If you see Malcolm Fife's name on the cover of a book, you know it's a book worth taking seriously. Over the years he's tended to focus on the history of British military aviation, especially in Scotland and northern England; and on the history of Edinburgh. "Edinburgh at Work: People and Industries Through the Years" by Malcolm Fife falls, obviously, into the latter category. So far, so good. If you take a look in the local interest section of Waterstones or Blackwell's bookshops in Edinburgh, you will quickly realise that there have been a great many books written about the city and its history. What makes this one stand out sufficiently to be worth purchasing?
Having an author you know you can rely on to leave no stone unturned in his background research is a good start; and the fact that Malcolm Fife has the happy knack of producing books that are well written and widely accessible is a second plus point. And then there's the format, which works very well indeed. "Edinburgh at Work" looks at the working life of Scotland's capital city over the centuries. It comprises a series of chapters, each looking at a particular period from "The Era Before 1500" to "The Twenty-First Century". Each chapter begins with a few pages of text, setting the scene, and this is followed by a collection of images, presented two to a page. The images range from modern colour photographs (of new and old subjects) back through black and white photos to contemporary colour or monochrome drawings. Each image is given a full caption, usually a couple of sentences or so, and these allow the reader to appreciate how it fits into the wider story being told by the author. What's very nice is a number of drawings of people, like the two chimney sweeps from the early 1800s, or the Edinburgh fish woman in 1812.
We think we know Edinburgh pretty well, so for us one key measure of any book about Edinburgh is the number of times it surprises with new and interesting facts; and the number of times it gives rise to the thought "I must go and take a look at that". This book scores well. For example we had no idea there was still the stump of a windmill standing on the Shore in Leith (despite having walked past it any number of times); nor that there were preserved limekilns in Gilmerton. And it was fascinating to see that the Ocean Terminal shopping centre was built on the site of a shipbuilding yard. This is a great book for anyone who wants to add a new dimension to their understanding of (in our view) the best city on Earth.