The Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour: Review

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ELPTOUR

This article first appeared on The Culture Trip website:

http://theculturetrip.com/europe/united-kingdom/scotland/articles/the-edinburgh-literary-pub-tour/

Pints and Poets

Old Edinburgh was a city of two halves: the grimy, poverty-stricken Old Town, full of overcrowded filthy tenements and taverns bustling with workers, criminals and prostitutes; and the gentile New Town, home to intellectuals and professionals with plenty of cash, clean hankies and impeccable manners. Between these two strikingly different halves, the city’s most famous literary figures – from Robert Burns and Walter Scott to Robert Louis Stevenson – came out to play.

The Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour seizes on this intriguing duality by presenting two very different fictional characters as guides: ‘Clart’, the literary bohemian who revels in the murkier side of Edinburgh’s literary past; and ‘McBrain’, the more refined intellectual who would rather dwell on the loftier side of things. Through their musings, we get to hear of the dark underbelly of Old Edinburgh (or ‘Auld Reekie’ as it was known) as well as the more polite society of fancy drawing rooms. This duel of wits is the tour’s high-point.

The fact that these roles are performed by professional actors rather than academics or guides reciting from books will come as a welcome tonic to many a weary tour-goer. The actors, though incredibly knowledgeable, never become bogged down in too many dry details, selecting only the juiciest aspects of the city’s literary past on which to elaborate.

Leading us through the wynds and courtyards of Edinburgh’s Old and New Town, Clart and McBrain guide us from the Grassmarket’s warm and sumptuous Beehive Inn to the Royal Mile’s cosy and atmospheric Jolly Judge and lively Ensign Ewart, finishing in the rather grand Kenilworth on Rose Street. Along the way we are led through Makars’ Court, a strangely silent, moonlit pocket of the city and a particularly atmospheric part of the tour. As we stood within the peace of the court, quotations from famous Scottish writers engraved on the stones on which we stood, we listened to the chilling tale of Deacon Brodie, who himself reflects the city’s exciting duality.

Brodie was a respected locksmith and City Councillor by day and a thief by night. As Clart reflects: ‘Now, this man finds that he cannot control this other side to him and he falls even deeper into a life of crime, terrorising his own fellow citizens, invading their homes.  And all the while, the other man, the man of day, progresses up the social and political ladder until he can no longer keep up the facade, his dark self is revealed and his fate is sealed.’ McBrain continues:  ‘A famous Edinburgh villain who led a double life… I know what you’re leading up to Clart – Brodie was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde.’

Stevenson does indeed detail the perils of the double life – and double self – in Jekyll and Hyde, as Clart muses: ‘Stevenson was exploring the hypocrisy of the individual – and as Stevenson said “man is not truly one, but truly two…” but we are not one or the other, we are both!  Edinburgh is both!’ which is precisely what the tour reflects so brilliantly.

Another literary figure from Edinburgh explored throughout the tour is Walter Scott, who grew up in the filth and clutter of the Old Town tenements and, even when he was a respected writer, returned to the seedy taverns for a good day or night out. As McBrain says of Scott: ‘… Edinburgh at that time did seem to celebrate, in some quarters, the rather seamier side of life.  And I do admit it had the reputation of being one of the most insanitary cities.  But the stage was set for a great figure to arise from the dirt and filth of the old town to a golden age.’ What the tour does so effectively is show that you cannot separate this dirt and filth from the gold: like Stevenson, Scott, Burns and all the others, these writers’ imaginations were fired by what they experienced in the city, by the squalor every bit as much as the beauty.

Established in 1996, it’s little wonder that the tour has continued for as long as it has, encompassing as it does over 300 years of Edinburgh’s literary history, right through to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Trainspotting (and even a cheeky reference to Harry Potter). It’s an impressive piece of theatre, a celebration of Edinburgh’s cultural heritage, and an important part of the city’s tourism. If you enjoy palatable chunks of literary history, stellar performances, storytelling, song, comical tales and stunning venues – with the opportunity to drink as much or as little as you care to indulge in – this is certainly the tour for you. An Auld Reekie must-see.

The Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour is available: May-Sep (Everyday); Oct & Apr (Thur-Sun); Jan-March (Fri & Sun) and Nov-Dec (Fri). Meeting point is outside The Beehive Inn, Grassmarket, at 7.15pm. Tickets are £14 (£10 concession) and are available at the meeting point on the day or online at: http://www.edinburghliterarypubtour.co.uk/the-tour/buy-tickets

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Black Mirror: TV Review

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Black Mirror, TV

This review first appeared in The University of Edinburgh’s The Student TV section Tue 19 Feb 2013 

Black Mirror

Channel 4, Monday 10pm

****

Charlie Brooker’s 2011 Black Mirror trilogy featured the Prime Minister of Great Britain (sadly not David Cameron) having sex with a pig. However horrific that might sound, there was so much more to the trilogy than shock tactics. It was a sharply satirical, bleakly funny, dystopian look at the not-too-distant future, a future that could well become a reality if, Brooker suggested, the human race isn’t careful.

