Barcelona, #1Oct

With October came the rain hot and hard. It fell as strokes of batons, balaclavas and rubber bullets. A disfigured umbrella split a puddle into two, its spokes bent upward like jabbing fingers demanding of the sky Votarem! Votarem! Votarem!

At the entrance to Escola Pia de Sant Antoni steel shutters crumpled in on themselves- a fan snapped shut by assaulting hands and vain tongues. And I saw the ballot papers too- white slips raked, swept and counted. Then kicked along the streets and stuck to the soles of boot-blacks from Madrid.

Sunday morning joggers paused on the kerbside to take up arms on hips and knees. And to catch our breath- a breath punctuated by the rhythm of power ballads on shuffle. Our soft, sweating bodies making us believe that the people, the people must surely be sovereign.

A bedsheet stained in felt-tip pen We’re with you Catalunya hung from a balcony in El Raval and swayed to the tune of red, trumpeting geraniums. But who would be without her? Not the Basques, the Galicians or the Scots sitting back to back, en comu, banging pots and pans and shooting with cameras. Nor the wide-eyed hacks scrolling, lusting for a scrap.

In Placa Catalunya, independistas dressed in the flags of their grandparents- caped, accidental superheroes inheriting the Republic. Their clenched fists boxed the air and the air gathered in close and fat with tobacco, anxiety and the smell of damp dog. What folk songs from the Mosques, at the breasts of new mothers and from the one million estrangers without a vote? Still, the seasons rolled round as ever and Europe looked the other way.

At midnight, darkness came creeping, seeping through the city on strike. Hope held hands with hopelessness. It was a long look back and a short kiss goodbye. So I will remember Spain in my Autumn journal, glory veneered and varnished like an old, prized conker in a coat pocket. As if veneer could hold.

 

 

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The Circle Game

There is an old Nordic proverb that says ‘what outward has been lost, shall inwardly be gained’.

When the Moon waxes it makes a B, when the Moon wanes it makes a D. And C is for circle and the widening circumference in between. The Moon is moving slowly but steadily further from Earth as it extends its orbit radiance many light years away. It is as though we have taken its circling embrace for granted.

Down at Leith Links in a thicket of bruised, tender stems there is an empty bottle of vodka, torn condom wrappers and cigarette butts discarded in the grass. These, an assembled totem to near misses with life and death. Or perhaps an offering from our nocturnal neighbours. A wasteland, some might have called the space before the big clean-up five years ago. But land is never truly wasted, just resting, waiting. All land is liminal. This late Sunday morning, inhaling deeply and looking deliberately into less beaten paths, a harvest can also be found.

In the long continuum of natural drama occurring in and around the Leith Links area of north east Edinburgh, today’s community garden and yesterday’s night-time shop floor exist only on the top soil of a midden. (I love that word, midden. It could only be old and of the north.)

Dig deep and there will be clues to the first drainage system providing clean, pumped water from Lochend to the townhouses of nineteenth century Leith merchants. Buried beneath this, are the remains of the 1645 plague victims, an outbreak that killed over half of Edinburgh’s population and weakened the city’s defences against later siege from Oliver Cromwell’s forces who built their citadel in Leith. A little deeper yet and there will be evidence of the first written rules of the game of golf, said to have been played by both Mary Queen of Scots and John Knox in the sixteenth century on the Links, but not together one assumes. And then deep, really deep, deep down, there will be oyster shells, grit and fragments of sea urchin from when the old ice melted, the sea became beach and the beach became grasses and dunes under the lunar pull of North Sea tides.

Now a Sunday in September- the marker of a new week, new season and, briefly, a new moon. Sept- em- ber… the three syllables tumbling lisp-like out of my mouth and landing in open air, still glowing warm, just, from the fire of late summer. The Sunday papers speak of nuclear destruction, a rocket-boy and the Donald, of a Noble Peace Prize winner presiding over ethnic cleansing, of Spanish police detaining Catalan journalists, of the UK Prime Minister hiding from her Foreign Secretary and of hurricane storms obliterating homes on tiny Caribbean islands. Some Scots reflect quietly to themselves that it’s exactly three years since our once in a lifetime vote but really, in the grand scheme of things, what does any of that matter now?

Further west along Constitution Street, the bells of South Leith Parish Church toll, calling believers to worship and to sing hymns, a particular type of protest song. Meanwhile, inside Leith Crops and Pots community gardens, Evie is faithfully collecting seeds from her crop of sunflowers. Their tall, creeping stalks hunched as though with arthritis brought on by the return of cold and damp and their black faces looking away somewhat embarrassed to still be in the ground. The flowers of the garden are fading quickly now like our tan freckles but the ground is still soft and dusty. It gives up its secrets to Evie’s tilling with rake and trowel.

On an exhale she stands to straighten her back, leans against the wooden handle of the rake with one forearm and with extended hand attached to the other offers me a fallen apple. ‘Here, a present,’ she says, catching her breathe in the soapy sting of September as I prepare to catch the fruit. Permitted fruit from an Eden project and a woman called Evie. It’s almost perfect. I clasp my hands around the little moon-shaped sphere of compressed juice and wonder if it would please her more for me to treasure or to taste the gift. I keep a hold of it for now and roll its reassuringly cold, hard smoothness up and down the curve of my neck and across the dip of my throat into the space where some men have what we call an Adam’s apple.

My back is pressed flat onto a picnic table bench and I am blinking up at the big, shuffling sky- an upside down kaleidoscope of kinetic colour and shape. The season is only hinting at the change to follow. Green foliage on chestnut trees shows glimpses of a racier yellow and orange at the corners- frayed, delicate edges where leaves will soon disintegrate, fall and land at our feet and in our laps like garments of antique lace that have shrunk in the wash. In his long-form poem from 1938, set against the backdrop of impending war in Europe, Louis MacNeice wrote of the tin trumpets of nasturtiums and the sunflowers’ blare of brass. It seems that Autumn is a big strip tease and September its cabaret warm-up act.

