City built on books

Reading today that the vast knowledge the great consulting detective Mister Sherlock Holmes displayed was due largely to his Edinburgh author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle attending classes at the Royal Botanic Gardens in his teens. One hundred and forty year old records show a young Conan Doyle’s signature for attending his classes, where he would have learned about a number of interesting plants, including the deadly Belladonna, which would prove very useful several years later when he began writing the Sherlock Holmes tales, along with the already very well-known inspiration for Holmes himself which Doyle had in the shape of the remarkable Edinburgh lecturer Doctor Joseph Bell.

Sherlock Holmes 02

This is one of the things I most love about living here in Edinburgh – not just the very long, rich history, not just the culture (like having the largest arts festival in the world), the amazing architecture, perched in turn on top of even more astonishing geology (giving Edinburgh a skyline like no other and wonderful walking opportunities along streets which curve down and up, and around), it’s the books: this is a city built on literature as much as its geology. Books are everywhere here, and I’m not just talking about the obvious form of bookstores or the Edinburgh International Book Festival (again largest in the world), it’s the way so many corners of this old city are deeply tied to authors and writing, from Robert Burns, Hume and Scott, Stevenson and Doyle to publishers like Chambers with their great reference works.

Robert Burns on the Mile

Home of Robert Louis Stevenson 2

Home of Robert Louis Stevenson

Today you can still see Robert Louis Stevenson or Conan Doyle’s childhood homes, drink in pubs they visited… And it goes on, from the mid 20th century “poet’s pub” in Milnes, where rhymers and bards got together (the Portrait Gallery here has the wonderful painting of them all together in the pub, for where else should a Scots bard be?) to the cafes where a struggling single mother was writing what would become the Harry Potter novels which so galvanised the reading habits of millions of children (and adults!) or a drink in the Oxford Bar where Ian Rankin’s bestselling Inspector Rebus enjoys a jar or three, and indeed it is not unknown to bump into contemporary Edinburgh authors when out patronising one of our city’s many fine drinking establishments, enjoying a small refreshment. It’s a book-lover’s city.

An Iain and an Ian go into a bar

Happy birthday, Edgar Allan Poe

Happy birthday to a writer who has been one of my favourite authors since I was a boy – happy 200th birthday, Edgar Allan Poe, born January 19th 1809 and died October 7th 1849. Or perhaps he didn’t die but was simply bricked up alive in a catacomb… Dead for a century and half and still influencing other writers, comics artists, movie makers, not to mention setting out the basic template for the modern detective several decades before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Holmes.

In fact it seems to be quite a year for anniversaries on the literary calendar – there’s Poe, of course, its 200 years since Charles Darwin was born too, 150 years since On the Origin of Species was published and 150 years since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born. Conan Doyle’s delightful adventure yarn of explorers and dinosaurs, The Lost World, is the central plank of this year’s One Book, One Edinburgh campaign in February (Doyle being a local lad – in fact he would have studied not far from where I work), following on from the last two years where Cam Kennedy and Alan Grant created graphic novel adaptations of Stevenson. There will be events, free books, school events and other happenings.

This time it will also extend to Glasgow and ties in with the Darwin 200 events across the UK, including a graphic nove biography of Darwin by Simon Gurr and Eugene Byrne, all of which I hope helps gets younger readers excited and reading and maybe the Lost World will give them an interest in dinosaurs then natural history (so they know to tell ‘intelligent design’ eejits to feck off when they encounter those brain-damaged idiots). It certainly did for me a kid, leading me to look for factual books on dinosaurs, then geology, evolution, which tied in with interests in astronomy and space exploration, being able to apply that learning to other bodies and… Well, that’s kind of the point, once you start a chain of reading like that it sparks off more and more ideas and questions, leading to more reading and a continually growing link of reading and learning that goes with you through life. All from a good adventure yarn and some dinosaurs.