Small change

When I was a wee girl, I would count out my pocket money and walk down to the corner shop to buy pick and mix sweets or comic books. Sometimes I would get sent on an errand by my parents to buy a pint of milk or a Dundee Courier. The first corner shop I became familiar with was in Craigie Drive next to the local primary school.  It was run by a second generation Scots-Bangladeshi family. After having boasted to my parents on the first day of school that there was a little boy in my class called Farhad Motaleb who travelled to school every day from a faraway country called Bangladesh, my embarrassed parents made a point of informing me about the diversity of our neighbourhood. Farhad is now a paediatrician in Leeds and we’re still friends over thirty years later.

Then when our family moved up the hill to posh and suburban West Ferry, the nearest corner shop was a Spar on Claypotts Drive that also functioned as the video rental shop. Its carpeted familiarity smelt of newsprint and toffee popcorn. I’m not sure who owned the shop but I remember my brother’s friend Graeme had a Saturday job serving behind the till when we were teenagers. Some years later, the Dundee Courier reported that Graeme took his own life by jumping off the Tay Bridge. In my mind today, I recall the kind and shy, football-mad boy that joined us on family hill walks.

People, like places, change. Some much more than others. We don’t always spot the important signs until looking back. In loving thy neighbour, is it possible to pay attention to small change, to notice the details and let them be seen and heard?


The big talking point this month on Constitution Street has been the renovations of the infamous Port O’ Leith pub.  After a final send-off party that felt like the last night of the fall of Rome, a large skip was swiftly filled with ripped out furnishings from the old haunt (Port Sunshine in Trainspotting) and the passing customers of newly gentrified coffee bars, design studios and ‘pop ups’ picked their way through the Port debris like lions feeding on the rotting carcass of an endangered species.

Neighbours have looked on with a mixture of excitement and anxiety in anticipation of what will come next and where the Port’s loyal clientele will now come to call their local. It may be a case of better the devil we once knew.

On an impromptu tour, new landlord Craig and his crew of workmen bussed up from Gateshead were keen to show me the newly installed teak bar top, the stripped lighting features and plans for a Mexican-themed street food menu. Gone are the Che Guevara flags, the juke box, the rusting ship’s bell, the sticky floors and with them, a good deal of soul. However, I’ll admit that the cleanliness of the ladies toilets is certainly an improvement.

I wish Craig well but advised him against telling other curious residents that he supports Hearts football club. He let me take an old, plain-looking mirror from the ladies’ toilets that had been spared from the skip purge. I’m keeping it to give to my neighbour Louise. Last women standing on the chequerboard dance-floor, surveying the structural and human wreckage at the end of the farewell party, she told me that now twenty years’ sober, there was once a time when she hadn’t expected to outlive the old boozer.

Things I have been reading/ watching/ listening to this month:

Nasty Women collected essays, by 401 Ink

Daunderlust ,by Peter Ross

Wanderlust, a history of walking, by Rebecca Solnit

Galician rhapsody, blues escoces poetry, by Oliver Escobar

Blueberry soup, the Icelandic constitution, by Wilmas Wish films

From Scotland with Love documentary, by Virginia Heath and King Creosote

Let Them Eat Chaos, by Kate Tempest

I enjoyed time for reading on a last-minute weekend escape to Lisbon away from the capricious pace of change on Constitution Street. Running errands between the street’s Post Office and bank on the morning of my flight,  I was offered some uninvited travels tips from the neighbours I bumped into, including from Wallace (of Wallace’s Arthouse, number 41 Constitution Street) who advised with all sincerity to “avoid eating any fish because they fry it funny over there”. I was ready to get on the plane.

It felt liberating to be lost and then found again in a big, sizzling-hot city. I watched the results of the French Presidential election on TV at the apartment of an old university friend, Alexandra Carreira. Alex is now head of press for the Portuguese Economy Minister and she had some interesting observations to make about constitutional change. On greeting me at the doorway to her apartment, she remarked that in her opinion I hadn’t changed a bit in fifteen years.

Changing or bending genres is the theme for a series of writing workshops that I have the privilege of being a part of. Acceptance onto the Essay Catalyst group led by Elizabeth Reeder (University of Glasgow) and hosted by the Scottish Poetry Library and the CCA in Glasgow has been a big personal confidence boost. At the first workshop day, we made artists’ books to find different entry points into a story. The paper-folded creations reminded me of the fortune teller games of the school playground. Tutors emphasised the value of cross-disciplinary collaboration and really enthused me about the potential to loosen up with scale, form and style in playing with a subject. I want to include Constitution Street as a character his/ her (?) self, responding to the residents’ narratives. Another take away from the ‘genre-bending’ day was the value of list-making and inventories. I have attempted this in a list poem. During the intense day of wordplay, myself and other participants learnt about the structure of song writing from Karine Polwart (an artist I admire hugely – her solo theatre debut ‘Wind Resistance’ was a highlight of my Edinburgh Festival 2016) and we heard from Max Porter about his highly original debut novel and soundscape, Grief is the Thing with Feathers.

