Dog Days

The Dog Days refer to the sultry, tumultous period where Sirius, the dog star (and the brightest in the sky), rises at the same time as the sun. Here on Constitution Street, like the rest of Scotland, it’s been the hottest June for over a hundred years.

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It’s felt a very up and down, heated sort of time for the book project too. Back and forth edits to a prospective publisher distracted me from finishing the final two remaining chapters and I have excelled at procrastination recently- the houseplants have never been more watered, my wardroabe is cleared and I have a better suntan than most office-workers.

The two chapters that have been a block for far too long are the conclusion Amendments, at the end of the road (this is not such a block as I’ve known how to conclude the book for sometime- just need to knuckle down and get on with it!) and The Right to Self-Determination, the Commons. Self-Determination is messy because to consider questions of local and national identity in context, I had to travel further from the street to learn more about global movements like the Commons and democratic confederalism. It is messier still because I want to balance my own views on Scots indy in the wider world with the mix of views shared by neighbours during interviews.

At the Democracy 21 conference in Glasgow, I joined five hundred other people from across Scotland on a sunny Saturday to mobilise in support of a different way of doing politics. I was particularly inspired by the work of the Gal Gael Trust and it was good to reconnect with Barcelona En Comu activists.

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The pubs have overflowed with World Cup fans, including Icelandic and Everton striker, Gylfi Þór Sigurðsson, spotted inside the Port O’ Leith.

Leader of the UK Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, visited Leith Walk with friend Gordon Munro and signed the Save Leith Walk Petition against redevelopment plans that will exaserbate housing inequality in the area.

I chatted to mechanic Donald in the old coopers yard where Kate Winslet starred in the film Jude. Donald knows a lot and I’m looking forward to sitting down for a longer talk soon. By telephone, I interviewed former resident, Matt, who had responsibility for keeping time on the external clock of the Exchange Buildings. Now electrified, the clock is set by a timer inside Matt’s flat. He told me about the ocassions when his flat cleaner plugged a vacuum cleaner into the socket by mistake and time stood still in Leith.

The sun shone for the annual Leith Festival Gala Day and down at the Croft, I sweated and swore digging up waist-high thistles in preparation for the laying of a water trench. Neighbour Andy told me that the thistles need re-dug every year and that they always grow back taller and tougher. It seems a fitting metaphor for our collective persevering.

And I went gambling at the casino on a Monday night. The Genting Casino blocks any view of the sea from the street so I arrived to interview the Manager, Lynne, expecting to really dislike her. Not for the first time, I had my prejudices challenged.

I have been reading:

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

So, it’s not been an entirely unproductive month. When temperatures soared to 30 degrees, I stayed grounded walking and paddling in the north sea after work with Bon, my dog star. She always points in the right direction.

 

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The rite of Spring

The rite of Spring came late to Constitution Street. Things had been left unsaid and done in a wintry way. The few trees that line the pavement held their buds tights and their secrets close. Then finally in late April the petals were given up and drifts of frothy pink cherry caught the breeze and began to land all around us once again, even in the grimiest of street gutters, as though confetti for an annual celebration. Blossom, so much a part of Spring that it’s a cliche.

Late April is a time of cathartic release for those that survive the long Scottish winter and chose to stick around to dance in Spring’s joy. Softly, softly, the street and its people unfurl like ferns in a glade. Perhaps the pretty petals that stain the pavement pink are nature’s reminder of the temporal way of things- that nothing, and no one, last forever.

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Constitution Street

I wasn’t celebrating. Knee-deep in the silt and soil of a scraggly allotment plot, I was flailing my limbs around like a whirling dervish in a dance of grief after my grandmother’s funeral. She had died suddenly and unexpectedly. I was heartbroken. It is not unusual to lose a grandparent at my age but she wasn’t a usual person and she had been a constant and a central figure in my life. The familiar ground on which I had always walked felt raked over. Grief is a wild, wild storm. It howls all round while we keep plodding uphill, stumbling on the scree and grasping for a warm, safe hand that is now out of reach.