Rings of cigarette smoke move across the lowest tranche of my upside down skyscape and I sit up with a dizzying bolt to meet Andy across the table of the picnic bench. I realise that he has also been taking in the seasonal show and we eye each other suspiciously- two fair-weather gardeners with clean fingernails.

The allotments are common ground hard-fought by the families of Constitution Street and its surrounds. Unlike other areas of Edinburgh, few of the tenements in the Shore have communal back gardens, such was the pressure on available land for housing during the over-crowding of Leith in its seafaring heyday when the Port was the busiest in Scotland, exporting coal and wool from the Lothians across the globe and importing grain and timber from Canada and the Baltic states. Old maps from the archives at the National Library of Scotland hint at market gardens extending from the back of dwellings in the medieval Kirkgate but traces of these have long since been replaced by carparks and budget supermarkets. Rather, we have window boxes with geraniums and heather. Little nods to a horticultural wish list and entirely incongruous plonked as the plants are in shallow plastic or aluminium troughs lassoed onto window ledges.

The Leith Links communal croft doesn’t have the neat rose bushes or beech hedges of rented city council allotments with their inexplicably long and secret waiting lists. Instead, the rough mounds on the Links are topped by hand-painted signs spelling Stanwell Nursery or Citadel Youth Centre but like the inside of school jumpers marking goal posts on a playing field, these embroidered labels can be easily ripped and re-sewn. This land is our land. It has soft borders and is beautiful only to its mothers.

We can hear but not yet see Evie’s four children stamping out an angry dance behind us in the far edges of the garden. Mini street gods, they test the boundaries of adolescence by wresting then embracing and quarrelling once more, flinging large handfuls of what Aristotle referred to as organic matter at one another. ‘Hey, that’s Enough!’ yells the children’s’ Earth Mother. Enough. Commanded as a reprimand but loaded with tacit approval, acceptance and therefore love. Like the crops, the bees that pollinate the crops and the birds that eat the crops, the children have nothing more, nor less, to prove today. They just are.

There is a fresco hanging in the Vatican by Italian Renaissance artist Raphael called The School of Athens. It depicts Plato and Aristotle in conversation at the centre of a semi-circle filled with other ancient Greek philosophers. Plato is concerned with matters spiritual and looks up towards the Heavens while Aristotle casts his gaze down to Earthly physics. Sitting apart from the others and appearing to daydream with his head resting in his hands is Heraclitus. He is best known among contemporary environmentalists for his insistence that no one ever steps in the same river twice and that the path up and the path down are one and the same because of the ever-present flow of nature. The Raphael fresco also depicts a paradoxical tension- that humans are intrinsically part of the natural world- we breathe the same air and eat the same plants and animals as our fellow creatures- but humans have also developed the reasoning and technological skills with which to debate with one another in a semi-circle. Humans are both natural and social beings. This is our second nature.

I interviewed my friend and neighbour, Maddie. She is twelve years old and was on the cusp of starting secondary school at the time of our recorded conversation. Twelve is the symmetrical point on a clock face where the ticking hands complete the circle and are poised in a moment of equilibrium, both pointing north. Yet the joined hands do not pause for long, clock-wise as they are to continue on their rotation, ever- forward into new seconds, minutes and hours. Being tall and slender with dark hair cropped at her shoulders, a cartwheeling Maddie resembles clock hands.

Tall and slender

Newly torn from the field

Are their stems so tender.

Two girls in matching dungarees,

Pursed lips, puffing and pouting

The younger more at ease.

Dogs at their feet playing chase.

Nothing left to exhale

But here, a breathing space.

Seed heads scatter,

Drifting over whispering grasses.

And turning to look straight at her

I ask how to tell the time

With twelve years and twelve breaths,

My darling Madeleine?

I asked Maddie what, if anything, made her anxious in life, about her hopes for the future of our street and about her assessment of political leaders at Westminster and Holyrood. She told me that she too would one day like a garden of her own and that if she had the job of Prime Minister or First Minister, her top priority would be for Scotland to become more eco-friendly.

‘So there was a thing on the radio I heard that by 2030 or maybe it was 2040, there should be only electric cars. Which I think is a good thing. And I’d prefer if we tried to rely more on renewable energy instead of fossil fuels and things. You know?’

In transcribing interviews, slowly measuring each word against the press of my fingers on the keyboard to record its weight, I’ve become increasingly aware of the tendency we all have in spoken conversation to emphasise ‘you know?’ or ‘do you know what I mean?’ at the end of a comment. This appears less of a question and more of an empathetic plea. It seems important, quite urgent actually, that the communication lands and is accepted friend to friend, neighbour to neighbour.

Inherent to the human condition and our second nature is to be in community. Communities are slippery things to define. Most of us are in multiple communities of interest and place, professional and social, digital and virtual and these sometimes overlap like concentric circles in a Venn diagram. Where do communities begin and end? Is the decision-making of a community to be determined by those who shout the loudest? And what if you don’t want to be in the community, can you leave? These are some of the unresolved complexities in the Scottish Government’s community empowerment and land reform laws that commendably aim to open up access and ownership to Scotland’s wild spaces in both urban and rural areas.

A street community of neighbours is comparatively easy to define because a street has obvious start and end points on a map. It has a name and quantifiable members or residents who know that they have an address with a street number and so belong by default and can leave by default when they move house or business. At the far east of Constitution Street, tacked onto the arched, stone gateways to the Port and Docks that still frame the sea or city beyond- depending on which way you are facing- there are signs reading exit and entrance. This is a favourite place on the street for my neighbours’ four year old son, Orrin. He loves Thomas the Tank Engine and calls this spot his tunnel.

