I’m beginning to see Edinburgh as my town. Beginning to. The crowds have descended for the festival, and, as I weave my way through them, I think: “I live here. I know where I’m going (geographically speaking), while most of these people don’t. I’ll still be here on Tuesday 28thAugust, when they’ve all disappeared like snow off a ditch.” Yet, I know this town is not really mine, for there is something about where you grew up that will always hold firm as your town.
‘Our Town’is a play by Thornton Wilder. In it, Emily dies in childbirth and, in a play-within-the-play device, she asks the stage manager if she can return home to relive just one day. She does so, and reawakens to her town, seeing afresh all that she had dismissed as ordinary. Here’s an excerpt: Emily: “Good-bye, Grover’s Corners…. Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking…. and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths…. and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?” Stage Manager: “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.” The other ‘Our Town’ I know is a song by Iris Dement. A sad one – those are the sort she sings. “Up the street beside that red neon light / That’s where I met my baby on one hot summer night / He was the tender and I ordered a beer / It’s been forty years and I’m still sitting here / It’s here I had my babies and I had my first kiss / I’ve walked down Main Street in the cold morning mist / Over there is where I bought my first car / It turned over once but then it never went far.” ‘Our Town’, both play and song, are poignant reminders not to take home for granted. Now, when I think back on what sometimes seemed dreary, mundane, unremarkable, my memory is telling me differently.
For those of you who come from the same place as I do, keep me right; here’s what I remember of our town. I remember coming out of primary school at 3 o’clock and walking up to my Nana’s flat on Ramore Street. Passing Amon’s shop, saving my pennies, as Mrs Amon could be a bit sharp. On up past Brankin’s, fruit slightly on the turn, Mr. Brankin standing outside in his faded blue shop coat. Further on, I had no interest in either Hoods shoe shop nor Halls with their paint and rolls of wallpaper in the window. Maybe I slowed at Jimmy Leslie’s – his trade was in high quality Irish linen. He had a sepia perspex blind pulled down to stop the window display fading in the sun; I wonder did it work? Mr. Leslie never stood out front, he sat in behind the counter of the darkened shop with his linen and lace and hand painted damask folded in mahogany drawers. Rohdich’s was my first proper stop; like a magpie I craved the silver and gold and garnets and amber. I talked Nana into buying me a silver Claddagh ring there when I left primary school; she made sure Albert served her for the best price. On down Main Street was Joe Mullan’s fishing tackle shop, he had the son everyone fancied. Next door, Marcellas ran The Coronation, where we’d get fish and chips for a treat, and the cinema (we called it the pictures) was opposite. When I got bit older we’d smuggle in cans of Harp and drink them in the back row. Further on, approaching the harbour, I would pass Mrs. May, always glamorous, running her Fashion Corner, and the Chinese restaurant, far too exotic for us. Of course, there was The White House, the town’s department store, and Hillis’s drapers – two of the few still trading today, along with Barry’s Amusements. And everyone was formally addressed: It was ‘Mr. Ferguson’, or ‘Mrs. Lord’, depending upon which Pharmacy you used. We had our pick of sweet shops: Charlie McLaughlin’s for slowly pondering which quarter of bottled sweets was to be had while Nana had a cigarette with Mary; or into Ann and Terry Byrne for Clarnico mints; Alice Dempsey’s for Fry’s Chocolate Cream; or John Minihan’s for liquorice while Nana bought sliced ham. Sometimes, if I was staying with Nana on a Saturday night, I’d be sent over to Graham’s shop, (or was it Neville’s by then?) at the corner of Ramore Street and Harbour Hill, on an errand for cigarettes. There was Norman Cameron – jolly, rotund, red-cheeked, and full of stories. His shop door was always open, sawdust on the floor, tiles painted with fattened pigs and bulls and back-headed sheep, and he sold every part of them. Atlantic Avenue was a thriving street back then: The Singing Kettle for fry-ups, Vivian for fruit and veg, Paul’s Bar across the road and the bookies further up at the corner. Then on down, facing the Town Hall, was Rosborough’s bakery where the women wore white, like nurses. Adjacent was Eddie Clements’ newsagents, dad got the papers there on Sunday, and Sean McNicholl’s gift shop, with Belleek china and Waterford crystal. Heading towards the station was Dominic Murray’s rock shop, selling ‘kiss-me-quick’ hats for amorous day-trippers, and Moreilli’s next door for ice cream sundaes and 99s. Over the road was the bottle green Eglinton Hotel with Eamon Brolly at the helm (he still has the best hair in town). As a seaside town, it was full of B&Bs and hotels. Eamon’s brother had the Londonderry in the middle of the town, and the Langholm was hanging on by a thread. We all learned to swim in the Northern Counties. Fawcett’s Hotel (beside it) was derelict at the time, although still standing, but the Northern Counties opened for the summer season, and we would step over the Irish Wolfhound that lay in front of the revolving door to pick our way inside. For the Counties, in all its faded grandeur, had a swimming pool.
There’s so much I’ve left out, but I must stop. I’m reading Joan Didion’s ‘Blue Nights’ at the moment. In it she says, “Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we might remember.” Forgive me if my memory is different to yours, but I remember our town as a great spot. I’m sorry not to be there this summer.
‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’, by Derek Mahon
Before the first visitor comes the spring
softening the sharp air of the coast
in time for the first seasonal ‘invasion’.
Today the place is as it might have been,
gentle and almost hospitable. A girl
strides past the Northern Counties Hotel,
light-footed, swinging a book bag,
and the doors that were shut all winter
against the north wind and the sea mist
lie open to the street, where one
by one the gulls go window-shopping
and an old wolfhound dozes in the sun.
While I sit with my paper and prawn chow mein
under a framed photograph of Hong Kong
the proprietor of the Chinese restaurant
stands at the door as if the world were young,
watching the first yacht hoist a sail
—an ideogram on sea cloud—and the light
of heaven upon the hills of Donegal;
and whistles a little tune, dreaming of home.
NOTE: Today’s photo (which I almost never reference) is an oil painting of my town, by Alan Duke from Portrush. It’s his town too. It hangs in my sitting room.