How the delights of old Edinburgh slowly revealed themselves
Published 09/05/2009 | 00:00
Edinburgh. Birthplace of Sir Walter Scott and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Venice of the North. Home of Arthur's Seat. Venue for the world's biggest theatre festival. And host city of a certain little rugby match in a couple of weeks' time.
My first visit there seems now to belong to a different age. I was 20 years old and working on the sports desk of this newspaper while studying for a BA at UCD.
My job gave me a pecuniary advantage over my fellow students (temporary, I must add, for they have all overtaken me since) and a trip to Scotland to see Ireland at Murrayfield was within my budget. I arranged to stay with a friend who was studying at the city's botanical gardens. We were to meet at Waverly Station, so named after the novels of hometown hero Sir Walter.
My friend, when I spotted him from about four miles away, was a walking poster for Irishness. He had red hair and freckles. He wore a green jersey and a green and white scarf. He had a bodhran under one arm, and might as well have had a pig under the other.
In those days, I tried to affect the studied nonchalance of a citizen of the world. I wanted to blend in, to seem as if I belonged, to be a tourist without looking like one. I considered letting him walk by.
We went to his flat, where I was to sleep on the floor. It was one of those old tenement buildings, with shops on the ground floor and apartments above. The establishment beside the entrance door had black windows and the shopfront gave no clue as to what transpired within.
Later, we discovered that my friend, as innocent as a child from a John Hinde postcard, had been living above a sex shop for six months without knowing it. "I thought it was a bookie's," he said.
His innocence proved a liability later on, when we tried to chat up two local girls in a bar on Rose Street. Things were going well until he uttered what must surely be the worst chat-up line in recorded history: "Well, girls, we're Catholics, what are ye?"
"We're out of here" was their unspoken reply as they downed their drinks and departed in one seamless, flowing movement.
The night, however, was not lost. Accompanied by assorted botanical types, we took on the city. I had my first pint of bitter and my first Indian meal in a proper curry house.
I walked the Royal Mile, sauntered along Princes Street and visited an alehouse or two on Rose Street. Then it was time to meet some rugby confreres at a bar called The Last Drop.
When I eventually found it -- it was the city's top secret late-drinking haunt -- the scene which greeted me as I squeezed in the door was like a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, or a scene from The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah.
A striptease artist was standing on the bar as the pride of the Dublin middle classes were throwing money at her. If the Jesuits could see them now, I thought, as I craned to get a better view.
The match the next day resulted in an Irish win by 15 points to 13, with Ollie Campbell teasing the Scots with an array of tactical kicks.
An Irish victory was a rare thing in those days, and celebrations were called for, and were duly indulged in.
The following morning, with time to kill before our flight home, we got the morning papers and retired to a respectable-looking hostelry to indulge in the warm glow of the post-match reports.
We were just settling in to read the Daily Telegraph's John Reason do the journalistic equivalent of eating his hat when there came a cry: "Pray silence for the artiste!"
And there, in a quiet bar on a Sunday morning in 1983, in the middle of possibly the most Protestant city in the world, another stripper appeared. There was a rustling beside me. It was my red-headed friend reaching for his beads.
I am almost too embarrassed to go back to Edinburgh for Leinster's date with destiny on May 23 after all that. Almost.
After all, my ginger friend, with whom I have lost touch, is probably a consultant horticulturalist by now. And the strippers are probably standing for Silvio Berlusconi in the Italian elections. The two girls in the pub probably married good, steady Presbyterians.
I hope the pubs are still there, though.