It is encouraging to see a grass roots publication of this nature in Edinburgh and the book has a curiously endearing quality to it, perhaps on account of the earnestness with which the project has been executed, that will ensure its appeal to a wide range of readers. Edinburgh Tales is the first publication from a group of three talented writers from the city. At times thought provoking, at times amusing, and at times heartwarming, the book comprises twelve short pieces of writing and is characterized throughout by the energy and enthusiasm that is often present in first-time publications of this nature, and that more than compensate for any areas in which the book may fall short. The group are not mistaken in their assertion that the city lacks a “cultural connect” and their ambition to form an independent voice with which to address this deficiency is an admirable one. However before considering the ideas that lie behind the book, let us first say a few words about the stories themselves.
In this respect, three clear voices can be seen to emerge from the collection: there are the imaginative powers of the principal figure behind the project, Dean James, who is arguably at his best in ‘The Morse Code Gobstopper,’ the adventures of its protagonist successfully evoking the playful energy of action hero comic books from days gone by; there are the tightly structured plots that form the basis of Sirajur Rahman’s stories, and his ability to see chinks of light in even the darkest and dourest corners of modern Scotland and lift dysfunctional and marginal characters out from a forgotten underclass results in two particularly heartwarming pieces (‘A Laundrette’ and ‘Oldies’); finally, there are the prose poems of Ross McDiarmid, a writer who seems endowed with a natural affinity for language and whose works induce the reader to engage with the worlds they create, drawing them in and inviting them to lose themselves in the richly textured prose (‘Gin-soaked Boy’ and ‘Princes Street’). Yet whilst the three authors may encompass three distinct styles of writing, all are united by an ability to take everyday experiences from the city and breathe life into them, transforming them into escapist flights of fantasy, scenes of unlikely epiphanies and bejewelled meditations on apparently unremarkable situations.
However, in spite of the optimism driving these attempts to “reconnect” with the city, a latent feeling of disenchantment with Edinburgh at the start of the twenty-first century lingers reassuringly throughout. Consider, for example, the comparison made by the protagonist in ‘The Morse Code Gobstopper’ between the communities of yesteryear depicted in the masterpiece of social history that is Tim Chalk and Paul Grime’s North Junction Street mural with the present day:
No one seemed to be working together, nobody had any flags, each held umbrellas above their own heads, they had headphones in, mobiles out, everyone avoiding eye contact, nobody smiling, together and alone.
Or consider instead the blunt cynicism of McDiarmid’s Riverbank Sage: “keep yir fuckin golden ticket.” Even the dystopian brave new world of ‘Scotland 2012,’ in spite of its concept being somewhat clichéd, expresses a profound dissatisfaction with the current state of the nation. Arguably it is the counterpoint formed between the inherent optimism of the ability to transform the greyness of unremarkable quotidian scenes from a dreich and dysfunctional city into something that is strangely vibrant and uplifting, and a profound dissatisfaction for this same city that constitutes the backbone of this collaborative project and ensures it avoids the pitfalls of self-indulgent angst and literary vanity. Instead the book succeeds in creating a concrete first step (albeit a small one) in the creation of a dissenting and socially conscious literature bristling with potential.
That said however, the book is by no means perfect, and it is surely not churlish to point out that more careful editing and proofreading would have helped eliminate some of the grammatical and typographical errors hidden amongst the text. Moreover, it is perhaps also fair to ask whether the writing might benefit from greater depth, allowing it to connect more readily with other literature and ideas, and ultimately serving to make the pieces more robust and increase their consciousness of the social and cultural environments in which they are situated.
Yet, putting these points to one side, what is encouraging about this endeavour is not so much its depth or thrust—for these will only be proven in the longer term—but that it represents a germinant alternative and independent voice with the potential to challenge the mainstream of commercial fiction and formulaic ‘creative’ writing that has come to dominate Scottish literature. It is invigorating to see a manifestation of the latent discontent for the city and the direction in which it is heading, a feeling that is so marked amongst the younger generations. One can only hope that whatever the commercial successes of Edinburgh Tales, the authors behind the project will persevere in the development of their creative and intellectual faculties so that they might contribute to the foundations of a movement that seeks to restore the vision and vibrancy that once characterized the Athens of the North. A grandiose proposition perhaps, but the city deserves no less.