Wish you were here

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

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

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


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

Prime Minister Theresa May

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

Lollipop lady Margaret


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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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.

 

Setting out on a constitutional

From Bella Caledonia’s special edition on Arts and Community:

Kirkgate House window

Welcome to Constitution Street in Leith. Maybe you know it. Maybe you don’t. You will certainly know another street well, perhaps the street where you live or work. In the decade that I lived and worked here, Constitution Street has undergone rapid socioeconomic change. During the last year, I have been documenting this change set against the broader context of constitutional crisis in Scotland and the UK in order to write a love letter to the street I call home.

Human beings are storytellers at heart. And a street’s residents, its neighbours, are the narrators of a succession of stories telling of the past and reimagining the future. We have heard a lot of late on this street and streets up and down the land about our differences. The Yes and the No. The Leave and the Remain. The them and the us. Binary positions. Some neighbours displayed posters in their windows. Others closed the curtains. Some sang protest songs and wrote plays. Some felt anxious. Some felt excited. It is now time for new conversations and new ways of considering the distribution of power, land and decision-making, because if we don’t tell our own stories, others will do it for us.

If Constitution Street sounds a revolutionary sort of a place it’s because it is. Or it once was, what with a name like Constitution Street, built in the late eighteenth century amidst the Scottish Enlightenment and the birth of new nations. As you may know though, the UK doesn’t’t have a written constitution. Rather, there are constitutional conventions based on case law and principle developed over centuries. There is an ongoing debate amongst legal scholars and activists about whether or not now is the moment to write a new constitution to better safeguard against excessive executive power, particularly in light of Brexit and the particular threat that Brexit poses to economic, social and cultural rights such as workers’ rights and environmental protections.

Much as a street belongs equally to all the individual neighbours who call it home, human rights belong to us all. Rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent upon one another. Indeed, the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights famously states that human rights begin in the small places closest to home. Few human rights, however, are absolute. Rather, they are subject to limitations and derogations, both legal and political in nature and the most sensitive of balances embedded in human rights law is the relationship between the individual and the community.

My community on Constitution Street is rich with the retelling of old stories. Key constitutional characters from history have walk-on parts, including Robert the Bruce, Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots and Oliver Cromwell. I think it is a special street but it is in fact much like any street. It is a place where we go about the routine of our day to day lives as we always have done.

Streets, like stories, have a beginning, middle and an end. By convention, which is after all the constitutional, principled way of doing things, we should start at the beginning with a welcome because storytelling is about hospitality- the giving and receiving of life experience. So, make yourself at home. The street stretches east to west for half a mile, from the entrance to the North Sea at its Port to the beginning of Edinburgh city centre on Leith Walk. The mix of Victorian tenements and high-rise tower block, to the industrial docks, warehouses and medieval churches, embody the constantly shifting dualities of old and new in Scotland’s capital city and the waves of immigration and emigration that continue to blend culture, language and perspective. Here is a liminal land on the cusp of change in our age of anxiety.

We have the best and the worst of times here. In this dynamic, fizzing space ideas bubble, ferment and rise or fall. Just like the grain imported to Leith Docks that becomes the flour that was once traded inside the Leith Corn Exchange or brewed with yeast and hops inside the whisky bonds, we are constantly warming and fermenting our stories and our sense of place in the world, preparing to prove ourselves ready. Ready for change.

And how to develop empathy? You must think yourself into the story. I am interviewing the residents of this, one street in one city, here and now. I am listening to my neighbours who voted differently from me in the constitutional choices posed by recent referenda. I am challenging my own assumptions and prejudices, to consider what rights, if any, we would want to enshrine in a new constitution. And I am being surprised by known and strange things right outside my doorstep. I have heard from Maddie aged twelve as she prepares to transition to secondary school, from JP on the 16th floor of Kirkgate House in the light of uncomfortable home truths about housing inequality, from Mary on the last night of the Port of Leith bar where she was the landlady, from a Buddhist nun meditating inside the former Bank of Leith, and from the First Minister in the same car park where an alligator was found inside the boot of a Vauxhall Corsa.

This is our Constitution Street. You will likely also live together with your own neighbours in a form of social contract, a living constitution. If you don’t, start that conversation. My conversations have so far taken me from the Foot of the Walk in Leith, to Aristotelous Square in Thessaloniki and Placa Catalunya in Barcelona- meeting with ordinary people living through extraordinary constitutional times in their own small places closest to home. Mostly though, I walk up and down Constitution Street every day and I pay attention to change so that I might come to name it, and therefore to know it, and myself, better. In this way, I am setting out on a constitutional. Hear me to the end of the road.

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.