After leaving Edinburgh on the train last Friday, I realised I was on The Bridge from Iain Banks’ novel, also called The Bridge. The distinctive red metalwork and design, plus the location caused a moment of intense surprise, recognition, uncertainty (is this really the bridge?) and delight. We were in a place I’d never been before and I hadn’t known what was on the route. What I recognised was a description from a book, not a memory of the location it had described.
I spent much of the weekend in Edinburgh, a city I have only previously known through authors. I’ve read a few Ian Rankins – so long ago that I remember little detail. I’ve read quite a lot of Iain Banks, such that he’s probably formed more of my sense of Scotland than any other author. I’ve read a fair bit of Robert Louis Stevenson and some Walter Scott, but not in a way that shaped my sense of place.
It struck me that when reading about a city you’ve not been to, it doesn’t matter how good the details and descriptions are, it won’t capture it for you, you won’t go there and know where you are. A city is so much more than you can get into a novel. At the same time, having read novels set there definitely had an impact on my experience of visiting – this is the first city I’ve been to where I have a body of reading experience. It gives an emotional depth that I’ve not had when visiting places that were not already storied in my mind.
There is also a world of difference between reading about somewhere you know, and somewhere you’ve never been. At some point I will have to dig out those Edinburgh set novels and have a re-read and see what visiting does to that experience.
The thing that affected me most aside from the bridge, turned out to be a song – Fish’s Internal Exile a song that’s been with me since my teens. “I saw a blue umbrella on Prince’s Street Gardens, heading out west for the Lothian Road…’ placing that opening line in physical geography turned out to be a surprisingly powerful thing for me. Here’s the song…