Street Haunting: A Leith adventure

In Virginia Woolf’s 1927 essay Street Haunting, the narrator imagines the secret lives of others in her neighbourhood as she walks through the wintry, lamp-lit streets of London. ‘What greater delight and wonder can there be than to leave the straight lines of personality’, the narrator asks, to feel ‘that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others’.

November is not the longest month in the calendar but it often feels like it is. A brooding time of mulching, damp decay and dark, slow and cold days. A month where is seems to always be 3.30pm and the light, like the year, fading away beyond control.

Yielding to a lack of control is a form of confronting demons. This year, I have been aided by finding Projekt42, a community gym at the end of the street in the New Kirkgate shopping centre. Nestled between Poundland and ‘Harvey Lidyls’, this empty shop unit has been transformed into a space for yoga classes, circuit training and a collective effort to boost endorphins in winter. Many classes are free and others affordable, making the gym a welcome contrast to commercial fitness studios in the city.

The other welcome surprise of November was to be cradled in a cabin in the Cairngorms for a week while a guest of Scottish PEN at Lesser Wearier. The Highland fresh air and solitude brought a calm focus. I got two of the most awkward book chapters (Streetview and The Right to Housing) written. I jumped in snow drifts. I watched pheasants roost in silverbirch trees and fallow deer tiptoe over fields. I burnt old drafts on the fire. And I felt well again. One day, I want to build my own cabin in the woods and offer the same generosity that I have benefited fromnto others.

This month I have been reading: Winter by Ali Smith; Out of the Wreckage by George Monbiot; The Givenness of Things by Marilyn Robinson; and The Collected Essays of George Orwell.

On Constitution Street, project highlights were interviews with Kristin Hannesdottir, Icelandic Consular, at Lamb’s House and Ani Rinchen Khandro at the Tibettan Buddhist Centre, and attending lectures by Ali Smith (on Muriel Spark), George Monbiot (at the Scottish Parliament where we discussed the Commons), Kathleen Jamie (at the Centre for the Living Book), Jackie Kay (The Radical Book Fair) and Katrin Oddstoddir on the Icelandic constitution (Nordic Horizons). I enjoyed presenting my work in progress talk at IASH with props including a gull feather, a bag of flour, a bone, a beer mat and a Persevere t-shirt.

The adventures in Leith continue.

 

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The girl next door

“We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back”

Malala Yousafzi

Sitting at my desk one day during the summer of independence in 2014, I noticed something unusual from the corner of my eye. Sticky-taped to the panes of glass in the building opposite were six pieces of white A4 paper spelling out five words and a question mark in a child’s deliberate but uneven handwriting: DO YOU WANT TO PLAY? My heart lept. Five syllables- the first line of a haiku- and a direct, unambiguous question with a choice of two answers. I scrawled my response in marker pen on one sheet of printer paper, positioned it in my own window and waited for the reply. And so began the first of many surprise conversations visible to all passers by in the street, confusing Yes/ No Indy pollsters and reviving the Scottish ballad tradition of etching verse onto street windows.

Maddie is a true child of Constitution Street. The youngest of four, her parents met at the Port of Leith bar and were married in South Leith Parish Church. Now separated, Maddie’s father, an Englishman, voted Yes to Scottish independence and is an active member of the local branch of the SNP. Her mother, a Scotswoman, voted No and is fervent in her disdain for Scottish nationalism. Such is how our lived experience and the people we meet shape our layered identities.

Having babysat her older siblings when they lived at home, I know the family well. On the occasions when Maddie stays the night in my spareroom and I have to get her up, dressed and breakfasted in time for school, I feel truly useful. I want people to notice us on the walk to the school playground and for some to mistake me for her mother or older sister. These are mornings with purpose. I wanted her to know that spending time together is not a chore or act of neighbourly goodwill so I told her that anytime she felt like meeting up, she could simply send me a sign. In the age of instant messaging and emojis, ours became a window to window, face to face friendship. She has taught me a lot.

