As I’m writing this it’s noon but the sky is so black I’ve had to turn the lights on. There’s snow
frosting the slopes of Arthur’s Seat and horizontal sleet hammering the window. A day to be inside in warm clothes with tea and Custard Creams close at hand and the central heating turned up. Not a day to be sitting on an Edinburgh pavement on a piece of soggy cardboard holding out a paper cup.
Edinburgh has more people sleeping rough on its streets than any other city in Scotland. Most of them are there because their relationships broke down; a partner, a parent or a flatmate threw them out.
Most of us have no experience of homelessness but we all have experience of the homeless. We walk past them every time we go up town. Sometimes we drop a coin in the cup or the cap. More often we ignore them. It’s easier to pretend they are not there, these poor souls, the visible invisible.
It’s impossible to generalise about how people feel when they see somebody begging on the street so my guess is this: you feel a mixture of things; anxiety, hostility, shame, guilt, compassion. Maybe like me you just feel lucky. What do these cold, miserable, troubled human beings want from us? Is it really just money to spend on drink or drugs? I made up my mind to find out for myself. So I started to sit down next to them and ask them their stories. What I found out challenged most of my easy assumptions.
Jane begs in Raeburn Place. She spent years in the Territorial Army and served as a medic out in Afghanistan.
Her problems began when she came back to Scotland. She developed asthma and was promptly turfed out of the army on to the pavements of Edinburgh. She has a six-year-old daughter to look after but she can’t find a job.
Darren’s in worse shape. He’s sitting on Leith Walk outside Inchkeith House with his hood pulled down low and a red muffler over his mouth to keep out the icy wind. His mum threw him out when he was only 12 and he ended up injecting heroin and crack, still only 12.
“How did you get off it?” I asked.
“I did it by myself. I just went cold turkey for six weeks. I believe in doing things myself, my own way,” he said.
“Have you got friends to help you?”
“No, I prefer to fight these battles on my own. I’ve got a flat but they’ve cut off the electricity so it’s just as cold there as it is out here.”
“What’s wrong with your hand?”
“It’s called syndactyly. I had to teach myself to be left-handed.”
“What’s it like on the street?”
“You get a lot of abuse. One guy just came up and kicked me in the face for no reason.”
Up town at the top of the Waverley Steps, I see a beautiful young girl on her hunkers chatting to a skinny boy wrapped in a blanket. His face is lit up with happiness.
His smile is like the sun coming out on a winter’s day. All because she stopped, got down next to him and took the time to chat.
Free offer cleans up
My company of the week is Timpson, the shoe-repair, key-cutting and dry-cleaning people. A sign outside one of their heel bars stopped me in my tracks: “If you are unemployed and need an outfit cleaned for an interview, we will clean it for free.” Who’s your company of the week and why?
Tories make rod for own backs
I spent my teenage years flyfishing for trout on the Water of Leith. It kept me out in nature and it kept me out of trouble. So I was pleased to see that Castle Huntly prison is tackling reoffending by teaching flyfishing.
A spokesman for the Scottish Tories was appalled by this. “Prison’s for punishment,” the usual guff. Where do they want offenders to go when they have served their time? On a fishing trip? Or on a bender?
We deserve the facts and figures on future of festivals
Every summer, Edinburgh gets its own flock of exotic migrants from London. The early arrivals are easily spotted. They wear skinny jeans, pork-pie hats tilted back and expensively distressed coats and jackets. They are here for “the Festival”.
Some of us love Edinburgh’s Festival atmosphere – the noise, the excitement, the late-opening bars. Some of us loathe it – the traffic, the crowds, the sky-rocketing price of a schooner of ale. But by and large we support our festivals, all 12 of them. They generate more than £260 million of extra income for the city and give us a global status we couldn’t dream of without them. Last year there were nearly 300 venues and more than 3000 shows. Two- thirds of our own citizens bought tickets.
So it’s more than a little disturbing to hear serious talk from the city council about reducing its own £4m subsidy –after all, the city council is foremost among the festivals’ beneficiaries.
Councillors have been dropping hints for years now. This is deputy council leader and self-styled “events and festivals champion” Steve Cardownie in 2010, muttering darkly about possible cuts: “The festivals won’t escape unscathed; that would be very difficult because everyone is in this together,” he said.
This is the same man who just a couple of days ago was quoted as saying: “There’s always been under-investment in these events, there’s no doubt about that. That’s why the festivals say they could do with more money.”
So what are we to think? Is the council really contemplating massive cuts or arguing for greater investment? It’s hard to tell but it’s worth remembering this: every single pound invested by the council in cultural services generates 12 times as much spending in the city’s economy.
The council has just co-funded a ten-year study into how we can protect our festivals. It should direct its focus and its energy into making that an imaginative and transformational process. In the meantime, the people of Edinburgh don’t want contradictory whisperings about their festivals. They want facts and figures.