Features > Arts
1 April 2020
Alex. Wood is a researcher, writer and adult education tutor in Scottish Literature and Genealogy, and retired Headteacher of Wester Hailes Education Centre, Edinburgh. He is a former Labour Party activist (Leader, Edinburgh District Council Labour Group, 1982-1986) and a supporter of Scottish independence and socialism.
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Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh
Ian Rankin shines a light on Edinburgh’s working-class ghettoes, argues Alex. Wood, but does the leading crime writer offer a way out?
WITH a brief interlude in London, the adventures of Ian Rankin’s detective hero, John Rebus, are set in Edinburgh. Rebus himself, like Rankin, is a Fifer, an exile in Scotland’s capital, an almost archetypal working class, Scottish male who has left his roots behind, but reminisces nostalgically of his past, and never quite puts down new roots in the city which encapsulates so much of Scotland despite being socially and culturally distinct from the rest of the country. He feels “the city closing in on him, bringing to bear all its historical weight, smothering him. Dissent, rationalism, enlightenment: Edinburgh had specialised in all three …” Rankin’s recurring cultural reference point is the myth of Burke and Hare and its subsequent literary apotheosis, Jekyll and Hyde. Perhaps that is inevitable in writing a series of crime novels, the co-existence of, as well as the conflicts between, good and evil, dark and light. “There were ghosts in the cobbled alleys and on the twisting stairways of the Old Town tenements …”
The first two Rebus novels, Knots and Crosses and Hide and Seek set the tone for what were to follow. In Knots and Crosses we are introduced to John Rebus, detective sergeant, low-key and unorthodox Christian, divorced, estranged from brother (a professional hypnotist who transpires to be a drug dealer), confused and with, initially, some unexplained personal burden rooted in his pre-police career in the army. He is cynical about social and professional pecking-orders – but knows clearly where he stands in the local police pecking order. A maniac is on the loose, strangling school-girls “in Edinburgh of all places”.
Rankin portrays Edinburgh however as peopled by more than ghosts. Local journalist Jim Stevens is always on the look-out for a story of crime or corruption but he “knew that there was a tacit understanding that he was never to aim for the really big players, for that would mean aiming for the city’s businessmen and bureaucrats, the titled landowners, the New Town’s Mercedes owners.” That radical understanding permeates the Rebus oeuvre. Crime and corruption are intimately connected, particularly in Edinburgh, with seemingly respectable wealth and power.
He looks critically at the city, at its tourist-centred economy and at the tourists themselves, outsiders whose view of the capital is based on the city centre but they “were never interested in the housing estates around this central husk. They never ventured into Pilton or Niddrie or Oxgangs to make an arrest in a piss-drenched tenement; they were not moved by Leith’s pushers and junkies, the deft-handed corruption of the city gents, the petty thefts of a society pushed so far into materialism that stealing was the only answer to what they thought of as their needs.”
It is not of course only the tourists who never venture into Pilton or Niddrie or Oxgangs. In a city where 25% of school pupils are in the private sector, compared to less than 5% in Scotland as a whole, there is a huge swathe of the local population, in reality as well as in the pages of Rankin’s novels, that has never ventured beyond the affluent suburbs.
As well as his portrayal of the links between crime and wealth in Edinburgh, Rankin exposes, in Knots and Crosses, the brutality of military training methods, a disturbing and unusual theme.
Hide and Seek, the second Rebus novel was set in the mid-1980s (“Heart disease, false teeth, and now AIDS.”) and published in 1991. Rebus has attained the rank of Detective Inspector but remains a troubled soul. A drug-addict lies dead in a squalid Edinburgh squat, amid what appear to be occult symbols. John Rebus becomes engrossed, obsessed perhaps, with the indifference, treachery, deceit and sleaze that lurk behind this incident so far from the Edinburgh familiar to tourists.
Much of the action of Hide and Seek is set in Pilmuir, “the dumping ground”, a depressed fictional estate (but patently based on an amalgam of Pilton and Muirhouse), beset by drug-dealing and drug-using, the native territory of Rebus’s colleague, Tony McCall, and of Tony’s crooked business brother, Tommy McCall, and undergoing demolition and rebuilding as Edinburgh property prices boomed.
Rankin’s perception of Edinburgh through the prisms of Deacon Brodie and of Jekyll and Hyde continues. What is also developed is Rebus’s perception of the intricate links between the city’s business and political establishments and crime. In Hide and Seek one background tale is of drug-dealing in Pilmuir, but Rankin switches deftly to the private clubs in the New Town in which gambling, socialising and arranging dirty deals among businessmen, property developers and lawyers, go hand in hand.
In the end however, there “was a scandal, but it was a small one, soon forgotten. Shuttered rooms in elegant Georgian terraces soon became light again, in a great resurrection of the spirit.” The truly rich and powerful can hush things up and save their skins. Rankin shines a powerful beam on the intricacies of Edinburgh power.
In Rankin’s most recent novel, In A House of Lies, Rebus, now approaching 70 and suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, has retired. A dead body turns up in a car and transpires to be the victim of a long-past unsolved investigation in which Rebus was part. The early themes of the connections between crime and wealth and power continue. Rebus continues his uneasy relationship, from earlier volumes, with “Big Ger” Cafferty, the controlling boss of crime in Edinburgh. Rankin has also, however, developed his writing skills and a sub-plot centred on a young teenager, Ellis Meikle, son of a broken and dysfunctional working class family from Lochend, recently jailed for the murder of his girl-friend, subtly links into the primary plot.