And loss is everywhere when you start to see it. Good people do die on beautiful Spring days. The generations in our family had shuffled forward involuntarily. Four became three. The funeral service had gone as smoothly as these things can. There was a eulogy that Gran penned herself- a blistering essay on feminism in the twentieth century- and music from The Beatles’ A Day in the Life with its dystopian crescendos, followed by my Dad on guitar back at the sunny family garden. Sad news that, in places, had to make us laugh, as the song goes. We are a close family. But my main emotion was frustration. I was furious that she had missed the sadness and the laughter of the family day. That someone of the northern hemisphere, who knew all the birds and plants by name, would chose not to wait for the  spring cherry blossom to descend did not make sense.

Part of remembrance in grief is going back over the life we knew, searching for signs to explain and accept the recurring mystery of loss. My grandmother and I were very alike in lots of ways but different in one crucial aspect. She was not an indecisive person. In the March of the year, she had sent me a postcard on which she signed off her message PS: I am finally parting with my favourite postcard. On the front was an image of the sculpture at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art called Tourists. Our ever-vigilant street postie, Craig, remarked on the card but I failed to spot the thinly-veiled clues in the familiar handwriting landing on my tenement doormat. Gran and I were regular correspondents and I guessed that she had lots of different favourite postcards, much as I knew she had three other favourite granddaughters who were also penpals.

After the funeral, it seemed natural, essential actually, to get out of my head and into somewhere else. I pulled off my black dress and heels and went to physically exhaust myself digging and sweating in the filth of a beautiful Spring evening at the Community Croft. The symbology of earth to earth wasn’t lost on me. Mud therapy. As though getting dirt under my nails and grass stains on my jeans could cleanse the mulching potency of guilt, regret and anger that comes with a shock bereavement. I tore into the thistle and nettle weeds, uprooting and shaking their thorny, stinging tentacles free. The ringed, sinewy bodies of earthworms became rudely exposed to the light.

I planted brassica saplings in the newly made gaps. Kale and sprouts for the autumn. Streaks of dark brown clay mixed with saline streaked across the backs of my hands and cheekbones. All the meanwhile, my small black dog, Bonnie, whimpered with concern and licked my face with her warm tongue and malty breath. As the air began to cool and the daylight folded its corners inward, Zak arrived at the allotments to find me spent but purged, squatting in the middle of a newly-weeded bed. I had taken back some control of the disordering injustice of loss. Or so it felt like. We watered the fragile saplings together, then Zak drove me the short distance home and I cried my last for the day in the shower.

Several days later and into mid-May, I find myself calm and revived in the nourishing  glen of Strathardle. I am staying at Annie Blaber’s studio thanks to freedom of speech charity, Scottish PEN. I was last here six months ago during the first winter blizzard in mid-November when the woodland was muffled by snow. The Constitution Street book project has progressed considerably since then and I have been able to use this week to focus on edits. I have sat working at the long trestle-table desk overlooking the glen, dressed in one of Grandma’s old cashmere sweaters, still with the odd blonde hair attached to the wool and the scent of her Clinique Elixir perfume. Soon, I suppose the sweater will take on my aroma and the two will become indistinguishable.

Most recently on the street, I commissioned neighbour and friend, Morven Jones from no.44, to illustrate a map for the book. I’m excited to see her piece. And I got my eyebrows tinted and threaded by the beauticians in Afreen at no. 181, all in the interests of participatory ethnography.

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Lesser Wearie studio

Now, I am reading and writing under the dappled sunshine of silver birches. Deer, hare, pheasants and a familiar black sheep called Rosie have all come to say hello. I have read the Pocket Guide to British Birds while propped up on white, fluffy pillows watching blue tits and a red squirrel dart from branch to branch. Birdwatching is something I never quite got before. I think I do now, certainly here, in this most luxurious of hydes. There is a stove. I wake at first light and track the movement of the sun all day. I walk barefoot through the clover. It is perfect. And has reinforced the importance of safe, solitary time in the wilds for creativiy. This is especially true for women, I think. I will return to this theme again.

