The Mendicant Writer, Cosimo Galbraith, explores two divergent communities through the lives of five remarkable characters. In this third instalment he endures a strange journey to Edinburgh, drinks tea in a deserted video shop late at night, and begins to ponder some uneasy conclusions.
Still in search of The Big Society, I reluctantly made the trip from Oban to Glasgow, and then onwards to Edinburgh, one cold, gloomy day in February, shortly after my morning with Nicolo and his Alpacas.
I felt sad to be leaving the Highlands. My conversations with locals had yielded peculiar results. I’d expected to find a vibrant rural community which would contrast neatly with my own cynical view of city life, but it hadn’t been that simple.
There were no easy conclusions, only bleak, conflating ones. The sleet marked the train window. The passing landscape looked dark.
Though the setting was picturesque and the pace gentler, it seemed that community in the Highlands either flourished or disintegrated in the same random fashion as elsewhere in the UK.
The Big Society advocated a rather kitsch, phoney, everyone-together approach to community regeneration, when really all the evidence I’d seen indicated that a good community simply relied on the drive and enthusiasm of a few enthused individuals.
Anyone who’s taken a train journey in the Highlands will know it can be a strange experience. It’s as though all of the rules which usually govern travel change suddenly.
If you’re asleep at your seat, the inspector doesn’t wake you for your ticket, but prises it gently from your hand. Children play in the aisles. Unshaven men dismantle butane camping stoves on the floor. Dogs sit upright at window-tables like human-beings. Every approaching viaduct (and there are many) is met with accented whispers of ‘Harry Potter! Harry Potter!’ and the flashing of cameras.
It’s strange to think how someone, somewhere, is subjecting their relatives to a slideshow of their trip to Scotland. Between the photos of distilleries and scenically appointed tearooms, there are blurry pictures of viaducts, and me glowering from the foreground, clutching a polystyrene cup and a half-eaten baguette.
My computer ran out of battery long before I arrived at Glasgow Queen’s Street. I fell into a fitful sleep, but jolted awake suddenly when the train snaked through a black granite tunnel.
I glimpsed myself in the window. Wearing a perfectly good tweed coat but covered in white Alpaca hairs, I looked like a man who had lost an arm-wrestling match to a polar bear. The lady opposite me looked concerned, then wary, as I began to eat my baguette.
I wasn’t particularly pleased to be back in Edinburgh, however fleetingly. It didn’t seem like the best stop in my pursuit of community. In the dark and drizzle, the city looked eerie.
During the taxi journey, it struck me how we’re used to celebrating things, here. Whether it’s Hogmanay or the Fringe, there’s usually some form of bunting draped somewhere, but in the lull after Christmas, and in the months before spring falls, the city looks bleak and naked.
Yet when I mentioned how I believed a couple of fairy-lights could disguise a place so convincingly, Gerard, my next contributor, dismissed my thoughts as pseudo-intellectual nonsense (I’m paraphrasing, here; Gerard used a few expletives, too).
Gerry has been a constant in the local community, here, for many, many years. A true local, who lives in the flat where he was born, Gerry is currently the proprietor of the local video shop, but has worked in numerous other capacities.
He seems to be adapting to his new enterprise well. Gerry’s encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema means that he is able to summarise the plot of most films in less than ten words, either sealing the deal with indecisive customers, or sending them scuttling from his shop.
Over a mug of tea and countless digestive biscuits, Gerry conceded that the gentrification of the area had brought challenges for the community. People who wouldn’t usually mix now met one another in hallways, but more often than not this had actually led to a better and more cohesive community.
As Gerry explained, when there’s something shared at stake, such as a stairwell, a garden, or the simple coincidence of receiving a neighbour’s post accidentally, people gradually form unlikely relationships.
This wasn’t a guarantee that they would be the best of friends, but for Gerry, friendship wasn’t the basis of community. It was something which came with time.
As much as I enjoyed Gerry’s company, and the quaintness of sitting and drinking tea in a deserted video shop in the dead of winter, I missed the Highlands. As I trudged towards my flat, I thought about what Gerry had said.
Perhaps there’s too much political posturing and philosophising. The genesis of community simply stems from a collection of completely random people all silently respecting one-another’s right to call a place their home.