No. 59 Constitution Street is the old Manse adjacent to St John’s Church. Once a Georgian townhouse with stable block and servants’ quarters, the ruin of the building remaining was bought as a project by Maddie’s father thirty years ago. Now sub-divided into three, the small, curved doorway flush with the front of the building opens like a Scooby-doo bookshelf onto a cobbled pen and courtyard beyond. Residents and visitors in the know push against the hidden door and stoop to enter. Inside, children from the street mount a discarded mobility scooter that used to belong to Maddie’s grandmother and steer it like a chariot caroling around an assault course of old whisky barrels. I watch these comings and goings from across the road. Maddie’s parents tell me that they have twice had television and film producers ask if they could use the soot-stained facade of the building in a Dickens dramatisation. As goes the chorus from the musical, I’d do anything for her.

Three years on from the first window text messages, we sat on the edge of her bed amongst a detritus of early adolescence and Sunday mornings- teddies, laundry, phone chargers, milkshake cups, makeup samples and our dogs- to discuss Constitution Street. The news in the wider world spoke of Britain’s failure to uphold its commitments under the so-called Dubs amendment. The Dubs amendment, known as section 67, was passed in April 2016 amid a campaign to bring 3,000 lone refugee children stuck in camps in Europe to Britain. By July 2017, the press reported that not a single extra lone child refugee had been brought into the country.

Maddie and I could hear the raucous squawks from seagull chicks waking inside their nests atop the flattened spire of neighbouring St John’s Church, the mini-dinosaurs demanding to be fed some more before flying solo. We had found an injured chick alone in Leith Links earlier that morning. Its white, feathery shape lay splayed on green grass like the chalk-outline of a crime scene victim. We deliberated over whether or not to intervene. Tethering our dogs on short leads, we approached the bird cautiously and decided that the best course of action was to calmly and gently lift up the bird and place it in a less exposed area of the park to protect it from being trampled on by walkers or dogs. Reluctantly, I put my hands around the bird’s surprisingly soft, warm middle, taking care to avoid getting pecked by the jurassic beak. I then lay the bird down as softly as I could in the shade of a tree in a quieter section of the park. The bird and beak seemed to eye me malevolently, before flying away with gusto. Well, that’s bloody grateful, I said, wiping bird shit deposited in my hands onto a tuft of grass. We continued our walk home to the street.

‘Well mainly because I’ve grown up here, I like it because it’s home but also because I know mostly, roughly, about everybody who lives here…. And it’s like, when I’m on holiday and I come back and go onto the street, I just feel happy to be back. And it, it can be rough at times [giggles]. But it’s nice because it’s… you can trust it in a way.’

Is there anything you would like to change about the street?

‘Mhmn.. nothing I think. Except those birds! And I’d like there to be a street party. That would be very funny.’

What would happen at the street party?

Well, there would be like bunting all around the street and there would be bbqs going on and music playing and people if they wanted, they could sell some things that they didn’t want in their house anymore. And we could all just like dance and things and have a bit of ceilidh as well. And then I think some people would have a little bit too much to drink and I would just sit there watching them and laughing [giggles].’

Pink gingham bunting hung in loops at her window frame and the bedroom walls were decorated with polaroid snaps of school friends in uniform sticking their tongues out. Being age 12 and in-between primary and secondary school can be an anxious, exciting time. Twelve is the symmetrical point on a clock face where 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 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.

‘I feel terrified! And sad too because I’m the only one going to a different school. I’ve already made new friends. But they’re not really as close as my friends from primary school. And I’m also worried about the timetable and things. Like I understand how it works but it’s confusing like where the things are and how you’re supposed to get to them. Because it’s such a big school.’

At which point we were interrupted by another voice.

I’m having trouble connecting to the internet. Take a look at the health section in your app.’

‘She’s so rude! Ha ha!’

Who is that?

‘Oh it’s Alexa. She’s a robot.’

‘I’m having trouble connecting….’

What?

‘It’s cause I said her name. She’s like this robot that you can ask questions and she connects to your phone and searches stuff up for you. So if you’re doing homework and you’re like ‘ah, what is this question’ you can just go ‘Alexa what is the answer to 3 x 20.’ That was the first sum to come into my head.‘

‘The answer is 60.’

