I HAVE a faded photograph
of 30-odd, newly-minted Scots who comprised my primary school class. I
remember the educational interlude when, seated in the playground, under
the teacherís searchlight scrutiny, we stared at the camera like rabbits
hypnotised by a cobra.
Not a smile flickered across that bleak landscape except on the face of
our teacher which resembled weak sunlight on an Antarctic pack-ice.
Certainly our life was no laughing matter. Our minds strained to
appreciate the literary felicities of the story about the cat sitting on
the mat, multiplication tables were on everybodyís lips and chanted in
class like Buddhist monksí mantras, winter germicidal rubs applied by
parents to childrenís chests gave classrooms the clinical odour of
hospital wards and school milk, suggestive of near-frozen swamp water,
had to be sucked through straws, producing noises like the draining of
As older pupils, we sensed that we lived in a serious city run by
sagacious, reverend seigneurs, possibly with white beards, dedicated to
looking after the needs of righteous ratepayers, bent over their tasks
like galley slaves over their oars. Such citizens would have grave
reservations about unseemly merriment and would produce smiles as
painfully practised exercises. They would expect to be met at Heavenís
strait gate by St Peter with the mien of a customs official searching
for contraband fags.
I have another photograph (circa 1936), given to me by an old colleague,
showing the editorial department of The Scotsman having an annual dinner
at the North British Hotel. There they sat, like rows of Easter Island
statues, in full evening dress, starched shirts and winged collars with
proconsular bald pates a-gleam under the chandeliers to match the
intellectual glint of spectacles. Men, all men, with the weight of their
work on their shoulders, discreetly revelling, with smiles as rare as
snowflakes in the great sand sea of the Sudan.
That picture represents, for me, Edinburgh citizens at their affable
best in a less emotional age when lip-service wasnít expected to drain
our smile tanks dry every day when meeting people. An occasional small
twitch of the lips to acknowledge someoneís presence, and a faint 10
watt beam to indicate delivery or receipt of a humorous remark, were
then considered sufficient facial registers.
The situation has not, it seems, changed much today. According to a team
of 28 psychological students who spent a month smiling at passers-by in
British city centres and measuring the smiling responses, Edin-burgh
seems to be maintaining its specific gravity.
Bristol got most smileage with ratings of 70 per hour, Glasgow - its
citizens donít smile, they have, in my view, nervous facial tics caused
by living there - had an hourly rate of 68 while Edinburgh, I am proud
to note, had a dignified, barely-perceptible rate of 4 ph.
Many people, appreciating the alluring quality of my rare and fleeting
smiles, say that, when displayed, they seem the equivalent of momentous
public announcements. It is true that, like many of the capitalís
citizens, I am careful not to display anything that suggests levity.
When dressing in the morning, I select a jacket of rectitudinous hairy
tweed with appropriate shoulder chips, a coat of many cholers and
trousers cut on the bias.
Adjusting my deep-seated prejudices, I straighten kinks in my attitudes
and - most important - button my lips and go out to face another day of
serious intent, breathing in a better class of bacteria, bracing traffic
fumes and the traditional odours of chicken chow mein.
Many Edinburgh citizens are like me. Out of our pursed lips come few
smiles because we know we are people of cultural, social and historical
gravitas living in a city of dramatic architectural and geological
upsurges, exciting roller-coastered speed-bumped, pot-holed and
traffic-jammed streets, where any blasts of hot air we breathe are
redolent of governmental authority and the chill winds, straight from
catarrhal Siberia, make many of us stiffen our sinews, summon up
handkerchiefs and look as if we had just had sinus washes.
Yet, we battle and endure and I would not live elsewhere. The American
poet, Ezra Pound, wrote of Edinburgh: "Most of the denizens wheeze,
sniffle and exude a snozzling whnoff whnoff, apparently through a
I would have said to him, as I would to any Edinburgh detractors: "Smile
when you say that."