You Can Never Go Home Again


Posted by in July's Magazine

When strangers ask me where I come from, I invariably answer “I’m a Leither, and proud of it too.” Which is very true, okay, to a certain extent. Considering that I have lived in Leith for some 37 years, my mother was born and brought up here and my grandfather toiled long hard decades as a docker. So it’s safe to say that I view this particular part of Edinburgh as my true spiritual home.

And yet, there is a portion of me that springs from somewhere else, a district lying just beyond the borders of Newhaven and Granton. Presenting me with something of an identity crisis when it comes to evaluating and mulling over my humble origins.

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This was forcefully brought home to me recently when reading about yet another planned redevelopment of part of old Pennywell and Muirhouse. For it was in this very place that my formative years, or as Oliver Hardy once described them – “My gilded youth. My primrose days” – were spent (for good or bad).

As a young boy I happily regarded the Pennywell and Muirhouse district of north Edinburgh (where I lived from the 1959 to1971) as home.

For those who remember that specific period, it was a far more innocent time, long before the ‘Trainspotters’ disembarked and took a grim and unrelenting grip of the district for their own disreputable ends. Whilst gifting Irvine Welsh (not the only published writer, I hasten to add, to have emerged from this area!) with plenty of bountiful material to work with.

It pains me to admit that I lost quite a few friends during the decade before I left Pennywell. Many of them tragically falling victim to an ill-advised dalliance with needles. What a waste of so many young lives.

Yet all my collective memories (again, for good or bad) of Pennywell rose insantly to the fore when reading about the upcoming demolition of the old shopping centre. Not forgetting the eventual removal of that ‘lively and colourful hostelry’ known affectionately to all as The Gunner.

I must admit that I was never courageous or curious enough to venture inside, partly because I was far too young at the time to sample its unique, warm and embracing atmosphere. Yet even as I grew older its reputation as the closest Edinburgh had to a Wild West saloon kept me from swaggering through its swing doors like a timorous John Wayne.

Still, I do recall its opening night, sometime before Christmas 1969. In fact I have in my possession at this very moment an old faded photograph of that particular special evening. It features my parents (both smartly dressed as if attending a swish film premiere) relaxing in the lounge bar. Not sure if cocktails were available on the night but, unbelievably, this venue was considered the very acme of sophistication at the close of the swinging sixties!

How quickly times changed, by the dawn of the seventies The Gunner’s growing and growling reputation for conduct unbecoming became so notable that only the very brave, or those lucky enough to physically resemble The Hulk, would have felt at home there.

Right behind the pub sat the Muirhouse library, a seat of great learning, knowledge, poetry and prose (at least to this youngster) with walls and shelves that positvely creaked with the wonders of literature. Yet, curious to recall, a few years back it became a place of siege. Hard to fathom how this building containing a wealth of books on all subjects momentarily began to resemble The Alamo as gangs of disaffected youths attempted to assault the doors and windows – were they mistakenly confusing it with some other building??

When I read the story in the Evening News, I remember shaking my head with baffled confusion, was this really the place that I used to call my beloved ‘home patch’? It can be somewhat disconcerting, though not at all surprising, to see the area that you once knew reconfiguring and repositioning itself until you hardly recognise it. Certainly in relation to what is retained within the warm glow of childhood memory. The passage of time along with the inevitability of (too) urgent civic modernisation erases and abruptly removes flats, buildings, shops, churches and schools. Memories then.

My old primary school, Silverknowes, has also gone the way of the bulldozers only to be replaced by a block of anodyne flats, one of my abiding memories of that very school sits around1966 when I participated in a junior production of (wait for it) The Black & White Minstrel Show. How times have changed. Anyway, moving swiftly along!

Green fields that once resonated to the plangent sounds of a recreated Hampden Park, the Seige of the Alamo, or a game of ‘Dead Man’s Fall’ heartlessly played out are no more. All gone.

When reminiscing on my past I am often reminded of  that quote from Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can Never Go Home Again: ‘You can’t go back to your family, back to your childhood, back to a young man’s dreams of glory’. Which is by way of saying that when you add it all up you can never really return home…for the home you remember is no longer there.

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