‘Yeah! Ha!’

Alexa is quick at mathematics but she isn’t much help with more reflective tasks. For a school project on the Scottish Parliament, Maddie turned to her friend across the road for help. Her primary 7 class had all gone on a visit to Holyrood earlier in the year and it prompted us to talk about politics and about the Parliament building itself.

So did you get to sit in the debating chamber?

‘Erm yes but we were not allowed to sit in any of the chairs, which was a shame. But one of the boys in my class, when the tour guide wasn’t looking, he quickly sat down – just to be like ‘yeah I’m cooler than you!’.’

And did you learn about any differences between the parliaments in Edinburgh and London?

‘So I think Westminster is like the main place where they decide like what happens for the whole country and the Scottish Parliament is mainly for like Scotland and I think well obviously the debating chambers are a lot different too.’

Are you interested in politics?

‘I mean I like there to be a fair way of making decisions and things but I don’t think I would like to make a career out of it.’

Do you think we have a fair country?

‘Yes, I think it’s run fairly. Though I don’t like how sometimes people with more money get treated differently to people with less money. Brexit was not a good decision. Because, well mainly for my Mum’s job. Like she only gets paid if people buy things and people are kind of scared to now. So she’s not getting paid very well. And also when you go to the airport you’re going to have to sign lots of papers and things to go to places like France.’

And what do you think about Scottish independence?

‘Mhmn… well, I mean it’s quite.. I have mixed feelings about it because my Dad is very SNP, SNP you know and then my Mum wants us all to stay together. And I think that’s a good way to think- for everybody to just be together and not separate – because we’re less strong when we’re on our own. But also, I don’t think we’ll be able to go back into the EU and the only way for us to do that in my head is for Scotland to come away and then Scotland to join the EU as a separate country. But I think that’s the only reason why I like the thought of Scottish independence.’

Distinct from UK elections where the voting age is eighteen, in the Scottish Independence Referendum sixteen year olds had the vote. Still several years away from being able to vote in any election, I was impressed by the maturity in which Maddie grasped the complexities of constitutional change and weighed up the relative merits of the binary choices presented. We matched up the phone pics Maddie took on the school trip with some bullet points about devolution and Alexa the robot turned it all into a slideshow on a tablet device. We were smugly reviewing the efforts of our teamwork when my phone began to buzz with an incoming Facetime call and we paused the Constitution Street interview.

The call was from my friend Merwe, a fourteen year old girl from Afghanistan. I met Merwe and her mother, Diba, in Kara Tepe refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos where I had volunteered the previous summer. Diba and Merwe had since continued their journey onto Athens, hoping to eventually be granted family reunification status to join Merwe’s father in Germany. Back at my home in Edinburgh, I kept in touch with the family through instant messaging on our phones.

Before the refugee crisis Lesvos was famous for ouzo, olives, and the Ancient Greek poet Sappho. Reading aloud Sappho’s poem Time of Youth from my souvenir copy, participants in Kara Tepe’s youth group wrote bold, imaginative responses. Stateless, without leave to remain and with the constant possibility of being deported back to Afghanistan as part of a controversial EU deal with Turkey, young Afghans face an anxious, uncertain future. Merwe’s young adult life has been filled with much rougher streets than the one which Maddie and I call home. From Baghdad to Berlin, Aleppo to Amsterdam, young refugees are left waiting, spending their time of youth in limbo and without access to formal education, each day passing much like the one before it.

You don’t need to be a legal expert to observe that human rights violations are being committed on a daily basis in Greek camps. There is a lack of formal education for school-aged children, a lack of adequate or accessible housing, and in some cases a lack of access to healthcare. Even in the relatively well-organised Kara Tepe camp, children play next to bulldozers and immediately outside the camp exit, children and their parents have to negotiate the walk into town along a busy and poorly-lit highway. Kara Tepe was designed with infrastructure and accommodation for 1,000 individuals. There were 1500 people when I visited and about 3,000 today.

Across Greece, volunteers work independently and in organised groups, filling the gaps left by established agencies. They take over abandoned buildings to ensure people have somewhere to shelter, provide nutritional supplies to young children and establish language programs. None of this can be a substitute for securing safe, permanent homes for refugees but it is something.