This year’s trilogy-opener ‘Be Right Back’ continues in this vein, set a short time in the future when iPhones are wafer-thin and iPads can be controlled by simply using your hand to manipulate the air surrounding them. Hayley Atwell plays Martha who has just moved into a country cottage with her social media-addict boyfriend Ash (Domnhall Gleeson). When Ash is killed in a car crash, Martha is left alone and utterly devastated.

At Ash’s funeral, a friend mentions a new invention to Martha, a computer programme that can recreate the voice of a deceased person using every comment they’ve ever written on Twitter, Facebook etc. At first, Martha is horrified, but when she discovers she is carrying Ash’s baby she becomes emotionally unstable and seeks solace in the programme.

This is where Brooker’s social satire comes into play. As Martha becomes more and more addicted to chatting to ‘Ash’ on her phone, giving the programme access to all of Ash’s videos, emails and photographs, the danger of sharing too much online becomes increasingly apparent. Ash has given so much of himself to Facebook, Twitter etc. that his whole personality can be reconstructed from his comments even after his death.

When ‘Ash’ tells Martha that the programme can move up a step, she jumps at the chance. A body with artificial flesh is delivered to her door, which she places in a hot bath, sprinkling electrolytes into the water like fish food. The body becomes Ash, missing only a mole on his chest and facial hair. It even has his sense of humour. He can’t feel sexual urges – as this was never recorded online – but he can switch his erection on and off, delivering more sexual satisfaction to Martha than the living Ash ever did.

Except, as Martha quickly realises, there are some things that a computer programme simply cannot replicate. The iAsh is maddeningly compliant and sedentary, and this is one of the most powerful insights made by Brooker: it’s not just the humour and acquiescence of our loved ones that we miss; it’s their bad traits too.

As in the last series, the resolution is far from uplifting, but it’s powerful, thought-provoking and wickedly clever. Black Mirror showcases Brooker’s increasingly assured ability not just as a satirist but as a bona-fide screenwriter.

Toff TV: TV Column

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carson

This column originally appeared in The Student TV section February 5th 2013

*

Watching Chancellor George Osborne getting booed at the Paralympics and trying to ‘style it out’ with one of those Mr Bean smiles of his was, I think we can all agree, one of our proudest moments as a nation.

It exposed growing intolerance for our toff-centric government, with its millionaire Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt cutting shapes in the ballroom of his Surrey mansion, to take but one particularly illuminating example. The recent initiation into Oxford’s Bullingdon Club (which boasted David Cameron and Boris Johnson as esteemed members) is reported to have involved burning a £50 note in front of a homeless person. Oh, the gentility!

It’s possibly surprising, then, that we as a (very skint) nation are still prone to romanticising and being in thrall to toff culture. Take the immense popularity of ITV’s Downton Abbey. We can’t seem to get enough of ‘Cousin Matthew’ mooning over vinegar-tits Lady Mary, or Carson the Butler acting like a man who is both severely constipated and battling to conceal an enormous erection. ITV’s Great Houses with Julian Fellowes (Downton’s writer) displays a breathless fascination with toff abodes, and Channel 4 documentaries Claridges and The Aristocrats display similar symptoms of aristo-lust.

Then there’s the more yoof-focussed Made in Chelsea (E4), the stars of which, like, despite their expensive educations, or whatever, like, inflect the end of every sentence as if it’s, like, a question? Add to that BBC 1’s recent caricature-adaptation of P G Wodehouse’s Blandings, which offered a jolly, jaunty and wholly affectionate look back at 1920s toff-foolery.

These shows come at a time when a number of apparently ‘groovy’, right-on artists have accepted Honours without any significant (publicly audible) criticism, whilst the likes of Danny Boyle and Ken Livingstone rejecting theirs is met with… well, not much of a reaction at all. Even the decidedly un-simpering Channel 4 News recently reported on Prince Harry in Afghanistan in a tone bordering on motherly affection.

It’s got something to do with the pride we take in our heritage. Whilst we rile at Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith suggesting the weekly 70 quid Jobseeker’s Allowance is too high, then claiming a 39 quid breakfast back on expenses (hungry boy), we still want to celebrate Britain’s past, with all the hierarchy, Empire and slavery that so deplorably connotes.

We also want escapism. Shows like Downton are popular precisely because they are so different from our daily lives. After a long, hard day working in Morrisons you hardly want to come home and watch a drama about somebody working a long, hard day in Morrisons.

Now do excuse me, but it’s been a trying day so I’m off to watch Cousin Matthew peg it.