The Gum Fence

Someone has stuck a piece of chewing gum on top of each spike on a fence near my office.

The fence runs along Fettes Row, separating the road from the slope down to my employer’s car park (or, more properly, the piece of waste ground on which my employer permits its employees to park their cars; it’s a tax distinction). The pavement here is narrow and uneven, made up of old cobblestones, imperfectly pointed. Shrubs grow through the railings, and cars park close beside, making it an awkward side of the road to walk on.

The chewing gum starts beside a long-disused gate. Taken 12 January 2005

Whoever is doing it missed a spike, buried deep in the ivy. Taken 12 January 2005

They put dabs of gum on the stubs of broken-off spikes, too. Taken 12 January 2005

Even when the uprights were broken off quite low down. Taken 12 January 2005

The gum continues over 17 fence divisions. Each fence division has 20 spikes, so even allowing for the 5% or so spikes that are missing altogether, someone has put over 320 tiny dabs of chewing gum on pointy bits of iron. Assuming that each dab represents a third of a stick of gum, someone has chewed over a hundred of them before methodically sticking a piece on each spike.

It makes me wonder. How long did this take? Did they walk by, one day at a time, sticking dabs of gum on spikes? When did they stop, and why?
(Have they stopped, or will I find two or three extra spikes covered the next time I walk that way?) Do they now have such well-exercised jaw muscles that they can bite through a walnut?

And, most importantly, Why?

Almost One

Fiona turns one in 2 1/2 weeks. As always, being a parent, I feel two mutually exclusive things. On the one hand, it seems just yesterday that I was sitting at this same table, doing a jigsaw puzzle, when the first contractions started. On the other, I can’t imagine life without her.

That second thought – the inability to even contemplate a life that didn’t include her – is a particularly poigniant one these days, as we watch the families torn apart by the tsunami try to find their loved ones and, too often, discover that those loved ones are dead. What parent doesn’t picture themselves on the beach with their children, with the wave coming, wondering how to save their precious lives? Who can’t empathise with the survivors afterward, wondering where the family members they lost in the maelstrom will turn up? And for the locals, with no safe home to go to to deal with their grief, things are even harder.

So, since Fiona is too young to notice whether she gets a present at all, Martin and I would like to ask her friends and family to give her small gifts this birthday. She’d enjoy a rattle made from a box and some split peas and taped shut as much as she would some Super Magic Whizz-O Gadget with bright sparkly lights. So give her a small toy and a big hug, and give the money to the tsunami victims this year. She’ll never notice the difference, because the hug is what really matters.

And she has lots more birthdays to come, where we can all splash out on gifts for her. Would that the families of the tsunami victims had the same.

Thank you.

Window Tax

I work in Edinburgh’s New Town (it’s relatively new, dating only from the late 1700’s. In comparison to the Old Town, which has buildings from the 1400’s, it’s new.). And the beautiful old Georgian buildings have an interesting feature: many of their windows are blocked.

This is because of progressive taxation. The Window Tax, which was introduced in the United Kingdom in 1696, was levied on homeowners in proportion to the number of windows in their houses. A common tax avoidance scheme was to block off a window so that one didn’t have to pay. Some homeowners even painted the blocked-off sections black, with white lines to represent the mullions.

Building with plain blocked-off windows, at the intersection of Dundas Street and Eyre Place. Taken 10 January 2005.

This building’s main windows are blocked off with plain stone, but someone went to the trouble to paint the one over the front door black. Why do one and not the other? I walk by it every day – it’s cattercorner from my office – and I’ve always wondered. Taken 10 January 2005.

Which windows are real and which are fake? The ones with the curtains are genuine windows, of course, but so are many of the others. In fact, only the bottom left window is blocked off and painted. But a casual glance on a sunny day sees no difference. Taken 10 January 2005.

In 1851, the Window Tax was abolished in favor of a flatter taxation system, which allowed the government to extract a greater proportion of its income from the growing middle class. But many of the owners of houses with blocked-up windows must not have wanted to go to the inconvenience and expense of unblocking them. And now, of course, most of the buildings are subject to conservation laws that determine how much they can be changed.

Phone Pix

Every workday, I try to walk part of the way home. When the wind is gale-force or the sleet is dripping down my neck, I don’t do so well at it. But the rest of the time, the walk is a good wind-down after work, a chance to adjust to my home life, and an opportunity to immerse myself in a city I love.

Walking through the city has made me want to photograph it. And I have been, with my camera phone. But the pictures have been sitting there, stuck on the phone, until I got it together to get the cable and software together to be able to download them.

So here are a couple from December walks home. If I can get it together, I’ll start a regular column on what I see as I walk, with photos. The picture quality isn’t anything to shout about, but phone shots are better than none at all, which is what I would take if I had to bring a digital camera with me all the time. (I can barely keep track of my keys, some days.)

All of the trees in Edinhurgh’s main park, Princes Street Gardens, are lit up during the holiday season. But instead of going around the trees, the lights go along the trunk and branches. Taken 8 December 2004.

Smily found in chalk on the side of a burnt-out Bank of Scotland building opposite the Museum of Scotland. Connected to the arson attack that destroyed the branch? Probably not. Good use of symbols? Yes. Meaning? Unknown. Taken 8 December 2004.