Short-term volunteers, well-meaning grown-ups, come and go in the lives of refugee children, particularly over the summer holiday season on Greek islands. My last day helping at Kara Tepe camp was memorable for me but just like any other day stuck in the dust, sweat and frustration for those waiting in a limbo not of their own making. Grand farewell gestures aren’t appropriate. I said a personal thanks to the women like Merwe who assisted as translators and welcomed and befriended me. Other than that, it was a sincere ‘hope to see you soon’.

Late in the evening when the sun had gone down and the camp had quietened down, children and some of their parents sat on UNHCR blankets watching Disney’s Peter Pan subtitled into Farsi and projected onto the walls of a portacabin. Aside from the occasional cry of a baby or the whine of mopeds from the main road outside, there was a settling hush. The kind of collective reverence that makes committed atheists whisper on entering a cathedral or mosque. I tip-toed across a gravel path toward the camp exit to wait for a taxi back to Mytilene town. As I stood next to the makeshift snack bar and mobile phone charging station, a little boy of about five that  I didn’t recognise appeared by my side as if from nowhere and tugged on my arm. He called out ‘my friend, my friend’ in broken English and gestured for me to lean in close. I bent down and smiled at him. And then he slapped me. Hard. Across the face.

I gave him a row and he ran away laughing. I wanted to say, Yes, ok, fair enough. I feel ashamed that I’m leaving you here and that you’ve been ignored. I see you. I hear you. And thanks for the send-off.

Lost boys and girls marooned in a Neverland of false promises, smugglers and ticking clocks can’t fly away and must constantly negotiate the safest boundaries. It is a real land very near to us if we chose to notice.

Sitting on the edge of her bed in Constitution Street, Maddie and I were joined by her mother. In the heat of a Scottish July day in the Athens of the north, we three huddled together under a fleece blanket. Alexa, the digibot, was there too of course but she doesn’t feel temperature or emotion. And through the phone screen, we could see and hear Merwe and her mother inside their tented home at a camp about 40km beyond the sprawling suburbs of Athens of the south. They complained of the sweltering Greek temperatures. Two mothers, two daughters, a robot and me, in conversation.

Through the medium of virtual and digital windows, Merwe and Maddie have come to be forever linked in my mind. Two highly intelligent, brave young women on the cusp of big life changes. All things being equal and fair, Merwe would be offered a safe, forever home in Scotland, could stay in my spare bedroom and attend secondary school up the road with Maddie. As it stands, Merwe hasn’t been to school for five years. The Taliban prevented girls from attending school in her region of Afghanistan and, today, she gets harassed by some of the older Afghan boys at the refugee camp for walking alone without the supervision of a brother or father. She tells me that she is avoiding the occasional school lessons offered in Greek for this reason.

Merwe wants to be a doctor when she grows up. I want to help people, she tells me, and to make money to send home to Afghanistan. Maddie wants to be a forensic scientist or a lawyer, she’s not yet decided, because she likes watching Nordic crime dramas on TV. Both girls follow youtube makeup videos, tong their hair into intricate loops in preparation for a Facetime video call and live alone with fierce, loving mothers who have welcomed me into their homes.

The central Leith area of Edinburgh has about 2,500 school pupils and 15% have a first language other than English. Edinburgh has the highest net migration in Scotland. Maddie tells me that her primary 7 class in Leith had a diverse mix of nationalities and languages with fellow pupils speaking Polish, Spanish, French, Italian and Urdu as first languages. She learnt a few words in Spanish.

A native speaker of Farsi and Pashto, Merwe is self-taught in Kurdish, Arabic, Turkish, Greek, Spanish, English and has a smattering of German. The list of languages are reeled off like flag pins in a spinning globe and hint at the many national borders she crossed by foot and boat to reach Lesvos. Aged fourteen, she picked up conversational Spanish and English from volunteers working in the Greek refugee camps and is trying to learn German using Google translate and a dictionary I bought her. She says it’s by far the hardest language so far. If she succeeds in training to become a doctor in Germany, it might yet come to be her most useful.

