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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 35 - Maintaining specific gravity in a city of barely perceptible smiles

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 ditches.

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 hydrophile sponge."

I would have said to him, as I would to any Edinburgh detractors: "Smile when you say that."

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