Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Edinburgh and the Highlands

I'm trying to make up for my scarce writing here this summer, now that the summer break has ended. This entry has to do with Edinburgh, one of my favourite cities, partly because of its unusual beauty and partly because my great-grandfather was born there.

Paul Attinello and I took a train from Newcastle on Saturday with the plan of attending the Meredith Monk performance in the annual Festival. On arrival, we had a few hours and strolled up to Calton Hill, which gives a view of Arthur’s Seat (highest of the crags next to Holyrood Palace), the lower city and the crag where Edinburgh Castle sits. The familiar sensations of my day trips into Edinburgh last May (see earlier blog posts) came rushing back, but of course the streets were now much more crowded with Festival goers. Once we got to the center, we decided there was time to see one of the Fringe shows before the evening’s performance and settled on the Do Theatre, a troupe of Russians who now live in Berlin, in a work titled The Anatomy of Fantasy. This was being held at the Assemby on George Street, where we continued on foot.

The title suggests the mode of the work—dreamlike evocations of an underworld of obscure events, danced to a varied collage of musical accompaniment. Thematic visual elements included lengths of red string deployed in various ways, four scythes, ashes, three movable windows with venetian blinds, and a steel-frame cube. Two principals, male and female, three female secondary dancers, and the musician made up the troupe. Recorded music was used along with additions from the musician who from time to time used his boot heels to provide percussion. Smoke billowed more than once, and the rhythms twice became very loud and insistent. Meaning? Let’s say that many interpretations could be tried, probably none of them accounting for every detail. The interpretation of dreams asks for high levels of Keatsian negative capability. The “erotics” of criticism, not the hermeneutics, as Sontag once urged.

The Monk performance began at eight, and to what looked like a full house. Title: Songs of Ascension. A bare stage with a single suspended glass lamp making wide circles while a woman in a white dress moved about and informally danced. Slowly the lamp rose in proportion as its circles shrank, finally vanishing up into the flies. Then the performers, including Meredith Monk came out. That included her co-perfomer Ching Gonzalez, who has apeared in many Monk works. Two violins, a viola, and a cello, which the cellist several times played while standing and holding it. A chorus joined in many times, concluding in the angelic location of two boxes on opposite sides of the hall. The music used mostly pandiatonic harmony, with an occasional chromatic touch. It owes something to the “Minimalist” style of Glass and Reich and perhaps a little to Virgil Thompson, but mostly it is Monk’s own language, especially for the vocal lines, which use little calls reminiscent of Native American singing. To which she adds serrated melodic motifs, little tonal peaks and valleys something like medieval hocketing. Though of course there was also some conventional vocal leading. The overall effect was ecstatic, with occasional somber or humorous asides. A rising climax at the end earned the piece’s title. Is there a word better than “inspiring” or “uplifting” that I could use to describe it?

Paul and I went to the stage door and eventually the artist of the evening emerged and smiled delightedly to see Paul (they’ve known each other for many years), who embraced and congratulated her. I was duly introduced and had a friendly greeting from both Meredith and Ching Gonzalez. She said they were going to a party and invited us to come if we liked. There was even a van to drive us there. So in we rode through the Grass Market up to Princes Street and around to the High Street, the final destination the large Victorian building of the City Chambers. Up a flight of stairs and past vitrines with historical memorabilia, including a small silver replica of the Walter Scott Monument on Princes Street. I’d assumed it would be a party given by some private person, but, no, it was a City of Edinburgh event. Artists performing several different shows that evening gathered in the Council Chamber, a large, high-ceilinged hall with coffers in its ceiling, brass chandeliers, and a series of mural paintings by William Hole based on Scottish history. “Mary Queen of Scots Enters Edinburgh,” “News of the Battle of Flodden,” “Robert the Bruce Presents a Charter to the Burgesses of the Town,” and so on. Wine was immediately available and taken. The Lord Provost and his wife were there, and soon enough he shifted into action and welcomed everyone. He wore an ornamental chain of office around his neck (in fact, so did the Lady Provost), even more elaborate than what you see depicted in the Holbein painting of Thomas More, the one now hanging in the Frick Museum. A touch of the ceremonial past. Then Jonathan Mills, Director of the Festival, spoke with an informality that matched his clothes, and after that food was served.

We had our meal, mingling with all the performers and groups that had gathered for the party, and then said goodnight.

Next morning I got up early and took a cab over to the High Street, where a bus waited for my tour of the Scottish Highlands. Although bus tours are in most ways awful, I’ve waited too long to see that part of the world, somehow never quite managing to get there using more comfortable modes of transport. Anyway, I think of it as a reconnaissance mission, during which I would learn what parts of the country I’d like to return to.

