NB: As of November 2017 Diane’s is now permanently closed. But I’m going to leave this here as a little reminder of what an authentic Edinburgh cultural experience it was. What an absolute bummer.
Say what you will about online reviews, but never has one so perfectly described a destination like Gavin M’s Yelp review for Diane’s Pool Hall. ‘Grotty, dirty, cheap, and the unofficial Ground Zero of Edinburgh’s seedy underbelly, a visit to Diane’s will always be a memorable one. Expect to be offered knock-off DVDs and suspicious looking drugs, expect a pool cue across the head and a broken bottle in the face at some point during your visit, and expect to drink heavily alongside dealers, con artists, and every type of petty criminal under the sun.’
Edinburgh is a ridiculously beautiful city. It has so many stunning buildings, gardens, hills, waterways, walks and bunches of very respectable, very well behaved experiences to try. But travel should be about immersing yourself in all sides of the local culture, right, and believe it or not, not everyone in Edinburgh grew up with a trust fund. Irvine Welsh certainly knows this. In fact, it was not long after reading an article about the sequel to Trainspotting that I first came across Gavin M’s rather eloquent description. Obviously this was a sign, so a visit to Diane’s Pool Hall was planned.
Even though there were no broken bottles, pool queues across heads, drug pushers or DVD entrepreneurs, our night of pool was still somehow exactly as advertised. We started upstairs, where there’s seven tables and a small bar and seating area. It was a wet, dark, mid-winter’s Friday night and the place was full of what seemed entirely non-rowdy Uni students. So far so ‘meh’. With none of us ever having visited a pool hall before (seriously) the girl behind the bar explained how the playing system works; you put your name on a chalkboard and when everyone above you has had a go and has either lost or is the reigning champ, well then you’re up next. If you win, you stay. We thought you just got to hire a table for an hour or so to play with all your mates so, a bit miffed, we decided to head downstairs.
The bottom section of Diane’s Pool Hall has another bar, some leather booths and two more pool tables. One of these was unattended and there were only a handful of locals milling about, so we thought ‘woo hoo’ and started to rack up a game. This was when a young guy with dark hair and a long black coat with the collar up came over to tell us the table was taken. He reminded me of Neo from The Matrix, just with a lot less teeth. He was slight of build but also slightly menacing, so who were we to argue about the ownership of this empty table.
After a game or two with one of his friends, and obviously appreciating our lack of agro, Neo invited us to play. We were totally useless and from all the suspicious looks, it crossed my mind he might suspect we were grifters; nobody is that shit at pool. But then he figured out two of us were Australian (as in, we spoke) and the mood lightened. I’ve often found, having an Aussie accent is all you need to dowse the flames of potential conflict. Probably doesn’t have much effect for Tony Abbott, but for the rest of us, it works wonders.
Neo it turns out, is quite the comedian. After he’d beaten each of us soundly, he came over and enthralled us with a half hour comedy routine about his life, his philosophies and his travels. He was so funny and had such genuinely good comic timing, we insisted he start a new career in stand up. But then out of nowhere, or maybe the bottom of a few glasses of beer, things started to get a bit full on. Tensions between two of Neo’s group escalated and for the next few minutes, the air was thick with bravado and testosterone and lots of “Go on!” and “I’ll kill ya”. We sat there glued to the the scene and quietly shitting our pants.
Seeing men square up to each other in a pub is not something new, but I’ve rarely seen it progress to flying fists. It did here. Neo jumped in to separate them and calm them down and it was all over before security even knew it happened. I looked around to the second table. Nobody seemed fussed. A young guy bent over to hit a ball, stood back up, then collapsed on the floor in a heap. His friend calmly walked over from the other side of the table, picked him up and plopped him on a seat. A few seconds later, the young guy got up and continued playing. Now, I’m pretty sure I know what that was about, but hey, let’s not judge. Maybe he had Narcolepsy. With that, we decided the adventure was over.
All in all, I can truly say Diane’s Pool Hall was everything I wanted it to be. It was live theatre. It was cultural immersion. It was a bit bloody scary for a minute. But it was indeed a slice of local life that you’re not going to get on any tour bus. If you do go, and fancy chatting to the locals, like with any worthwhile travel experience my advice is be friendly and open and you will probably have a great time. But, uh, maybe bring an Australian with you too, just in case.
Stuff to Know:
Address – 242 Morrison Street, EH3 8DT
Open Times – 8am to 1am every day
The decor might make you think you’ve stepped back into 1984, but so will the price of a game – 20p!