Posted by a Contributor in March's Magazine
This all starts back in 1973 when I was 12 years old and playing football for Lochend Boys Club. We used to train at Craigentinny School and the journey home from there in the dark was fraught with danger for a young boy from Leith. Sprayed on the railway bridge that led from St Clair Street towards Hawkhill was the gut-gnawing warning ‘You are now entering Shamrock country’. For readers old enough to remember, it wasn’t only Glasgow that had hordes of territorial gangs roaming the streets. Looking for something or, more likely, someone, to do. Edinburgh had its fair share as well.
Gang names were sprayed all over the walls and landmarks which served as boundaries. ‘Lochend Shamrock’, ‘Young Niddrie Terror’, ‘Young Pilton Derry’, ‘Young Broomhouse Terror’ and ‘Bar-Ox’ to name just a few. And there was also the Young Leith Team, the YLT. To this day, you can still see the names of gangs plastered around the estates that bred them. Turn any corner in Leith and ‘YLT’ will be scrawled on a wall or a bus stop somewhere.
However, as someone who has never ventured very far from Leith, the contrast in the place between those days – when I used to get chased home over the railway bridge – and now is mind-blowing. I’ve no doubt that some people still align themselves with gang names and boundaries all over Edinburgh but back in the 1970s Leith was a very different place.
Prior to the deindustrialisation of the place which started around 1980 and was the calling card of the Thatcher government all across Scotland, Leith was a thriving, vibrant port housing hugely successful industries such as fisheries, rope-making, shipbuilding, flour mills, glass-making, whisky, wine merchants and lime juice. Yep, Rose’s Lime Cordial was founded in Commercial Street in 1868.
The port at that time was home to hardworking, noisy, rambunctious men and women who took a full-headed tilt at life and all it had to offer. Pubs were everywhere. As were working girls. And go-go dancers. And pumas. I kid you not. On the spot where Giuliano’s Italian restaurant now stands used to be a pub called the Merrymaker (which some people will remember as Fairley’s) that used to have a puma in a cage beside the gantry. Legend has it that one night the puma escaped and attacked the regulars resulting in a £150 fine for the manager. The old port was nothing if not exotic. But it was also dark.
Once the winds of Thatcherism destroyed almost all of the work in Leith, its reputation blew into the gutter. When I told people at school that I came from Leith, they would inhale sharply and more often than not ask “what’s it like?” as though it was some festering, fetid backwater in a Joseph Conrad novel. But in many ways it was and it was to get much, much worse.
The late 1970s and early 80s announced the arrival of heroin. And with no work, no rest and no play, the drug found a weakened, compliant gang of people who were more than willing to indulge themselves to escape what seemed like an eternal November. Not a week went by without someone being found dead at the bottom of a stairwell; the result of either an extremely low-grade poisonous batch of the drug or, in the longer term, from sharing a needle infected with HIV. One day I got a telephone call telling me that one of my best friends had become a victim.
I met Degsy at school and we became friends through a shared love of punk, alcohol, and girls. He had huge jug-like ears, freckles and always seemed to be all right in that he never appeared to go through that awkward, silent, brooding stage that most teenage boys suffer. He was light on his feet and could talk the hind legs of a donkey. When we left school, there were parties every weekend and both of us always seemed to end up at the same one, taking speed and talking complete drivel to girls who looked at us as though we had just crawled in through the drains. We were having the time of our lives. And then it happened.
One night, I was walking through a huge house in Howe Street when I noticed a group of lads all sitting on the floor in one of the rooms. It was dark apart from the light of a lamp on the floor. I saw one of them tying a belt around his arm and made to head off when I heard Degsy’s voice. I opened the door and asked him what the fuck he was doing to which he replied “I’m just trying it”. Months later he contracted HIV and with no treatment around, he died. He used to say to me “Jive your puss” and pinch my cheek when I was in a bad mood. I still say it to people now. I wish I could say it to him.
The heroin epidemic in Leith and other estates in the city was brutal and scabrous. That’s not to say that heroin has gone away because it hasn’t but since Irvine Welsh wrote Trainspotting, Leith has changed beyond all recognition.
When my then girlfriend Katie McAuley bought me the book she wrote a message on the inside saying ‘You’ll love this’. And I did. I recognised the place. I recognised the people. And while much of what was still remains, the port of Leith is now very different.
Leith’s industries are more likely to be found in the creative sector in visual and digital arts, advertising, architecture and design. There are cafés and bars everywhere – traditional pubs are still there but for how long? Consultations no longer highlight ‘urgent regeneration of this deprived port’ referring rather to ‘waterfront ambience’. And as perverse as this may sound, I feel a certain loathing about the whole thing.
It’s not that I’ve been left behind, I’m doing okay but I just can’t get my head around hipster barbers and champagne cocktails in EH6. Maybe nostalgia is getting the better of me and memories mean more than reality. And if you’ve seen Trainspotting 2 you might just get what I mean.
My take on the film is that it’s about wondering how the hell you got to where you are in life and how your friends either helped you get there or played a part in buying your ticket. It’s about that moment in time when you decided to turn left over the Shamrock bridge rather than right and made it home safely. It’s about gladly watching the world running away from you but then realising that you’re tied to it as it does so.
I don’t think there are any plans for a Café Centrale to replace the Central Bar above the ruins of the old Central Station in Leith at the moment but that’s not to say it won’t happen in some possible future. That’s the world working. Still, if you see me walking towards the Foot of the Walk looking grumpy, shout “YLT ya bass” in my ear then pinch my cheek and say “jive your puss”. You’ll make my day.
Cover: The Gordon Highlander leaving Leith Central station on April 19, 1965. With acknowledgements to: Photographer W.A.C Smith, An Illustrated History of Edinburgh’s Railways by W.A.C. Smith, Paul Anderson & Irwell Press and firstname.lastname@example.org