Some books, like old sepia calotypes, have a way of freezing a moment in time. The scenes captured by Victorian photographers were largely unpeopled, thanks to their long exposure times. A child may pose on a doorstep, face screwed up against the sun, a fishwife may stand guarding her creel; otherwise ghostly images, like drifting ectoplasm, leave silent unfocused traces in the eternally still air.
Books, on the other hand, can bring the peopled past to life when there’s a good storytelling voice. One image from the 1860s is particularly haunting. It offers no floating ectoplasm, no posed humanity. The only feature connecting this abandoned archaeology with human activity is the sign James Doull. Joiner, Cabinetmaker & Undertaker fixed to an agglomeration of stone, slate, and pantiles known as Society Buildings, which once stood in the shadow of Edinburgh’s Flodden Wall. A century after that picture was taken sepia had given way to psychedelia. Doull’s ramshackle workshop had gone, its site occupied by a former Victorian school building alongside a classical stone doorway which, like a Roman fragment, had outlived the building it had once been part of. Society Buildings, for the most part, remained intact, until it was torn down – sweet irony! – to make way for the Museum of Scotland.
The 1960’s image frozen in time for this writer is of an eighteenth-century tenement at the end of Chambers Street. Its ground floor housed a Chinese restaurant, then a capital novelty. A yellow E-type Jaguar with the number plate ‘JIM 1’ would often be parked outside, suggesting a mystery to be unravelled. The car belonged to a dentist, Jim Mitchell, who sometimes worked at the nearby dental hospital, and it added a touch of surrealism, for its owner had married Babs of the Beverley sisters, and he would later be shot in the bottom in the Bahamas after a legal dispute. The word ‘colourful’ applies.
Colour was not in short supply then. Society Buildings stood opposite Greyfriar Bobby’s statue and fountain, complete with chained cups, then still in use. John Grant’s outdoor selection of cheaper books was displayed alongside. There was an Angela Carter-esque quality of otherworldliness, a hint of the magic theatre in Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, about a block which began with Society Buildings and ended with the Dolls’ Hospital on Lindsay Place, next to Donaldson’s Bristo Port Crockery Warehouse.I have memories of my own of this time and place, as it happens, so before considering that brief incandescent era which Mike Heron and Andrew Greig relive in You Know What You Could Be: Tuning into the 1960s I confess to being gobsmacked from the off, and inescapably subjective, since their joint chronicle unnervingly opens a door on my own Edinburgh past.
I often passed by Society Buildings after school, and recall drifting chords of an ethereal music with reedy voice accompaniment which, if not quite folk, certainly wasn’t rock or rhythm and blues. What I didn’t know then, but would quickly find out, was that I’d stumbled upon the birthplace of the Incredible String Band. Soon, word was out about a duo which played George Square Chaplaincy Centre. The music of Clive Palmer and Robin Williamson was very different from the rollicking stuff Robin Hall and Jimmie MacGregor were belting out in the nearby Charles Tavern, or the strumming singalongs of The Corries, then packing the Waverley Bar. More medieval courtly than Arran knitted pullover, to this untutored ear the high jangly notes and wailing fiddle had hints of Gypsy European, Indian sitar, or Kentucky Blue Grass. Months later a few of us lied our underage way in to the Crown Bar in Lothian Street where, for a total of 3/6d (1/6d for a half pint, 2/- for entry) we could sample a nightly line up which might include Davey Graham, Bert Jansch, Archie Fisher, Owen Hand, and a now expanded Incredible String Band. Mike Heron had since joined the duo, while Williamson’s girlfriend Licorice, could shake her tambourine with gusto. Context is all important. The mid-’60s was a Ceausescu moment for Edinburgh, in a naively benign way. A dour, life-denying old order was crumbling. The ruling elite – strangely known as ‘Progressives’ – had long decreed that pubs and cinemas should be closed on Sundays to safeguard public morality. Prohibitions on films like Fanny Hill and The Killing of Sister George, or even Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, were commonplace. Catching Joyce’s Ulysses necessitated a bus ride to Musselburgh, where the curious were invariably disappointed by its lamentable paucity of raunchiness.
The Incredible String Band: They didn’t jam.
