When I arrived in Edinburgh in December 1993, the city was snow-covered, almost dauntingly beautiful and austerely unfamiliar. I did not mean to stay here; I had come to spend Christmas at my sister’s and supposed that I would then head south, where most of my friends were at that time.
January came, the snow vanished, but I didn’t. Princes Street Gardens were within easy walking distance and entrance to the Museum of Scotland was free; my baby was growing into a toddler and loved tottering around both of them. I stumbled along in her wake, wondering what was going to happen to us, almost as shell-shocked as finding myself in this strange new city as I was to be a single mother, broke and jobless.
It was not Edinburgh’s fault that I was in this mess, but as it happened to form the backdrop for the ‘rags’ part of what might as well be called my Cinderella story, I came to know more about being poor and isolated here than in any other city. It was in Edinburgh, rather than in Paris, London, Manchester or Oporto, all of which I inhabited during my nomadic twenties, that I became most acutely aware of the barriers, invisible and inflexible as bullet-proof glass, that separate those in the affluent and able-bodied mainstream of our society from those who, for whatever reason, live on its fringes.
Most of my pre-Potter Edinburgh days were spent in a small block of flats that housed, at that time, three other single mothers. I was very glad to move in, because it was a big improvement on my previous glorified bed-sit, and in my three years there my daughter learned to walk and talk and I secured my life’s ambition: a publishing deal. But it was also there that a group of local boys amused themselves on dull nights by throwing stones at my two year old’s bedroom window; there that I wrestled a drunk man back out of my hallway as he tried to force open the front door; there that we were broken into one night while we lay in bed. And I knew that far worse happened to other people, and people not so far away either; my upstairs neighbour used to pause to chat on the stairs wearing sunglasses to hide her black eyes.
Violence, crime and addiction were part of everyday life in that part of Edinburgh. Yet barely ten minutes away by bus was a different world, a world of cashmere and cream teas and the imposing facades of the institutions that make this city the fourth largest financial centre in Europe. I felt in those days as though there was an abyss separating me from those who bustled past me carrying briefcases and Jenners bags — and, in truth, there was.
The OneCity Trust has identified this separation as a ‘”culture of contentment”, which insulates [the more affluent] from the disadvantage experienced by excluded groups and areas’. These groups may include the poor, the disabled, those marginalized due to their ethnicity or, in the words of OneCity, ‘people who feel isolated from others and from the benefits of the city’, a wholly accurate description of how I felt then.
Social exclusion affects all of us, whether we acknowledge it or not, because it is on the outskirts of society that misery, despair, physical and mental health problems, and the abuse of the self and others flourish. Every city, every citizen, would benefit directly and tangibly from helping bring down those barriers that prevent children reaching their full potential, keep would-be workers from earning and isolate so many within their own homes or their own heads.
The OneCity Trust has enabled both individuals and organisations to make their voices heard, perhaps for the first time ever within a city and a society that can seem to have forgotten them. The Trust is now analysing that information and making recommendations for a more inclusive Edinburgh, so that changes can be made to make this city more completely ours — all of ours.
In the past few years, since the stunningly unexpected change of fortune that hit me with the publication of my first book, Edinburgh has often been described as my ‘adopted’ home city. True, I retain traces of my West Country accent, and I tend to keep my jumper on even while pale blue men are basting themselves in the watery sunshine in Princes Street Gardens; these are sure pointers to the fact that I wasn’t born in the old Simpsons’. But as it happens, I have never lived so long anywhere, either as adult or child, as I have lived here. Edinburgh is home now, it is part of me, and I had come to love it long before Harry Potter hit the bookshelves. I am proud to live here, and proud that my home city is committed to becoming a more inclusive place. OneCity seeks to unify: I cannot think of a better goal, for Edinburgh, Scotland, or the world.
Previous writing: « Dear German Booksellers – Book 6
Next writing: My Fight »