Resilient communities need dispersed and authentic leadership, drawing upon different skillsets and life experiences. Common ground for growing a few sunflowers, tatties or for flinging handfuls of dirt at your siblings might just offer up some coping strategies to deal with today’s urban struggles. Here is the commons where we put food on our tables, enhance the aesthetic, negotiate boundaries, stretch our limbs and must dig where we stand. It is the essence of thinking global and acting local.

The Great Leith Improvement Scheme in the 1880s marked the real transformation of the Links area. Work began to level the ground and mark off the traditional paths, fertilising the soil with ashes from the gasworks and, on the insistence of Rev. Mitchell of South Leith Parish Church, trees were planted- not by the local authority but by residents themselves. The popularity of the improved green, civic space reportedly brought a return of golfers, cricketers and footballers to the commons. New by-laws were then approved by city administrators to regulate access and maintenance of the space.

I watch Evie heave the contents of a plastic trug- weeds and rotten fruit I guess- onto the communal compost pile. Decay and renewal. Another day, another neighbour might stir the mulching, stewing vat with a long stick and feel inwardly smug about the fermenting brew as another might experiment with a home beer kit for it is satisfying to make new out of old and then necessary to show and tell, to complete the circle.

Today, the sails of a child’s plastic windmill anchored into the ground are spinning with each gust of a breeze and sounding a tat a tat tat like a football rattle. Its motion scatters fury dandelion wisps up into the air and they come to land on the surface of the dark compost. And I am reminded of the Joni Mitchell song.

‘We can’t return we can only look behind

From where we came

And go round and round and round

In the circle game’.

 

Autumn journal

and I am in the train too now and summer is going South as I go north…

the rain with the national conscience, creeping,

Seeping through the night.

Briefly witnessing first-hand some of the human and environmental crisis unfolding in Lesvos, Greece, last summer felt bleak and over-whelming at times. Europe had utterly failed in its response to the biggest migration of people since the Second World War. Despite good intentions, it was difficult to see how short term volunteers in the refugee camps were making any sustainable contribution. I sought out reasons to remain hopeful among the kindness of strangers- from the friendship of women like Merwe and her mother Debe from Afghanistan- and by snatching moments alone, walking in the pine woods outside Mytilene, listening to old Leonard Cohen songs.

Three weeks ago, I again left Edinburgh, our Athens of the North, and chased the end of summer in Greece. I was clearer about my expectations this time and despite the undeniable human rights challenges that persist in camps across Greece and elsewhere, I encountered some good news stories when reconnecting with old friends. Merwe and Debe took me to the beach for a picnic and talked excitedly about their new life ahead in Germany now that they have been granted boarding passes for onward travel. And Jamal and Jalal, two friends from Kara Tepe camp, are both now employed by international aid agencies and hopeful of reunification with family in Belgium and the Netherlands respectively. We caught up with one another’s lives as we sipped iced coffees on the rooftop of an occupied squat and community centre in Thessaloniki, northern Greece.

I was in Thessaloniki for the TRISE conference on social ecology. The conference seminars hugely expanded my learning about the interconnection between human rights, environmentalism and economics. I left with a long reading list and felt humbled and inspired hearing presentations and interventions from Greek colleagues who took part in the Squares Movement of 2011, from Spanish housing rights activists leading Barcelona En Comu and Madrid Ahora, and from meeting Kurdish writers who introduced me to the work of imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan. His ‘non-state’ solution is particularly radical for those of us schooled in state to state diplomatic relations.

Then with the start of a new month, I returned to Constitution Street and surprised neighbours Reyhan and Aykut, owners of Rocksalt cafe, with a ‘rojbas’ greeting (good morning in Kurdish). Interview highlights this month have included with PC Mark Muir at Leith Police Station (the old town hall on Constitution Street), with Edinburgh City Archaeologist John Lawson (about the medieval remains excavated during tram works) and with Ray Clark on a tour of Leith Docks.

And back to Room 31 at IASH, Edinburgh University, in Hope Park Square when I have been joined by a new intake of research Fellows. Early autumn, the season North Americans call Fall- the time of students returning to term, of sticky fingers picking blackberries in the hedgerows, the smell of woodsmoke drifting above city chimneys, of ruby-coloured plums, hydrangeas and leaves- leaves everywhere, giving, falling away. I went in search of these romantic scents, textures and colours in the glens at the weekend but was out of sync by a week or two and found only a smudgy green blotting the home landscape of hill fog and steely-grey lochs. Perhaps I was characteristically too impatient for the seasonal transition to complete. Instead I found discarded antlers in the long grass behind Glen Clova bunkhouse- remnants of the rub and fall of deer rutting on the heather moor, the young males competing for dominance of their herd.

It was the ancient Greek philosopher, Hereclides, who observed that one can never swim in the same river twice, such is the perpetual and dynamic flow of nature. That we too are part of nature’s diverse and interconnected ecosystem was a key principle in the work of Murray Bookchin, father of the modern social ecology movement that I was introduced to at the TRISE conference in Greece. Nature is a web of inter-dependent species. The unity and complexity provides for peace and stability and so a continuum of human possibilities requires a re-harmonisation of the relationship between human and nature- to understand that we are of, by and within nature and not its master or mistress. We begin by building the new world in the shell, or the leaves, or the antlers of the old.


This month, I have been reading:

Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice

Harry Bingo by Peter Ross

Revolution in Rojava by Anja Flach, Ercan Ayboga, and Michael Knapp

The Life and Times of Leith by James Marshall

The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’ Farrell 


In my edition of MacNeice’s long-form poem, Autumn Journal, the introduction by publishers Faber and Faber states that the poem records ‘the trivia of everyday living set against the the events of the world outside, the settlement in Munich and slow defeat in Spain’. The poem was written between August and December 1938 and yet it feels wholly contemporary.

