Edinburgh is filling up. It never really empties out, but the pavements, all of a sudden, are bursting with people. The tourists have arrived, alongside the profusion of spring blooms, all of them having magically appeared since the start of the month, like a white rabbit plucked out of a top hat. I love the transformation in the energy of the city and the sense of optimism that comes as more people venture outside to explore during the long, bright days. But, trying to weave my way through the masses of people everywhere can be challenging. School trips – they’re the worst. Take one short walk from my flat to the centre town, that I made one day last week. Packs of youths wearing Fjällräven Kranken backpacks had spread themselves like lava outside the Canongate Kirk, covering every square inch of flagstone as they waited for their teacher, whose head was in an iPhone as he consulted googlemaps and tried to work out the way to Dynamic Earth. I managed to duck onto the road, narrowly avoiding an open-top bus, to get around them and power on up the hill weaving like Lewis Hamilton, falling into the slipsteam of another single minded pedestrian going my way. ‘He’ll cut a course through for me,’ I thought. And, for a while, he did, but he turned left down St. Mary’s and so I had lost my pacemaker.
Further up the Royal Mile I ran into another tailback of American accented, JanSport backpack wearers and slowed to near stopping. Europeans wear Fjällräven, I decided, and the once ubiquitous Eastpak seems to be the curlew of the backpack world, disappearing. I realised that the JanSport huddle were spitting on the Heath of Midlothian mosaic on the ground. I’ve never liked this ‘tradition’. Deep in the centre of Edinburgh’s old town, the heart and cross is built into the cobblestones outside St Giles Cathedral and is said to mark the site of an old city prison. People now spit upon it for good luck, although it was originally done (they say) as a sign of disdain for the former prison. I felt like I was stuck on the M25, but instead of cars I was in a tailback of urban rucksack carriers, and instead of being choked by fumes I was gagging my way through a spittoon. ‘Beep beep’ I wanted to say to them, before catching myself, and thinking: ‘E., what on earth is your big hurry, anyway?’ Ok, I’m not much of a dawdler as I walk, but it does me no harm to slow down, lift my head and see – really see – what is around me; spit and all. I got to where I was going, and I wasn’t late, for the date was with myself. And, as I sat down and got settled, I wondered what sights I might have missed in my hurry to get through the crowds, as opposed to just being one of them and allowing the journey to be part of the destination.
On the evening of that same day, I took myself out for a walk to watch the sun be eaten up by the horizon. I took some photographs and sent them to a friend with the message: ‘I’m up Calton Hill, on my own, admiring the sun as it dips into the hills of Fife.’ Then I looked around me. What I had written was far from the truth. There were hundreds of people there (and hundreds of Fjällräven backpacks). I went to take more snaps of the stunning views and sunset but my phone gave up, dodo dead. At first this irritated me. I was frustrated at not having thought ahead and charged my phone, but, the truth was, it pressed me into really being there, alone with hundreds of people and in the moment, instead of hurrying through life.
‘The Bright Field’, by R.S. Thomas
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.