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Opening the Doors

October 1, 2010

As usual, Doors Open weekend in Edinburgh hit us with the same surprise as an autumnal conker from a horse chestnut landing on our heads. Every year we vow to be prepared, to plan, and cover as many possibilities as is feasible. And each year it sneaks up on us, leaving us frantically flicking through the catalogue, late on Friday night, trying to take it all in, and we end up dashing from Georgian pillar to Edwardian post, while the wise virgins scoot about the city, stout shoes and knapsacks employed, maps in hand, tickets pre-booked.

For all that, it is always enjoyable and inevitably a learning experience. What seemed to start out years ago as a chance to get in somewhere without paying the normal charge has developed into an opportunity to sidle past the many no entry signs in the city and view Edinburgh from different and unusual perspectives.

Last year delivered a fascinating glimpse backstage at the Traverse Theatre and the Queen’s Hall, as well as a canter up the Nelson Monument. This year was, if anything, even more intriguing. We mixed it up – with the old Observatory House on Calton Hill, the Sheriff Court, the projection room at the Filmhouse, and the Granton Lighthouse – Auld Reekie in all its many aspects.

With Edinburgh at its best: scudding clouds, high blue skies, the visit to the Observatory House was always going to be special, but I had underestimated its impact. Finished in 1872, it incorporates the original Observatory tower, designed by architect of the New Town, James Craig, and is situated just yards from Playfair’s City Observatory Building. The round tower being part of the house, many of the rooms have interesting shapes. In particular, the first floor drawing room has picture windows that allow you to look out on the Pentlands, the Castle, and the Firth of Forth. The building is currently being renovated so the empty rooms focus the mind wonderfully, and it struck me suddenly that you can’t overemphasise the importance of design and architecture in its effect on the human condition. In this room, surrounded by such views, you would hardly be able to discuss the mundane. The intense conversations that fuelled the Enlightenment must have been held in rooms such as this, where the design, the views and the ambience would be calculated to inspire. Craig’s plan for the New Town and the buildings designed by Playfair and others were such aspirational and bold statements about what they expected the citizens to achieve.

We then made our way to the Sheriff Court Building, which is a good example of how new build need not be mediocre; the light wood, the marbled floors and the interesting refurbishment of a former university building give the Court the kind of majesty that underlines the seriousness of events therein. Below stairs, physically and metaphorically, a different order pertained. We looked at the functional cells with their heavy doors and security paraphernalia while the turnkey told us of the best means to subdue violent custodies, as she called them. More sotto voce, she admitted that, after an initial love of her job, the repeated sightings of the same faces became depressing and hopeless. There was, however, a universal in the upstairs and downstairs of the Court Building: on the back of every door that wasn’t on public view was top to bottom graffitti, the sad messages left by those who presumably felt they had no other way of making their mark.

Thankfully, an excellent Filmhouse egg roll, followed by a trip to the projection room, provided light relief (ouch!). I sometimes wonder if young folk, spoiled by a multitude of avenues to on screen delights, take cinematography for granted. For my generation, born within living memory of the glory days of the Hollywood Film Factory, I think cinema and magic will always co-exist. An engaging demonstration of the projection rooms many wonderful machines reminded us that behind the dream lies hard and technical work. But, again, there was contrast – between the bulk of the traditional projection machines and their huge spools of film, and the neat more familiar outlines of the digital set up. Same result, different process.

We were looking forward to climbing the steps up to the light room of another Edinburgh institution – the Granton Lighthouse, marooned as it is, well away from the current coastline. However, in a painful echo of authority’s treatment of Granton in recent times, whist the opening of the building had been sanctioned, the trip up to the light was deemed unsafe. So much promise, such limited action. The modern prefabricated sheds and barns that housed local businesses did not come out well in the comparison with the solid brick buildings of the nineteenth century that towered over them. Another reminder, perhaps, that our setting can inspire great things and that ‘new’ doesn’t always imply ‘better’.

We arrived home to find that the victorious Ed Milliband had made his debut speech as leader at the Labour Conference. Predictably the faithful, or at least that section of those present who had voted for him, gave a favourable response, and even those party activists who, days before, had been predicting electoral doom and gloom should the wrong brother win, were prepared to spin their disappointment.

What was almost unbelievable was the banality of his core message – we are the new generation.
Given he and David Cameron were born within four years of each other, this was a bit bizarre – surely if he was of a new generation, then so was his opponent. Well, according to Ed, not really, because Cameron is ‘different’.

Of course, we knew what he was trying to say: I’m not like Gordon or Tony – or even, whisper it, big brother David, I’m er new. What a fatuous description that is – of anything; a point well proved by Labour’s old generation, which, of course, was, er, New Labour. I haven’t kept up with Mad Men, but on its trawl through the mid twentieth century, I imagine it’s just about reaching the advertising realisation that putting the word ‘new’ in front of a product was no longer effective. Perhaps we should face the fact that even advertising men have more respect for their audience than today’s politicians? Or is it too difficult to tell them apart these days?

Edinburgh’s ‘new’ town was made great, not by the fact that it was new and the old town was old; its impressive qualities come from the fact that its designers and builders used up to date building materials but erected buildings that took from the best of the past – Greece, Rome, French Imperial – you’ll find all sorts of influences in the streets and squares of north Edinburgh. They didn’t feel they had to cast off all that had gone before in an effort to prove their credentials. These men had the self confidence and the vision to be timeless, to stick with what they knew was classical and to make it contemporary. Maybe it was James Craig who originally coined: ‘If you build it, they will come’. The Enlightenment was driven by knowledge of the past, its relevance to the present, and confidence in the future.

So I would have more confidence in Labour had Ed, or indeed anyone, been brave enough to announce not that they were new but that they were returnees, familiar voices, exhuming the values of the Labour movement that were so comprehensively buried by the Project.

Last week, Ken Roy wrote how Ed Milliband had paid his respects to Jimmy Reid alongside Govan’s shipyard workers, rather than in the church with the great and the good.

I liked that.

But I’d like it even more if I felt that, in recognising the enormous contribution Jimmy Reid made to Scots in the Labour movement, ‘Red’ Ed had also realised that Jimmy never felt the need to change his principles to become ‘electable’. And in that earned the praise and respect of all.

I hope Ed spotted that, I hope he might feel able to connect with working people and declare Keir Hardie’s message loud and clear. But the ad men will tell him it’s out of date, it’s not ‘new’, and therefore will make him unelectable
So I’m not holding my breath.

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