The Writing Life: Edinburgh Chip shops and fantasy city design, a diversion

Time Passes.

Hello, friends and the occasional relative!

I visited my home town of Edinburgh recently, and while much had stayed the same, a lot had changed. Profound, I know.

So I’m going to talk about chip shops.

First, I am convinced that if you want the real experience of fried fish in Scotland, don’t get it from a restaurant: it can be good, and I had an excellent example of it while I was home, but it simply does not touch the experience of getting a fried fillet from a chip shop, with or without the chips. If you can get it cooked to order, that is the ne plus ultra of fried fish experiences, and haddock becomes a mind-alteringly good experience. Yeah yeah, cod lovers, I hear you, but haddock wins the day for me personally. And I say that as someone who wakes up every day vegan. I don’t always go to bed vegan, but I try!

I also say it has to be from an old school chip shop, where you walk into a small tiled area facing a short formica counter, and a glass fronted, perforated-steel floored hot plate for the already fried delicacies waiting for you. I used to just roll the dice and hope the stuff on the hot plate was fresh, but age and patience started me asking for my options to be cooked to order for me, and I’d wait. Most of the time the folk will oblige, and fresh fried anything is amazing—just don’t make it a consistent life choice, or your life will likely be shorter.

I’m not a fan of the new fish and chip restaurants, which along with a lot of other factors has spelled the death of many great old chippies in my home town. The Central was always my favorite, (their fish was THE BEST, and I’m so glad that on my last visit we took a friend and got it cooked to order, a great last meal there) and has been gone a few years now, the Rose Street Fry closed recently, and this visit I found that the Kingfisher had joined the fryers celestial. What a loss. Had a sit down in there a few years back. It used to stay open the latest, and changed the pattern of my walks home/to the nearest mate’s flat at 3.30-4.00am in the morning if I still had the cash for some grub.

So over time something that was essential to the character of Edinburgh’s nightlife and city center has dwindled and died, a subtle erosion that may only be jarring to me on my returns home to find another favorite gone. Cost of living crisis, students switching to cheaper lunch options, the expense of drinking in pubs leading to fewer locals needing that pre or post imbibement chippy which was once so essential. I used to do both on occasion, and loved it! Haggis supper with extra cheese’n’burger please! (Jumbo haggis every time, by the way, a fat loaf of crispy on the outside, ooey-gooey on the inside and still my favorite when done right—I am the world’s worst attempted vegan. The haggis as sausage version was always, without fail, too damn dry no matter which chippy I got it from—avoid.)

I was thinner then than now, by the way. Maybe due to the epileptic dancing I got in between doses of battered and fried goodness. On the way home, the chippies ran out of options, so you had to trade down to a sausage or black pudding supper, after standing in line hoping someone ahead of you wouldn’t ask for it first! Or a deep fried scotch/mince pie. Years since I had one of those! Or a fried pizza, which were delectable in a salty, only cheesy right in the middle few bites kind of way (they were folded in half and then deep fried with the base facing outwards, filling in the middle). In Edinburgh brown sauce covered up a lot of sins, hahaha! Love it! How pubs can survive when folk are struggling to pay heating bills with pints at £5.50+ a pop is beyond me. A friend said that in the UK 12 hospitality based businesses are closing every day. I can sadly believe it, and it is such a loss to the communities they served and were a part of.

Terrible way to end a sentence there, but it is more conversational, no?

Anyway, the thought occurred to me that our fantasy cities are often frozen in aspic, always the same as they were when first visited by the protagonists, unless destroyed in war, but even then, the favorite tavern/inn often miraculously survives. Or at least the owner and staff do, and have started again. I wonder now if in Aranvail I will remember to have a shifting roster of establishments that open and close with changes in owners, or popular taste, or trading patterns/harvests. I do love The Staggering Rose though, so could I have her close and be replaced by an up-market tapas place, or equivalent? In the Mire bars would change much more often, which would let me have fun with more grim and gruesome names like the Neck and Noose, or Swinging Gibbet. The Crossed Skull would probably survive though.

What do you readers think? Would you like your fantasy cities to slowly evolve through the years, or stay as our heroes first found them? I suspect we like revisiting old familiar places in our writing just as much as we do in real life, and would be sad to see them closed, as I have been when visiting the ever-dwindling chip shops of Edinburgh.