I presented her with the pocket German dictionary on a return visit to Athens in late summer 2017. When I was a teenager, a dictionary wouldn’t have been my choice of gift request but she seemed delighted.

On his military service, the Greek soldier assigned to watch over our reunion at the camp gates didn’t look to be much older than a teenager himself. He gave an apologetic smile from under his khaki cap and offered us cheese sandwiches from his packed lunch. Merwe suggested that we make up our own picnic and head to the nearest beach for a trip away from the camp. Diba, her mother, liked this idea too and assembled a tupperware of peaches and a flask of homemade iced coffee.

Theirs is an open camp in the sense that, once registered, residents are free to come and go within the possibilities that limited funds stretch to. Local train journeys are free for refugees. After a short train ride through parched scrubland and a stroll along the boardwalk of an end of season seaside resort, the warm, turquoise water of the Aegean Sea lapped at our ankles. It resembled the cover shot on a package holiday travel brochure and, us, the three most unlikely of models posing as an odd family group amongst many on holiday.

Diba napped in the shade while Merwe and I prepared to wade into the sea for a swim. Not planning for a day at the beach, I hadn’t brought a costume and, instead, was sweating under long sleeves and scarf. I had tried hard, too hard, to not offend my Muslim hosts and looked and felt a bit ridiculous fully clothed in the midday sun. I opted to roll up my trouser legs to the knees and strip to vest. Merwe, meanwhile, had removed her hijab and ran confidently into the waves wearing her light summer dress and leggings. Turning around to see what was taking me so long, she shook her head in dismay and shouted to me, loud enough for all on the beach to hear, Jemmy! You’re European- take some clothes off!.

I was back at Craigiebarns Primary School, writhing and twisting on a wooden gym bench- learning through doing how to skillfully remove thick, woollen tights and starched cotton pinafore without revealing an inch of white flesh to classmates or teacher. These are the elaborate moves of a practised circus artist or a Scottish school pupil changing for PE. I looked around at the bronzed Greek goddesses sunbathing topless under sun parasols on the shoreline and at their young children building sandcastles, happily naked. Everyone was now staring at the multicultural, intersectional spectacle unfolding in the waves. I quickly peeled to my un-matching bra and pants and stomped, laughing and squealing, into the salty sting of the old Aegean with my new friend.

Our limbs fully submerged by water and only our heads and shoulders bobbing above the surface, we became two women dancing, playing and, at home, in our own bodies. Fluid and free. Powerful and equal. Brown skin and white skin tones refracted by the blinding midday light to become a continuous marbling of human shapes thrashing the sea with glee, safe in the sensation of being able to still touch the seafloor with our feet. Diba waved from the shore. Merwe somersaulted like a mermaid gymnast. I attempted to copy but made wide, sweeping circles with my arms underwater instead. We said nothing but splashed and grinned and were carefree for a few precious minutes.

How did you learn to swim so well?, I gasped, carelessly, regretting the words as soon as I spoke them. Merwe pretended not to hear and held her breath under water. The bond had broken and we were back to being heavy and anchored in our established roles.

Afghanistan is a landlocked country. To reach Europe’s border by foot is a perilous journey fraught with danger across the Hindu Kush mountains bordering Pakistan, then on into the vast expanse of politically volatile Iran and Turkey, all the while relying on intelligence further up the line from those who have made the journey before as to where to avoid Taliban strongholds, Daesh terrorism, Middle East proxy wars and military checkpoints. No one chooses to leave their homeland and extended family without very good reason. Mothers and daughters like Merwe and Diba flee in the middle of the night with only the clothes on their backs.

The crossing from Turkey to Lesvos in Greece is five miles at its shortest point and looks about the same width as Edinburgh to Fife on a clear day but it is anything but straight-forward when crossed in the dark with poorly equipped boats and no sailing experience. It has been a migration route in both directions for centuries and was the hotspot for people escaping violence and persecution at the height of the current refugee crisis. Refugees arrived in inflatable dinghies, often with poor or faulty life-jackets supplied by people smugglers.

