All writing, it seems to me, begins in your own head. Sometimes it will be written as a strong spontaneous reaction to outside stimulus – protest songs, polemical essays, critical feuds, a satirical impulse to start telling a particular story in order to hit a particular target, but for me, the story starts as a piece of idle conjecture: “What if?”
For a long time in my o’erweening youth, I thought that was it – my big old brain just conjured everything up out of the whole cloth. That certainly soothed my fragile ego.
But that cannot truly be so. We are all products of our environment, the climate, geography, and people that surround us. These things help, subtly or not, to shape our thoughts, and perhaps insidiously to guide our imaginations. So while writing may begin in your head, what and how you write depends a lot on where your head has been.
I was very lucky to grow up in Edinburgh – an unburied time capsule (well most of it, some streets have indeed been paved over!), where I could live in a house built in the 1920’s, go to school in a building from in the 19th century, visit the city centre designed at the end of the 18th century, and then travel to the High Street and Old Town dating back to the 13th century. The bifurcated nature of Edinburgh’s Old and New Town, and the very different people that lived in each section were the inspiration behind Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: confronted by a divided city, he created a schizophrenic character to reflect the strains in Victorian era Edinburgh, the buttoned up well to do in the New Town versus the seamy brothels, gambling dens and squalor of the Old Town, where men of means went to have their licentious fun in secret, away from disapproving eyes.
The city helped to foster in me a sense of time, of communal lived experience, and of the changes that set each era apart. Edinburgh is a living museum, and I think living there shaped my tendency to look at all the places I visit through time travel goggles: I’m so used to seeing layers of history in my hometown that I search automatically for it elsewhere, and frequently it helps me to uncover rich sources of inspiration wherever I go, a veritable parade of “What ifs?”
And Edinburgh has at its heart a gem of geological history: Arthur’s Seat, an ancient volcanic plug minutes from the High Street, the spine of the Old Town. The same basalt that Edinburgh Castle sits upon also rises into a rounded mount with a line of ragged cliffs – the Salisbury Crags. Just a short walk from the bustling city centre you can round two corners on a winding path and imagine yourself in the highlands, a landscape of gorse bushes and moor grasses. If you climb the mount, not high, but it always leaves me out of breath, (I like to take a steepish and rough stair around the northeast slope to get to the final climb from the south) you look down on the old city, the new, and the more modern that grew all round it, all from a fragment of wilderness kept at its heart. To the north snakes the Firth of Forth, a mighty estuary and gateway to a far wider world, to the east rises Berwick Law, ancient twin to Arthur’s seat, to the south lie the Pentland Hills, the first wrinkles into the lowlands that separate Scotland from England, and to the west the wide valley of the central belt beckons. I’ll be honest, I never looked much west. Ironic, considering how far west I ended up travelling.
I grew up surrounded by an embarrassment of riches. So, like most locals, I ignored them. But when you move away, that journey makes you reflect more on what you left behind, and your mind and imagination linger and retrace the streets where once you so easily roamed. I may not have created a fantasy Edinburgh yet, but the images, ideas, histories (and I haven’t even touched on the military, religious, or cultural history of the city), and visions of Edinburgh have without a doubt had an impact on how I look at every other part of this world, and how I may imagine new worlds. You can take the boy out of Edinburgh, but you can’t take Edinburgh out of the boy. I’d not want it any other way.