“This is the strangest thing I’ve seen today,” says the man passing me on Cluny Gardens as I point my camera at the opposite side of the street. In my sights is a red pillar box, a piece of street furniture that has stood on this spot, quietly functional and barely noticed for decades. If this is what passes for strange in Edinburgh, I tell myself, either this man needs to get out more or Morningside is a singularly dull place, though I can understand why he might assume a lone middle-aged woman shooting a post box might appear eccentric. Either way, I’m not about to offer him reasons, so I reply with a nod and a smile and thank the God of Low Budget Film that I’m not shooting in Glasgow.
It’s taken me a long time to make this trip. Illness, bereavement and bad weather have conspired to keep me indoors. Now, at the very cusp of spring, I’m alerted to the urgency of this shoot because the script takes place at the end of winter, so with a long list of locations pending, the need to capture leafless exteriors is my priority.
In this affluent corner of Edinburgh today there are few pedestrians. The houses, stone-built and solid, some detached, others terraced, are undoubtedly desirable but there’s a bleak aspect to the street, a street where Erica moved with her husband and two young sons in 1972. In the script she describes the house as “A grey semi-detached on a grey street, enveloped by the harbingering ghosts of Morningside Presbyterianism: cold, dour, chiding”. Indeed, when the Labour Party leader, John Smith died in 1994 his funeral took place at Morningside Parish Church of Scotland, situated at the corner of Cluny Gardens and Braid Road.
When I first visited Erica at home in the early 1990s I was overwhelmed by its layers of dust and clutter. Then I saw the bottles on the bathroom shelf; Lithium, Amitriptyline, Valium, Trimipramine and Diazepam, whose presence was not a subject easily raised with my mother-in-law, whose preferred topics of conversation were wildlife – she was a member of the Scottish Wildlife Trust – and 18th century trade between Scotland and the West Indies, an attempt at meaningful research that preoccupied her at the National Library of Scotland and kept her relatively sane.
An academic, Erica was simultaneously aware and in complete denial of her domestic shortcomings. Housework rarely figured, not that she lacked the wherewithal to hire a cleaner but with virtually every surface, every inch of carpet occupied by piles of ‘necessary’ books, journals and papers, she laid a trap for herself. Unable and possibly too embarrassed to allow anyone into her home to deal with the mess, she was ill-equipped to restore order and recover some sense of control. Despite all her attempts at mind re-patterning, based on Cold War protocols and her Oxbridge education, she could not negotiate a way out of the maze of her own creation.
Re-reading Erica’s journals, I’m moved by serial accounts of her struggle to leave the house. Recalling her attempt to post letters while hoping – a hope usually unfulfilled – to meet someone to talk to, she describes the obstacles faced in walking the 50 yards from her front door to the post box: unbearable traffic noise, cold weather, failing eyesight and, worryingly, her compulsion to do nothing more than lie down and cover her face with a pillow. For a woman more widely-travelled than most people today this was a tragic state of affairs and all the more painful because she not only knew it but could rationalise it.
Shooting on an overcast March morning, one can empathise with the loneliness felt by some of those living here, especially women of a certain class and generation who long for what Erica called ‘congenial company’. One of the reasons I’ve devoted myself to telling her story is in recognition of the rising numbers of single-person households and the quiet horrors they contain. While some relish solitude and independence, others, like Erica, spend years, often decades in sequestered existence; widowed or separated, their careers extinct, their offspring departed. For them the days are long, the nights longer still, with too much time to dwell on what it means to live – as stated in my intro – when the future is outweighed by the past.
These women – and they’re mostly women – are rarely or accurately portrayed in mainstream culture perhaps because, if you buy the stock excuse, their stories lack drama, or at any rate the hyper-emotive type of drama currently favoured by UK film and TV commissioners, where even police procedurals feature grown men crying because these days not only are we supposed to have ‘issues’ but we should vent them. While musing on why such lazy stereotyping persists, my thoughts return to the red pillar box on Cluny Gardens and how it, like the Matrons of Morningside – to polish another well-worn cliché – exists in silent forbearance, quietly functional and barely noticed.
The above photograph is of Erica, taken in the late 1940s, possibly during her final year at The Perse School, Cambridgeshire.