Julie Davidson: Festive elegance with the ghost of Christmas future
Christmas, 2050: Edinburgh is elegantly en fete, the Norwegian tree a luminous pillar at the top of The Mound, the trees in Princes Street Gardens defined by pinpoints of white light. 'You should have seen the city centre at Christmas in the olden days,' I tell my great-grandchildren, who are now old enough to be admitted to the cafes of New Club Square, where we are admiring the new perspective and subtle floodlighting on the Castle. 'Not so much Athens of the North as Disneyworld of the East. Ugh! You couldn't see the Moon, never mind the stars, for light pollution, and the surge in energy consumption must have advanced global warming by several years.
“Every open space was crammed with cacophonous fairground rides, fake log cabins and fast food outlets. Every blade of grass in the public gardens was tramped into mud. Even our beautiful George Street succumbed to the mania for light installations and began to look like the Vegas Strip. And you know that site near Waverley where they now have The Manger for the homeless? It was turned into an artificial ice rink, believe it or not. As if Edinburgh wasn’t cold enough in those days.”
We’ve arrived at New Club Square by driverless shuttle bus, and it’s warm enough to sit outside one of the very welcome “Child Unfriendly” wine bars (in the 2030s courageous entrepreneurs began to resist the Militant Mummies Movement, which had long been dedicated to world domination of the hospitality industry, and introduce their own age restrictions).
When gliding into town my young adults always grimace when I tell them the city centre was once regularly grid-locked by private vehicles and blockades of road works. “A World Heritage Site,” I remind them, “and it took the planners decades of piecemeal experimentation, including the historic tram debacle, before they finally re-imagined the entire road system of central Edinburgh and found the money to overhaul it.
“How did it happen? Tourism helped, although the locals found it hard to go about their business between one extravagant event and the next. The city was pulling in hundreds of thousands of visitors, yet the roads were pot-holed and the pavements broken, while every gap site was plugged with new hotels.
“Finally a bed tax was introduced, and that small percentage of tourist income was enough to fund the installation of utilities tunnels under the road network. It was hell at the time, but the new infrastructure, with its access shafts and improved surfaces, not only did away with the endless cycle of road digging but encouraged the council to do away with all but essential traffic.
“You kids have grown up with clean air and efficient, electric public transport, but back in the day that was a big step forward.”
My great-grandchildren have heard enough. We have tickets for a Christmas concert, and plan to stroll the peaceful pavements to Regent Road and the RHS, that world-class cultural centre which used to be the Royal High School. “Almost lost to another hotel development,” I add, as we cross New Club Square. Liberated from the clutter of mediocre architecture which once blighted the north side of Princes Street, opening up unparalleled views of the Castle and Old Town, this splendid space between Frederick Street and Hanover Street is a recent innovation. But its name puzzles my young escorts. “What was the New Club?”
“Scotland’s oldest and most exclusive private members’ club,” I explain. “The preserve of a professional elite, with bizarre rules about jeans and trainers and ties and jackets.
“They put up steep resistance when their building was faced with demolition along with its dreary neighbours, and they were pretty influential. So to appease the club the council agreed to name the square after it. ‘Memorialise’ was the word used, as I recall. Very fitting.”
Julie Davidson is an author and journalist