We sit and waste away an evening down at Bristo square. Waste? Is that really the right word to use? For most of the hurrying, shopping bag or briefcase carrying scowling pedestrians, who frustrated and angered, cross the square with their passive aggressive mind set of, “Well, I’m walking here and if any one of these shitting little street urchins on their shitting little Skating Boards so much as breathes on me I will shitting piss my pants with a glorious self-righteous ferociousness and then unleash all hell and fury on them in small claims court, so I will!” For them waste is exactly the right word to use. I would tend to moderately to strongly disagree with them however; depending on my mood towards their whole silly outlook and so would dozens, nay, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of others.
Bristo Square is not just the entrance to the McEwan Hall, it is not just a picturesque photo opportunity for tourists and graduates of Edinburgh University, it’s not just a historic and influential skateboard spot and alternative culture meeting point and social hub; Bristo Square at its very essence, is a melting pot of humanity. It’s where everyone and anyone can find themselves experiencing for the briefest of moments or an entire sun scorched day, that little thing called life.
We sit there at Bristo Square, soaking up the last of the sun, supping on some cold beer and experiencing life around us in its many varied and wondrous forms. The skaters are on “jaw on slabs” inducing form this balmy summers evening. It seems to be a mix of Bristo regulars, young guns and the creatively gnarly Harvest team. Wooden ramps are being well abused on the various stair sets and the small slappy curb is proving to be the night’s most desirable session spot. There was some really entertaining skating happening on this particular night and it was one of the best sessions I have seen at the Square. There was an energy and passion being displayed by the skaters which brought about a palpable sense of focus and determination towards achievement. The session was a self-servicing beast; whenever someone raised the bar to one level, someone else would instantly raise it higher. But never once was the main reason ever deviated from; the fun factor is evident in abundance and it’s infectious. A session like that gets under your skin. It makes you get up and take part, lifting you from side-line spectator to life grabbing participant, a lesson we could all sometimes utilise in our lives.
I first went to Bristo back in the early 2000’s. A mate and I were coming down from Aberdeenshire to see the mighty Limp muthafudging Bizkit at the SECC. We we’re fifteen, skateboarding and the Bizkit were our lives…not much has changed. En route we stopped off in Edinburgh to stay with my mate’s sister and skate the hallowed turf which we had read so much about in Sidewalk Surfer. Coming from rural Deeside, skating bare empty school playgrounds with only other decks to Ollie over and a single waxed curb in an entire village; the step up to Bristo was a daunting one. However, the great thing about the square from a skateboarding perspective is that without any thought being put into it when it was designed in 1983; its design has something for any standard of skater. Beginners can get to grips with the basics on the slightly slopping flat ground and then there are the ledges and stair sets of varying sizes and difficultly on which skaters can progress and challenge themselves. So for my mate and I, it was extremely satisfying to razz about and have all this opportunity to use our skater imagination to its full potential.
Back in 2014 we still sit there at Bristo Square, talking shit, setting the world to rights, making plans and drunken ideas of world domination. Then out of seemingly nowhere the other breed of Bristo local appears; the Outside Drinkers. They appear as if they are mystical inhabitants of an other-worldly universe, a universe, which to the mere everyday human’s eye only reveals its outer most fringes of reality. Outside Drinkers, radges, trampies, homeless, jakeys – whatever you want to call them, they definitely and defiantly call Bristo Square just as much theirs as the skaters or Edinburgh University does. On this particular night they take up residence in the farthest corner from where we are sitting. They begin to do what they do. The circle of Bristo life keeps on turning. The sun is still strong in the sky. There are the mixed scents of cigarette and marijuana smoke and the general vibe is one of relaxed acknowledgement that this is a good time, right here and now on this particular night all is good with the world.
A family then make their entrance onto the stage. Led confidently by the patriarch with can of lager grasped firmly in hand, wife and sister (sister in law) follow behind and along with three kids they head, to our disbelief, straight for the band of Outside Drinkers. Hugs are handed out as if it’s Hogmanay and the two different sets of humanity start to catch up, laugh and joke and generally break bread or in this case cans of Super Tenants with each other. Just when we thought this whole scene which was unfolding in front of us couldn’t get any better, a wedding party marched in from stage left. Bride and groom and guests all heading for the Teviot for a boozy celebration of love and harmony. To our great surprise one of these guests was none other than our friend and Bunker ramp builder; Bruce Morrison. After being spotted by us and some of the other skaters he is persuaded to come back out for some fresh air. And so he does. Wearing the full Scottish wedding kilt attire, he grabs a shot on my board and starts to cruise around Bristo in his brogues. It’s a beautifully bizarre moment of randomness which could only happen in this magical Square of concrete slabs.
Humans have been gathering in places like Bristo for as long as there has been enough folk to constitute a gathering. From the Agora’s of ancient Greece, St Peter’s Square in Rome and Stonehenge right through to the humble bus stop or park bench. People need a place to attach to, to feel an attachment towards, a place to call their own. Jeff Malpas observes in his brief discussion about Place and Human Beings that, “The landscape or, more generally, the place, is thus seen as itself having a human character, while it also makes human those who live within it.” Now, I’m not saying that Bristo Square is like Stonehenge…I’m saying it kicks the Henge’s ass all over the place – you can’t nollie back tail Stonehenge! Seriously though, since its current facelift in 1983, Bristo has been most definitely making human those who live within it. And in turn those who live and drink and skate and beatbox and sit and read and watch and eat and talk-shit and BMX and rollerblade and sing and dance and smoke and fight and kiss and make up and laugh and love at Bristo – have made human the place. Those who know Bristo speak of it in terms of love, fondness and passion as if it is a close friend or part of their family; they speak of Bristo with words of humanity.
And therefore it is sad that we will never again sit and waste away an evening down at Bristo Square. Not the one that we have now grown to love anyway. Whatever the redevelopment will bring I have no doubt that humanity will over power the red tape and we will once again make human the place which is left after the dust settles. It will take time but, to quote Dr Ian Malcolm of Jurassic Park, “life will find away.” The square was always just slabs of concrete. It was the humans who gathered there who gave it its soul.