Wish you were here

I learnt a new expression in the Port O’ Leith bar last night from regular Pete. He told me that when too many questions get asked, it’s time to hit the mattresses. Pete delivers his homemade lentil soup to the bar staff on cold days. We’ve had a lot of cold days lately. When not making soup on Constitution Street, Pete has been a guest, on and off, of Her Majesty’s pleasure. Lying low, hunkering down, taking stock out of view. It’s what we do when we feel a bit shifty.

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Port of Leith Housing Association, Window Wanderland, 17 March 2018

Now is a time of transitions for me. Winter into Spring, dark into light and stepping outdoors. I return to full-time work at Voluntary Arts in a fortnight at a new office away from Constitution Street. My nine month sabbatical is nearing its end and I am reflecting on things learnt, explored and gradually shifting into focus. One recurring theme of the street navigation has been that some of the most interesting things are revealed in the in betweens. There is complexity in the messy unknown and overheard. I am trying to give myself permission to be ok with the not knowing, free of attachment to outcomes. This lack of control doesn’t come easily to me.


We are living through an important moment in our country’s history. The eyes of the world are on us.

Prime Minister Theresa May

The trams are coming down Constitution Street and it will be another three years of pain.

Lollipop lady Margaret


The research phase for the project is nearly complete. I have loved the conversations with neighbours and so continue to record more interviews. I now have about 45 transcribed conversations that discuss street life, anxiety, belonging and broader constitutional change. Every one of the handwritten notes of introduction that I posted through letter boxes or left in stairwells eventually received a personal reply. I have made new friends and gravitated toward other people who take creative risks. Mostly, however, I have come to know my familiar neighbours in a much more familial way. I see and hear them differently. Where once before we nodded in the street, we now lean in for an embrace or stop to eat a piece of cake together in one of the street’s cafes or clink glasses in the Port O’ Leith. I have eaten a lot of cake and drunk a lot of pints this year.

And so to the Projekt 42 community gym in the new Kirkgate, where I met with Temi in a hip hop dance class. On first arrival to the area, Temi lived in the street’s oldest house which predates the road layout of 1790. The building slopes to such an extent that it appears to be melting into the pavement. She told me that during a difficult year, she came to look on neighbours as being like family. And Leith loves her too.

 

 

 

Yesterday, I sat down with postman Craig. Our postie for twelve years, he knows more about Constitution Street and its residents than I do. All of our love letters, bills, court citations and postal voting slips have passed through his hands. He has keys to the tenement front doors. And we can trust him- he has signed The Official Secrets Act.

Craig keeps fit by running up and down all seventeen floors of Kirkgate House when the lift is out of order, as it frequently is. He told me that postal workers compete for the most favoured streets according to seniority of service. This custom remains from the unionised days of the Royal Mail. Constitution Street with its mix of residential and commerical addresses is popular because it’s not too posh so there aren’t as many packages to deliver. There are still plenty of postcards sent and received though. It seems that sensible people are reviving the habit of sending hadwritten post.

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Rising and falling- Kirkgate House and South Leith Parish Church graveyard in the snow, March 2018

The interview with Craig was rescheduled because of the red weather alert of heavy snow and ice across Scotland in the first week of March. The Beast from the East did not deter Craig from wearing his shorts but it did prevent the postal van, and most traffic, from accessing the street. Schools, offices and cafes shut. The street was quiet expect for the muffled sound of boots crunching through the drifts. For four days, the street was our enclosed and known world and the crossorads our natural boundaries.

While her daughter made a snowman on the pavement outside, I interviewed friend and artist Morven. She lives inside the old Exchange Buildings and has become a regular penpal from further along the street. Morven reduces anxiety from rolling news coverage and social media by ritually placing her mobile at the end of the day in a specially crafted ‘pearl’ bowl that she made.

Then during the thaw, I chatted beside the stove to Niall and Faye, owners of Nobles pub. They told me about having to serve champagne to jubilant No voters on the morning of 19 September 2014 and of the shift from strip bar to gastro pub that Nobles has undergone in the last decade. The stained glass inside the pub depicting the famous Leith Persevere emblem is the only kind I have seen with rays of sunshine, rather than a cloud, above the Virgin Mary’s head. This may be the original sunshine on Leith.

 

 

 

Women on the street invited me to a Moon Circle gathering.  I liked the marking of a new moon and of bearing witness to one another’s intention-setting for the month ahead. Robyn is a trained doula and has helped deliver babies born to families on the street. After the Moon Circle, we emerged from Robyn’s home into the grip of a final winter blizzard of snow flurries whipped up all around us by arctic winds.

The Moon Circle felt meditative and spiritual. By contrast, the Leith Links Community Council meeting on Monday night, less so. Residents and elected councillors spent the best part of two hours talking shit. Quite literally. The smelly season of spring and summer is approaching and the stench of sewage from the Seafield waste treatment facility will soon waft across the Links to the annoyance of Leithers. I will need to hold my nose for the drafting of the Right to the Environment street essay. In March, I completed the Right to Health essay and mapped out the Right to Private and Family Life.

Nine months is three trimesters and this last one has felt pregnant with expectation and a heavy, stubborn weight. A few days away from the street will bring welcome perspective and so I am taking a short holiday next week. Maybe even some lying-low and writing of postcards.

I am delighted that Jenny Brown is agenting the book. Her expert advice on finding the right publisher is hugely reassuring. Fiction books that I have been reading in the last month include My Name is Red by Orphan Pamuk and Cathedral by Raymond Carver. And a tip to the wise- please never ask someone trying to write ‘how is the book going?’ or ‘have you got a publisher? (only ever asked by men curiously)’. These may be well-intentioned but are never well received questions! Instead, ask ‘what are you reading just now? or ‘what have you learnt?’.

When I was out jogging around the block one evening earlier in the month, a woman I didn’t recognise beckoned me over for help with directions. Do you know the way to Constitution Street? she asked. I crossed the road a bit suspiciously and took out my headphones to respond. Yes, I do actually…! I have learnt that much.

 

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