‘This year saw an anniversary so auspicious I completely failed to notice it’...
... On a now-forgotten date in early 2001, I was handed the keys to my first Edinburgh flat at 282 Leith Walk. So it’s been 20 years – almost half my life to date, and given a fairish wind, perhaps a quarter of it in total – since my adoption as a Leither. And one way or another, through various combinations of residency, work and leisure, I’ve been around and about the place ever since. If I were better attuned to anniversaries in general, I might remember the date more accurately.
And I also wouldn’t have missed last year’s 100th anniversary of Leith’s amalgamation with the noisy neighbours up the hill. But even for a serial date-forgetter, there’s something about a big round number that stops you in your still-unfinished tram tracks. And more than most places, Leith has a way of bringing home the vagaries of the advancing years: in many respects transformed. In others, as if frozen in time.
And 20 years is, in the context of a human life, a decent while. It’s taken me from the early stages of adulthood to what is, by any reasonable definition, middle age. When I moved in, the Twin Towers were still standing and Emma Raducanu wasn’t born – though six months ago, that last fact wouldn’t have meant a thing to me. Time moves rapidly, except when it doesn’t. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people have drifted into or out of my life; a good few of those have drifted into or out of the world altogether. And so many buildings, businesses, partnerships and dreams have done the same.
I’m never quite sure how I define “home”, but Leith is certainly my adult home, and reminiscing about time spent here generates its own particular variety of wistfulness. Childhood memories are just as vivid but somehow separate: they carry a sense of otherness shaped by grainy photos, authority figures and milestones, all pinpointed in time by an ever-present chart music soundtrack. Calling up adult memories, though, can make the mind play chronological tricks. I wouldn’t say I remember walking up the tenement stair to my first flat as if it were yesterday; that would be ridiculous. Let’s just say it could be anything upwards of three weeks.
Of our original neighbours, the hydroponics shop, “Sunshine on Leaf”, has long gone. (I can only presume nobody smokes weed any more.) The butcher’s has disappeared too, but then people can just head to Bowman’s or Anderson’s on Junction Street instead. Come to think of it, they always did. But a door or two down, Storries bakery seems utterly unchanged. And while my 2am post-pub stumbles down the Walk are rare these days, when they do happen, the delight at seeing the lights on at Storries is as deeply felt as ever.
In some places, you have to squint to see the changes. The Best Kebab House is still there, but not exactly there: it’s moved a few doors down the road, and sadly no longer sells the gargantuan, gloriously misspelled “King Fist”.
Almost nothing about the laundrette, inside or out, appears to have been altered in twenty years, which makes the new(ish) tumble dryers stick out like space age thumbs. While my wash is on, I’ll have time for a time-honoured pint in Robbie’s, where it’s easy to imagine that time hasn’t passed at all.
Then I’ll notice that phones have replaced fag packets on almost every table – or I’ll simply catch myself in the mirror – and realise it really, really has.
The interplay between transience and endurance doesn’t always go as expected. Things apparently rooted in the distant past stick around much longer than imagined, and what seems like the future turns out to be short-lived.
Numerous vape shops have come and gone, like Parma Violet-scented mayflies. Meanwhile, I’ve bought the same PlayStation game twice from Gamesmasters, 18 years apart, and I’m still convinced the long-lost original copy will turn up any day now. And Borlands continues to furnish the darts and television shoppers of Leith Walk with their every need, as it has done since its official opening by Mary Queen of Scots in 1563.
In the end, my sense of Leith doesn’t have its origins in momentous occasions or transformative events, but in small details and everyday staples.
The furniture of The Compass resonating to Bob Cuddihy’s stentorian tones as a distinctly familiar anecdote about Mrs Thatcher gets another welcome airing. The same exchange, repeated a hundred times over the years, with the affable burger guy outside the Kirkgate “Onions?” “Just a little bit.” “Help yourself to sauces.”
Sitting upstairs on a morning rush hour No 16 bus, watching a postie tumble out of the Red Lion after a post-nightshift shandy too many. This magazine.
I don’t live in Leith these days, though I’m only up the road, so I’ll no doubt be popping down from time to time. And wherever I am in another twenty years, I’ll remain a regular visitor – for my essential darts and televisual shopping.
It’s a cracking place Leith, it really is. Thanks for taking me in.
The legend that is… Borlands!