour, a great way to see a hilly city. We got off in New Town, in search of the Oxford Bar, hangout of Edinburgh writer Ian Rankin’s immortal creation, Inspector John Rebus.
Rebus is one of those characters who is so authentic, some readers just have to believe he exists. This was old news to our bluff Scottish tour guide, because Rebus fans always hop off the bus at the stop nearest to the bar.
And so we did. We trudged down another cobblestone street and into a series of cool, small rooms, where three local duffers sat, quaffed their 10 a.m. beers and provided commentary on the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, taking place at that moment in Windsor and airing on the establishment’s TV. A sleek young bartender kept the drinks coming, but when one duffer let fly with a ribald comment, she said “John, you just ruined my life.”
The Oxford Bar barely owns up to its international literary significance — you can’t even buy a T-shirt. We drank our beers in a side room, flanked by a gentleman in vest and suspenders writing in a tiny journal. As we prepared to leave we were slipped a bookmark by the bartender, who could spot a Rebus fan a mile away. Then a couple with AMERICAN TOURIST tattooed on their respective foreheads burst through the door. “I want to see where John Rebus drinks!” the man demanded, while his partner examined her shoes. The barkeep gave him a cool look. “He’s a fictional character,” she said. They did not get a bookmark.
Saturday evening: The hour before dark Old Town seethes with spookiness creates an uncanny atmosphere that has inspired generations of writers, including the author of one of the world’s most popular fantasy series.
J.K. Rowling was a young mother in Edinburgh when she started writing the Harry Potter books, and like many of her ilk, she needed to either get out in public or go mad. She camped out in Old Town coffee shops, including the Elephant House in Old Town, a tea and coffee spot now permanently on the Harry Potter world tour.
For inspiration, she would walk the paths of the cemetery behind the shop, Greyfriars Kirkyard, ground zero for Scottish spooks. Edinburgh has been burying its dead there for 500 years. There are more than 700 graves, monuments and crumbling vaults, festooned with dancing skeletons and skulls with wings. Before the age of antibiotics, Death paid frequent visits, and during the civil wars that ravaged England and Scotland, 1,200 Scottish rebels were imprisoned here; only 400 survived, and they were sent into slavery in Barbados.
Back to Jo Rowling. She has suggested that the kirkyard headstones inspired the names of some of her characters. One that has attracted pilgrimages, flowers and fan notes is the grave of Tom Riddle, an Edinburghian buried in the 19th century. As all Harry Potter fans know, Tom Riddle was the original identity of Harry Potter’s arch enemy Lord Voldemort. Like Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Straight-up Tom Riddle was Voldemort in disguise.
I kept company on a wall by Riddle’s grave with another pilgrim at least 30 years younger than me. In my mind’s eye I could see Rowling, standing in the perpetual Scottish rain in late November, writing in a disintegrating notebook and wondering if her novel-writing would ever come to anything. The human imagination is a strange and spooky thing.
We stormed the gates of Edinburgh Castle, which sits on top of a rock overlooking the city and has harbored its defenders since the 12th century. We walked by the old medical school, where Arthur Conan Doyle studied, and passed Robert Louis Stevenson’s home on elegant Heriot Row, where as a sickly child he watched the streets until dawn and where the lamps that inspired his poem “The Lamplighter” still stand. We regrouped with a meal at the Cumberland Bar, a gastropub in New Town where the characters of Alexander McCall Smith’s “44 Scotland Street” series hang out. I have met Smith, famous for his “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective “series, and I really hoped he would show up, for he is a delightful person and being a polite Scot, he might have bought us a drink. He did not, and we had to content ourselves with eavesdropping on a conversation among three Scottish academics bemoaning the fact that real estate prices were ruining their city. I felt right at home. We looked for 44 Scotland Street and learned that the house numbers end at 43.
Back to London on the train. As we chugged south over the Yorkshire dales I pondered what Seattle could learn from Edinburgh. Random thoughts:
• Seattle loves to help the underdog, but it needs to honor writers who have won the struggle and put the city on the map, from Theodore Roethke to Betty MacDonald, from Timothy Egan to Daniel James Brown. How about a literary map of Seattle? How about imitating London’s blue plaque program, along the lines of “Richard Hugo Drank Here”?
• Build a decent website with an interactive literary map. Make it easy for a literary tourist to visit.
• Highlight and discuss the works of authors who have written splendid books about the region’s deep history, the thousands of years before the whites came. Coll Thrush’s “Native Seattle” and David Buerge’s “Chief Seattle” come to mind, but there are many others.
I’m done pontificating. I had a great time in Edinburgh. If you love literature and don’t mind crowds, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, billed as the world’s largest, runs Aug. 11-27. Nine hundred featured authors. Now that’s something to aspire to.