Observing the wider world outside today- a Brexit UK poised for economic collapse and European isolation, the Spanish state’s increasingly hard-line opposition to Catalan self-determination, a Nobel Peace prize winner presiding over ethnic cleansing in Burma, the ever-present threat of nuclear fallout between Trump and Kim Jong Un and the continuous environmental degradation of our rivers, parks and seas at home and abroad…. it is clear that our ecosystems are entirely out of balance and peace. Recording everyday trivia seems the essential, perhaps the only, place to be right now. It might just be here that we can see and feel our way to any thin cracks in the darkness that let in shards of soft autumn light. I certainly hope so.

Comin thro’ the grain

It was only after an hour or more spent in the office of John Lawson, Edinburgh City Archaeologist, pouring over detailed digital maps depicting the Siege of Leith fortifications and ancient pathways to the sea, that I realised we were not alone in the room. John’s office is reached by climbing a steep and winding old town staircase inside the Museum of Edinburgh on the city’s Royal Mile, passed glass cabinets filled with polished artefacts and through creaking, oak timber doors. Within the office, his desk is strewn with lever-arch files, scrolls and hardback books and is enclosed by a fortress of boxes stacked high in cardboard columns. Sitting opposite John at the other side of his desk, I suddenly realised with a mixture of horror and delight that I was surrounded by the medieval remains of 20- 30 of my fellow Constitutional Streeters in boxes.

The box closest to us was labelled skeleton 880 in thick, black marker pen. Carefully lifting off the box top to reveal its packed contents, John inspected various jiffy bags inside containing femurs and fibula as another might enthusiastically explore a picnic hamper of sandwiches packed at home earlier in the day- familiar and yet forgotten about for a while. Most obvious at the centre of the box was the skull. ‘Oh, a woman!’ exclaimed John. He could tell this by the less pronounced brow ridge, vertical forehead and sharp upper margins of the eye orbits. I cradled the smooth, soil-tinted skull of an adult female in my cupped hands and looked into her sightless sockets.

Most remarkable was the whiteness of 880’s remaining teeth, one or two of which had become dislodged and rattled around in the cardboard box like missing pieces from a second-hand jigsaw puzzle. John picked up an incisor and tried inserting it into various vacant slots along her jawline before finding an exact fit. He explained that the absence of refined sugar in the medieval diet accounted for the relatively good condition of her teeth compared to our own modern-day addiction to sugar. Irn Bru and Buckfast being late additions to a sweetened, Scottish palette. And yet in contrast to the sharpness of her pearly-white front teeth, the back molars of 880 woman were noticeably worn-down from a lifetime of grinding grain, the staple diet of old, old Leither. Indeed, still today, Leith Docks imports cargos of grain from Canada and the Baltic states- wheat, oats, barley and rye. The mills, including formerly the Grain Silo at the foot of Constitution Street, thresh the different grains to become animal feed, flour for bread and, if the grain is of sufficient quality, it is syphoned off for whisky distillation.

Forensic experts from the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee are painstakingly undertaking craniofacial analysis to reveal the likely faces of several of the 14th to 17th century Constitution Streeters unearthed during the six months of 2009 Tram work excavations. Some date from as far back as 1315 AD and therefore five years ahead of Robert the Bruce signing Scotland’s original constitutional touchstone, The Declaration of Arbroath.

It total, the remains of nearly 400 men, women and children were found on a previously unknown section of South Leith Parish Church graveyard. There were 302 complete burial sites found and a further 100 individuals in fragments of bones. It is likely that at least 300 additional skeletons were obliterated by utilities maintenance over the preceding years including in the engineering of a Victorian sewage system and 1990s telecommunications cabling.

The Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown described bone as subtle and long-lasting. In my own beach-coming amongst the Uig dunes on the Isle of Lewis earlier in the summer months, I had picked up the skull of a common gull, larus canus, and placed it as a totem to the nature gods on the steps of the Mackenzie sisters’ caravan during a week of walking and reading in which I twitched like a small bird in my sleep, both embracing and wrestling with isolation. The beak-shaped lattice of collagen and calcium followed me home in my rucksack and now keeps watch on a bookshelf over my desk in Leith.

Although generally acidic, the silty soil deep under Constitution Street with its ancient remains of oyster shells provides good drainage and so the perfect long-lasting conditions for preserving bone. The remains found may provide evidence of the nearby medieval hospital of St Anthony’s destroyed in the 16th century but we can’t know for certain because the carpark of a budget German supermarket now marks the spot. Before the construction of what is now known as South Leith Parish Church (St Mary’s Church pre-Reformation), the hospital chapel appears to have been the place of worship for local trades and craftsmen.

None of the graves excavated so far on Constitution Street date later than the last episode of bubonic plague in Edinburgh in 1645 when 2,700 people died in Leith – over half the population of the time. The practice of burying victims in mass graves without coffins beyond the town walls and the burning of all infected premises may account for this gap in Constitution Street burial records. In his Life and Times of Leith book, historian James Marshall details huge cauldrons bubbling on the Links sand dunes for the boiling of infected clothes.

When Constitution Street as the wide thoroughfare connecting sea and city that we know today was first laid out in 1790, the Church of Scotland declared that it knew of no human burial sites on the land. Indeed, the gas mains man who first hit human bone with his pneumatic drill on digging a utilities trench in 2008, before the Edinburgh Trams project, was said to have been somewhat surprised too.

