Sunday, September 16, 2007

Down the river of nice dreaming

Heron and lens smudge basking in the Leith.
We're walking along the Water of Leith path between Stockbridge and Canonmills. A stretch of the path along the northern side of the water is fenced off, but I see that there are actually gates in that fence, not exactly hidden, but you have to search for them.

With a gate unlatched, Bondi runs down to the water's edge for a drink and to wade in the shallow current. I'm looking downstream through the overhanging greenery and thinking how much I'll miss this path when I'm back in Sydney: there are not so many green corridors running through Sydney's suburban sprawl. I try to set the picture in my mind's eye for future recall, losing myself in that captured moment.

Bondi has bounded out of the water and torn through some of the shrubbery, now pausing before me with a grin, pulling me into now. It still surprises me that just watching Bondi enjoy himself thus gives me such a buzz. He decides he's had enough of this stop-off and runs over to the gate, waiting for me to follow. I put my headphones back on, resuming the final episode of Saturday Night Fry. As I continue on, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and Emma Thompson are enacting a trip to Hades to rescue the deceased father of a listener to Fry's radio program. After negotiating with Jim Broadbent's Charon ("Sharon, that's a funny name for a man!" "No, it's Karen". ) they get to cross the Lethe, river of forgetfulness - just as I'm crossing a footbridge over the Leith.

Struck by the coincidence, I decided to look up whether there was any connection beyond the memory-blurring drinking habits of many of Leith's residents. Leith is a Gaelic word meaning 'broad water', and the linguistic connection is confined to the audible similarity. In Boswell's account of Dr Johnson's travels through the area in 1773, he writes:

When we came to Leith, I talked with perhaps too boasting an air, how pretty the Firth of Forth looked; as indeed, after the prospect from Constantinople, of which I have been told, and that from Naples, which I have seen, I believe the view of that Firth and its environs, from the Castle Hill of Edinburgh, is the finest prospect in Europe. 'Ay,' said Dr Johnson, 'that is the state of the world. Water is the same every where.
Una est injusti caerula forma maris.
I told him the port here was the mouth of the river or water of Leith. 'Not LETHE,' said Mr Nairne. 'Why, sir,' said Dr Johnson, 'when a Scotchman sets out from this port for England, he forgets his native country.' NAIRNE. 'I hope, sir, you will forget England here.' JOHNSON. 'Then 'twill be still more Lethe.'

Edinburgh has a few other place names that seemed poetically inspired - usually seen first as bus destinations. Hunter's Tryst comes from the name of a pub, HQ of the Six Foot Club, and oft frequented by the likes of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.( Compare James Joyce hanging out at the Forty Foot club in Dún Laoghaire.)

Silverknowes takes its name from a farm redeveloped into a housing state in the 1920s. A knowe is a small rounded hill, the Scottish form of knoll. The most famous literary usage is probaby the Green Knowe books by Lucy Boston (a series I often passed over on the library shelves).

Census extract

When my Wood ancestors were living in Howe Street in 1851, John Wood was working as a butler in 27 Rutland Square at the western end of Princes St. Head of the house was James Tytter, Dept-Lieut. of Midlothian and Practicing Writer to the Signet. Until today I had read the census sheet address as "27 Portland Street", which as it happens is almost over the back fence from where I'm writing. If that were the case, then was an excellent chance that my ancestor strode this path between home and work, rather than the much shorter path across New Town. As I sat down to write, it seemed the perfect opportunity to include this detail on the Leith path, but after checking the facts, that all fell apart.

Iwona and Jaczek tell me they would like to keep Bondi when I leave Edinburgh at the end of the month; the line to be Bondi's alternate keeper grows ever longer. Recently he has started curling up under the bathroom sink, thus managing to startle at least one person per night on a midnight trip to the loo.


  1. I continue to live in envy of your adventures up north. We can't seem to get our act together for a trip any further north than Oxford.

    It also pains me to think that you will soon be heading back Down Under. There's something wonderfully reassuring about having a mate from home in the area even if we don't get many opportunities to catch up.

  2. Anonymous10:39 pm

    That walk is great.

    I was staying near there last year when i was there with Rainbow lsat year
    It is indeed a blessed part of the world.

    Have you been to the contemporay art yet?


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