On a wet night in November 1986 my friend Lindsey and I took a no 26 bus to Joppa to look at a house. This all happened fairly suddenly – the opportunity to move upmarket from the neat wee flat we co-owned in Newington came up and we started to look. I don’t know why we came to Joppa, really: neither of us had any connection with the area, and the closest I could remember being was at the open air pool with my dad, or going to the shows and eating freshly fried doughnuts, a particular favourite of parent and child; sometimes we came to Portobello just for them.
But Joppa was unknown territory as the rain bashed off the bus. We got off at Morton Street – the first of thousands such journeys – and came to look at the house. We liked it, but it was closing the next day; it was surveyed, we bid and we got it. I phoned my parents to tell them, and they set off for a look. After work, my mother phoned to ask if it was ‘the pink house’. I had to tell her that I didn’t know what colour it was because we had only seen the outside in darkness, some 20 hours before. Probably fortunately it was not the pink house.
We moved in six days before Christmas. The house was freezing, and remained freezing in the winter for many years until I could afford central heating. I sat alone, surrounded by crates, Lindsey having decided that the best thing to do in the circumstances was go to a party. The windows shook and more rain lashed off them. The garden looked like an unforgiving jungle; I had never owned a garden. Where did you start with a big house and a garden? But still – I came home early, ill, one day in January and the sun was making the sea a beautiful silver and I felt very at home.
I was a teacher. A helpful parent who lived locally told me how lucky I was to have moved to Portobello. There were two particular reasons. The first was that Portobello was about to gentrify. The second was that it never snowed, given the proximity to the Firth. Both of these were flat lies. It snowed about four days after we arrived, making Morton Street a skiing ramp; and gentrification? Well, was it desirable anyway? I liked the fairground which, even by the spring of 1987 was falling down; occasionally, in a high wind, bits of the shows would blow along the Prom. Lindsey and I made it our nightly practice for several weeks to go to the arcade and play the ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ game, the questions for which had been set way too easy; for some time we came away with several pounds in small change every time we played, then, abruptly, the questions were reset and we won no more. We liked the old hardware shop where you could buy single screws – and more or less anything else, and the wee close leading to the Garden Centre, which often featured some plants which had passed away. At the St Andrews, if you ordered the Pizza Portobello, the old head waiter would always say ‘That’s the one with sand’; every time. And I still miss the big plastic Santas fixed to the lampposts at Christmas. Our next door neighbours, Florence on one side, and Dougie and Muriel on the other kept us right. Florence in particular was the best possible neighbour, though keeping up with her immaculate house and garden was a challenge, one to which I never fully rose.
Another resident, a colleague from our sister school, came with her cheery husband to find out which church I was proposing to join. This was a brief conversation for I am godless. A lady, she did not pause to try to convert me, but moved on to secular matters – did I realise, she wondered, that I was not a resident of Portobello, but of JOPPA, the border being formed by the ‘Daisy Park’. She clearly felt it important that, even as a relatively young heathen, I should recognise the gentility thrust upon me by being a Joppan…a Joppite…a Jopperan….
For Porty itself, of course, gentrification had a long period of gestation, but I think we can safely say that all the signs are there now. I went to a cremation in Greenock not that long ago; arriving early, I set off to look for coffee. I kid you not, I walked past ten open pubs, but not a solitary coffee bar; eventually I found solace of a spiritual/caffeinated variety in a Church Hall. Well now, my dears, look at the coffee offer in Portobello! My goodness, there’s a huge roaster in one window, and that’s next door to our very on message bookshop; and there’s Twelve Triangles, where, last Easter, a hot cross bun cost £2.80 (it was, by a distance, the best HCB ever made); then there’s an art gallery! And the man who makes fresh pasta! And two shops selling pot plants in one off handmade pots. And wild swimming lessons; everyone in a long dryrobe marching into the freezing water; my goodness, no-one would have chanced that thirty years ago. Still, though, there are barbers and shops where you can get birthday cards for 35p sitting not 25 yards from shops where they cost £2.50. And Mrs Popeye, bless, will do you a lovely bacon roll like my dad used to make on a Sunday morning when we had been to the open air pool.
Funny how fate works. I suppose that back in ‘86 I could have been on a bus to Leith or Corstorphine or Comely Bank, but I think it was lucky it was a 26. People don’t seem to move far when they move: the couple I bought from were moving all the way to Brunstane; Florence is in Coillesdene; the lovely family who replaced her moved to Bath St (which, perplexingly, is not where the baths are.) And I have grown older here and will, I think grow ancient here; for few people have the pleasure of lying in their baths listening to the waves hit the beach fifty yards away.