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Athens of the North or A Tale of two Beatrices

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

In which no books are mentioned, but some poetry is recited to an article of clothing.

Beatrice I

This blog is mostly about writing and the arts, with particular reference to Cornwall. But travel is so strongly associated with writing, or at least the kind of writing that I do, that when business, or a conference, or sheer restlessness, induces me to leave the southwest, I’ll probably get something down about it. Travel seems to involve all manner of things that make good material: novelty; mild risk; time to look around and observe, or to look inward and reflect. And of course the writer rubs up (sometimes literally) against other people who are experiencing these same phenomena. I like to think this makes travellers a little more open to serendipity, generosity and the unexpected.

What I had lined up was a three-day trip to Edinburgh, the city where I was born. This was not a literary trip, but a birthday treat to myself. I was heading to Murrayfield, the home of Scottish rugby, (which happens to be a few hundred yards from my own first family home) to watch Scotland play France. Zipped away in a hidden pocket of my luggage was a platinum grade ticket that I was petrified of losing, and I had a decent guest house booked a couple of hundred yards from Princes St. On investigating the travel options a few months previously I had been pleasantly surprised to find that a train left my local station (fifteen minutes’ walk from Casa Frugal) at 6.50 am, and that the same train promised to deposit me in Edinburgh at 5.15pm. This appealed on several levels.

As I write this the UK is in the early stages of Coronavirus awareness, which is to say there have been a couple of deaths and a few hundred documented incidences of infection, and panic buying is just starting to move beyond hand sanitizer (which several people tell me is an inadequate prophylactic anyway) to toilet roll and pasta. I was interested to observe any signs of anti-viral measures being taken by my fellow passengers. In the interests of research, I walked the length of the train, but I saw only one face mask, this a bright red one with “Mask” written on it in white lettering, which perfectly matched the red bandana that the young man was also wearing. So, an arguably sensible precaution mixed with a bit of self-referential irony and a dash of chic.

More prosaic was the couple across the aisle from me, who ostentatiously sanitized (Is that fair? Is there such a thing as discreet sanitizing?) before eating their sandwiches. They also got through a bottle and a half of red wine between Cheltenham and Newcastle. They were both wearing Scotland shirts, so were clearly on the way to the game. I was carrying a bit of a niggling cold myself, symptoms of which, following the “this-is-the-way- we-sanitise” demo, I felt inclined to suppress. Had I actually sneezed, I think I would have felt obliged to leap from my seat and throw myself between my fellow passengers and any offending droplets while wafting energetically in the downwind direction. Fortunately I didn’t sneeze, but I began to nurse a slight resentment towards the couple. It might have been the wine. No doubt by way of compensation, I said, as they got off at Edinburgh, that I hoped they enjoyed the game. The guy merely grunted. Perhaps he had me marked as a non-sanitizing infection-spreading recusant. He couldn’t know about my prolonged soap-and-water hand-washing sessions behind the closed door of the toilet, not an easy manoeuvre when the taps, in the interest of conserving water, cut off after three seconds.

Anyway, that was about the full extent of the jeopardy on the northward trip, and to the credit of Virgin trains we rolled into Waverley Station five minutes early.

Like Cornwall, everybody loves Edinburgh, don’t they? Well, OK, not everybody. Glaswegians bear a healthy disdain towards the capital for all manner of reasons that we won’t go into here. But it is one of the most architecturally spectacular of European cities, and emerging from the bowels of Waverley Station onto a twilit, rain-washed Princes St is always a delight. The opulence of the North British Hotel and the grand department stores on one side of the rocky gorge that cradles the railway line contrasts with the forbidding nine and ten storey gothic grandeur of the Scotsman Building, the Royal Mile and the Castle on the other. It’s hard for the returning native not to feel a bit of ancestral pride.

The match was scheduled to kick off at 3.00pm the following day, and before then I had a couple of meet-ups scheduled with Cornish exiles, both students at the University. I also planned to engage in a bit of fraternising with the opposition. French is the only foreign language in which I have any facility whatsoever, and I do put a bit of time and effort into trying to improve. I imagined that amid the pre-match bonhomie it wouldn’t be difficult to find someone to converse with. But first I had to locate the B and B, settle in, and freshen up before heading out for my first rendezvous.

It’s one of the peculiar pleasures of teaching that former students sometimes become friends. They are often those with whom one has had a connection outside the classroom, or whom one has taught at A-level, when student teacher relationships are less formal. This is particularly true in the subjects I was lucky enough to teach – English and drama. Jamie had been in debating competitions I had run and plays I had directed, and we spent a very pleasant couple of hours, first over pints of Tennants Lager, which I don’t think I had drunk since I was a student myself, then over haggis, neeps and tatties in the wonderfully cheap and cheerful City Restaurant on Nicholson St, scrolling through photos of a much smaller version of Jamie on the stage of the school theatre, surrounded by other fourteen year olds, almost all of whom I remembered with great fondness.

