The truth about going back
We expect places we’ve lived to remain frozen in time during our absence. But they have moved on without us.
It’s the curse of the bored and the unfulfilled to imagine that their lost loves hold the key to happiness. Exes perhaps hold an allure they lacked entirely when the relationship was current. It’s a similar feeling when you visit again a city you once loved and called home. Like exes, we sometimes expect the places we’ve loved to remain frozen in time during our absence. But they have moved on without you, the timbre of their laughter has changed, they glow from the inside. Being a tourist in a city you could once navigate blindfolded is somehow worse than being lost somewhere completely new.
It took me a few months to fall for Edinburgh when I first moved there after graduation. I arrived in a very wet and cold autumn during the death rattle of the twentieth century, not the most stellar idea I’ve ever had. I got myself a job I didn't love, and lodged in a flat I loved even less, a half-hour commute on a train that had two carriages, ran every thirty minutes, and stopped before midnight. The only saving grace of those first dark few months was crossing the Forth Bridge twice every day and embarking on a love affair with scarves that endures. But once I switched jobs, made new friends, and moved into a flatshare ten minutes on the bus from the centre of everything, I fell, and I fell hard.
I was reborn.
I mean that in as literal a sense as hyperbole will allow. I became a new person. It’s both powerful and frightening to find yourself in a city where nobody knows you. The possibilities of who you might be unfolding in front of you in optimistic origami. After years of self-editing and second-guessing who I really was, I didn’t so much find as create myself. I came out there, made many precious friends still in my life today and even fell in love. Living in Edinburgh was a series of firsts, blank pages rapidly filling with joy and laughter; I grew up fast yet allowed myself to regress into a carefree youthfulness that had evaded me all through my teens. It’s why, if I really think about it, Edinburgh has always seemed more like home than the place I actually grew up, in Yorkshire. To feel you know somewhere, to live and breathe as a local even though you’re a plant, is an enlivening feeling. I could be myself there, be taken at face value; I was travelling light, no baggage.
I’ve been back scores of times since I left twenty years ago, but for the last decade or so my visits have been fleeting, often seeing only the narrow margins of the city that skirt either side of the railway track, taking me through it and away, farther north into Scotland to visit my father. Every time I’m there, something is different. Naturally. Edinburgh is not Brigadoon. I was back there last week. This time, the major change was trams trundling up and down Leith Walk, past the end of my old street, past the ghosts of all the pubs and shops that have now disappeared, or been refurbished beyond recognition. Last time I was there by myself overnight, in 2019 for a talk at Edinburgh University, I did a circuit of the city, feeling a little like a ghost, and I did the same again this time, but in a bigger loop, with a strange sense of urgency that perhaps comes from there being so much of your past to catch up on.
‘I went to a party in that flat once,’ said my brain, very frequently – it’s a wonder I have any serotonin left – and even though the signs and facades had changed, I recalled with photographic accuracy the layouts of the bars and clubs that had been my schoolroom at the turn of the century. I marvelled at the cool ‘new’ places that had sprung up everywhere. Edinburgh had seemed magical and exciting to me in my early twenties, now it was exhilarating, another planet. So I reached for the familiar. I ate fish and chips, solo, in the City Restaurant on Nicolson Street, scene of many drunken smoked sausage suppers (not a euphemism). At some point in the last twenty years, it’s gone upmarket; there were tasteful sage green banquettes instead of the garish red pleather, mosaic tiles, chirpy servers, and two fabulous elderly ladies at the table next to mine wearing electric blue mascara, necks bent under the weight of their heavily lacquered blow-dries as they daintily ate their own fish and chips.
‘My goodness, Fiona,’ said one, reaching for their bottle of Montepulciano, ‘you’re not doing very well with that wine,’ before filling her own glass to the brim.
Almost every place I used to go to is gone, and those that aren’t maybe should be. I was happy and wistful as I walked round, touring bookshops to sign copies of my books if they had them and chat to the lovely booksellers. A visitor to the very niche museum of myself, I smiled often as all the memories rushed back to me, so many of them happy. Even the bad ones were tempered by the fact that I got through them, but there was no rose tint to this hindsight. I found it difficult to take in the city the same way I had when I was young and merely going about the business of living here rather than trying to match what was actually in front of me to my memories. I never used to stop and take much notice of the castle, or the Scott Monument, or Arthur’s Seat, or any of its splendour. There were parties to go to, people to see, my dull, aimless day job to endure, until it was time to go to the pub. Edinburgh reminded me that person had existed, but I’d have no idea how to be him now. I know too much. I watched the younger people in the shops and cafes and on the streets doing exactly the same as I did, moving from A to B, totally oblivious to their own Elysium, and I realised Edinburgh didn't belong to me anymore. It didn't feel the same, because it wasn’t the same, and neither was I.
I loathe nostalgia, but when times are tough, you seek familiarity and comfort, don’t you? With London becoming financially unsustainable and the general cultural air getting more polluted with bigotry, my version of ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ is to wonder if I could make it work in Edinburgh now I have more ambition and drive, an actual career of sorts. I’ve occasionally toyed with the idea of moving back there (with my boyfriend, of course). Where could we go if everything went wrong, we ask ourselves, and imagine reliving our glory days – whatever that might mean to you. ‘We were poor, but we were happy,’ as they say.
But this trip made me realise I can probably never go back and live there. I didn’t want to leave back then, but I had to, to try to make it as a writer in London. What romantic notions would I be clutching to if I returned? And how might they be dashed by reality once the novelty of visiting every coffee shop on Leith Walk has worn off? What would it actually mean to live in Edinburgh as a 47-year-old man, as opposed to the 26-year-old idiot who left it, everything he owned in the back of a van? It’s been too long, and the streets haven’t missed me. That Edinburgh I knew is gone, and an equally brilliant one is in its place and serving its residents well. Going back to your exes is fraught with danger, best to move forward. I’ll leave it to the imagination, occasionally pop in for a wee visit, then spirit away to get on with my love affair with the present day.
But Edinburgh will always be my surrogate hometown, the city that taught me how to be myself. And I’ll always be grateful.
This edition is dedicated to Jeannie, Edinburgh’s finest tour guide. 💜
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I suppose I should let you know that I am available to follow on Instagram, Threads, and Bluesky should you wish to stay in touch with me. Or we can just keep this going here. I haven’t left Twitter; I’ve just no idea what to say on it anymore.
Thank you to Argonaut Books, Blackwells on the Bridges, Lighthouse Books, Topping & Co, and Waterstones on Princes Street for such a warm welcome (and for stocking my books). Sorry I didn't get to the Portobello Bookshop this time. (I did go to Golden Hare but they didn't have any of my books lol.) Full story of the Edinburgh mini book tour on Instagram.
If you fancy a few days in an idyllic Scottish fishing village, I can recommend one of the holiday lets available from Love Pittenweem. Pittenweem is gorgeous and has everything you could possibly need for a countryside getaway – and there’s plenty of stuff to do in other towns around the East Neuk of Fife. (This isn’t a paid ad or anything, my friends run the business and I’ve stayed in two of their places and they’re genuinely amazing, otherwise I wouldn’t even mention it.)