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The Scottish art historian Murdo Macdonald describes Edinburgh as a city that forces you to think about what a city should be. It is an extraordinary place – on one side sits Edinburgh’s Old Town, the Athens of the north, which looks like it was picked up by a vengeful god and flung down the side of a volcano. Its medieval street plan and reformation-era buildings give the feeling of being trapped in an MC Escher etching, as its streets double back and loop across each other, a city upon a city, a baroque game of snakes and ladders. Edinburgh is, as native son Robert Louis Stevenson said, what Paris ought to be. I’ve spent the best part of two decades visiting the city, trying to solve the puzzle that is the Old Town; this is partly thanks to its labyrinthine layout, partly due to its beauty, and partly due to being hammered, because Edinburgh is both a city of thinkers and a city of drinkers. Once a year these two worlds collide as the city’s Dionysian festival of festivals erupts into life.
Walking the Royal Mile – the Old Town’s main thoroughfare – during the festival is an incredible experience, as every would-be starlet, comedian and artist tries to get you to attend their festival show. Up and down the Mile flybills float on the wind, stages are set up for impromptu performances, and every two steps you are confronted with someone else’s dreams of stardom – would you like to see a Disney themed burlesque show? Would you like to see a troupe of stand-up comedians who used to be secondary school teachers? Would you like to see a kids’ musical about Brexit? The Royal Mile has them all: Singers who can’t sing, actors who can’t act, unfunny comedians and all the other stars of tomorrow, watched over by the sour bronze gaze of Adam Smith, the original Inequality Bae.
Of course, to get to the city this year I had to confront another city that forces you to think about what a city should be – Dublin. Our odyssey to Dublin Airport was hampered by roadworks on the M7, but the real treat was seeing the M50 in inaction, lane upon lane of unmoving traffic as far as the eye could see. The time I spent living in Dublin was pre-boom and bust, having upped sticks and moved back to the actual sticks in 2003, so it is a rare occasion that I get to see just how coagulated the city becomes at rush hour. It was so bad that I asked the bus driver if there was an accident; no, he replied, it’s the M50, in much the same as if he was saying forget it Jack, it’s Chinatown. There have been times when I have wondered if I should have stayed in the city, but each time I return I am convinced I did the right thing by leaving; Dublin feels like it is slowly smothering itself. Beyond all the questions about what gives a city soul, or the fact that the city brings to mind Joan Didion’s description of New York – a city of the very rich and the very poor – Dublin feels broken.
Clearly there are similar problems in other cities – any Cork person will tell you about the horror of the Jack Lynch Tunnel at rush hour, being trapped like the rabbits of Watership Down as their warren was collapsed in on them, going thairn at the Dunkettle Interchange. Edinburgh, despite its remarkable beauty, is also far from perfect, but it was once far worse, and it took a six-story tenement building collapsing in 1751 to focus energies on how to improve the city. At that stage the Old Town was the town in its entirety, and it was in reaction to its poverty and decay that a plan was created to build the New Town, a visionary document which noted: “Wealth is only to be obtained by trade and commerce, and these are only carried on to advantage in populous cities. There also we find the chief objects of pleasure and ambition, and there consequently all those will flock whose circumstances can afford it.” The New Town, built in seven stages, is mostly Georgian and neoclassical in style, and has a remarkable blend of form and function – beautiful buildings, wide open thoroughfares, and a sense of cohesion that any urban space would rival. Edinburgh as a whole has the usual urban problems – poverty, homelessness, rising property prices, rocketing rents, congestion – but it still allows you to see what a city could be, while our capital makes you realise what a city needs to become, and to ask just how bad it needs to get before action is taken to address it.