At the start of this month, Leith Street, an important link road in the centre of Edinburgh, was closed to traffic. It will stay that way for 10 months. The wrecking ball is at work, and the old St James Shopping Centre is coming down fast. I walked past it yesterday with M. who had just arrived in from Dublin. “This must be what London looked like after The Blitz,” he said, as we peered up at the cracked open building. I see a terrible beauty in this destruction: ribbons of tangled metal, lumps of concrete dangling like Jenga blocks, plaster-board hanging from a sliced third storey like a sheet of paper blown in by the wind. It is mesmerising. Water hoses, trained on the area being demolished, try to dampen down the pervasive dust. People walk by quickly, shielding their mouths and noses. Like me, I know they can feel concrete particles scratch at the back of their throats. It smells of damp castle ruins that I played in as a child. I want to stand longer and stare up at this gaping wound in the heart of a beautiful city.
To me, it is a very obvious metaphor for seemingly devastating changes in life and how we rebuild after them. Change creates holes and uncomfortable vacuums that will, inevitably, be filled. I can never decide if Yeats was being hopeful or despairing when he wrote in The Second Coming: ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’. Things do fall apart: by design, by accident, and despite valiant efforts to save them. But things get put back together too. Differently, and often better. Snatches of conversation flit through my mind, friends facing tough times. Sick parents, troubled children, aborted house renovations, shit jobs, no jobs, unrequited love, failed exams, feeling down. Things will resolve, for good or for bad, and change will come. I look forward to the same people telling me stories of new babies, windfalls, running marathons, celebrating anniversaries, beginning new courses, dating, successes. Yes, before I know it Leith Street will be open to cars again and a new building will appear from the rubble.
“Come, we’ll take a walk up Calton Hill and I’ll show you the city landmarks”, I say to M. breaking my own daydream. First we take in the view south: Arthur’s Seat, University Buildings, Holyrood Palace and up to the Castle. There is a point, under the Nelson Monument, where we can stand on a low wall holding onto rails to peer down the length of Princes Street. I point out the Balmoral Hotel, its clock set three minutes fast so the people of Edinburgh won’t miss their trains at Waverly Station below. We wander across to the other side of the hill passing a group of young Italians standing on the National Monument of Scotland. They have climbed up between the huge Parthenon-like pillars, arms spread in an exuberant gesture of joy to have their photo taken. “That monument looks a bit odd,” M. says, “unfinished or something.” “I think they ran out of money”, I tell him. From the other side we look north across the Forth to Fife. I point out Leith, Hibs football stadium, and we rotate west a little to look over the New Town, to a belt of greenery marking out the Botanic Gardens.
Directly below us we can see Leith Street, from where we have just come, and we can hear the deep thud of the demolition machinery. ‘When you come back it’ll be all finished’, I tell him. He points across to the pillars of the National Monument and smiles, ‘I just hope they don’t run out of money.’