In the very same sea where Merwe had two years previously spent a long, dark night treading water while clinging to the side of an upturned dinghy before being rescued by a Frontex ship, we felt our holiday skin begin to wrinkle uncomfortably and we paddled back to the shallows to dry in the afternoon sun. We ate slices of peach with Diba and dozed for the rest of the afternoon until it was time to catch the last train home. Home to a refugee camp and a guest house in Athens respectively- temporal, transient homes.

Waiting at the train station, a crimson, angry sky beat down on the cluster of faded waterfront hotels, the setting sun casting long splinters of shadow onto the train tracks in front of us and marking the turning of another day. Diba sharpened a twig against the metal arm of a bench on the platform and then began to scratch lines into the pale, honey-coloured hues of an olive tree trunk as though a teenage girl graffiting her school desk or jotter. The date 14/04/14 emerged inside a heart-shaped bubble. This is the date when the family left their home in Afghanistan. The date is forever etched in their minds. It signifies where they are from and where they want to return to with their grandchildren and great-grandchildren one day. These are exactly the sort of people we should want as neighbours.

I thought back to what Maddie and I were doing in spring 2014 at home on Constitution Street. International Women’s Day, 8th March…. Her mother had asked if I could pick Maddie up from gymnastics class after school and babysit while she worked late. I asked Maddie if she wanted to come with me to a spoken word event at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on gender and power  and, to my surprise, she was keen. We enthusiastically listened and clapped to a series of personal narratives about the fourth wave of feminism, delivered by confident young women . I relaxed into my theatre seat and felt a self-congratulatory glow, pleased as I was about the education of my young friend into the ways of the sisterhood.

Then the final act of the night. A performance piece about women’s empowerment and the reclaiming of language- every stanza concluding with a rallying call for liberation from the patriarchy and a prompt for the audience to shout in unison an increasingly loud, resounding shout of ‘CUNT!’ I winced, slunk into my seat and pulled the fury hood of Maddie’s puffa jacket up over her head.

Travelling home through the dark in my car afterward, I turned down the car stereo volume and proffered, So there were some choice words at the theatre tonight, Maddie. Should we have a chat about that, together with your Mum maybe?

Jemma, she sighed deadpan, looking straight ahead, when were you last in a school playground?

They say it takes an entire village to raise a child but the street is a good place to start.

 

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.

 

 

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

  • The right to life

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 the packed contents, John inspected various sample 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 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 Edinburgh Tram work excavations. Some dating 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, the bodies 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 twentieth century services.

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 sort of totem to nature gods on the steps of the Mackenzie sisters’ caravan during a week of solitary 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 shelf above 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 subtle and long-lasting conditions for preserving bone. The remains are from the ordinary parishioners of South Leith, though intriguingly perhaps a third pre date the church’s foundation in 1483. As such some of the burials found may provide evidence of the nearby older 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 1649 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 burials. In his Life and Times of Leith book, historian James Marshall records that huge cauldrons stood 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 recognise 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 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 relatively 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 marks 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, young woman with long, brown hair and a height of 5’1. Her vital statistics read like an online dating profile. 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 embody the right to life. My medieval Constitution Street woman 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’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 a lot plainer and exhibit shared characteristics and although he wasn’t in any way suggesting inbreeding, there were several male and female skulls found with similarly very 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.

Someone who is in the business of life and death today is Bill, florist at Carolyn Designer Florists at 179 Constitution Street. The shop’s best seller is a floral tribute for funeral processions spelled out in capital letters. I watch Bill pin the wired heads of white carnations and lilies into soaked oasis frames bordered by reams of purple plastic ribbon. He lines the letters up on the shop counter to spell out MUM, NAN or BELOVED. The petals appear like an urgent text message shouting about loss. Bill tells me that the flower letters are particularly popular with local Asian families and that this causes him no end of strife because Muslim funeral ceremonies are required to take place quickly after a death, leaving Bill little preparation time. People keep bloody dying! he sighs.

