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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 40 - Eastern promise glimpsed through a cigar-smoke haze of memory

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 House Properties.

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 chemist.

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.

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