Then this morning, a moral dilema and a matter of life and death. I had set off early to walk a stretch of the Cateran Trail from Kirkmichael. Approaching a shieling at the far edge of a field where I planned to stop and drink from my flask, I heard the violent thrashing of a large crow trapped inside a small wire cage under the midday sun. Crows are not the sweetest of souls. They like to pick out the eyes of newborn lambs.

But, still, there it was, that thing with the feathers (yeah)- all shiny blue-black and beating against the sides of the cage. And there it would have stayed suffering all day, or longer. I couldn’t bare to hear it as I sat sipping my tea. So I took out my housekeys (the key to Penkiln, Gran’s house as it happened) and snapped the cable ties holding down the lid of the cage and opened up the wire mesh. The thrashing stopped. There was a pause as the crow and I looked at one another, both not sure of what would happen next. And then the crow found its way out of the cage. It flew up and away toward the Spittal of Glenshee summits without a backward glance.

Now an angry farmer will want to shoot me and string me up as a gory warning to other interfereing, city hikers/ tourists. To be only human in nature is a conflicted state of being. Did I do the right thing or the wrong thing? I don’t know. Indecision. It still feels weird and confessional. I came back to the cabin this afternoon to begin writing again and pressed shuffle on my phone music. Incredously, Joni Mitchell Black Crow started to play. There is something about this place. That’s got to be right.


The past few weeks I have been reading:

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

The Humans by Matt Haig

Waiting for the Last Bus, reflections on life and death, by Richard Holloway

The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallach

Like by Ali Smith

The Whole Story and Other Stories by Ali Smith

The Courtship of Birds by Hilda Simon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Public library and other stories

The turning of the new year is now well underway, light is returning to the land and it’s been a while since I shared any update from the Constitution Street project experience. Here are some things that come to mind in the here and now.

I let go of the blogging thread in January and February for a few reasons. It was winter and I was tired and quiet in a wintry way. It snowed. I got flu, full flu, for the first time. My car broke down for the last time on a country road in Fife. I had no hot water. I had little money. I felt rough. And yet, even in the throws of high fever with its night sweats and delusion, the street was my constant companion. I spent Hogmany at home in bed with Bon dog loyally guarding my sickness chamber. As revelers raged up and down the street and fireworks exploded on either side of the tenement- the official city display plus rogue ballistics from the Kirkgate- it sounded like a world at war. Then at about 4am there was a settling hush and the only noise I could hear was the lone voice of a songbird. There being no gardens in this part of Constitution Street, the dawn chorus of 2018 was from a resilient, persevering little bird atop a concrete perch. This made me hopeful for a good year ahead.

It was also my first Christmas on Constitution Street. As the year yawned its last days, Louise and I walked along the street to the Watchnight Service under a moonlit sky.  Bundled-up neighbours sat in coats and hats sharing an uncomfortable pew. All of us, most unlikely church-goers. After the obligatory hymns and prayers, we listened to Iain’s words from the pulpit about a family from Nazareth who had searched for room at the inn. The message about refuge and safety in an age of mass migration and homelessness was less than subtle. He concluded by asking in the paternalistic, sarcastic tone only Scots can perfect with any warmth: Well then, Merry Christmas. Have you lot no got homes to get too now? Away with you all! And we did. Get away home. Via the inn.

My January and February were filled with lots of conversation, more reading and a little bit of writing. Much of all three have taken place in public libraries and in Leith Library in particular, where at desks and in quiet corners there are new Scots learning English, toddlers throwing toys and old men kipping. I think Ali Smith would approve. I finished drafts of the book chapters on The Right to Work (Flitting from Port to Port), The Right to Freedom of Religious Belief (A Shout in the Street) and The Right to Freedom of Expression (The Making of Us).

Another known and strange companion has been a fox, sighted in glimpses at dawn and dusk on the street. He, for I am sure he is a he somehow, looks healthy and well-fed. Perhaps he sleeps in the secret garden of the church and feasts on disarded street food. He chooses when and how to make himself known, if at all.

