Wind howling. Sleet slapping. Jaw clenching. Sky dripping black and blue. Knuckles flaring red raw.
Palms beneath the knuckles clasp around a bulging cylinder of vegetarian haggis. Its phallic sheath coating oatmeal, black pepper, nutmeg and nods to both heritage and modernity. Hands, grain, spices. Bound together and becoming one. This, my pulsing, transparent offering to neighbours.
Burns Night. January and the year still blinking and bleary. Our annual celebration of the national Bard. Ritually marked with a supper of sheep’s stomach stuffed with offal and washed down with drams of whisky. Then the re-telling of a long Scots poem no one can quite remember one year to the next. Something about a drunken man (Tam) riding home on his horse from the pub one stormy night and happening upon a witches’ dance led by the devil playing bagpipes, with one particularly beautiful, young witch (Nannie Dee) dancing in her nightclothes, her cutty sark. And all the meanwhile, Tam’s long-suffering wife (Kate) waiting at home, nursing her wrath.
A toast to the lassies and a reply. Tam and Kate. Tam and Nannie Dee. Kate and Nannie Dee. A conversation. A song. A quarrel to be soothed. Union and disunion.
At home here on Constitution Street, Leith, we women are gathering by invitation to celebrate exactly twenty years’ sobriety of our friend and neighbour. No booze, no meat, no men. For tonight at least. The best of times and the worst of times. And only just beginning.
Later, the fake haggis will be cooked in the microwave and its split insides served with a clapshot of neeps, tatties and tomato ketchup. Plates on trays on knees. Children and dogs tumbling at our feet. The TV volume turned low, providing an unsettling, constant hum from the wider world and the news out there that threatens louder voices.
While further along the street at the north/ south junction stretching parallel to the sea, a commemorative statue of Rabbie Burns bestowed in waistcoat and breeches, his hand raised over heart, hings his head wistfully toward the temptations of the Docks, the dancing girls, the honest poverty, the dignities and the hamely fare on which we will dine tonight. For a’ that.
I climb the eight slanting, concrete slabs of the steps to no.59 and chap on the door. Unfurl my scarf and flatten my hair. Shuffle back and forth, to and fro, tapping out a swaying rhythm in my heeled boots, trying to keep warm and to not drop the haggis. Poised. Ready. Hovering on the threshold of inside and outside, the day and the night. On the periphery. In between. The sky above and the ground below. Here and now.
I knock again. I’m late. Push open the brass letter box and post my ‘It’s only me’ into the slit of electric light. See my breath be absorbed into the gathering warmth of the hallway beyond. I wait. A dog barks. A pair of denimed legs attached to bare feet appear in the rectangular picture frame of the letter box, hinging and enlarging into view across floorboards like a half-shut knife.
‘Ah, it’s yourself” comes the reply. ‘Come away in’.
I’ve been reflecting on the particular spatial and temporal qualities of ‘in between’ times – the best of times and the worst of times. Anxiety and excitement are two sides of the same coin after all.
The dystopian reality of current global politics- Brexit, Trump, Europe’s utterly inept response to the biggest mass migration of people since the second world war, the era of fake news- combined with the over-stimulation, self-saturation and cult of instant gratification stoked by social media, has rendered us scrolling junkies jittery for a deeper connection fix. It can be comforting then, detoxifying even, to look up from small screens and grasp big, everyday acts of kindness where we can still find them. The hyper-local world view- the view of the neighbourhood, the street, or tenement stair- brings into focus that empathy and love are not finite resources that can be mined by short-term greed and narcissism. Active participation and face by face interaction is where we find meaning to the world around us and define the contribution we chose to make. This is the daily practice of think global, act local.
