On a cold weekend this winter, I flew to Edinburgh for what turned out to be a more posh wedding than I expected. The bride and groom were diplomats; we’d met them in Riyadh back in 2008, treasuring every chance we had to drink their imported diplomatic hooch, and in general enjoyed their well-informed, widely read companionship. In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it was almost too easy to detect class, lumped as we were into a broad category of non-Saudis. But visiting them for nuptials in the United Kingdom, I found such matters to be more finely tuned, at a register I couldn’t handle, and having failed to wear the proper costume, or perhaps to adequately trim my beard, I stood before St. Giles Cathedral—as grand as St. Patrick’s in New York City—while a scowling guard in a skirt blocked my path with a “stop there” gesture. So I stood in the rain, assuring him I was invited, and when he finally relented, I confronted pew after pew of blond hair and blue eyes, men taller than I, all these centuries of nutrition and good breeding, and it became all but certain that I’d drink too much at the 15th-century manor and risk remembering nothing of how I got home.
The hangover the next day was fierce, rivers of scotch preventing me from recalling all but the haziest outline of the reception, the champagne, the toasts, the moon, and with a slim chance I’d make the day-after picnic, I slept past noon for the first time in years, cocooned in a heavy white duvet. When I rose I headed straight for the train station, where I would meet an old friend who had been an expat with me in Cambodia. Jane and I had forged a friendship deep in a jungle, over opium and grilled shark. She was from Scotland and here I was, in Edinburgh. Threading through commuters, looking for a woman I hadn’t seen in a decade, I recalled she had once applied to be a diplomat and even remembered a line from the blandly impersonal form letter that had declined her services while incorrectly guessing at her gender. “Dear Mr. Martin…” I found Jane, and launched into a description of the wedding. She looked exactly the same, long red hair, pale skin, a face dominated by sneering amusement. “Right, Mr. Deuel. Let’s go to Leith.”
After a few miles we began to see things I’d associate more with knife crime than fancy cathedrals.
We started down Edinburgh’s wide sidewalks, ignoring a light rain and deepening cold, heading toward a district north of town that was declared the city’s official port in 1329, by Robert the First. The south side of Leith long accepted cargo and was poor while the north side was home to fisherman and boat builders, and was comparatively wealthy. In 1561, Mary Queen of Scots arrived here by ship to begin her blighted reign, but found no one there to receive her (“hir cumming was more suddane then many luiked for,” was the official excuse at the time). In the 18th century, a five-hole course devoted to the new game of golf was where the rules to that silly game were established. Whaling was a mainstay here, at least until the last great fish was caught, in the nearby Firth of Forth. To help sailors get Vitamin C, a concern in Leith started selling a concoction called Rose’s Lime Juice. But after World War II, with the commonwealth’s economy in tatters, the area of Leith underwent a steep decline.
After a few miles we began to see things I’d associate more with knife crime than fancy cathedrals: toughs in leather jackets, empty storefronts, various crumbling row houses, harried mothers smoking cigarettes, unkempt yards. Against one leafless tree I saw a door that I think had been blasted through with a shotgun.
When we finally got to the water, however, the sun came out, the day warmed, the avenue opened up, and there stood three of the finest-looking, marine-themed pubs I’d ever seen. Only a few years earlier Leith had closed its final “tolerance zone,” on a nearby street, where prostitution was de facto legal, but today the come hither look came from an actual boat moored along the waterfront, a restaurant to be boarded by gangplank. The true seduction, however, was from The Ship on the Shore across the cobblestone street, a distant relation, at least in appearance, to Manhattan’s Ear Inn, that old sailor’s pub on the far west end of Spring Street.