Jamie also introduced me to his girlfriend, the first of the two Beatrices that I met that evening. I don’t think I’ve spoken to a Beatrice since my wife’s grandmother passed away, rather a long time ago now, but serendipity is one of the joys of travelling. Both Beatrices were delightful – this one being really a “Bayatreechay”, as she was from Milan. Her family back home were in lockdown, and we chatted Coronavirus over whisky and sweet potato wedges. Before I left them to go in search of French rugby fans Jamie showed me a photo that someone had just sent him: two health workers in full hazmat, entering one of the University Halls of Residence. It seemed the spectre of the virus was dogging my steps.

Beatrice II.

By this stage of the evening you couldn’t throw a stone in the city centre without hitting a Frenchman. The pubs were heaving with them, yet they felt oddly unapproachable. They were almost all in bunches, for a start, and the French they were speaking was a million miles from Michel Thomas and the Coffee-break Academy. There has always been a fundamental disconnect between my ability to speak the language and my ability to understand it. I can say loads of stuff in French, from the conventionally useless modern equivalent of “My postillion has been struck by lightning” to more colloquial offerings such as “Ca m’est égal” or Ca n’est pas la peine”. But I can rarely understand anyone who speaks back at me. And the trouble is, because my rehearsed openings “Bienvenue à Edimbourg mon ami, cest la ville de ma naissance!” are moderately plausible, they usually do talk back. In French. Which then puts me at a bit of a loss.

It was Beatrice II who came to my rescue, in a narrow pub just off the Royal Mile that I think was called The Wee Piper or some such thing. There was loud music from a rather good singer-guitarist, and scrums of stocky French rugby fans looking doubtfully at their own pints of Tennants and exchanging incomprehensible Gallic grunts. I bought another whisky at the bar and made my way up to the back where there were a couple of spare seats. It was a bit quieter but still oddly difficult to detect through the wall of ambient noise which knots of drinkers were grunting in French and which in Scots. I fancied that the faces offered some indication, and of course there was the odd visual clue from berets and the like. I found a seat between a youngish couple who were conversing volubly in what I was pretty sure was French, and four middle-aged men who were wearing the right kind of rugby shirts but who appeared to have nothing whatsoever to say to each other.

I sat for a while sipping my Macallan and wondering whether I would have more luck breaking into the silent communion on my left or the stream of passionate chatter on my right. I was aware that treating either to my “Beinvenue à Edimbourg” line carried the danger of marking me out as some kind of crank. My chance came when the male half of the couple went off to the bar to get the next round in. The woman immediately defaulted to her phone, and I allowed her a couple of minutes of scrolling before making my pitch.

“Vous êtes francaise?” I enquired, with all the bravado that two pints of Tennants, two whiskies and a haggis supper can confer.

“Belgian,” she responded. “And you?”

Now I’m not one of those who takes offence when French speakers respond in English. At least she had understood the question. And she was actually really friendly, and willing to chat. OK, she wasn’t French, and she wasn’t here for the match, but I’d take what followed over an awkward, halting exchange with four French rugby fans any day. Long story short, and sparing you the Franglais, she and her brother, for so he turned out to be, had been over in Glasgow checking out courses at the University, and had an evening to kill in Edinburgh before catching their plane home the following day.

We introduced ourselves, which was when I discovered I was talking to my second Beatrice of the night. I could just about convey this odd coincidence in French, which was pleasing. Then we got on to Scots culture. Putting modesty aside, it is a fact that I can recite a fair bit of Burns from memory, and in what I hope was not too pushy a manner, I offered to do so. She then said that she had a podcast back in Belgium (I know, meaningless concept. Podcasts are, like, everywhere, man…) and she would love to record me. I said I would happily recite the Address to the Haggis for her, but that ideally we needed a haggis to address. Well, they didn’t serve food in the Wee Piper, but she offered up her scarf, which we bundled into approximately the right shape on the table. Her pen stood in as a Sgian dubh.

I rose to my feet, and I am pleased to say that despite, or possibly because of, the alcohol, I managed a pretty flawless rendition. Beatrice II recorded it all on her phone, or made a show of so doing. I can’t entirely dismiss the possibility that she was humouring me, but I choose to suppress that unworthy thought, and instead look forward to my glorious future as a Belgian social media superstar.

That was Saturday evening. The following day was match day, and for a variety of reasons related to my success in remembering but not losing my ticket, the fine weather and a great Scottish performance on the field, it was every bit as satisfying. I chose a quiet restaurant for supper that evening, and kept my alcohol intake to sensible levels. I had lost my appetite for conversing with French rugby fans, conversational gambits being a little compromised by the fact that one of their players had been sent off for punching one of our players and we had just denied them the Grand Slam. Besides, I had an early train to catch the next day.

Returning to Coronavirus, in more senses than one, I had no sense crossing London of a city on the verge of any kind of panic, and saw only one further mask wearer. I was back at Casa Frugal in time for Newsnight, where the talk was all about moving up the scale of containment measures. The following Saturday’s Six Nations games involving France and Italy had been cancelled and I had the sense of having just squeaked over the line with my Edinburgh trip. I resolved to engage in a bit of social distancing over the next fortnight. More time to write blogposts, I guess.

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