Sipping coffee at The Elephant House (where J.K. Rowling penned the first book of the “Harry Potter” series), I realize that I haven’t written in a while. Not like anything I post on this blog could possibly compare to anything J.K. Rowling has composed, whether it was the scribbles on a tea-stained napkin in this very café, or the print in the 450 million pages of literary history’s most relentlessly page-turned books. My stories won’t be anywhere near as marvelous or magical as the characters’ at Hogwarts, but traveling my way through Europe seems to be the only way for a mere muggle like myself to even come close. So here we go. “Day Tripping,” Volume III: “Maddie Day and the Scotsman’s Scone.”
(… That probably went over your head, but to clarify, I just tried to rhyme with “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and failed miserably).
Held up to all the things I’ve seen and done in the U.K. so far, Edinburgh simply cannot compare. “This is a city of shifting light, of changing skies, of sudden vistas… a city so beautiful it breaks the heart again and again,” wrote Alexander McCall, a crime and drama author who, like Ms. Rowling, steeped his stories in the Scottish countryside. And it’s true; after ambling across the cobblestoned streets of the Royal Mile and stumbling up the muddied crags of Arthur’s Seat for the view, I can think of no other city that has a beauty or a beating heart like Edinburgh.
So here I’ll try to conjure some of Scotland for you, because whether you know it or not this country has had a huge impact on your life— starting with literature, and ending with legend.
The Elephant House is an understated and unglamorous place. It’s perched on the far end of the George IV Bridge amidst crumbling local pizzerias and patisseries, little more than a red accented storefront that’s all too easy to miss (unless you know what you’re looking for). The place hasn’t let fame go to its head, yet tourists’ faces float like ghosts in the misty windows, trying to steal a glance of one of the rickety wooden tables at which Ms. Rowling might have penned her own wizarding world back in the 1990s.
This relationship between author and café does little to fight against the stereotypical behavior of writers, but for Rowling coming to The Elephant House had a very practical end; paying for a coffee and writing in the café was far cheaper than having to heat her apartment in the merciless Edinburgh winters. And as a woman looking to make the most of what little means she had, Ms. Rowling harnessed the inspiration that her city gave her in a way that few others ever could, and made unprecedented literary history. In many ways, The Elephant House is a symbol of the “rock bottom” that drove Ms. Rowling to write, just as the Harry Potter series has become an icon of coming-of-age in the darkest of times.
Edinburgh itself has had such a journey as well, rising from the earth despite endless plague and power struggles. And one can see that just beyond the tinkling bell of the front door of The Elephant House, the hot cuppas brewed at the counter; it is at the backside of the café where not only the sorcery of the Potters, but also the supernatural of Scotland’s history took root.
Resting immediately under the back windows of The Elephant House is the muddied soil of The Greyfriars Kirkyard. It is here where over half a million bodies have been buried since the early 17th century, ranging from Edinburgh’s wealthiest, memorialized lords to a horde of nameless plague victims and paupers. It is said that so many people have been buried in The Kirkyard that the ground has been raised to form a quite literal “mountain” of the dead; the earth is so potently packed with bodies that over 2% of the soil on which visitors walk is estimated to be particles of human remains. (Needless to say, I thoroughly bleached both my shoes and my brain of this fact after returning from the cemetery).
This Kirkyard also houses gravestone with names that may ring familiar to the modern reader: Hermione Granger, Ronald Weasley, a “Professor” McGonagall— and even that of Voldemort himself (or rather, a Mr. Thomas Riddell). Just beyond the ominous wall of The Kirkyard also lies what is thought to be the template for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, George Heriot’s School. In the early days of the cemetery, people would argue that the high walls were not meant to keep the children from escaping school walls, but rather to hide from Edinburgh citizens the magic that was taking place within (i.e. “a strange sport involving the riding of broomsticks and the throwing of balls through hoops”).
What this graveyard is most known for, however, isn’t the innocent magic of a certain book series— it is Sir George Mackenzie’s Poltergeist. While the average person may not recognize the ghost by this name, you might recall some of its others. The gruesome poltergeist is the original subject of virtually any modern horror, inspiring most notably Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” and Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.”
For over two hundred years the ghost has been one of, if not the most recorded subject of paranormal activity in the world, but the haunting began with a renewed fervor in 1998 when a homeless man decided to take shelter from the rain in Sir George Mackenzie’s tomb. After breaking the heavily fortified lock on the door the homeless man allegedly opened one of the coffins resting in the tomb, and ended up plummeting through the hollow floor and landing in mass plague grave, where still-decomposing bodies had been disposed of and covered up in a hurry centuries before. The homeless man escaped, terrified, into the night— and it seemed that some spirit was able to follow him out. In the weeks subsequent the grave’s desecration, people started getting hurt. From over 500 cases of scratching, burning, and bruising to even several accounts of strangling, the Council of Edinburgh and The Kirkyard alike determined that nobody’s safety could be guaranteed near the tomb, and sealed it off completely to outsiders.
That doesn’t stop people from trying to enter the tomb. Despite the locks and chains that bind the gates closed or the terrifying tales that scare away tourists, the desperate homeless of Edinburgh have no other choice of where to take shelter. In an interview with the Edinburgh Evening News, a Kirkyard tour guide comments on how the shut off “Street of Death” that houses the poltergeist also houses the poor; “They still come in,” he admits. “Hard to imagine but they’ve nowhere else to go.” When people have been driven to such ends, I believe it’s much more scary than a ghost story.
Bear with me, here.
Especially now, considering the political climate of the world, I’ve had my mind on the idea of shelter. I took temporary refuge with friends (and lots and lots of alcohol) on the night of the U.S. Presidential Election. I sought out like-minded Americans and Brits in the slew of London’s “Trumpageddon,” end-of-the-world-themed parties the evening of Trump’s inauguration. As a woman I found asylum among those who marched around the world, from London Washington D.C. But after the President’s recent execution of the order to ban immigrants, I realized that shelter for many in the coming years will be impossible to find.
“No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark / you only run for the border / when you see the whole city running as well,” writes a Kenyan-born Somali poet in “Common Dreams.” And just the thought of these people— these people detained in airports, these people who have the legal right to be in the U.S., these people who sacrificed everything they had to escape the mouths of sharks— makes me feel even overseas how the fabric of the American nation is splitting at the seams. At this very moment in time (though it doesn’t even remotely compare to those suffering from the Immigrant Ban) I myself am a migrant. I have a visa to study abroad in the United Kingdom, much like many of my peers at Cornell have visas to study from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen. But while I have a choice, they do not; while I enjoy strolling along the haunted paths of Edinburgh, they might be sprinting from unthinkable terrors at home; while I was born into a nation that accepted me, they grew up trying to bridge a seemingly endless cultural divide. In Trump’s America, after all, it is “me” and “you,” “us” and “them,” and nothing more.
But I think of all of those who took shelter in countries that weren’t theirs. I think of the homeless who found refuge in the most dire and darkest places. I think of the authors who write to change the world in little cafes in little cities. Because in the words of such an author, “We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need within ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”
So please, for the next few weeks and the next four years, let’s imagine.