Bacon in the flower shop? Of course...

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The Independent Online
I met a man in Edinburgh yesterday who wanted me to go to the Chinese State Circus. The very good reason for this is that he is the man responsible for bringing the Chinese State Circus to Britain, and to the Meadows in Edinburgh where they currently reside.

"They're wonderful," he told me, with the simple, childlike faith of a man who has invested a lot of money in bringing them here. "And they have brought skills here we have never seen from the Chinese before - or rather, rescued some skills we thought they had lost. They've brought bicycling back," he added in a dramatic whisper. "The things they do with bicycles...."

Well, I hope they are careful. If they should ever get out of the circus and cycle round Edinburgh, I hope they never have to go on the cobbles. Doing somersaults on a bike in mid-air is one thing. Riding on Edinburgh cobbles is another. If you buy the very efficient Cycling Map of Edinburgh, you will see that many of the streets, especially in the New Town, are marked in bright red, the way public houses used to be marked on old temperance maps of Victorian London. And for the same reason: these streets are the work of the devil. They are cobbled, and therefore hell to bicycle on.

I know whereof I talk, because I have just made my annual pilgrimage to the Edinburgh bicycle shop in the London Road known as Sandy Gilchrist to hire a bicycle for the duration of the Festival, and I came back along some long, cobbled streets. This produces the kind of fast vibration that shakes the body violently and knocks the shopping off the back of the bike and which, in a plane, would have the pilot announcing: "I am afraid the turbulence has got so bad that I am seriously thinking of landing in the sea; unfortunately we are 300 miles from the sea ...."

I also noticed a curious effect on my left-hand little finger, which carries a small ring, dating from some more flamboyant period of my life, which I now find very hard to get off. To my amazement, I noticed that the fast, minuscule vibration of the cobbles was causing the ring to slide down my finger very slowly but surely and threaten to leave it. If any reader has a ring they cannot get off their thickening fingers, let them come to Edinburgh at once and hire a bike.

The other first thing to do when staying in Edinburgh is to locate the nearest shops for soft, floury rolls, whisky, photocopying, etc. I asked at the local croissant shop (yes, they are here too) where I could get bacon nearby.

"Your best bet," said the girl, "is Carr's the flower shop, or the Paki down the road."

An odd recommendation for bacon - either a florist's or a Muslim shop. But it turned out that they both had bacon, and it turns out that there is nothing pejorative about "Paki" - it's just the local word for an Asian shop. Anyway, I don't suppose the Scots would look down on a nation like Pakistan which was giving England a cricketing lesson

I went to the Asian shop to get a paper and some milk. There was a man in front of me in the queue also buying papers.

"What papers have you got there?" asked the Pakistani proprietor.

"Wreck Instar", said the man in a thick Scottish accent. "Fine," said the Pakistani. Playing the brief exchange back in my mind, but at a slower speed, I realised that what the man had said was "Record and Star". I also realised that I had found it perfectly easy to understand what the Pakistani was saying but hard to make out the Scotsman. In addition, I realised that the Pakistani had understood the Scotsman long before I had worked out what he was saying. I felt there was a moral here, but wasn't sure I wanted to pursue it.

I am not sure it had occurred to me before, but although there is a very strong Asian presence in Edinburgh and Scotland generally, I am not aware of any West Indian presence - which, having lived in Notting Hill for years, I had come to expect in a big city.

Not, of course, that there is any guarantee that an Asian community will always be at peace with itself. I have a cousin who lives in Perthshire. There are two Indian restaurants in his local town. I said to my cousin one day that it was good having two Indian outfits, because then they would have each other for company.

"I believe they are not even on talking terms," he said.

"Because of some religious difference?"

"Worse than that. A regional difference. One lot is Dundee Indian and the other lot is Glasgow Indian. So they don't talk."