On meeting someone whose work I admire, I have a track-record of clamming up to the point of rudeness, preferring instead to observe the aura of celebrity from afar rather than to join a book-signing line and utter the underwhelming words “great book”. I perceive the queuing and crushing, often accompanied by thrusting a phone camera into the trapped face of the cultural idol, to be oddly counter-ingratiating. Meeting multi award-winning author and senior publisher at Granta books, Max Porter, was no exception. True to form, I muttered only some pleasantries in response to his friendly hello and then cold-shouldered his interest in the Constitution Street project by leaving the post-workshop dinner early to catch the bus back home to Leith and my dog.

Fortunately, this record in crap public relations was finally dented by a brush with fame just a few days later. Nicola, or the First Minister, as she prefers to be known in her official capacity, said “Hello, it’s lovely to see you again” on meeting me and Bonnie dog alone in the car park of the Kirkgate high-rise flats one lunchtime walk as she took a pause between election campaigning and visits to local businesses (Location Scotland, no. 107 Constitution Street) and Konishi Gaffney Architects, no.88 Constitution Street). The First Minister is revered for her good memory but I am not a member of the SNP and we have only met very briefly before- at a parliamentary meeting when she was Health Secretary and more recently at an Edinburgh Book Festival reception- so I was duly impressed.

IMG_8028Unprepared for the Constitution Street VIP encounter, I responded to Nicola’s friendliness with an uncharacteristically confident welcome to the street. Dressed as I was in over-sized winter coat and chunky jewellery, I looked like some sort of (self-appointed) street mayor. Her officials took a photo of the meeting and my Twitter account subsequently doubled in followers. When I next bump into her, I’d like to consult the First Minister about crowd-sourcing a written constitution and to seek her thoughts on the relative merits of side by side conversations versus door-stepping on the campaign trail.

May is a beautiful time of year. The land visibly grows and stretches in every direction with new buds of green and longer days full of potential. We awaken to a dawn chorus and there are small changes all around.  This was particularly evident at New Lanark in the Clyde Valley earlier this week where I hosted our annual organisational Away Day at work with colleagues from across the UK and Republic of Ireland. World Heritage Site, New Lanark Mill, is interesting on many levels as a study in the early beginnings of the cooperative movement during industrialisation. The natural drama of Cora Linn falls in the Clyde Valley has its own progressive story, having been shaped and changed anew over 10,000 years since the melting of an Ice Age glacier.

The May night air was warm and sultry at the re-opening of Leith Theatre for Hidden Door arts festival. Last open to the public in 1988 (Grandma told me she saw a production of Aida there during the Edinburgh Festival in 1986), the theatre was a gift to the people of Leith from the City of Edinburgh in 1932 after reunification of the city boundaries in 1920. IMG_8616

Amidst the faded grandeur of the peeling paint and rickety theatre seats, Leith pulsed with excitement and anxiety as hipsters and Edinburgh’s cultural literati danced in the aisles, swigged from craft lagers and fell madly, freshly in love with old Leith. As I sit writing this blog post in the adjacent Leith library on Ferry Road, I can hear the bass and synth of the sound-check for tonight’s sell-out headliners, Idyllwild.

Walking back home to Constitution Street, I made a note of some small changes I paid attention to. Here are the people I met along on the way:

Louise (no. 59), keen to share the gossip after a night-out in the west end 

Euan (no. 68), collecting picnic items from Leith market with his miniature poodle called Nico

Claire and Chitra (no. 78), sun-kissed and happy on return from family holidays in Applecross

Linda (of Linda’s snack-van at the entrance to Leith docks), sat in a deckchair reading from her Kindle

Bill (no. 179), loading his florist van with deliveries

Gordon (next to the Queen Victoria statue), Labour councillor for Leith ward, rallying volunteers for General Election campaigning

The street is changing and we need to pay attention. In small ways, I will soon be doing this from shared office space at Corner Shop PR (no. 93 Constitution Street), beginning in July. Manager Susie Gray made the generous offer of a free desk “because we can”. This time, I’ll bring the pick and mix sweets and the comic book stories to the Corner Shop. I’m so grateful.


2 thoughts on “Small change

  1. Thank you Jemma again for a great read. It gave me the chance to sit down for 15 or so minutes to read this and listen to the silence being dispersed with bird song …. what luxury!


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