On that point—the ClamShell on the High Street is still good, I think better now than it was back in my day 30+ years ago: they fresh fried a jumbo haggis for me last year and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I got a fish off their hot plate this year late one night and it was crispy and gorgeous, with moist fish breaking apart to melt in your mouth. (Plus a coating of brown sauce to complete the flavor spectrum!) The Castle Rock (which I remember opening as a new kid on the block, and has outlasted its more storied rivals—better tourist location, I suspect) on the Grassmarket gave me a great haggis this year, but their brown sauce was weirdly gelatinous—needed to be watered down with more vinegar. It tasted right, but the consistency was wrong. I am glad to see Franco’s in Stockbridge, the chippy of my childhood, is still going strong, I’ll have to take a wander down there next time! No more chipsteak supper on the menu? A sad day for my best friend who loved them when we were wee. And not so wee.

So there you have it, my friends, chips shops and fantasy city establishments—what’s not to like?

A final aside: The best baked potato shop in the city closed less than a week before I got there this year, which was a crushing disappointment as they had hands down the best veggie/vegan haggis around. I’m still bummed thinking about that now—and as we were there, their potato oven got pulled out and left in the street, a sad reminder of what we’d lost.


3 thoughts on “The Writing Life: Edinburgh Chip shops and fantasy city design, a diversion

  1. Jason

    Loving all your updates Roddy… support from the FaOR crew.

    I let this post simmer for awhile… here’s my input:

    You’ve got the expat syndrome… it’s a good syndrome in my opinion… maybe since I share it.

    It’s easy for us to notice the differences since we’re gone so long.

    I thought about this a lot… I still do notice the differences in my neighborhood… but it’s still more shocking when we go back to the home town…

    So what you were really asking about… You’ve already done some minute changes (I could specify if neededI as it fit into the story….

    What you’re asking about is irrelevant…. You don’t need to force it in… In fact, you can see from your own experience that those changes would only be relevant if a character goes away for a long time.

    In short, for your work, no… I don’t think it’s necessary. In fact, it will be really complicated… In other words, you don’t need to force it… it could happen naturally with your characters…

    It’s not that you have to stay away from personal experience; you just need to apply it, if necessary, correctly.

    Being an expat isn’t normal… from that point… you’ve got to step back. Walk around your neighborhood… see how much has changed with the crisis that nobody notices. It is “hard” to notice those changes. I think people take it in stride… ie, they don’t really notice.

    I think I’m a freak for noticing… the only major difference with “normal people” is when it’s a key place in the neighborhood. Just like your post indicated….

    “Would you like your fantasy cities to slowly evolve through the years, or stay as our heroes first found them?”

    That’s your question… and, of course… I guess… but it’s a loaded question. Because, personally, I don’t want my city to evolve negatively.

    Personally, I started this trend about calling a great place “shitty”. This is because when we really liked a place it seemed to close down.

    Classics last until somebody dies or retires… the place doesn’t always go to shit… but, well yeah.

    Make your adjustments, just like you have, when it fits the story. Don’t overthink it.

    1. Hi Jason! No overthinking, just some fascination with how the device could be used. I have decided though, after thinking about this, and your response, that changes are necessary, when it might matter. And only then.

      Cities can be signifiers of economic boom or decline, and shifts in mores, dramatic changes in religion. More obviously, the effects of war, or mass migration. In our world we have seen this many times, I think in literature it has been used often, but perhaps we don’t see it clearly. I wish I had a good example – Dickens is ringing in my mind, and his versions of London, but I can’t pin it down to a good concrete example. Ha! Not exactly literature, but No-Name city in Paint Your Wagon, is a reflection of changes throughout the film, LOL! (Now I have to watch the film again to see if what I said is remotely accurate, haha!)

      After reading your comment I imagined a bazaar that Fistmar loved as a boy, and how it might seem less to him when he returned to it after his travails in The Thief and The Demon, and for at first for him to think it merely smaller, and then to realize it truly offers less variety than once it did, and wonder why. That why is answered both in how the world may have changed, and in him, and how he views it.

      I am an ex-pat, though I do not like the term, because it feels to me so British and soaked in gin and dubious parties with awful people. It also (to me) implies return, that you will be repatriated. It is a possibility, but not one that is certain in my case.

      I think of myself as an immigrant. When I left I thought of it as emigrating: I came to America. I left Scotland, a country I still love, but I became, over time, an American. Both countries have their own flaws, and contain their own seeds of promise. I’m a romantic, and hope the seeds flourish in both places, so I can be a citizen of both, and proud of it.

      1. Jason

        Gonna, oddly, keep this short… I think your imaginations on Fistmar as an example is the way to work it. I think peeps will be able to relate to it via places they’ve vacationed at or the like.

        I hate “ex-pat” as well. And yes, it is def “little island people” as I’ve come to refer to them. Please note, Scottish, much better. And not all English are bad… but, well, enough.

        I hate the word, not because it’s so arrogantly British but because it’s the very essence of a bad definition. When you leave, it’s to become something. Hard to imagine that whatever follows “ex” was better… in any circumstance.

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