Occasionally, we think about moving. But then we think again. People don’t really seem to leave Portobello/Joppa. They just move to a different house. Here are some reasons why.
There is the water. Sometimes we need to remember that most people don’t live right beside an enormous body of water, this grey wavy mass with Fife on the other side. I suppose, after all these years I was inured to it, just occasionally reminding myself on a golden day of all its beauty: the smell of the sea; the astonishing sky. Then the pandemic came and water – to look at, to be in, became a treasured resource. People couldn’t go to the beach in Spain, or Italy or…The Maldives (tbh I don’t really know where they are) so they came to Porty, during that sunny but very strange summer of 2020. These visitors couldn’t stop themselves from saying how lucky we were, we residents, and I guess we mixed pride and humility in our responses. There were too many people, of course – police horses on the beach, and people, well, pissing everywhere – but it seemed wrong to grudge them when we were so lucky.
Then the wild swimming began – how wonderful to be able to experience that shocking chill of water, to enliven the senses, to feel braced for the day. Or at least so I imagine. I am very happy to watch from a distance. Or, in the case of those of us very close to the water, to listen, sometimes in the summer in the very early morning, to the shrieks of happy ladies as they enjoy the camaraderie of wild swimming. And no doubt, the apres-ski breakfast, the fires, the barbecue. I just don’t know if my own frail old body would cope. Not to be too technical, but I wonder if there’s a reason why most of the Porty wild swimmers are ladies…
Then there are dogs. As a child, I was brought up to be afraid of dogs. Things were not helped by a barky boxer cornering me when I was eight and on my way to Sunday School (this did not help my relationship with dogs or God). But now I have met so many lovely dogs, some of them walked by Mr Tickell, and been able to witness camaraderie, again, among dog owners. Those of us with long memories (mine is long but selective these days) will remember the days when the streets near the beach were a minefield of dog poo. But no longer. People – and I think Porty people particularly – are mindful of their civic duty. While I am on that note, please may I thank all of those who are involved in litter-picking, particularly a very nice lady of certain years who ‘does’ Morton Street. I watch from my window with admiration and a little guilt. Anyway, dogs – my partner and I may even, one day, graduate from our imaginary dog to a real one.
Then food. When I came here in 1986 this was not a strength. Apart from the St Andrews there wasn’t much choice. But now we have Malvarosa, and the Shrimp Wreck and Miro’s and Civerino’s and Tanifiki and many others and soon, we hear, some fancy fish place only five minutes’ walk from my house! With cocktails! And we still have the St Andrews. For some reason it pleased me greatly during the months of the pandemic that my former pupil Hamish and his mates were running a pop up for The Little Chartroom (arguably Edinburgh’s finest restaurant) right beside the amusement arcade, which has survived in the same place since I was a wee boy (though we miss the shows). There was something about that juxtaposition – the £12 sandwiches and the slot machines that symbolised the new Porty. In the summer, I have promised myself that I will write something about ice cream. Once, in Indiana, I met a man who was writing a book about where to find the best chocolate ice-cream (just chocolate) in the USA. He had visited 450 emporia when I met him (and his wife, Mary-Lou, who spoke more slowly than I would have thought possible). In July, I will visit the ice cream parlours of Porty and give my opinions, such as they are. I hope that the half-opened one on the High Street will have burst into life by then, but I hope they dispose of the sad cones which have been languishing in the window for months.
But of course, the people. Porty seems stuffed with characters. And always was. Many will remember the Post Office in Joppa, where you could buy ANYTHING, presided over by Dennis: he was a character. Everyone who ever owned that invaluable corner shop in Morton St – they were and are characters. Indeed I may someday write a novel about that shop. And the postmen – does anywhere have happier postmen? There was Nick, then there was Lee and our current guy is one of the most cheerful people God ever sent to earth. And Vince in the sorting office, who knows everybody. There is something extraordinary in every ordinary person when you get to know them. And I imagine that is true wherever you live. Are there such characters in Bruntsfield or in Timbuctoo? Well, I imagine so, but I don’t, in truth, intend to find out. This is why we stay in Porty.