Wednesday, November 19, 2003

The Grassmarket

There's a short stretch of the Grassmarket in Edinburgh where I always take any visiting fans who want to be shown around. It seldom fails. The Grassmarket itself is a great place - one of the lowest streets in the Old Town. You can stand there and see to your left the castle, then a stacked skyline of tall old buildings, then a steep cobbled street curving away up, and as you turn around you see on your right the bridge across the Cowgate like the lintel of a giant doorway. In the right light - winter dusk - it all looks like part of an early modern old city in a fantasy novel, only without the hay and the horse dung and the bodies hanging from the gibbets.

There's still a pub there called The Last Drop.

A particular cluster of shops, just at the viewpoint above, is the one where visiting fans can get lost for hours and emerge with severe damage to the plastic. The first is Armstrong's, a vintage clothes shop. It usually has a striking window display - currently it's bridal, but more usually it's some kind of historical or theatrical costume - and a quirky display in the doorway of a military uniform or a party dress on some ancient mannequin.

Pushing your way past that and brushing the cobweb hem of yet another dress - hanging from the top of the doorway - out of your eyes, you enter the shop. The counter is back on the left. The left-hand wall is taken up with a couple of rails of ballgowns, and a circular rack of 1950s party dresses occupies the middle of the floor. Down on the right, just past a low shelf of advertising leaflets and cards, is a rail hung with very old stuff: Victorian and Edwardian petticoats and chemises, the occasional Victorian skirt, and those Victorian dress-tops or bodices-with-sleeves, that look like something like a fitted jacket or a cropped blouse. Rich pickings for a rich goth. Above that is another rail, hung with night-dresses and other underwear. You can find kilts and jackets, I think, diagonally across on the left.

Ahead there's a passageway to the back of the shop. This passage has mirrors and changing-cubicles and a clutter of mannequins and carved and painted figures and luggage and other not for sale displays. Up a couple of steps is a room of leather jackets, greatcoats, tweed jackets and military gear, the whole lot incongruously watched over by a mannequin in a frock and wig.

To the right of the passageway is the main room at the back. Along its right-hand wall, just past a cluster of petticoats, are ranks of suits, dinner jackets, and other menswear. This is the bit where several female fans I've taken here have found something really natty. Overhead, hoop-skirted wedding dresses hang down like really big lampshades, or the flare nozzles of a really fragile main stage booster rocket. The other three walls are crammed with dresses of all kinds, blouses, shirts, tops (spangly disco smock type thingies are big at the moment) and some odd stuff like academic gowns and theatrical tabards. There are stepladders for the upper levels. The floor itself is occupied with clutches of accessories and several long racks: 70s long dresses, ballgowns and party dresses, chinoiserie, and so on. The decor in spare nooks and crannies is jazz themed dioramas and Wurlitzers and stuff.

Turn right out of Armstrong's and it's a few yards to another fan-trap, Mr Wood's Fossils. Small and brightly lit, the shop has everything from rare and expensive complete amphibian and reptile skeletons and Pleistocene large-mammal teeth the size of bricks to trilobites and fish teeth and ammonites. The emporonymous Mr Wood is a famous palaeontologist in his own right, academically untrained and phenomenally respected (I've seen this, at a palaeontology conference decades before he was famous) and astoundingly productive of scientifically valuable finds.

A few steps past the fossil shop is Transreal Books, the best SF bookshop in Edinburgh. Its owner Mike Calder used to work at the local Forbidden Planet, but quit when it became too much like a toyshop. Transreal concentrates on books, of which it has a fine and large selection, but Mike's commercially canny enough to carry the peripheral stuff as well: plush dinosaurs and Lovecraftian horrors, pressed fairy calendars, coffee-table astronomy and fantasy-illustration books, and so on.

After that, visitors are usually ready for the pub. Head for The Doctors, up past the top of Candlemaker Row. That is if you don't fall into Wind Things - kites and skateboards - or the comics shop on the left as you go up, or the museum in Chambers Street, or the old churchyard, or ... but these are for another day.

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