The rich and the destitute co-habit in Scotland’s polarised city

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A day in Edinburgh: part 1

by Kenneth Roy

A metropolitan food critic came to Edinburgh recently and returned to London with a case of severe indigestion. The food was all right – more than all right, she claims – but the bill at the end of the night sent her homeward to think again.

‘One of the most expensive meals I’ve had in a year’, she observed in her column on Sunday. She paid £18 for a starter of pig’s head and langoustine – it seems there was no extra charge for the ‘crusty ears’ – and £33 for a main course of ‘veal sweetbreads with Jerusalem artichoke, lettuce and crispy potato galette’. A further £10.50 entitled her to a finish of rhubarb tart with a ‘nice, solid set custard’. Total cost before any wine was ordered: £61.50.

Anyone who can face such a dinner probably deserves to feel quite ill at the end of it, if only at the sight of the mountainous tab. In Edinburgh, however, people not only have an appetite for food of this kind, but are prepared to pay over the London odds for it. The chef-proprietor is something of a local celebrity.

In our capital city, once so fiscally conservative, consumption is now not only conspicuous but flaunted. A visit to Harvey Nichols, the department store next to the bus station, requires overdraft facilities to be arranged in advance. In this fragrant emporium, a jumper by Stella McCartney – though I don’t expect she made it personally – carries a price tag of £735. I can vouch for this, for last Saturday morning I touched it reverentially before falling back in amazement. I wonder how much the garment cost to make – or, rather, how little. But, just as the food in Leith forces the diner to swallow hard, so the local market in fashion appears to be price-insensitive. Recession? What recession? This is Edinburgh.

The ostentatious rich who shop at Harvey Nichols and eat at Kitchin confer a whiff of foreign glamour on our capital city. It all feels rather detached from the modest Scottish mainstream. In the smarter establishments I heard comparatively few Scottish voices; the pleasing sing-song melody of the east coast was little in evidence. Yet the big spenders cannot all be tourists. There must be some serious native loot still around, if only to fill the short gaps between ‘festivals’, which the city does for a living.

Whatever it is that over-priced restaurants and department stores represent in Edinburgh’s culture, the pleasures associated with them are consumed mostly indoors among consenting adults. The public face of the city – the street scene – offers an exhibition of a different sort. If the ostentatious rich ever cared to cast their loose change at the pavement, they would find no shortage of takers.


We should soak the rich and clamp down on the tax avoiders. I pictured the rich marinated for eight months, as the prunes of the food critic’s companion had been.


Within a couple of hundred yards of Harvey Nichols, down on Princes Street two forlorn characters huddled under blankets. The more pathetic of the two, the dog, gazed mournfully at the unresponsive figure of its owner, a defeated human being, gaunt and expressionless. From across the street, the strain of the pipes gave the vignette the quality of a Scottish lament. It was enough to make the angels weep, assuming that Princes Street runs to angels.

Of course, such destitution is to be seen in any major city. There just seems to be more of it in Edinburgh – or there was last Saturday – and the co-existing high affluence gives it a darker flavour. The inequalities are made more glaring by the city’s recent disgrace as the home of a discredited financial establishment and the memory, still sharp, of all that corporate and personal greed.

The demonstrators outside the RBS head office branch in St Andrew Square had not forgotten. They were few in number – fewer than a dozen – young, politely spoken, well-scrubbed, well-dressed. Two cheerful women, students maybe, held aloft a banner opposing ‘the cuts’, while a male supporter briskly taped the street entrance to the building.

“Why are you doing this?”

“Because,” he replied, “they’re not paying their taxes.”

Who were ‘they’? It was not immediately clear. The bank seemed to be open for business.

On its upper floor, I once had tea with its then chairman, George Younger, while redoubtable Edinburgh ladies engaged in discreet transactions downstairs. I asked him why the chairman chose to have his office above a functioning branch. He told me that it was a useful reminder of the importance of the clientele, who were not slow to complain personally to the chairman of any lapse in standards.

Not long after George Younger’s departure, the Royal Bank moved its centre of operations outside the city, to a remote location near the airport, the RBS ‘village’ so-called, removing itself from the disagreeable necessity to mix with its own customers. But perhaps the St Andrew Square branch still has some formal legal or symbolic significance. This, at any rate, was where last Saturday’s small, very Edinburgh, demo took place.

One of the group proffered a leaflet containing a recipe for the restoration of the UK economy. Nice solid-set custard was not part of it. We should soak the rich and clamp down on the tax avoiders. I pictured the rich marinated for eight months, as the prunes of the food critic’s companion had been. I saw the crusty ears of the tax avoiders, browned beautifully.

When I returned to the scene many hours later, someone had snipped the tape, perhaps to release the blameless customers, leaving only its remains. Chalked on the pavement, in fetching pink, were the words: ‘What a bunch of bankers’. But, so far as we know, these hated figures are not reduced to begging on Princes Street. Edinburgh being Edinburgh, they are more likely to be found in Stella McCartney’s concession at Harvey Nichols or in the fashionable Kitchin appraising with a pang of recognition what looks suspiciously like a pig’s head.

 

Kenneth Roy is editor of the Scottish Review