Literature can transport us elsewhere, and transform home

By Otago Daily Times | Posted: Thursday April 23, 2020

Upon first alighting in Edinburgh, I had the oddest feeling of both strangeness and familiarity.

I had never stepped foot in the United Kingdom, let alone Scotland’s capital. Yet somehow I knew the place. I felt at home among the winding streets of the Old Town, the bustling High St, and the windswept heights of the Crags. How so? I had been introduced to the city by Ian Rankin, through his Inspector Rebus series.

These novels follow the titular character as he investigates gory murders, organised crime, and corruption in Edinburgh. Rankin’s novels paint a dark portrait of the city, drawing upon Edinburgh’s gothic architecture to create a murky world of vice and subterfuge. In my first few days in Edinburgh, I began to map the city by the crime scenes laid by Rankin. I recalled Edinburgh’s seedy Central Hotel by its appearance in The Black Book, where it had burned down to reveal an unidentified charred corpse.

I had heard many great things about the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but was most familiar with it through Rankin’s Mortal Causes, in which a brutally executed corpse is discovered in Mary King’s Close, an ancient subterranean street. I knew about the Scottish Parliament’s hideous architecture by way of Rankin’s Set in Darkness, and was familiar with Fleshmarket Close after reading about the excavation of two skeletons in a cellar floor there.

Rankin’s novels are undoubtedly a macabre way to be introduced to Edinburgh, but for the squeamish reader, there are plenty of other literary depictions of the city. From Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped to Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, Edinburgh has inspired countless and varied tales over time. In retracing the steps of Inspector Rebus, Miss Jean Brodie, David Balfour, and Jeanie Deans, I felt a strange sense of deja vu, and found myself becoming nostalgic for the city’s past, even though the events I reminisce about took place centuries prior, and the people I missed existed only between the pages of a book.

Moving to Oxford afforded me the opportunity to experience yet another literary city in the flesh, after reading about it in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series. The defining ‘‘Oxford novel’’ is perhaps Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, which tells of how Charles Ryder, a history undergraduate at Hertford College in the 1920s, meets the aristocratic Sebastian Flyte. Coming from a working class family of pinched pennies, watered-down chicken noodle soup and patched hand-me-downs, I felt Ryder’s alienation in the balls, sprees, champagne and casual luxury of Oxford University.

I would be remiss not to mention His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, a best-selling trilogy of fantasy novels. While taking place across multiple locations in many parallel universes, it has solidified a place in Oxford fiction because of the importance of an alternate version of Oxford in the first book, The Northern Lights (1995). This novel follows a small girl called Lyra, who has been brought up in the fictional Jordan College. Her world is one of animal companions called daemons, sinister child-kidnappers, armoured polar bears and a mysterious elementary particle called ‘‘Dust’’. I sometimes wonder about the possibility of parallel existences, and whether simultaneously, Lyra is skipping through Oxford’s covered market as I do my weekly grocery shopping, or meeting Will at their bench in the Botanical Gardens on Midsummer’s Day as I walk through the trees on my way to lectures.

Of course, there is also the difference between reading a book first and then visiting the place, and vice versa. I moved to Dunedin as a child of 10, and my first impressions of the city were uniquely my own. Further reading complemented my own ideas and perspective, adding fresh and intriguing layers to the city’s historical and literary patina.

In Eleanor Catton’s brilliant novel The Luminaries, I learned about Dunedin’s role in the 1860s Central Otago Gold Rush and the West Coast Gold Rush. With James K. Baxter’s hilarious ‘‘A Small Ode on Mixed Flatting’’, I realised that Dunedin students had always been a wild and rowdy bunch, and I saw parallels between my own experiences in dusty Castle St and those of Baxter.

There are countless more stories set in Dunedin that I’d love to read, from Tess Redgrave’s Gone to Pegasus to Kura Carpenter’s urban fantasy The Kingfisher’s Debt. There is so much more to learn about this city, many fresh perspectives to enjoy, and literary characters to befriend. I cannot wait.

I am of course aware of the immense privilege I have in being able to visit these cities in person. For a long time I had neither the money nor the opportunity to travel, and I had to content myself with curling up in an armchair and reading of the Berlin Wall, the Niagara Falls and Glasgow’s Southside.

But, as I was reminded in a class about travel literature with Prof Shef Rogers, ‘‘armchair travel’’ can provid “the benefits of travel (reduction of prejudice, exposure to other political systems and social customs) without the expense, discomforts or possible corruptions of leaving home’’. When I was younger, frustrated by my immobility and my family’s lack of wealth, I reminded myself that the cities I read about would wait for me. I could visit them one day, and in the meantime, the glorious stories about these places would only grow and multiply.

Edinburgh, Oxford and Dunedin. These three cities are very dear to me, both as literary, imaginative landscapes, and as real places of brick and mortar, their winding streets forever traced by my own two feet and those of my literary forebearers. On days when the old sandstone walls of Edinburgh’s New Town are lit with a golden evening glow, or the rain lashes down in Dunedin’s North East Valley, I long to add my voice to the countless writers and poets before me. Perhaps one day I will set a novel in the dining halls of Oxford’s colleges, or write a short story about a little girl’s first visit to the Signal Hill lookout.

■Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.

© Copyright Dunedin City of Literature