The door was closed. There was nothing I could do about it. Nothing legal at least. It didn’t mean I wasn’t miffed. The Oxford Bar is the pinnacle of unassuming boozers when seen from the outside. I was parched though. An unseasonably hot September day tag teaming with a hangover had given me a severe case of what is known north of the border as a “drouth.” Or so I’ve been told. To you and I that means a dry mouth. Edinburgh isn’t short of watering holes, I partook in beverages in a lot of them during my visit in 2019. There was only one that I truly wanted to visit though. That unassuming Oxford Bar. Local of Ian Rankin’s famous fictional detective, John Rebus. Within those walls Rebus has drank, cracked crimes and drank some more. It was one of my dreams to follow in his footsteps while in the city. Having a pint at The Ox, not cracking a crime. If one had fallen into my lap I’d have given it a good go mind.
Many people think of Edinburgh as Harry Potter’s world. Given the aesthetic of the films spawned by the books and the fact that JK Rowling wrote some of those books in the city it is clear to see how. It isn’t unusual to see Gryffindor colours along the Royal Mile, throwing things at Slytherins is actively encouraged. Is it a coincidence that the two main houses in the franchise share their colour schemes with Edinburgh’s football clubs, Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian? Probably. The streets of Edinburgh have always resonated with me because of Rebus however. I can imagine him, not a bunch of Hogwarts students, operating in what is one of the easiest places on the eye (yet hardest on the legs) I have ever visited.
Looking out across the city is Arthur’s Seat. A volcanic rock formation I first read about in a Rebus book. The Detective Inspector struggled up it in much the same manner I did. Empathy reigned supreme with me, before I realised that I am real, a few decades younger than John, don’t smoke like a chimney or have a high level of dependency on alcohol. Despite what the first paragraph may suggest. He’s got a fair few murders solved in his plus column though, in the interests of fairness. Treading along after these fictional steps added flesh to the bones of the place for me. Despite being dark tales of murder and crime the Rebus books served me as travel literature and inspiration. The way Ian Rankin describes the city paints a picture that hamstrings me in my own attempts to do likewise. I’ve tried the best, I don’t want to even attempt being Virgin Cola here.
I must admit that stepping in to Rebus’ world, while a factor, has never been the sole inspiration for going to Edinburgh. Likewise I have found myself in other book settings without joining the dots until I was in the throes of the moment. The first time I felt as if I was part of something out of a novel was, strangely enough, an innocuous train journey from Stockholm to the Swedish National Stadium, situated on the outskirts of the capital. On my way to the Speedway Grand Prix being held at that venue my mind flooded with images from the pages of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. Yes, I read a lot of crime fiction. The Millennium books are gripping but they also shouldn’t work in a lot of respects. The protagonists Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander’s most menial daily actions are documented in detail by Larsson. I and millions of others lapped it up nonetheless. Is this what goes on in the pages of gossip magazines? Be it eating a sandwich or riding the train it was all part of a captivating picture. Riding the train in Stockholm? I rode the train in Stockholm! I even had a few sandwiches. I’m as cool as Mikael and Lisbeth. I don’t care what anyone says. As yet I am still without a tattoo, dragon or otherwise however.
The impact of what we read can negatively impact our opinion of a place too. Stepping in to Freetown Christiania while I was in Copenhagen, I was expecting a run down place that stunk of cannabis. This impression was formed while reading a Department Q book, guess the genre? Gold star for you, it is crime fiction. I walked into a run down place that stunk of cannabis. It was in the pages of one of Jussi Adler-Olsen’s novels I had first heard of Christiania, I knew it wasn’t going to be my cup of tea but when in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in Copenhagen, have a poke around Christiania, be put off by the smell of the joint(s) and run away back to the city. I felt much more at home tucking into a burger at the aptly named Cocks and Cows. As for Christiana, I have dedicated a post to it previously, but in short I wanted to see a location from a series I enjoy, I also knew the opportunity may not arise again so I had to grab it with both hands.
During my trip to Copenhagen I had my first conscious thought of travelling somewhere with the motivation coming solely from the pages of a book. It is possible to get a train from the Danish capital across the border into Sweden, disembarking at Malmo. From Malmo it is but a hop, skip and a jump to Ystad. Ystad was the home of Kurt Wallander, eponymous star of the series that arguably kicked off the Nordic Noir genre. An otherwise run of the mill coastal town, through the pen of author Henning Mankell, Ystad was added firmly to the tourist map. Without yet another slew of fictional murders I probably wouldn’t have heard of the place, let alone wanted to visit. Alas my time was short in Copenhagen so any thoughts of seeing Wallander’s home town soon bit the dust. The temperatures were freezing when I visited and I would love to go back. When I do I am absolutely going to tag on a trip to Ystad as part of the trip.
Closer to home there is another book related location I am very much looking forward to visiting, one that will be governed by good weather. The village of Wallington was a former residence of George Orwell. It is said that one of his seminal works, Animal Farm, was inspired in part by his time in the village. Indeed a village farm shares its name with that of the farm in the book, Manor Farm. The reason I need good weather to visit? I have a romanticised idea in my mind of spending a sunny day ensconced in a rural Wallington field reading Animal Farm from cover to cover. I’ll make sure not to take any bacon sandwiches in my packed lunch.
While plans are being laid it would be remiss of me to not circle back to The Oxford Bar. The need for that pint gnaws away at me like an addict waiting to score. It’s not the alcohol that drives me, it’s the desire to suspend disbelief for an hour or two and step into the wild world of John Rebus.