Staring back at me from John’s computer screen was the life-like image of a woman who had lain hidden for over 600 years and is estimated to have been 30- 35, my own age, when she died. Although old for her time, 35 can be an in-between, liminal age for today’s millennial women in the western world. An age where we rightly want to choose to be both mothers and careerists, or neither, but are constantly reminded by the medical profession and advert profiling that 35 is the edge of the fertility cliff from which we must catch our depleting and falling eggs before all is lost to a cold, barren sea.

The title of J D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, borrows from the Burn’s poem Comin’ Thro’ the Rye. Salinger’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, misinterprets the poem to read ‘if a body catch a body’ rather than ‘if a body meet a body.’ In the realms of his dystopian imagination Holden keeps picturing children playing in a field of rye near the edge of a cliff, and him catching them when they start to fall off, like fatalistic lemmings, one by one.

Gin a body meet a body

Comin thro’ the grain;

Gin a body kiss a body,

The thing’s a body’s ain.

This body’s ain avatar on the screen in front of me showed a blue-eyed, fresh-faced woman with long, brown hair and a height of 5”1. Her vital statistics read like an online dating profile. I could imagine that scrolling further, the profile might include a GSOH and that she WLTM someone tall, dark and handsome. I had found a match. Two women sitting face to face across half a millennium of human history in the Leith area of Edinburgh. She was, and I am, linked by faint traces of distant mothers and daughters, connected by shared place not biology- traces now mostly forgotten but every so often, seemingly by chance, re-emerging like a brass etching portrait. Women who laughed, cried, swore, made love, grieved and felt something, briefly, of the messy mix of what it is to be alive. My medieval Constitution Street woman lived at a time when most likely died at 35 from complications in late pregnancy, during childbirth or by catching a fever. The threat from infection was real and ever-present with foreign cargo and crew continuously arriving at the Port, together with poor sanitation and overcrowding in slum housing.

Back at John Lawson’s office at the Museum of Edinburgh, the pixilated women on the screen in front of me had no name. But she would once have had a name of her own and have been known. She would have had a family tree- all the ‘David Copperfield’ crap as Holden Caulfield put it.  None of the 400 Constitution Streeters since rediscovered from the medieval past have names now, only numbers. I was sceptical of the sun-tanned, unblemished skin and the appearance of makeup presented by the facial reconstruction in front of us but John explained that this was due to an artist’s ink work and that other photoshopped results were plainer and perhaps more realistic. He also assured me that many of the Leith faces brought back to life were in fact ‘extremely ugly’ and while he wasn’t in any way suggesting inbreeding, there were several female skulls found with abnormally large foreheads and jaws.

While historians like to tell stories, scientists are in the business of evidential proof. Strontium and oxygen isotopic analysis from Dr Kate Britton at Aberdeen University from a sample of 18 of the Constitution Street bodies indicates that around 80% spent their childhoods in the Leith or Edinburgh area, with the remainder growing up within a radius of 20- 50km. The vast majority of the population died before they reached the age of 30-35 with peaks of mortality occurring in older children aged 7-12. Medieval Constitution Streeters would have been much more in touch with their own mortality than our present-day selves.

Bodies were buried in the Christian tradition of east-west on their backs in closely arranged rows and only a few in coffins. For centuries, our ancient neighbours lay perpendicular and witness to the daily tide of street surf washing north-south, up and down the street only 1.2 meters above- cheek by jowl to the foundations of present-day landmarks on the street, places like Kirkgate House, Carolyn Designer Florist, the Alan Breck Lounge and, perhaps most appropriately of all, the Boneyard Tattoo studio where owner Ritchie has a particular penchant for tattooing skulls. He boasts 86 skulls of various sizes adorning his own body and says he is ‘dead against’ the planned trams extension.

The dig at Constitution Street was one of the largest and most important urban excavations of human remains ever undertaken in Edinburgh and Scotland in recent years. When the contested Edinburgh Tram works likely return to complete the route from the city centre to Leith and Newhaven, former residents of the street will once again turn in their graves when the tarmac is sliced open, trenches cut, utility services dislodged and old faces revealed to new onlookers and the penetrating light of an expansive, northern sky. The shifting, liminal land did, in fact, not lay still. As all of the graves from recent digs predate the formal layout of the street in 1790, there are likely to be hundreds, if not thousands, more skeletons resting in a temporal peace further along the street and beneath the wynds and lanes running east toward the Links. Bringing up the bodies has only just begun.

I left the Museum of Edinburgh and stepped back outside onto the hum of the Royal Mile to join tourists, politicians, students and shop-keepers in the land of the living. Edinburgh, the city of constantly negotiated dualities, the Gothic dark of  old town closes and the broad, sweeping terraces of the Georgian New Town; an extinct volcano in the Royal park and the Dynamic Earth museum celebrating enlightened advances in science; fur coat and nae knickers etc. All is often not as it first seems. This, after all, is the city where Robert Louis Stevenson based his Jekyll and Hyde characters on the real-life body-snatchers, Burke and Hare. Inside the vestry of South Leith Parish Church, next to the Coats of Arms of Mary of Guise and her daughter Mary Queen of Scots, there are a collection of iron helmets and batons used by the men who guarded graves from robbers.

I continued down the Canongate, past the Scottish Parliament, the Palace of Holyrood, Easter Road and eventually back into the guts of Leith. Walking the length of Constitution Street, I looked up and around to notice the presence of any change on the street. On this occasion, the addition of craft-bombed woollen stockings clothed the Burns statue and a new neighbour in my tenement stair could be seen framed by a lit window. I smiled too at the things that remain ever-familiar. A menacing gull hovered overhead with illicit chips dangling in its beak. And I remembered the stories– real or imagined- of how places like the Leith Corn Exchange (now Creative Exchange), Martin’s Bakery (now Perinos fish and chip shop) and the Grain Silo at the Docks (now derelict) all came into being on the street and inter-link with one another.

