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Welcome to Comely Bank

Nick Holdstock will be participating in A Literary Safari and Revitalizing Endangered Languages at the 2013 PEN World Voices Festival.

As we approach the anniversary let us try to think back. Back through the bright lights, then through the darkness, into the 20th Century. Let us note its wars, the poverty, then let us hurry on. Back through the centuries, the empires, the dead civilisations, till we are not living in cities, towns or even settlements. Let us start when we cowered in caves and our only achievement was fire. We hunted and hit each other with rocks. Life was brutish and short. We lived this way for generations, with no prospect of change.

But one day someone tried to make a shelter. Perhaps the caves were too crowded, or she had been exiled, or it was a kind of game. The cavewoman leaned branches against a rock until it was something that could blunt the rain. This great achievement lasted several seconds before it collapsed. All she could do was scream and break branches and then start again. After twenty, or two hundred attempts, she tried binding the branches together. Whether she used vines or locks of her hair, the result was the same. She finished the hut.

Her great achievement was mocked, ignored, then copied. Soon there were twenty huts in one place and this was the first village. This was not the result of a plan; no one had said, grunted or gestured that they should change how they lived. It had not required discussion. It was obvious that by living together, by sharing the risks and rewards of hunting, the burdens of gathering wood and water, they would all be better off.

And as the villagers thrived, as their children had children, the village inevitably changed. The huts became larger, stronger, built of stone and wood. A fence was built around the huts. The mud was paved with rocks.

These were sensible changes that improved village life. It was nobody’s fault that the village became crowded and disease increased and people stopped trusting each other. These were just the costs of growing civilised.

Yet even in the midst of progress, history remained. Every town and city retained traces of its past: a statue; a plaque on a wall; a hitching post for horses; a dried-up well into which people dropped coins in exchange for luck. For some, these objects were reminders of a time of hardship that was best forgotten. Better to live in the here and now, they said, and proposed their removal. Usually, these efforts failed. Most people thought these relics were quaint; they showed how much things had improved. For those who hated the throng of the streets, the growing pollution, such things were a comfort. Time past in time present, they thought, as they stood by the statue, one relic next to another.

But these statues, plaques and hitching posts were only scraps of the past. They could not conjure the age they belonged to, anymore than planks floating on the waves of a sea can suggest the ship from which they came. There were only a few places where something more substantial remained. Cities that had managed to resist the tug of progress, the sack of armies, the hand of flood or fire. They still had old walls and churches, neighbourhoods with narrow streets the sun struggled to enter.

At the start of this century there was such a place in a city called Edinburgh. It was a small city of half a million built between seven hills, one of which was an old volcano that was believed to be safe. Edinburgh was the capital of what was then Scotland, and home to that country’s Parliament. Though its best days were past, the city was still thought of fondly. However, the place of which I wish to speak played little part in either the city’s past or present. It was an old cobblestoned street known as Comely Bank. Though no battles were fought there, and no kings crowned, it was still an exceptional place.

The shops of Comely Bank sold food, clothes, books, music, alcohol, and medicine, plus many other things we would be familiar with (it has, after all, been only 60 years). There were larger shops that were cheaper and had more products to choose from, but to get to them you had to drive to the edge of town. On the way the buildings shrank from high apartment buildings that contained hundreds of people to small, squat houses built of stone where only one family dwelt. After that the houses stopped and you were driving through an area of such desolation it seemed like a place and time before civilisation. There were no buildings or streetlights, just rocks and twisted trees. You wondered what would happen if your car broke down. You’d set off to find a house or shop, and for the first few minutes, it would be fine, but soon that blasted landscape would make you nervous, your heart beat faster, you would walk more quickly, looking left and right, sometimes behind, telling yourself you were being stupid, that nothing was going to happen, and for the next few minutes, you’d be fine, till a black shape flickered at the edge of your vision making you just run

But before you grew afraid, before you checked your phone’s reception, there would be the welcoming shine of the supermarket; the proof that you were still in the city, safe in your own time.

 Faced with the prospect of this long, lonely drive, the residents of Comely Bank bought from the local shops. They knew the shopkeepers well: Mr Asham was unfailingly civil; Mr Campbell was snide. Sam was patient, always helpful; Caitlin avoided your eyes.

They were also familiar with their fellow shoppers, who they smiled at, or even spoke to, whilst standing in a queue. This was far from common practice. If you did this in the supermarket at the end of the world, people looked startled or scared. It is true that some of Comely Bank’s customers did not enjoy this kind of familiarity, and on the contrary, found being addressed by a stranger so rude and invasive it was like the glint of a knife. But these were sour, unpleasant people; most enjoyed these meetings. It produced a sense of community absent elsewhere in the city. Not only did people recognise each other, they also knew each other’s names, where they lived, what they did for a living, if they were married, if they had children. This alone made Comely Bank an unusual place. However, what made it truly remarkable was not how its residents interacted. Whilst most of its people were wholly of their time — in that they did not believe in God, had small families, took holidays to far away places, enjoyed electrical consumer goods, believed in things like equality, democracy, and the worth of the individual — there were a few who stood out as much as a hut in a city square. This was partly because of the way they looked — their size, their face, the way they walked — but mostly because their ideas went against the grain. They worshipped God, wished for death, or were chaste. They refused to own property.

Yet for all their eccentricities, they had a place in Comely Bank. They were quaint characters that added colour to daily life. Like wishing-wells, or hitching posts, they needed looking after.

There have been many changes over the last 60 years. Our cities are cleaner; we commit less crime; we manage our desires. If there are no statues or plaques on our streets, it is because we prefer to look forward.

So if I speak of these characters fondly, it is not because I am nostalgic for that era or think it in any way better. Quite the opposite. I just think we should remember the old world as it actually was. Not just the average, but also the exception.

 

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