Umbrellas of Edinburgh: A Review
This is not a collection to be read: it is a collection to be lived in. Wander through at a leisurely pace, find the poems and stories that sit well with you and visit them often. Read the words between them as you would walk the path between your home and work; let their stories become familiar, and let them become wonderful in their familiarity. This is a collection that demands nothing: like the city itself, Umbrellas of Edinburgh stands as living testimony to the people and places living and dead, fanciful and purposeful, ordinary and extraordinary, on which its existence relies.
The short stories are impressive through their quality and diversity. ‘Candlemaker Row’, by Jane Alexander, is an indisputably magnificent piece of writing: sensible, practical, hopeful and devastating. Every re-reading of the story allows us to revel in some initially-overlooked nuance or subtle observation. I give you here the first sentence, ‘The streets are just as they should be; which surprises me every time.’ Read on, and be awestruck.
‘Bonny Fie Dee Travellers’, by Sandy Thomson, is another of the short stories that has stayed with me. Thomson’s story sent me right back to my Edinburgh (Dublin at Christmas time) with the narrator’s authentic record of going to ‘The Big Shops’, and the girls standing together ‘silently, being Very Good.’ The story ends exactly where it should, before the ‘real’ story of the day starts, but that doesn’t stop me wishing there was just a little more of it.
The poems are trickier to quantify and represent. I was recently asked to recommend places of interest in Edinburgh for a friend’s relatives. I was stumped. Knowing nothing about them I didn’t know how to theme my advice; did they want the historical side? The contemporary? Proven chains or local entrepreneurs? Fancy restaurants and hotels or grass-roots B&B’s and cafés? I face a similar dilemma here. This anthology is very much like an umbrella: one idea branches out over many poems. And there are many umbrellas. Want beautifully intimate? Read ‘Gabriel’s Road’ by Hamish Whyte, ‘Making Bubbles outside the Modern Art Gallery’ by Aiko Greig, and ‘Making Love in Ferns’ by JL Williams. Want to visit historical Edinburgh? Read the engrossing ‘Hauf-hingit Maggie’ by Gerda Stevenson, ‘On the Square’ by Jock Stein, ‘Gallow Lee’ by Colin McGuire. Want the public face of the modern city? That’s embodied in ‘sorry for our appearance’ by nick-e Melville, ‘At the Fringe’ by Tracey S Rosenberg, and ‘The Charity Shops of Stockbridge’ by Jane Griffiths. Or how about the poems that, despite being about Edinburgh, make you think of somewhere else entirely? Then read the superb ‘Wonky’ by Colin Will, and ‘The Diggers, Hogmanay’ by Nancy Somerville, and ‘Pointless Comparison’ by Sophie Scrivener. Or maybe…or maybe…or maybe… As the character of a city is composed of innumerable idiosyncrasies, so too is the character of this collection; without turning this review into an index I cannot fully account for the variety of form and thought, structure and idea to be found within its pages- the diversity of language represented, for instance, is for you to discover on your own terms.
That it not to say the collection is perfect. Not every poem and short story printed between its covers stands up to individual scrutiny, but together they form a coherent and richly textured representation of the city. It is for the reader to decide if this overarching unity cancels out, or perhaps forgives, some of the more lacklustre texts, in themselves few and far between. I think so, in the same way a city embraces an abandoned building: there is character there, and merit, and potential; every poem and short story here has value, even if it is just a single word or phrase that justifies its inclusion.
The book is divided up geographically and, with one exception (I would place ‘Greyfriars Bobby’ before ‘Candlemaker Row’) the stories and poems sit alongside each other like amicable strangers in a coffee shop, or a train station; both united and separate, distinctive and unobtrusive. Having quickly flicked through the list of contents before reading I was disappointed not to find a corresponding map or index. However, I have already seen several online discussions about how best to rectify this oversight, including: a map in future editions; a fold-out map/poster; and a website with an interactive map. Do it! Do any! Do all! Historians are inundated with buildings, exhibitions, books, tours, documentaries, films- let us have somewhere where we can say ‘X was written about this place!’ Or ‘Y was written here!’
Umbrellas of Edinburgh is not for those who love Poetry: it is for those who love poetry; the poetry of living, of dying, of storytelling. It is for the tourist, to cram in between their free maps and pristine guidebooks; it is for the high school student who is fervently applying to study at its university; it is for the expats in Beijing, London, Glasgow; it is for the locals who have forgotten that this is their city, and that the city is a home, their home.