When I think of Edinburgh I don’t think of historic closes and grand New Town crescents, I think of disapproval. Grey, clinging scorn and contempt. Cold and frosty. Even the sunlight on our backgreen was diluted by the disapproving tall grey tenement backs that cut off the sun as soon as they could. Chilly. An uproarious game could turn to shame and misery with one shout from an irate old lady. There is a particular sensation half way between the discomfort of soggy knickers and the shock of fear that I date from my childhood in that grubby back green. It haunts me still even though I am (thankfully) continent and middle aged. It comes upon me when I am in a strange situation where I don’t know what is expected of me. It makes me want to run away shrieking, to get inside, to hide.
On Sundays we were not allowed to play in the back green. Instead we had to go to Crusaders an intense version of Sunday school in the afternoon. There we were shown gruesome films about lepers in India and encouraged to work for small heavy badges. Green meant you were doing pretty well but red was excellent. I once purloined a red badge of my brother’s and wore it quite illegally. I never did manage to earn either badge myself. I would do everything in my power to avoid going to Crusaders. It was such a relief when it was announced that I could stay at home.
That feeling of relief was akin to the way I felt after a couple of days off sick from school. After a suitable time in bed, my mother would inspect me and decide if I was to go back the next day. Going back meant leaving the quiet of Mum and Dad’s double bed where I enjoyed reading comics for a noisy classroom where I had to behave like a sensible girl and catch up on work missed.
In our street the neighbours always knew what we were up to. So our parents did too. In fact I think my mother must have had me bugged because she always knew when I had dared to cross the street (strictly forbidden, despite the fact that hardly any cars drove down it) or gone round the corner or into someone’s basement without telling her. I was hardly ever shouted at. Instead there would be a slow shaking of the head, a quiet and deadly summing up of just how badly I had behaved and how much shame I had brought on the family and a withdrawal of warmth and attention which was far worse than any spanking.
In church the disapproval came from the pulpit loud and clear. We were all very bad, probably irredeemable and we had better watch out. No encouragement, just condemnation. Little old ladies shuffling along in the street seemed in perpetual states of shock and horror at our behaviour, our clothes, the volume of our voices. There was so much shaking of heads in Edinburgh during the sixties and seventies, it is a miracle there were not more heads rolling around in the gutters.
No wonder then that two of my favourite places were the coal cellar and the toy cupboard. The coal cellar was a bit dark and dank for a prolonged stay but it tapped into a childhood feeling of deserving to exist in a small, dark hole and although the toy cupboard had electric light, I used to light it with a candle to get the required Cinderella’esque atmosphere.
When little boys threw stones at me as I crossed a bridge it was my fault for wearing short skirts and if I was spotted with my arm around a young man’s waist I was assumed to be drunk. It was always my fault. Always.
So I learnt that the world was a judgemental place, that intolerance was just around the corner, that I was wicked and would probably come to a bad end. It felt wonderful to leave Edinburgh with its towering tenements, prying eyes and old fashioned hostility. In London nobody cared who you were or what you did. I was welcomed into so many different circles, all of them warm and accepting. I grew louder and braver, happier and cleverer. The literal warmth of the climate was uninhibiting as well.
Perugia, whose tall grey buildings and dark alleyways reminded me of a more sinister kind of Edinburgh, had the same shaming effect upon me. It was the first holiday without my husband and I was soon conscious of the offhand way waiters treated an unescorted woman. The streets used to run with blood in medieval times and the hooks where head of villains used to hang are still in situ.
I know intellectually that the quality of life in Edinburgh is better than in London. But I still long for the noisy, dirty city’s anonymity. Even in adulthood, I cannot act without feeling the scathing grey gaze of my native city.