From the archive (first posted in 2011) a Christmas tale from The Man From The Hornet …
When I was a boy my grandmother kept a second hand clothes shop in Edinburgh’s old town. On Christmas Eve I would spend the morning there, playing and exploring. I’d pretend an old trunk was a racing car and I was Jackie Stewart; when I’d finished winning the Monaco Grand Prix I’d try on the Homburgs; or build a Scott Monument out of shoe trees. The possibilities were endless and the mornings lasted a glorious lifetime.
Memory plays tricks, of course… but I remember milky sunshine in the ribbon of perishingly blue sky above the manmade chasm that is the Cowgate. I recall the smell of turned wood from Rueben Zak, the master carpenter’s place next door. And the long shadow of St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church across the road.
At lunchtime my grandmother would put up the shutters and we would go to Jenners on Princes Street up the hill. Everywhere is “up the hill” in Edinburgh.
The contrast between the two shops – my grandmother’s modest little secondhand clothes shop on the Cowgate and the most upmarket department store in all of Scotland – seems even greater through the soft focus of memory.
At Jenners she would drink coffee and peruse her copy of the Financial Times. Did she play the markets? Never in her life. But she had an eye for a prop, and a copy of the FT sends out a clear signal: I Am A Businesswoman. Born into a man’s world, and a working class one at that, in 1914 she must have felt the need for every piece of armour she could muster to fight her way through life.
The truth is she had so little knowledge of big business that in my mind’s eye I sometimes picture her holding the FT upside down.
As she perused the gobbledegook of stocks and shares, she would chain-smoke Café Crème cigars like a gangster. When she finally folded up her paper and screwed out her last cheroot in the ashtray she would drop the mask of formidability and indulge her sentimental side by spoiling me within an inch of my life in the toy department. Whenever I watch The Godfather and Brando says the line, “I have a sentimental weakness for my children” I think of my grandmother. Indeed the scene with the horse’s head in the movie producer’s bed also makes me think of my grandmother. She was a helluva woman.
As a department store Jenners predates John Barker here in Kensington by some 40 years. Despite now being owned by House of Fraser, it retains a modicum of its own identity. And if I avert my eyes from the House of Fraser labels on all the goods, it remains my favourite department store on God’s green earth. To this day, Jenners puts up a real Christmas tree that reaches up to the ceiling inside the galleried interior of the shop.
It was in Jenners, in a cloud of my grandmother’s cigar smoke, that I fell in love with Christmas.
And it was in my grandmother’s own shop on the Cowgate all those years ago where I fell in love with Hornets.
The colourful tickets dangling from the sleeves of the coats; the meticulously hand-written price and special offer signs dotted about the place; the hats piled high like Russian dolls; rough tweeds and soft velvets; paisley patterns at once subdued yet quietly wild; measuring tapes, clothes brushes and shoe polish. These are the props and set of the favourite scene on my childhood stage.
Last Thursday afternoon I was sitting in the corner of No.4 Church Walk. Tucked away amid such ephemera as mentioned above, I was tending to the website on my laptop. It was then I had one of those memory surges – you know the ones I mean. It’s like there’s a sudden short circuit in the National Grid of one’s subconscious and a picture, an aroma, a song, a sensation buried deep in the past surges forth unbidden. Thirty years fell away.
A ribbon of milky blue sky; the shadow of St Mary Abbot’s church; colourful tickets dangling from rough tweeds and soft velvets… and Christmas with my four-year-old daughter whom I was just about to spoil within an inch of her life at the toy department.