“For the visitor this must surely be the best tour available. For the resident, The Edinburgh Book Lovers’ Tour is a masterclass in presenting our city to visitors.”
“Don’t expect a crowd.” As I pick my way towards the Writer’s Museum I can’t help wondering if Allan Foster hasn’t rather overdone things in the modesty department. En route to the rendezvous I pass assorted aldermen, literary luminaries and even the odd Duke (it’s a truism of getting older that policemen and Dukes all start looking younger). But it turns out that the gathered host aren’t in Lady Stair’s Close to join The Edinburgh Book Lovers’ Tour.
My host explains that a memorial is being unveiled to Gavin Douglas (1474-1522) (no?..me neither) the priest, poet and statesman who translated the Aeneid into Middle Scots. Presumably paint dried faster at the turn of the 16th century, thus offering less spectacle, so this is how they spent their time. Douglas is the 37th writer to be commemorated with an inscribed flagstone – handy for that direct form of criticism alluded to in Byron’s lament for Castlereagh. I will not find anything good to say about the flagstone commemorations until the organisers cease to shun McGonagall.
I have an awful lot good to say about Foster’s approach to guiding, starting with the way he rides out the noisy intrusion into his routine by the horde of newly fledged Douglas groupies. The weather is on our side but even so Foster’s laconic embrace acts like an umbrella on our small party, shielding we few from the outside elements. It’s an odd thing taking a walking tour through one’s own regular haunts – unsettling almost. That is until you remember how much fun you will have over the coming months lecturing anyone fortunate enough to be in company with you on the Southside’s glorious (and not so glorious) literary heritage. Foster is not short of an opinion or three but he is better than most (present author included) at separating his commentary from reportage.
Our route takes us from the Writer’s Museum, across the Royal Mile to Parliament Square, down Barrie’s Close, along the Cowgate to the Old Infirmary, up Drummond Street through the Potterrow Port and via George Square, before concluding beside Greyfriars.
Along the way we are treated to a grand narrative, illustrated with dozens of facts trivial and otherwise. My two companions are a journalist and English professor from daaahn sauff and Newfoundland respectively. I enjoy chatting to them as we pass from point to point. This is not such familiar geography for them but then they have sailed to Treasure Island, peered under morgue sheets with Rebus, played Quidditch with Potter and gazed upon the gently rolling eyes induced by Scott’s best romantic vistas.
This rain-soaked ground we Edinbuggers bustle about on is holy. It slowly dawns on me how much we are taking for granted. It’s not just the sack of Robert Louis Stevenson’s beloved Rutherford’s Bar by pirates of the Caribbean. Nor how little bronze or marble denotes the untended springs of creativity sacred to Clio, Calliope, Melpomene and their sisters. It’s the sinking feeling that we are not much better than the historically illiterate residents of Worcester who met messrs Adams and Jefferson with such bemused incomprehension and contempt.
Scott was derided in his own life for writing popular trash unworthy of a gentleman of letters. Despite huge sales and an even larger intellectual impact (especially, much to the regret of Mark Twain, in the American South) the true identity of “The Author of Waverley” was kept an open secret in case it sullied Scott’s true reputation as a provincial lawyer. Foster does not avoid questions of taste when discussing Edinburgh’s literary present but does identify them as secondary and somewhat unbecoming. Foster is not crippled by paroxysms of grief, as is one former literary editor of the North Britischer newspaper of my acquaintance, when he thinks on the work McCall Smith, Rowling and Ranking COULD be writing – what matters is that they ARE writing (and, incidentally, are being read by millions).
For the visitor this must surely be the best tour available. For the resident, The Edinburgh Book Lovers’ Tour is a masterclass in presenting our city to visitors. Unlike the former literary editor and his discredited vintage of print pundits there is nothing in Foster cringing or apologetic. The plaque to Rowling just above eye level across from Old College is treated with as much deference as are those to Stevenson or McGonagall across the way. Knowledgeable and in the know, he must navigate the tour by all the names he drops, Foster is informed and informative. Lyrically laconic but also hugely welcoming. A civic ambassador extraordinaire.
When my own father awakes from his notion that Auld Reekie, Brigadoon-like, disappears into the September mist at the end of each successive Fringe I shall be paying to take him on this tour.
Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 15 November)
Visit The Edinburgh Book Lovers’ Tour homepage here.