Like the rye that becomes flour that becomes bread, we are constantly warming and fermenting our ideas and our sense of place in the world, preparing to rise or fall when the time comes for unexpected or unwelcome change. We prove- prove ourselves to be strong and ready, resilient and adaptable. Ready for what will be added to the mix of history. Perhaps after the introduction to some of my street ancestors that lie beneath, I will cast my gaze down from time to time, toward the soil, sand and silt deep below and tap the ground gently with the sole of my foot in acknowledgement of never truly being alone. We are all part of a long line of human connection met comin’ thru the grain.

On the north wall of the Church, there is a sculpture commissioned in 2009 to commemorate all who are buried in Leith in unmarked graves. It features, in the shape of the Water of Leith river path, a text from 1 Corinthians, chapter 15:

When buried, ugly and weak;

When raised beautiful and strong.

When buried, a physical body;

When raised a spiritual body.

Passing the time of day

I’m absolutely loving the Constitution Street project right now! I feel privileged to be invited into my neighbours’ homes to have conversations about identity, belonging, discrimination, change and indeed what rights we might want to enshrine in a new constitution. I am mindful too of the duty of care demanded in receiving these shared memories and hopes.

The Times They Are Changin’ played Dylan on his harmonica. The song could be heard in the background from a second-hand cassette player when I interviewed Gabriella, owner of the Hideout Cafe. Gabriella is from the Czech Republic and is now at home in Leith with her husband, Hasan, from Albania. Their young children have Scottish accents. Like many families that have made Scotland their new home, they are supportive of what they term Scotland’s right to self-determination.

The changing and the passing of time has been a theme in my interviews with neighbours and local business owners the past few weeks. Author and friend Chitra is waiting, expectantly, for the birth of her second child, now overdue. My colleague at the Creative Exchange, Sam, an architect, is waiting hopefully to hear if planning permission will be granted for controversial new housing on the street. Ani, a Buddhist nun, is waiting meditatively to go on her annual retreat to Holy Isle. And Maddie is waiting anxiously to start secondary school and meet a new set of friends.

In my own time, I have sat on the bedroom floors of teenage girls and talked about ambition, role models and the right to education, including with memorable interruptions to the recordings from their digital friend ‘Alexa, the smart-home robot’ and from my very real, Afghan friend, Merwe, living in Athens and joining us by Facetime call.

I have taken in the panoramic views  from the 16th floor of the Kirkgate House tower block (what we would have affectionately called a ‘multi’ where I grew up in Dundee). I discussed new Corbynista politics with old-Labour Councillor Gordon Munro. I dodged getting a tattoo when stretched out on the couch of Boneyard Tattoo Studio (owner Ritchie has 86 skulls adorning his body). And I picked thyme, the herb, with Reyhan as she prepared the lunchtime orders at Rocksalt cafe.

 

 

Each one hour interview takes me about 4 or 5 hours to transcribe word by word, slowly and carefully picking the exact letters from my keyboard like the harvesting of delicate, precise leaves from a twig of thyme scenting the summer air. I have laughed aloud at some of the quotes replayed on my headphones (I despise the trams… I’m just not a sunshine kind of guy- I’ve not got that t-shirt”… “Vegans are popping up everywhere like mushrooms! Well, each to their own I guess”.) And I have cried at the tenderness of it all. Love Thy Neighbour we are told. And I do. In its true meaning- with acceptance of our flaws and vulnerabilities.

I am learning to give more space in conversations – to observe and to take part in a sort of hesitant, and sometimes not so hesitant, dance between interviewer and interviewee. And I have learned to avoid making quick, ill-prepared assumptions. For example, Reyhan identifies as Kurdish and not Turkish, despite speaking Turkish with her family in the cafe. And Gabriella and Hasan are not from Hungary as commonly assumed by other local residents. Their bustling cafe at the crossroads of Constitution Street and Queen Charlotte Street was formerly a ‘Dry-Salters’ (a new word for me) or maritime-grocers, selling everything from paraffin lamps to brooms and brass tacks. Mary, Queen of Leith at the Port of Leith bar, told me this over a cup of tea in fine china at her kitchen table, along with colourful tales featuring the two Sergeis- Latvian sailors who became marooned in the Port (the bar and the Docks) on disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1990.

It was wrong too of me to assume that I don’t have neighbours who voted for Brexit. I have since heard the confessions and the carefully considered reasons. Other patterns are emerging. I’ve noticed the tendency of many women to begin and conclude their anecdotes with a self-deprecating apology of some sort for “not saying the right things”. Whereas most men are keen to ensure they get due recognition for historical accuracy and typically refer to the street’s character as being due to “the built environment”. And everyone says “you know?” a LOT in everyday speech. You know?

If the past is a foreign country, then the street and its go-between inhabitants are changing, perhaps as they always have done so with new arrivals and absent friends journeying to and from this gateway to the north sea and beyond. Today is the first day of the Edinburgh International Festival (so begins Trainspotting and now the Festival in its 70th anniversary year) and St James Church on Constitution Street is a Fringe venue for Volcano Theatre’s Chekov adaptation, The Leith Seagull (incidentally, try googling ‘Leith seagull’ if you want entertained by some surprisingly mobilized vigilantism against the avian dinosaurs). The city feels truly cosmopolitan once more as the population doubles in size and we locals grumble about the crowds and the traffic congestion further up the Walk, all the while profiting from letting out our spare bedrooms to tourists and having the world’s largest arts offering on our doorsteps for four weeks.

This month, I am reading Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital and Ian Rankin’s Rebus short stories. Two cities, two Ians and two very different styles of storytelling. I am gradually settling into an office and research community at the aptly-named Hope Park Square at the University of Edinburgh. And I am treasuring Fridays spent at Grandma Isobel’s house in the west of Edinburgh, where once a week we come together over meals to catch up on reading, arts and family gossip. She is better-read and more conversant on the capital’s cultural life than anyone I know. Bonnie dog has never been better fed.

