Barcelona, #1Oct

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Autumn journal

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

the rain with the national conscience, creeping,

Seeping through the night.

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

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

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

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

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

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


This month, I have been reading:

Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice

Harry Bingo by Peter Ross

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

The Life and Times of Leith by James Marshall

The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’ Farrell 


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

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

Comin thro’ the grain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gin a body meet a body

Comin thro’ the grain;

Gin a body kiss a body,

The thing’s a body’s ain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When buried, ugly and weak;

When raised beautiful and strong.

When buried, a physical body;

When raised a spiritual body.

Passing the time of day

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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