ALTHOUGH I no longer smoke,
my mind’s eye still conjures up images for my mind’s lips when I puffed
black Burmese cheroots that were rolled between the palms of
jade-delicate maidens in the shadow of the Shwe Dragon pagoda while the
dawn came up like thunder outer China ’crost the bay.
My mind’s eye might be myopic but, through the mental smoke haze, I
still see the Edinburgh shop where I bought these short nicotinal sticks
that became alight with the glow of eastern promise and brought, I
thought, the scent of the seraglio, the calm contemplation of Confucius
and a sparky inspiration that could have fired Dante to write The Divine
Comedy, and they certainly helped me in the judicious use of the
subjunctive in my sentences.
I see that shop, MT Macdonald in George IV Bridge, emerging from the
swirl and ring exhalations. There, I would select cigars with the care
of one eyeing top bloodstock at a horse sale. Here, I chose some that,
if they did not inspire me to write the great Edinburgh novel, at least
helped me to dash off a readable report on the annual West Pilton cat
and canary show.
Through the smoke of a mental cigar, I see the shop’s serious and stolid
smokers. There were pipe men with the gravitas of Easter Island statues,
opulent-looking citizens - doubtless expensive cigar smokers - slightly
decadent-looking, browning-at-the-edges chaps, maybe university
lecturers, who dangled scented Balkan fags from learned lips and
snuff-takers who erupted a fine spray of Kendal Brown or another
nostril-treating brand if you slapped them on the back. Where are they
now? All snuffed out, perhaps, like Macdonald’s itself which has, alas,
closed and exists for me only as a smoke-wisp of memory.
Strike a light; here’s another that has emerged through the recollection
mist, in this case shimmering like a gorgeous palace or a solemn temple,
which, according to information drift, is also likely to fade, leaving
not a rack behind.
I refer to Edinburgh’s Clerk Street Odeon cinema which some of us
remember as the New Victoria, an art deco pagoda of filmic pleasure,
opened in 1930 and due to close this month after suffering heavy
competition from city multiplex cinemas and being bought by Duddingston
It has received a last-minute reprieve, with the new owners leasing the
building to Odeon Cinemas for six months to a year. Its future is
undecided, but local residents fear it could be turned into a night
club. A new Odeon will open in the autumn in Lothian Road.
As an ardent cinema-goer, I cannot imagine Edinburgh’s southside without
the pillared frontage of the Odeon, its five screens, its main cinema
lined with Grecian-type statuettes, presumably muses, and its
star-flecked ceiling at which I would point out to impressed female
friends, the Plough, the transit of Venus and Bootes, the heavenly
Then, cinemas had exotic names like Alhambra, La Scala and Rialto, and
major ones had interior architecture suggestive of the opulence of a
caliph of Baghdad, a Moorish harem or a Doge’s palace. Cinema managers,
impeccably clad in evening dress, stood in foyers among the surging
crowds as steady as stone piers in a light breeze.
The old New Victoria was for me a place of entrancement, not just for
the films, of which I was a regular watcher, but also for its "mighty"
Wurlitzer, an organ that came roaring up from the cinema’s depths with
masterly Richard Telfer at the keys.
Whatever he rendered, light-classical tunes or, if I recall aright, one
of organ-playing Dracula’s favourites, Keeping Troubles Away From
Forget-Me-Not Lane, it seemed as if he was not playing so much as
keeping at bay a musical monster that could produce sounds like horses’
hooves, telephones, doorbells and probably artillery.
The Odeon was a major venue for premieres, stunts and charity
performances, including visits from crème de la crème film stars. To
mark the 1964 opening of Cleopatra, a female staff member eyebrow-raisingly
bathed in 30 gallons of milk in the foyer.
Glasgow’s Renfield Street Odeon, like the Edinburgh cinema, will
continue trading - for nine months to a year. The cinemas will still
close, so both will have prolonged last gasps. I won’t light a mental
cheroot. I don’t want the smoke to get in my eyes.