A guide (in obligatory tartan kilt) kept up a running monologue about the places we were passing, beginning with Georgian Edinburgh and some of its famous figures. Before long we’d left the city behind and began to see sights. The Forth Bridge, for instance, an early engineering feat still in use today. Loch Lieven with a castle on its little island. Perth, formerly St. Johns Town, which coined its name from Roman Apertha as soon as Presbyterianism made popishness like saints unacceptable to the new sect. A mention of Scott’s The Fair Maid of Perth, based on the life of Catheirne Glover whose house is still there to be visited. A quick passage through Birnam Wood, no less, although Dunsinane was too far away to be visible. And so on until the first big ridge of the Highlands appeared. Nine hundred million years old, according to our guide, but then other parts of farther north were 4000 million years old. Age seems to make for beauty because the landscape began to take on a majestic allure. Empty except for a few sheep, with whin and purple heather covering the stony, uncultivated land. (Whin being a heather-like spiky shrub that grows near whinstone or basaltic rock.) We passed several whiskey distilleries, looking not very industrial but presumably producing huge quantities of the famous local product. Then came a hallucinatory series of rainbows, complete, transport-worthy bridge arches, some of them double. They backed away as we moved toward them, constantly replacing themselves, as in a slide show. Before long Ben Nevis was in view, its top lost in cloud. Britain’s tallest mountain, but today looking like something in a Chinese painting. Tall as it is, the guide said, there is a path that allows you to reach the summit in about two hours without a lot of difficulty. I’d like to do that some day.

Pitlochry, for a, shall we say, “pit stop.” Long queues at the cafés for coffee and buns. A surrounding amphitheater of surrounding mountains. Sunlight gleaming off the pavement and rain droplets, cold winds. Back on the bus. Onward through more rainbows. Evergreens, reforestation of land that long ago was cut and burned. Higher mountains. Loch Lochie, part of the North Scotland canal. Leading to Loch Oich and a series of intermediate locks. Finally Fort Augustus, at the western end of Loch Ness, where we stopped for lunch. Some took a boat out onto the lake. I didn’t, despite the realization that one doesn’t see much of Loch Ness from its western extremity. I had my packed lunch on a bench facing the Loch, watching the tourist boat retreat and retreat towards distant waters and mountains. Canoe trippers coming from Loch Oich, not wanting to pay for the locks, had to make a portage through town. Lunch consumed, I rinsed my hands in the stingingly cold water. After which, a stroll back to the locks and up the stair at each level to the top one, for a glance westward where boats were beginning to gather for the next trip down the water stairs provided.

The return took a more westerly route so that after seeing Ben Nevis from another angle, we would see a different part of the Highlands. The most staggering was the country around Glencoe, in the west, where you get lochs that are actually fjords connecting to the Atlantic. The mountains thrust vertically up and yet are rounded by erosion, with green slopes most of the way to the summits. It is Ossian country and his cave was pointed out to us as we sped past, dazed by all the sublimity. It is the ideal place for the Romantic movement to have been born.

Next morning I checked out of the hotel and made my way over to Charlotte Square, where the Edinburgh Book Festival is being held this year. Literally in the Square: tents and wooden walkways have been set up in the middle of the central green, and that’s where events take place. I’d told Don Paterson I’d come to his reading at 11:30 and so I did. The venue was a large space with probably three hundred seats and there must have been about 250 people in the audience. (I guess they weren’t aware of the commonplace notion that “No one is interested in poetry.”) The Festival Director, Nick Barley, gave a rather odd intro, then Don came to the lectern wearing a black suit jacket and white shirt, his white beard neatly trimmed. He had a glass of wine with him to help him deal with a slight cough, he said. Sips of this throughout the reading gradually warmed him up, so that the tentative modesty of the beginning was gradually replaced by something a little bolder and more spirited. He has an appealing Dundonian voice and is able to make use of Scottish intonations you might not have guessed at if access to the poems came only through the page. There’s also a habit of placing one foot in front of the other and rocking back and forth in response to the verses, occasionally lifting the back foot. Possibly a remnant from his days as a rock music performer? He read mostly from the recent collection Rain but a few new poems as well. The in-between comments were pointed and amusing, touching on many different topics. That includes his atheism, a skeptical stance that seems to be countered by a strong awareness of mystery—the mystery of being itself, just for a start. He also read a few aphorisms, which (should I be surprised?) were well received. I sensed he held the audience’s attention throughout; loud applause at the end suggested as much.

I strolled over to the London Review of Books tent café afterward to speak to him, where he was set up at a table on a low platform for book signing. Over a hundred fans were queued up for his signature. When the last had gone, I went up and gave his hand a congratulatory shake. Even though the aftershock of giving a large-scale reading hadn’t quite dispelled, we enjoyed a few minutes of gently ironic banter. He had other appointments, and I had a train to catch, so there was no question of lunch or even a coffee. Don plans to read at the 92nd St. Y in New York in October (yes, this is an ad for it), so possibly I’ll see him there when I get back.

So, a temporary farewell to Caledonia. And two days from now I leave Newcastle for London. But the images are still with me.


  1. Meredith Monk's colleague in Edinburgh is actually Ching Gonzalez, who has been working with her for years. The theater director Ping Chong worked with Monk extensively in the 70's and 80's. Respectfully yours,

    Peter Sciscioli
    Assistant Manager for Meredith Monk/The House Foundation for the Arts