Cities and their great institutions – universities, houses of prayer, mills and factories, shops and markets, homes and schools, sculpture, memorial, resting places, valediction and welcome, and the public parks and gathering spaces – are ‘slideshows’ in time. They speak of things seen in the gradations of light in the great sky and set before the horizon; they speak of some of what has happened in the past, distant and near, tough and rough and cruel and brilliant and tender and faithful and hopeful; the stuff of idiocy and of genius.
Cities speak of arriving and of going places; of walls that both invite and contain, of the costs of being outside and unaffordable tolls required of those inside; of pathways that turn out to be cul de sacs and of roads that lead everywhere; of what has happened, may happen, does happen, is happening, and did not happen (!) on the ground and under the ground – of the spiral staircases of life, up and down.
Cities speak of education, enlightenment and evolution; of the facile, the festival, the facetious and the febrile; of vivacity, dance and delight, love and devotion, mind-numbingly hard work, inspirationally creative industry, song and silliness, theatre, treachery, tragedy and trial, and of human preoccupation with opinions, felt (and sometimes misguided) ‘certainties,’ personally felt needs and desires, and the detail and consequences, for self and for others, of death.
Cities speak of soaring aspirations, of the sciences, of art, and of the arts, and of order and design – ancient and modern; and of diving, descent and despair, darkness, and the mysteries of the going and of the sudden returns of the light. They speak of brilliance and of ordinariness, of mediocrity and of the magnificent, of major and minor, of the sullen and the lacklustre, and of the searching, smiling and the shining. Of viewpoints and of voyages, of foresight, far sight and hindsight. They speak of kinship and of separateness, of arrivals and of departures, of poverty and of wealth.
Cities speak of what has been said and of what has been left unsaid. They speak of the cartography of life; of governance, of justice and of injustice, of love and of hate, of forgiveness and of punishment, and of tenderness (like leaving sticks at his grave for a beloved and faithful dog, Bobby, whose very own tombstone at Greyfriars was unveiled by the Duke of Gloucester as testament to his own watchful and abiding faithfulness.)
Cities speak of you and me, of what we hear, feel, aspire to, long for, believe in, want to eat, touch and be touched by, smell, reach out to, and see. We do well to try to read cities like Edinburgh – and to walk well, with good friends and family, in and around and to and through and returning to them. My thoughtful companion today asked me to reflect with her upon the power and the wonder that lies in what we, human city builders, both do and say. These things may well be remembered. How many decades have passed, she wondered aloud, in which the words of John Barbour, who lived between 1320 and 1395, have been thought sufficiently important that they should be passed on – some day to be inscribed in stone, in Scotland’s glorious capital city?
City ‘slideshows’ of history, present, and aspired to future – together with our words – matter.
Fredome is a noble thing
John Barbour, 1320-1395
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