From this hodden-doon civic gloom came forth brilliant sparks of cultural creativity. A groundbreaking 1962 Writers’ Conference was followed a year later by a Dramatists’ Conference which stole the headlines when a nude model was wheeled around on a BBC lighting trolley. Since the lady in question remained stock still, the organizers could not, technically, be charged under the obscenity acts. The more po-faced city fathers, outwitted and outvoted, often ended up as performance artists manque. When Lord Provost Brechin decreed that bare breasts were permissible provided they were black under some specious National Geographic ethnological exemption, the puritanical, if droll, Councillor John D Kidd, in a line worthy of Peter Cook, compared that same sight to ‘being blinded by headlamps’. Later, despite the city firemaster’s advice, the kenspeckle councillor supported a renewal of the Traverse Theatre’s licence to general astonishment. Asked why, he explained his reasoning in three words. ‘Let them burn’.
Edinburgh unshackled seemed, at times, like the coolest city anywhere. 1966, the year the Incredible String Band recorded its first album with Elektra Records, began with the grand-daughter of a rector of St John’s Church, Princes Street rediscovering her Scottish roots. Her name, Joan Baez, the venue, The Place in Victoria Street. Four months later the boy friend she’d lost the previous year, Bob Dylan, was performing to a packed ABC Cinema in Lothian Road – somewhere, I still have the 7/6d ticket. He would later praise the Incredibles’ October Song as one of his favourite tracks.
In Edinburgh’s year of miracles there was so much glamour around it was easy to miss out on groundbreakers like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, playing at the Cranston Hall to near empty houses, until the critics arrived. This feckless scribe was working at The Traverse, serving at table, peddling poetry, helping with lights and sound for The Scaffold, and selling tickets. When Marianne Faithful wandered in asking ‘Have you seen Mick?’ who wouldn’t be happy to help? The following year – the Summer of Love – brought erstwhile Pablo Picasso and Jimi Hendrix collaborator, Mark Boyle and the Soft Machine with The Psychedelic Light Show UFO.
Yet the most striking feature of You Know What You Could Be is not the glitz, but the grit. The unassuming laid back observations of Mike Heron and Andrew Greig fit into a risky format which, had it been a star struck nostalgia trip, might easily have fallen flat. It succeeds because of, rather than despite, the duality and disparity of authorship. Greig, once described as ‘Scotland’s Renaissance writer’, is responsible for most of the text. Though he adopts a junior role, he is not so much amanuensis in awe of his subject as pal to a genial troubadour who just happens to have played Woodstock, recorded with Pete Townshend, Keith Moon, and John Cale, and turned down an opportunity to jam with Eric Clapton because ‘we don’t jam, man’.
This is a book grounded in a city which, in one sense, no longer exists. Mid-’60s central Edinburgh was a doomed paradise awaiting its end as council planners made arrangements for its elimination. There was, however, one incidental benefit. Asked why there was such a remarkable cultural efflorescence at this particular time, Greig has an unromantic answer, ‘cheap rents’. For a while, at least, it was possible to live in a Georgian flat awaiting clearance for a peppercorn pittance, and there were plenty of informal venues around for poets and musicians struggling to get by on a shoestring. Then came demolition Armageddon, and the technicolour dream ended as the walls came crashing down.
Unlike Society Buildings, the music of the Incredible String Band will never vanish entirely, however. It’s just too appealing. It can sometimes stage a surprise re-appearance, as I discovered around five years ago in New York, where Mike Heron’s Little Cloud accompanied the final credit roll of the Juliet Binoche film, Summer Hours. Talk about that old feeling of deja vu all over again! The undertow of You Know What You Could Be is Edinburgh, its presence unavoidable. It is good to learn from Greig that Heron’s lyrics for ‘The Tree’ were not, in fact, celebrating some noble specimen in a rolling landscape, but were suggested by a humble apple tree in his parents’ suburban garden, with its distant view of Arthur’s Seat. At one point I began to suspect that the mercurial Williamson-Heron relationship was just the Watson’s-Heriot’s rivalry in another guise, though having myself been taught by Heron’s father in the same tower room where, I imagine, he too had once laboured over ‘Kubla Khan’ and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, I would say that, wouldn’t I?
This moment frozen in time is a revealing, if quirky, social document, a glimpse into a slice of history which, for a few magical years, made the Scottish capital a very special place. It should be read by everyone with the least interest in Edinburgh and its recent past – and it should certainly be a fixture on George Heriot’s school’s required reading list.