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Reviewed: On Edinburgh and Glasgow by Robert Crawford

Best of enemies.

On Glasgow and Edinburgh
Robert Crawford
Harvard University Press, 320pp, £20

Duality is the great theme of Scotland’s history and Scottish literature. Running from Walter Scott and James Hogg to Alasdair Gray, via Robert Louis Stevenson and Hugh MacDiarmid, Scotland’s sense of itself has always been double-sided. So perhaps it is not surprising that the rivalry between her greatest cities is but another example of the “Caledonian antisyzygy”, first identified by G Gregory Smith in the early 20th century.

Robert Crawford is that rarest breed of Scotsman: one who professes to love Edinburgh and Glasgow equally. If this “feels like bigamy”, it is, he admits, because “it is”. Most Glaswegians and Edinburgh natives recoil in disgust when faced with this manner of perversion. East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet.

Edinburgh and Glasgow have never been friends. Like the rivalry between England and France, each city’s sense of its own superiority is undermined by the nagging recognition that the other has advantages it cannot honestly proclaim for itself. Beneath parochial assertions of supremacy lurks a quiet sense of occasional inferiority. Edinburgh folk, in an honest moment, might admit to envying Glasgow’s chutzpah and energy; Glaswegians, in return, might acknowledge that Edinburgh is rather more than a museum piece.

Crawford, professor of modern Scottish literature at St Andrews, is also a poet and he has produced a walking guide to Scotland’s greatest cities that will delight any literaryminded tourist. Many natives will learn much from this agreeable book too.

It is impossible to think of a comparably sized country that contains two such great – or such contrasting – cities that have contributed so much to the rest of the world. Most small countries must make do with but a single major metropolis; Scotland is fortunate, as this book makes evident, to enjoy two. Amid all the achievements Crawford celebrates, this is one of the most remarkable.

What a pair they are. Glasgow is welcoming, working-class, coarse and radical; Edinburgh aloof, middle-class, refined and conservative. Such generalisations contain truth but reality, as ever, is more complex. Many of Glasgow’s greatest assets – the Burrell Collection, for example – are the products of capitalist endeavour; many of Edinburgh’s finest monuments the result of state-sponsored patronage. Their fortunes have risen and fallen like cable cars passing one another on a mountainside. Edinburgh had the better Enlightenment (though Glasgow did not lack glory then either: Adam Smith was a Glasgow University man) but the 19th century soon belonged to Glasgow.

In its own golden Victorian age, Glasgow considered itself not Scotland’s second city but the second city of the Empire. Edinburgh, deprived of a parliament and lacking industrial muscle, became a provincial backwater. By contrast, the world took what Glasgow built. As Crawford notes, Glasgow was, typically, “one of the first cities in the world to beget a poetry of industrial pollution”.

Trade and commerce built Glasgow. The Merchant City and the tombs in its splendid Necropolis testify to that (Crawford, pleasingly, is good on cemeteries). Even today, Glasgow looks west to the new world. Not for nothing did it recently impersonate Philadelphia for a film shoot. If Glasgow can still sometimes feel American, Edinburgh is European, more akin to Prague or Florence.

Glasgow has often been a city in a hurry, disinclined to rest upon its past. Edinburgh’s lethargy spared it much architectural destruction; Glasgow’s embrace of “progress” saw it treat its own heritage with wanton disregard. Not even the buildings of its greatest architect, Alexander “Greek” Thomson, were spared.

Crawford argues that Edinburgh, after a century of genteel decline, was saved by the arrival of the annual International Festival. A city too much in love with its past now had cause to reach out to the world. Glasgow, on the other hand, suffered from the decline of heavy industry. The Clyde, once its lifeblood, is now just another river.

The arrival of the Scottish parliament at the end of the last century also gave Edinburgh a lift. A capital-in-name-only regained some sense of purpose. Despite the immolation of RBS and HBOS and a hopelessly botched tram project, Edinburgh has a confident swagger and bustle today.

Nearly three-quarters of the Scottish population live within commuting distance of these two cities. Only 50 miles apart and, by international standards, tiny places, in other countries they might be considered part of the same urban unit. Neither Glasgow nor Edinburgh can accept this. They are each defined by what they are not just as much as by what they are. A Glaswegian can never be wholly at home in Edinburgh and vice versa, and even bigamists know, deep down, that hey love one wife more than the other.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

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For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide