Tag Archives | Edinburgh

Trains & Flowers

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I had been wandering through Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens, but had grown bored with shots of pretty trees and benches. An American tourist once asked why Edinburgh Castle was built above the railway: they found it hard to grasp the concept of an ancient castle built on an extinct volcano.

I headed over to the bridge that separates the Gardens from the slopes of the Castle. I was initially disappointed to find that not only were the sides of the bridge were too high to effectively shoot over, but the railway authorities had filled in the mesh with heavy duty plastic.

I stood there for about fifteen minutes watching trains come from nearby Waverley Station, bobbing up and down like a lunatic as I tried to find a vantage point I could shoot from. Then I concluded that it might be less frustrating to work with the prevailing conditions. So I hunkered down a bit to the level of the plastic sheeting, focussed as best I could and waited for another train. As the train approached, I fired off a few shots. I knew there would be blur, but hoped it might be effective blur. What I got was what snappers often call the happy accident. The effect of the plastic, plus my shaky hands, produced this impressionistic, even romantic, picture of a very ordinary modern commuter train.


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I was walking home through St Stephen’s Place, the site of the old fruit market in Stockbridge. And there, just beside the arch, were these torn-up discarded flowers. Vividly red against the grey of the paving stones. I knew that my newly acquired Bronica was loaded with Velvia film and that this was the perfect subject for it. Velvia has always been a favourite with photographers who want intense, deep colour. I gambled that the flowers wouldn’t be cleared away in the time it was going to take me to fetch my camera and my luck held.

Was there a story behind them? I imagined a quarrel between lovers, perhaps a longstanding grievance about not spending enough time together. The man, as men do, bought flowers and presented them to show his devotion. The woman, as women do, talked of empty gestures and was that the best he could do. She tore the flowers to pieces in front of him and flung them on the pavement. He retreated, hurt, to the pub.

While I took a few shots of the torn blooms, several passers-by asked me what I was doing. Part of the curiosity was about the camera, for old medium-format cameras bear no resemblance to the pocketsize digital cameras we’re now so accustomed to. Apart from anything else, the picture is back to front in the viewfinder. But it turned out that people were also curious about the flowers and why they were there.

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan

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The Gramophone Emporium

The Gramophone Emporium was a place out of time. Its window (broken) crammed with gramophone parts. It had no website, no phone line, and, despite being in a trendy boho part of town, no passing custom.

But it did have customers: collectors of vintage wax and vinyl who knew of the shop’s existence by word of mouth. Although some jealously guarded the secret of where they got their records, collectors came from as far away as Germany and even the US.

They were virtually all male, some young but mostly older and much older. Their interests ranged from 1902 Caruso recordings (single sided discs) through Fats Waller in 1924 (the sound as live and immediate as if you were leaning on Fats’ piano) to esoteric Gaelic songs that could have been recorded in a croft somewhere in the Highlands.

The shop began its life in St Stephen Street, Edinburgh in the mid-70s. Part of the street was threatened with demolition and rents plummeted. Because the area was central, people took advantage of these low rents and low-budget businesses moved in along with a whole community of ‘hippies’. Many of the small businesses remained – I have photos of an antique shop and a shop selling only gas mantles and oil lamp parts, both further along the street from the gramophone shop.

It gained sufficient fame in the 1980s to have a whole radio feature devoted to it on Radio Scotland, the radio crew and presenter filling the shop.

After squeezing through the front door, with its tinkling brass bell, there was a front room which doubled as an assault course for the unwary. The machines on which to play the treasures of the 78 disc were everywhere: reconditioned wind-ups, stately table tops and furniture-sized models. The walls were lined with shelf upon shelf of discs, loosely (very loosely) categorised. At floor and ceiling level were collections of 33rpm vinyl, looking almost uncomfortable in such riches of an earlier recording age. Boxes full of records that had ‘just come in’ lay randomly about and, as customers plundered them, stray discs spilled out and some were crushed underfoot in the limited floor space.

There was Victorian sheet music and piles of vintage music magazines. If you have a portable wind-up gramophone (imagine a 1920s picnic with strawberries and cream by the river), there’s a cavity into which you can stuff some material to muffle the sound, the origin of the expression ‘put a sock in it’! So N. would sell you packs of gramophone needles in soft, medium or loud tone. Each needle was used only once and of course, each record requiring cranking the gramophone handle about twenty turns.

A disc-lined alley led to the ‘back room’ which doubled as an unofficial club. This was presided over by A. and B., who held court among their ordered shelves of classical 78s. You’d like an example of a Russian bass from 1920? No problem, B knew just the one. And while it’s playing, how about a cup of tea (laced with a wee dram if you’d like!) and a biscuit? A. and B. had known each other for years (neither were in their green and salad years) and there was a steady flow of banter. When I asked those gents about their backgrounds, I was told that B. was a retired art teacher and an expert on the recordings of the Irish tenor, John McCormack. A. described himself, with a customary twinkle in his eye, as ‘a man of the world’.

In the corner of this inner sanctum, there was often a customer hunkered down with a heavy pile of records on his knee: sifting and searching for that one dreamed-of treasure. A lot of the stock cost between £1 and £3, so it was an affordable hobby. There were rarer discs, but it was mostly dealers who handled those sales. The internet has invigorated the market recently, and four figure sums for one disc are now not uncommon.

The shop stock was sourced mainly from house clearances and people who came in with their deceased relatives’ boxes of records. N. (the manager) remembered one case where they participated in the clearing of a house belonging to a Scots-Italian violinist who had grown increasingly reclusive in his final years. When he died, the rooms of the house were knee deep in his collections and among his treasures were about 5,000 78rpm records. His taste was eclectic, and there was everything from opera to jazz in the collection.

How did I find this place? Well, I lived just along the street and one day the door was open. They only opened one and a half days a week, so I was lucky. I seemed to become a kind of mascot – lady collectors are rare birds indeed. N. (who, in his other life, taught the Gaelic and also the Scots moothie (mouth-organ), would put aside discs he thought I might like – he got the idea that 1920s Cuban tangos, American dancebands, jazz pianists and Italian tenors were my kind of thing.

I learned so much. Did you know, for example, that the famous His Masters Voice label (with dog) issued all their records during WWI and WWII with a white label out of respect for the war? Or that the plainer the label on an early Russian 78, the closer to the Holy Grail of 78s it is? Or that not all 78s were created equal – some were recorded at 80rpm, others at 76rpm – and for that reason, wind-up gramophones have an adjustable slide.

In short, it was the kind of place which I didn’t think existed any more. But there it was, thriving, in the heart of a busy city. A quiet delight. So twice a week back then, you’d find me propping up a wall in the Gramophone Emporium.

POSTSCRIPT: Nowadays the revamped Gramophone Emporium, orderly and clean, is sited directly across the street from the old shop, which was bought by one of the Emporium’s customers. Now it’s a popular record shop, smart and trendy, selling the best of vinyl. But if you want 78rpm records or a beautifully restored wind-up gramophone, the Gramophone Emporium is still the last shop in the UK to exclusively sell them. It’s well worth a visit. Tell Billy I sent you.
The Gramophone Emporium, 12 St. Stephen Street, Stockbridge, Edinburgh, EH3 5AN
0131 225 1203
billybeltona@gmail.com

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan

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The bucketmen and the cafe

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I was taking a cut-through from St Stephen Street and blocking my view (it was stopped at traffic lights) was this rubbish lorry. We used to call them the bucketmen and I’m not sure when buckets became bins. Perhaps around the same time that the word lorry was replaced with the Americanised truck?

It’s not what one would call a beautiful view, but just look at the design that’s gone into it. The colour scheme on the buttons, the shapes and spacing – so much detail on what is, after all, a completely utilitarian vehicle. I got just one shot before the lights changed and the truck moved off.

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It was one of those blustery, chilly days and I was at the front at Silverknowes. I went into the little cafe which is one of the most uninspiring places I know to have a cup of coffee. Approaching the counter, I heard two voices yelling, a man and a woman. The argument was conducted in Russian and the man was definitely getting the worst of it. My genteel cough to draw attention to myself went unheard, and eventually I joined in the yelling HELLO CAN I HAVE A COFFEE PLEASE?

Hugging my insipid coffee (nuked in the microwave) I gazed out at the bleak beach, the tide a mere dribble. The mobile ice cream ad seemed completely incongruous – a gloriously grim landscape. Once I’d thawed out, I took some pictures. As I was doing this, the woman from the cafe came past me and sniffed contemptuously.

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan

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Cars

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Down an alley, through a gate, in the bowels of a tenement block, a car park. Above it a garden shed painted white: clotheslines and bars on windows. But now it’s night. No sheets flapping in the wind. Nobody pottering in the shed with next year’s dahlias. The darkness is navy blue. And it’s quiet. Very quiet.The car, centred in a pool of light at the bottom of the ramp, is ready. Any moment those headlamps could snap on, the engine roar into life. It’s waiting, that’s all, just waiting. For now.


the curves

I was roaming around the Colonies and parked there was this car. Don’t ask me what make it was, I’m a complete duffer on cars. I can only tell you it was of that era (the 1950s perhaps?) that is now known as a classic car. Big and handsome and glossily virile it was. But then I saw the front lights and those sinuous curves – a sexily feminine touch on a very masculine car.

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan

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Whatever became of

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I’m always interested in paper ephemera and the record sleeves for my 78rpm discs are fascinating little pieces of social history and design. So, while listening to some of my records today, I wondered what became of those shops who once supplied Edinburgh’s listeners with gramophones, records and music?

There was Methven Simpson Ltd – Piano and Musicsellers to H.M. The King, whose main branch was at 83 Princes Street. I’m guessing that the King was George V. They were obviously a prosperous company, with branches in Dundee, Forfar, Perth and St Andrews. They stocked pianos, player pianos, gramophones, sheet music and music rolls, also offering a tuning and repair service. I like the art deco border and those stylish numerals 83. Number 83, near Hanover Street, was once part of the Life Association of Scotland building. It now houses offices and Superdrug.

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Only a street away at 28 Frederick Street was Pentland’s. The advertising here is less grand than Methven Simpson. Under the ‘Pianos and Player-Pianos’ is CASH or CONVENIENT TERMS. People who bought from Methven Simpson could probably afford to buy their piano outright, but Pentland’s was aiming more at the middle classes who had recently discovered Hire Purchase. And now? 28 Frederick Street has yet more offices and a branch of Thomas Cook.

Edinburgh-sleeve-1 Moving up Lothian Road, there was James Beaton’s The Gramophone House at Number 96. This building once housed opticians G Prescott & Co & a branch of Black & Lizars is still there. Beaton’s takes the prize for fanciful sleeve design, with smiling lambs at the foot of a classical column upon which sits a Pan-like figure playing two pipes. In the distance, a strange couple dance to the music, he wearing Cossack costume and she with a gay straw hat.

Edinburgh-sleeve-4A little further away from the centre of town was Kilgours at 66 Nicolson Street, boasting that they were agents for Columbia and His Master’s Voice for over a quarter of a century. Just a few doors away used to be La Scala Electric Theatre which opened in 1912. The cinema changed its name to the Classic in 1974 and has subsequently been converted for use as a bingo hall. Now Nicolson Street is one of the main places on the Southside for restaurants and cafes.

Charles M. Brown were Electrical, Wireless and Gramophone Suppliers, situated at 1 & 2 Melville Terrace on the edge of The Meadows. Or as the sleeve helpfully says Opposite Dick Veterinary College. The Dick Vet has since moved to modern accommodation on the outskirts of Edinburgh and there’s a Thresher’s off licence at No 1 Melville Terrace. The typography on this sleeve has pronounced serifs rather reminscent of Kelmscott and there’s a marvellous ampersand with swash.