In the coming weeks, I will be interviewing other local business owners on the street including Adriano from Pierinos chip shop, Neill from Nobles bar and Bill from the floirst, alongisde exploring civil landmarks such as the police station/ old sheriff court and the dock yards. I will also be returning to Greece for a conference on democracy and the city state.

Meanwhile, here are some Constitution Street-ers that I have been fortunate to pass the time of day with in July-August:

 

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Running in circles

There’s a Gaelic saying ‘Eadar da theine Bealltainn’ which means something like to be between two Beltane fires, or in order words, to be between a rock and a hard place. The springtime energey of Beltane season is behind us now but the political bonifres of the preceding weeks are still smouldering hot.

June and early July went by in a bit of a blur for me. It was hard to keep up with the capricious pace of change on Constitution Street, let alone the intractable mess of UK constitutionalism post General-Election and pre Brexit. Here are few things that seemed to be important.

The UK feels a bruised and bruising place right now. The tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire in London shocked the country and prompted important and difficult questions about class, race and social housing. As David Lemmy MP said “It is as though we live in Dickensian times with a tale of two cities”.

I’ve never been inside the tower block at the far end of Constitution Street, Kirkgate House, and to have any understanding of our lived expereinces on the street, it’s important that I meet these neighbours too.

The General Election winners appeared as loosers, the loosers as winners and all of the political pundits were proven wrong. The Prime Minister gambled and lost her UK majority and the SNP lost a third of its seats in Scotland while the Corbyn bounce-effect for the UK Labour party exceeded all expectations and the DUP in Northern Ireland (where there is no functioning devolved government) held the balance of power in the UK to give the Conservatives their majority at Westminster. The muddied landscape of territorial politics looked more slippery and uncertain than ever before

Back on Constitution Street and with ten minutes until the close of polling stations on 8th June, I drove Tony the short distance from his ground floor flat on Cadiz Street to St Mary’s Primary School polling station on nearby Leith Links. Reporting excellent home-care from the NHS, Tony told me that he didn’t see the point in voting but that he would be quite glad to get out of the house and go ‘cruising’. After greeting his many local friends staffing the electoral registration tables within the school gym hall and with the clock striking 10pm, Tony triumphantly declared “I’m an elector!”.

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Tony after voting

I don’t know where Tony put his ‘X’ in the box but Edinburgh North and Leith constituency recorded a 71% voter turnout with the SNP’s Deidre Brock holding her seat (19,243 votes, 43% of the share) despite a close second from Labour (local councillor Gordon Munro taking 31% of the vote) and surprisingly close third from the Conservatives (27%).

Reading later about the breakdown of votes, I learnt that our constituency has the highest proportion of residents living in tenements and flats of any parliamentary constituency in the United Kingdom and that the constituency also includes Bute House, the official residence of the First Minister of Scotland.

The First Minister acknowledged that talk of a second independence referendum was a contributing factor in the nationwide voter swing to unionist parties and it is now  unikely that a further referendum will take place before the 2021 Holyrood Parliamentary term, if indeed at all. This is disappointing news for independence supporters but the residual constitutional ambiguity amid a protracted Brexit negotiation may serve to further underline the need for a rethink about how the respective nations of the UK exist together and how finance is fairly distributed. Constitutional questions about the right to self-termination remain unresolved.

 

 

 

 

Leith Gala Day ‘Tory-free zone T shirts’, Yes 2014 grafitti on the Constitution Street pavement and a park bench inscription at Customs House Lane.

Another post-election harr hung low over Leith docks on the Friday morning after the election night before. Then the following day and in the final minutes of extra time, Scotland lost their lead in the football against England. Roars were followed by heavy sighs in the pubs up and down Constitution Street. We had been robbed, again. Standing in line for some consoling chips, I was cheered by meeting Adriano, owner of Perinos  Fish and Chip Shop. He asked me when he can be ‘booked in’ for his Constitution Street interview. Word has gotten around.

Perseverance, the Leith motto, is what we’re good at here. The annual Leith Gala Day on the Links to mark the start of Leith Festival was packed out with candy floss, wee dugs, reggae music, raffles and home-baking. Poor Tony was laid up at home not well enough to get out dancing to his favourite band, Messenger, much to the annoyance of Festival Chair, Mary Moriarty, who had booked the band at Tony’s insistence. With the help of Bonnie dog, I guided visitors around the Constitution Street Corn Exchange, on the Leith Late Walking Tour and I performed my Porto essay at the Glasgow CCA one evening.

 

 

 

 

Rain water poured in through the living room ceiling on my last day of salaried employment after a deluge of rain in an unseasonablly wet June. Combined with a parking ticket from Lidl, propsects felt a bit gloomy. Leaving a damp Edinburgh behind, I set off for a few days away from the street. I was fair chuffed to complete the Barrathon – a half-marathon following the circumferance of the circular-shaped isle of Barra- and then to join island friends on the north western side of Lewis at Uig bay in the Mackenzie sisters’ caravan (see At the Half-Way House at Balallan).

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the caravan at Uig, isle of Lewis

After a magical time in the dunes and on gneiss rocks watching seabirds and the moon grow fatter under a spring tide, I returned to the mainland for my first working week of the sabbatical. The taxi driver that delivered Bonnie and I back to Constitution Street from Waverley train station late on Sunday night remarked, with considerable nostalgia, that his big brother, now deceased, used to live at number 72.

Perhaps like a running race, the beginning (the first 5km or the first few weeks) can feel like the steepest. My body feels heavy and slow in these early days of the project and I am full of self-doubt. Still, I am now committed to the effort and know that I need to find my own rythmn. I am trying to find that while a Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Humanities (IASH) at Edinburgh University and, with greater ease, while in residence at my Grandma’s house each Friday. I am loading up on sugary snacks and good tunes to pace myself.