I have recorded interviews with neighbours, including in the home of writer Vicky Allan, at Post Electric Studio with musician Rod Jones, in Printworks cafe with Sandy Campbell and in Nobles pub with Fiona Bryant. We talked about putting down roots, finding play spaces, anxiety, song lyrics, using our hands and, of course, all the in betweens. I spoke to pupils at Leith Academy as part of the Super Power Agency literary project about what I’ve learnt about interviewing. My friend Ercan Ayboga, whom I met at the TRISE conference, came to visit and the Gul family from Rocksalt cafe on Constitution Street took him to their Kurdish Community Centre. I said farewell to the co-working space at Creative Exchange, no.29, after five years of sharing the magnificient former Corn Exchange together. I had coffees and dinners with peer mentors Anne Bonnar, Gerry Hassan and Faith Liddell. And I found a peaceful productivity by the fire at my parents’ cottage in Abernyte.

I made my intention for 2018, my san kalpa, to receive and accept more joy. I am finding this in intentional and unexpected ways. Joining the Leith Community Croft (plot B) has provided wild space for Bonnie, has let me dig deep into the silty soil (we found a glow-stick today burried among the nightime debris) and the patch may yet come to yield strawberries in the summer months. Meanwhile, there is strawberry jam and croissants at opening hour with Zak in Toast .

At the Leith Dockers Club Burns Supper, I ate vegetarian haggis and drank (terrible) red wine with neighbours Louise Leach, Andy Mackenzie, Sally Fraser, Ben Macpherson MSP and Councillor Gordon Munro. Sally gave a femminist Reply from the Lassies and Gordon the Selkirk Grace (in which, as a committed aetheist, he invoked the stardust qualities of David Bowie for his Blessing).

I have been reading: So Much Blue by Percival Everett, Hannah’s Dress by Pascale Hugues, I Am I Am I Am by Maggie O’ Farrell, Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Grzegorzewska and The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla. I listened again to a favourite podcast by A L Kennedy on Holding Hands.

Later this week, I come to the end of the Community Fellowship at IASH and begin the final month of my sabbatical from Voluntary Arts. I will particularly miss my roommate Sarah Brasil, the weekly lunchtime talks on everything from sacred comedy in the medieval ages to the rise of Hindu nationalism in Rajasthan. I will not miss the rattle and howl of the attic window panes in a January storm and having to wear my coat indoors.

The book isn’t finished but it is well on its way.  And that has to be good enough. Today marks a year of first mapping out the street project and setting out on this constitutional. I am now ready for the rights of Spring.

Ways

The haar lifts to reveal new ways of seeing

A thousand conversations drift

In the ebb and flow of the city tide.

At night, there are shouts in the street

But being at first light, a stillness.

The old stones breathe again,

And everything is just right.

Fallow

Glimpsed from the roadside-

‘Not a stag but a fallow deer’, he corrected me.

Fallow,

Meaning the ground that is empty, resting

And no longer fertile.

As in a fallow period without seed.

 

Skip and leap free,

Over the stubble fields and far away

Until you fall, fall low

And soak the soil once more,

A dusty earth turning to rust red.

Be heavy and still my dear.

 

Opening

Opening hour is for strawberry jam and sticky fingers.

I watch you unscrew the jar and release June into January.

Soft fruit freckles and blushes in the non-rain.

 

Here is a sweet, stewing pectin,

Borrowed from summer and ripening for now.

 

Now with flaking, buttery crumbs

That gild my lap like gold-leaf.

 

Now with ankles wrapped around bar stools

Where just before, nighthawks perched and slunk into the blue.

 

Here is a private opening,

With steamed milk and steamed windows

And the cobbles cloaked in a sumptuous kind of grey.

 

Two knives criss-cross the plate and I lick one when your back is turned.

It is winter still. The year is young and growing.

 

Customers arrive, buses hiss, coffee froths. And so, on.

I slip into the day and back onto the street,

Knowing the taste of strawberry jam will linger long

For opening up with you.