Dead bodies from the past on Constitution Street were buried in the Christian tradition of east-west on their backs in closely arranged rows and only a few inside 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. They were cheek by jowl to the foundations of present-day landmarks on the street, places like Carolyn Designer Florist, Kirkgate House, the Alan Breck Lounge and, perhaps most appropriately of all, the Boneyard Tattoo studio where owner Ritchie has a particular penchant for tattooing skulls. A self-confessed punk rocker, he boasts 86 skulls of various sizes adorning his own body.

‘From life-size down to the size of your fingernail. But that was out of a challenge. My best mate John who was like secondary guitarist in Nirvana- he was into his guitars and his skulls. And when he used to be away on tour, he would be like ‘ah ha, I got another 5 skulls done when I was touring Canada or whatever’. And I’d be like, well I’m a tattoo artist so I’ll just go and draw another six on me, he he!! So he could never win.’

No appointment necessary, cash-only, reads the sign outside the Boneyard Studio. I knock and Ritchie appears through the saloon-style swing doors. Despite his best efforts to appear ‘not really a sunshine kinda guy’, he offers a warm welcome to the tattoo studio he has run for 20 years on Constitution Street and concedes that, in his opinion, tattoos are mostly ‘for idiots’. He was born on nearby Lorne Street and used to come down to the Shore to visit his granny as a young lad. I asked him about what tattoos are currently on trend.

‘Well, the thing is, you think you’ve seen it and then somebody else comes in. You always get your fad tattoos. A few years ago, stars were the thing. And I’d probably, up to that point over a period of about 15 years, I’d maybe only done a couple of dozen stars in ma whole life. And about 5 or 6 years ago, I did nothing but stars. I can remember one day, I had 17 customers- 16 of whom got stars, I thought I had concussion! This one guy came in and asked me for a treble cleft. I wanted to marry him coz it’s not a star, ha ha! What you doin later?! But yeah, you get your fad things. You know, at the moment a lot of people are going for infinity symbols, like a figure of 8 on their side. But this week I’ve actually been in my element because most customers have been getting skulls, which is what I love doin! So, I’ve been quite enjoying masel this week.’

Tattoo needles punch through the epidermis, the outer layer of skin, and drive ink into the dermis, the deeper layer that’s mottled with nerves and blood vessels. I remember reading that traces from tattoo ink can sometimes be found on remains of a human body long after the decay of surface skin. The body’s complex processes that keep our skin free from infection are the same ones that allow ink to live forever in our skin.

Skull and crossbones tattoos are synonymous with the classic depiction of a fearsome pirate on the high seas. Routine local building works have uncovered the historical remains of bodies, possibly of pirates, who were hung in chains along the Shore area of Leith to act as a deterrent to others. The last execution for piracy took place on Leith Sands in 1822 on what is now a Sainsbury’s Local. The bodies of the two prisoners were reportedly taken for dissection at Edinburgh’s medical school.

Another sensational case in 1705 involved an Englishman, Captain Green, who was falsely accused of piracy against Scottish ships. Two years ahead of the Treaty of Union, anti-English sentiment was then very high and the judiciary were reluctant to acquit Green despite the lack of evidence. He was hanged at the far end of Constitution Street in front of a frenzied mob of 80,000.

The archaeological dig at Constitution Street was one of the largest and most important urban excavations of human remains undertaken in 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 neighbours under the penetrating light of an expansive, northern sky. Our shifting, liminal land does not lie still.

As all 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 shopkeepers in the land of the living. Edinburgh, the city of constantly negotiated dualities, the gothic dark of the old town closes and the broad, sweeping terraces of the Georgian New Town; the extinct volcano in a royal park and enlightened advances in science and literature; fur coat and nae knickers. All is often not as it first seems in Auld Reekie. 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. A century before the notorious grave-robbing case, wealthier families in South Leith hired armed watchers to spend nights in the churchyard after a burial to guard against intrusion. A display cabinet in the porch of the church contains the iron helmet and baton of a watcher.

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 Pierinos 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 proving- proving 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 pat the ground gently with the sole of my foot in acknowledgement of a long line of human connection met comin thro’ the grain. For it takes death to make us all live a bit more.

On the north wall of South Leith Parish Church, there is a sculpture commissioned 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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