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the view from 31 Hope Park Square overlooking the Meadows

 

Things I have been reading this month:

  • The First Day, by Phil Harrison
  • His Bloody Prooject Project by Graeme McCrae Burnett
  • Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott

It’s goodnight and goodluck from Constitution Street for now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Porto- a drinking game

Rules of the game:

  1. Keep cool heads and warm hearts
  2. Make it a double if you hear fake news
  3. Down a shot on feeling sorrow
  4. Break the rules

Ports poem, John Burnside

I’m just filming the pigeons. I know it looks a bit odd.

Aye. Get her in an ‘aw!, the man says, nudging his female companion. Are ye frae Embra, hen? Dusnae soun’ like it.

Oh, I’ve lived here- Constitution Street- the past few years.

Ah ken, different accent mind. Bonnie day, eh?

Anyway, back to the pigeons. I watch their daily ritual from the crossroads at the Foot of the Walk and Queen Victoria statue while I wait for the street lights to change to amber then green. Fixed as they are on the present, the birds ascend en mass at green without hesitation or doubt. The street surf- a tide of number 22 busses, skateboarders, pushchairs and urban wanderers- surges forward and the birds rise up and away, toward the peaks of an Edinburgh skyline stretched out ahead. The birds swoop south to west then north and east again, always in a clockwise, meditative formation – the beat of their feathers like the tattered rags of prayer flags left to disintegrate on a mountain pass.

But these are no tiny Buddhists. They are old punks. And have seen and heard a lot. With tattooed necks, skinny legs and darts of green plumage illuminating their blackened bodies and darker sky-surround, their look is one of pure, anti-establishment menace and their dance a carefully-staged rave. Guano hails down upon Victoria’s bronze robes. One is not amused.


Mixed emotions as plans unveiled for Port O’ Leith revamp. It played a starring role in the hit film Sunshine on Leith and was a quiet spot where Irvine Welsh drafted Trainspotting. The pub is renowned the world over as it started life as a place for sailors to drink when they docked in Leith.

last night at port

Poppers. It’s only poppers! Will you no try some? Gie you a head-rush.

Nah, you’re alright’, I say. Debbie shrugs. Louise inhales. We’re choosing life. Choosing the Port O’ Leith closing-down party.

One more tune! One more tune! Our heels anchor into the foam beneath the ripped, leather bench on which we sway. Back and forth. Sweat dripping, tears streaming, arms flaying, hair slapping, thirsting, lusting, joy. And sorrow. Sorrow for all that has been before and never will be again. For absent friends. For kindness and beauty. And for the here and now, in between, swaying back and forth, at last orders. Because there won’t be another round.

Sunshine on Leith glow

The good pilgrims and the men

Drunk on a rainbow

Look lads, nae wedding rings!  The lads with the poppers are now taps’ off, lassoing empties with someone’s green and white shirt, checking that we notice their aim and their hit rate.

A trio of old-timers bump and grind against the white-barred window frames to the rhythm of Madness, Our House followed by an obligatory Hey Jude. Sad songs made better. Tourists from Stockbridge stand and gawk in the doorway. One nudges the other open-mouthed. See, told you, this place is something else! I heard the landlady was a lot of fun back in her day. But she must be long dead now’.

Down the walk you see

Scarves like new leaves hung in green

On old skin, and me

A man I recognise as my window cleaner, Dougie, straightens and smooths his long, blonde wig before ringing a ship’s brass bell majestically to call last orders. Soft dancing and hard drinking land on the chequerboard floor tiles. Everything sticks. Half of a ‘no football colours, no trackies’ note is stuck to the side of a table leg. The ladies toilets are stuck on out of order. And then there’s Mary. Elegant and instantly recognisable in a long, leopard-print coat, diamante-studded slippers and coiffed hair, she offers a regal wave to the regulars. Plenty of queens in the pub tonight, she says, winking. Big Kirsty is wide-eyed and greetin’ in the corner. I blow her a kiss and she catches it.

Edinburgh is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Whaling ships from Leith brought the very first penguins to Edinburgh Zoo around 1900. Leith was merged with Edinburgh in 1920 despite a plebiscite in which the people of Leith voted 6:1 against the merger.

[From the comments section of the Evening News]

Are we going to lose one of the few genuine pubs in the area for some fucking interloper gastropub shite?!

But Leith is a different place now and if they’re not making money, what can you do?

Che Guevara flags and Saltires drape the old war horse. Later, knackered and thinned to the bone, she’ll be put out her misery by a squad of renovation henchmen. Hung, drawn and quartered, the limbs of red timber, wonky bar stools and scratched mirrors will be hacked off and seized by the clientele of coffee shops, design studios and pop ups in this, new Leith – gory souvenirs of the morning after the night before.

For now, it’s closing time and outside on Constitution Street, the light is changing and gulls from the docks circle overhead because the stewing dawn belongs to a different type of bird – pterodactyls of a lost, maritime valley. They swoop and cackle; swoop and cackle and gather in number like a marauding army of avian soldiers high on chips and sweet, brown sauce. They are lusting for a scrap outside the pub and point and jab their beaks like accusatory fingers.

You saw it,

You claimed it

You touched it,

You saved it.

Surveying the structural and human wreckage at the end of the night and as we searched for her black, leather jacket, Louise told me that now twenty years’ sober, there was once a time when she hadn’t expected to outlive the old boozer. The jacket was eventually found behind the bar- put there by a neighbour to prevent it getting dirty on the dancefloor. If love means to accept imperfections and to break the rules from time to time, then ma’ head is rushing and ma’ heart is broken.

Cheers.