The newly found body was that of Stuart Bloom, the gay son of a wealthy Edinburgh business couple who have campaigned, since his having gone missing, against the failures of the police, with accusations of both incompetence and cover-up. Two other major businessmen, land-and-property developer, Sir Adrian Brand, and film producer, Jackie Ness, are both deadly rivals and have clear connections to Stuart Bloom, but a further connection is Rebus’s colleague from Glasgow CID, Alex Shankley, whose son was Stuart Bloom’s lover. There are also Steele and Edwards, two crooked members of the Police’s ACU, the Anti-Corruption Unit, who are themselves mired in the corruption they purportedly seek to investigate and eliminate.
The tale is well-told and examines recurring Rebus themes. There is, above all, a world of private business, the operations of which always overlap with the world of crime. There is a picture of police ethics, which range from, at the worst, totally crooked and in the hands of criminals, to, at the best, always willing to break the rules to achieve a successful outcome. There are dysfunctional families, wreaking havoc on succeeding generations.
John Lanchester describes the settings of the Rebus novels as “underdescribed chunks of the real world”*. The Edinburgh in which they are set are indeed, this writer would suggest, “real”, but they are also an Edinburgh which the city’s establishment would both deny and prefer to remain undescribed rather than underdescribed.
Edinburgh remains an accutely divided city. I recall early in my teaching career being puzzled by a map of school catchment areas and discussing these with my then Headteacher, the radical Hugh MacKenzie at Craigroyston. “What I don’t understand,” I said naively, “is the jagged line which separates our catchment from the Royal High’s.”
“It’s simple,” replied Hugh. “It’s the boundary between the council housing stock and the owner-occupied area.” He was right. Edinburgh is a ghetto-ised city, but the ghettoes are based on social class, not on religion or ethnicity.
More recently there was a major social and political division as the City of Edinburgh threatened to close Wester Hailes Education Centre and Currie High School and create a new school to accommodate the pupils of both of these. As one Currie parent put it, “It’s frustrating as a parent to have done the best for your child and wanted to support your school and not send your children to private school. Currie has got such a good reputation. I can’t believe they are talking about changing all that….” In other words, like many in Edinburgh, the alternative to a middle-class only comprehensive would be sending one’s children to the private sector. Having a significant proportion of not only working class children, but those from one of Edinburgh’s poorest areas, was anathema to the parents of Currie. At the same time as the Currie-Wester Hailes proposals were being debated, there were also proposals to amend the catchment areas for Corstorphine and Roseburn primaries. Scott Douglas, Conservative councillor for Corstorphine and Murrayfield, said: “Many parents moved into Corstorphine and Roseburn specifically because of the catchment area they were in, yet these plans threaten to tear up the status quo. It will also undoubtedly have a knock-on effect on house prices and all of this needs to be considered before any changes go ahead.”** He neatly summarises the obsessions of the Edinburgh middle-class, catchment areas and house-prices.
Middle-class Edinburgh is obsessed with school catchment areas in the comprehensive sector precisely because of attitudes fostered by the perceived superiority of the schools in the private sector. Chris Holligan of the University of the West of Scotland saw it thus: “The rousing morning assembly speeches by masters that I heard while teaching for a spell in a famous Edinburgh public school encouraged upper-class pupils to see themselves as leaders by right. That mindset no doubt inspired the ambition of those holding the prestigious posts described in ‘Elite Britain?’ Tony Blair was educated at Scotland’s Eton, Fettes College. Its badge of aristocratic leanings is clear from the school building. It resonates with ancient authority and permanence.”***
In every Scottish city there are such strict and well-defined boundaries. What marks Edinburgh out from the rest is that as the administrative, political and legal capital, and as a city with a long-established and larger academic population than the others, the class composition of the city was entirely different. The results of this were apparent not only in terms of strictly defined school boundaries. There were politics. Glasgow first elected a Labour majority to its council in 1933. It took Edinburgh another half-century until, in 1984, Labour briefly won a majority on the City of Edinburgh District Council.
The problem for Rankin as a crime-writer is that while he portrays with searing power and intelligent humour, the harsh realities of crime and crooks, in business, in the police, and in the establishment, his view of working-class Edinburgh, tends also to concentrate on the negatives. Even that revelation in Hide and Seek, of the roots of the McCall brothers, crook and crooked cop, in Pilmuir, almost implies that the only way out of the working-class ghettoes is crookedness.
There are intriguing parallels, as well as significant differences, between Rebus’s Edinburgh and the Edinburgh of the 1930s portrayed in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. In both cases sections of the city’s establishment are dissected, criticised and offered to the reader as deeply flawed. In both, the working class of the city is viewed obliquely, from a distance almost, and never with the central role in the narrative. The great difference is that Spark focussed on that end of the city’s establishment, teachers, professionals, the lower-middle classes, that large but diffuse sector of Edinburgh’s conservative world which always believed it was the establishment. Rankin focuses on the worlds of business, property and the law, a much smaller, but in reality far more powerful and influential cohort, who have always known and exercised real power.
* Lanchester, John. (2000) Secrets and lies: the impossible world of DI John Rebus. The Guardian. 17 February. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/apr/19/ianrankin: accessed 20 March 2020
** Newsroom. (2017) Nearly 1000 people sign petition to save Currie Community High School. The Evening News. 27 November. https://www.edinburghnews.scotsman.com/education/nearly-1000-people-sign-petition-save-currie-community-high-school-598362: accessed 20 March 2020
*** Holligan, Chris. (2014) The Conversation. Scotland is still hard-wired to the class system – and that might be helping the Yes vote. http://theconversation.com/scotland-is-still-hard-wired-to-the-class-system-and-that-might-be-helping-the-yes-vote-31207: accessed 20 March 2020