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Gallimaufry

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Waverley & Nothing For Sale

I was out around Princes Street with my Ilford Sporti, a camera from the 1950s. The Sporti was at the cheap end of medium format back then (using 120 roll film). Its controls are basic and this particular camera had a bit of a light leak, which gave the resulting pictures an ethereal edge. It gives 12 square pictures from each roll – and in this case, was loaded with Tri-X, my favourite b&w film.

As I turned onto Waverley Bridge, it seemed to me that the many layers of Edinburgh were laid out in front of me. To my left, a hideous 1970s shopping mall which has never really flourished – Edinburgh Council isn’t famed for the wisdom of its planning decisions. A taxi rank, not over-busy on a chilly, out-of-season January day. Tour buses parked up in a line more in hope than expectation of a crowd of tourists.

Then, down a steep ramp, the Victorian grandeur of Waverley Station. Rising steeply above the valley floor are the towering tenements of the Old Town (high-rise architecture centuries before the term was invented). And above all of them, the spire of the High Kirk of St Giles on the Royal Mile.

There is a truly extraordinary shop in St Stephen Street. I call it the Shop where Nothing is for Sale, because when I was new to the area, I went in and asked how much several items were. The reply to all my questions was It’s not for sale. I’ve since discovered that my experience is by no means unique.

The range of stock defies description. There are old patchwork quilts hanging near the top of the window, strings of beads and brooches draped over jewellery boxes, tiny china animals, miniature vintage toys, battered Dinky vans, and sets of silvered hair brushes to name just a few. The interior is darkly Dickensian and the whole shop is lit by just a few unadorned and feeble lightbulbs.

The shop is owned by a mother and son. The mother, very aged, often sits outside the door on an old bentwood chair, watching the world pass by. The son spends most of his days in one of the local hostelries.

I took this picture on a winter night, when darkness descends before the shops are ready to close. It was a little misty and the light in the window seemed to shine more brightly than usual.

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan

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Just So

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There’s a shop on Howe Street, tucked into a basement, which rejoices in the name of Lonsdale & Dutch. I believe that they are technically called tinsmiths, but I think of it as the lantern shop. For in the window are all kinds of outdoor lanterns and their fittings such are common in Edinburgh’s New Town. Figures can be glimpsed, bent over lathes, through a blue mist of dust and metal particles in the workshop. I’ve never had the nerve to ask if I could photograph inside the workshop, but I long to do so.

The window display (if display’s the right word) rarely changes – one rickety lantern replacing another and a fresh scattering of nuts and bolts. And while it’s fascinating by day, it’s at night that it really comes alive to evoke the spirit of an older Edinburgh. I’ve spent what feels like hours aiming my camera at the lit window on cold winter nights, only giving up when my hands were too frozen to continue. This picture is one of the results.


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Once upon a time, I swore I’d never take what I call chocolate box pictures. But, you know, never is such a long time and pretty pictures are, whether we like it or not, all around us. And here’s an example.

You’d swear this is a carefully constructed composition for Country Living magazine. (Incidentally, that magazine is one of my guilty pleasures – it’s as good as eating an entire box of chocolates and almost as good as sex – well, as good as bad sex, if you see what I mean). The beautiful latticed ironwork of the table and chair, a birdbox placed just so, a shabby chic enamel watering can and planters and a garden fence to set it all off. A stylist would be in heaven – why all it needs is a faded Cath Kidston apron and a child with tousled curls named Imogen!

But it isn’t. I swear. On my mother’s life. OK Mother isn’t with us any more, but if she were, she’d have said now this is lovely – I don’t know why you can’t take nice pictures like this all the time, instead of that weird stuff. Yes Mum.

The location, by the way, was one of the handkerchief-size gardens of the Stockbridge Colonies – and yes, shabby chic is big down there, let me tell you…

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan

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