In response to one of my periodic demands for things to write about, Miranda asked me to talk about three places of significance to me.
You’re all expecting me to say “London” aren’t you? And to trot out the some variant on my usual lines about history and stories and blood and fire and stone and mythology, and then pick three bits of London where I know of some ghoulish bit of history that resonates with something in my brain. So let’s pretend I did that, and move on to a different set of three.
St Andrew’s Square Bus Station, Edinburgh
The first time I moved out of my parent’s house, it was to move to Edinburgh. I caught the overnight coach from London, and arrived in Edinburgh at about 5:30 am on Friday the 13th of September, 1996, getting off the coach to bright sunlight and the smell of diesel fumes. I had had about three hours uncomfortable sleep, and was gritty eyed and knackered. I checked my ridiculously heavy bag, containing everything I owned that wasn’t a book or a computer into a left-luggage locker, and went in search of breakfast, and then of the place where I could pick up the key to my student flat some 4 hours later – that turned out to be an hour’s walk away, so it was as well I had time. Anyway, having done that, I had to come back to the bus station, to pick up my bag, and then walk with it most of the way back again, staggering only slightly under the weight.
But I digress. Yes, the rest of that day was kind of hard going, but that moment of getting off the bus is absolutely etched into me. The unexpected warmth of the sunlight, the smell of the fumes, even that gritty-eyed ill-slept feeling, they really did feel like signs of the future – I still love the smell of the fumes on airport tarmac or in bus stations, and I still get a perverse enjoyment of that scratchy-eyed badly-rested feeling that I can trace back to that morning. Whenever I’m in Edinburgh, I try and pass through St Andrew’s Square on my own at some point. Hell, some years ago, I even deliberately stayed up a couple of hours past pub closing in Edinburgh, just so’s I could swing by the bus station at 5 am on a bright summer morning. I know it’s a weird and irrational thing, but that crappy little coach station really does feel to me like a place that rings with all the promise of the unwritten future.
I am sure that 99% of are scratching your heads and going “where”? Here. It’s a tiny cove and harbour a couple of houses and a church on the Antrim coast. And if ever I reach the point where I can no longer face living anywhere where there are other people it is here that I shall go. It’s just down the coast from The Giant’s Causeway, Carrick-a-Rede, and the Bushmills distillery.
As I have protested a number of times in the past, I am not a man who derives any particular peace from being surrounded by nature and out in the countryside, but this tiny little place is just a pure joy. I get back to Northern Ireland for a few days once a year these days, but somehow I find the time to drag either my Dad or Brother (or any other family member who stands still for too long) up here – we stop by Bushmills to buy a bottle of something, and get some lunch, then drive on down here and wander about for a bit, maybe take a few pictures, maybe stop off again a bit down the coast at one of the other marvellous bits of scenery. The Antrim cost is just about the most beautiful place I know, and it’s a place I share with family, and a place to recharge.
Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, New Orleans
Despite the name, this is a bar. Back in 2001, Andrew, Antony and I headed for the US, to visit San Diego, stopping in New Orleans for most of a week on the way. I don’t deal well with heat or humidity, and New Orleans damn near killed me. But we saw and did a lot stuff, but thiswas the first and last bar we had a drink in, and in between those times we contrived to end most of our nights there, stopping in for a nightcap on the way back to the hotel.
Lafitte’s is in the French Quarter, a distance down Bourbon Street, a couple of blocks past where the neon given out, just as the neighbourhood starts to look a bit run down. It’s a tiny little bar that look like it could fall down at any minute – it’s one of the oldest building in New Orleans – and it contains no electric lights, and at the time, also had a battered grand piano being played badly by a man whose voice was almost as battered as the piano. I have a vivid memory of the three of sitting there drinking spirits over a lot of ice at 2am on a night as hot and humid as any midday I’d had in London, lit by the candles around the place, while the guy gamely fought his way through Tom Waits’ “The Piano Has Been Drinking”. It was one of those nights that was a little slice of pure magic, and I am going to drink there again before I die. It’s a place I think of to remind me that there are, in fact, any number of experiences worth having that cannot be found in London.