My street is Constitution Street in Leith, Edinburgh. It is an 1800 thoroughfare stretching east to west, parenthesis explaining city and sea, bookending the port of Leith and the nation’s capital. A street where statues to the unlikely bedfellows of Rabbie Burns (Bernard Street junction) and Queen Victoria (Duke Street junction) are in awkward conversation and where maritime docks meet new creative industries. It is a place of faded grandeur, hidden vaults, perpetual gossip, light and dark, and general under-recognition by town planners. Comprising a medieval graveyard, Georgian townhouses, Victorian tenements, ’70s highrise and the Tram-track scars of post-recession Britain, this is everyone’s land and yet, still, a liminal land of constant dualities and curious misfits persevering side by side.
looking east towards the sea
I have lived and worked on Constitution Street for the past decade. The last ten years have been a time of sustained political unrest in the UK, charting the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 and the European Referendum of 2016, alongside deepening economic and health inequalities. The average life expectancy of a woman in the Leith Walk electoral ward is 74, compared to 89 in more affluent Barnton, west Edinburgh, less than five miles away.
A commons and a parcel o’ rogues
Anxiety contains interesting information because it tells us something of who we are. A therapeutic response to feeling unsettled might be to remember where and who we are right now because the thing scaring us probably isn’t in the present moment but in fact a past scare evoked by something in the present. I learnt this analysis from my neighbour Claire, a therapist.
With the announcement of a further Scottish Independence Referendum now imminent and a voting date likely to be in autumn 2018, we are living in a heightened in-between, anxious/ exciting, time of constitutional flux. A binary choice of Yes or No to ‘should Scotland be an independent country?’ doesn’t allow for de facto in-betweens of ‘Yes, hopefully’, ‘No, apologetically’ or ‘I don’t know’. The intra-referenda period 2014- 2018 is the space for a more fluid, ambiguous settling and unsettling of our constitutional viewpoints.
“In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.” [Wikipedia].
I value the diversity of my neighbourhood friendships. I am invited by Tony (72, Scots-Nigerian- Leither) to adjacent Cadiz Street for a lunchtime bowl of soup and gossip, and across the road to no.59 to play dress-up with Maddie (12, Scots- English- Leither). Both have lived here longer than me and have taught me much. I am curious about Tony and Maddie’s futures on Constitution Street and their individual priorities for constitutionalism in a new Scotland.
With an ageing population and changing family structures and relationship choices, more of us than ever before live alone. Loneliness can be a particular side-effect of liminality- a perception of being lost and not yet found anew, of being temporarily in-between company. In her acclaimed ‘Field Guide to Getting Lost’, Rebecca Solnit notes that the word ‘lost’ comes from the Old Norse los meaning the disbanding of an army; soldiers falling out of a formation to go home, a truce with the wider world.
For the German-born Jewish American political theorist, Hannah Arendt, belonging to a community and being visible in civic space was vital to promoting and protecting the rights of others. She believed that in 1930s Europe citizens were primed for the appeal of totalitarian leaders because they were isolated from any community — political or otherwise:
“What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century.”
Here and now in Scotland, I am curious about whether the social-dynamics of involuntary, domestic intimacy in tenement housing may help buffer against feelings of loneliness. The residents of some eight or nine flats stacked up and down and side by side share a common stair, roof and front door. Living in isolation and suffering from a fear of the unknown is somehow less likely when there are everyday, collective issues to resolve like a leaking roof, or the common landing between flats in which to negotiate eye contact and say good morning to our neighbours. And then there is the hyper-local politics of a cleaning rota.
Side by side conversations allow for active citizenship and the imagination of the possible to blossom. And, I think, that the nearness of tenement architecture to city centres in Scotland is in contrast to the comparable absence of affordable housing in English cities but I will need to find out more.
I often fantasise about moving out of the city to a rural idyll with more living space and a garden, but on return from weekend escapes, I am reminded of the reciprocal benefits attached to living within urban community. Looking out of my tenement windows to the street scene below, I know the names of the people passing by. I know where they live or work. If I wanted to, I could tap on the window glass and be confident that my neighbours- my Constitution Street-ers- would look up and wave back. Maddie would stick her tongue out. This is immensely reassuring in an age of anxiety and perceived urban anonymity.
The UK is the only country in Europe or the Commonwealth without a written constitution. As an undergraduate law student at the University of Edinburgh, I was taught that instead of a single document, the separation of executive, judicial and legislative powers in the UK is governed by constitutional convention. With the maturing of Scottish devolution, we have quasi-constitutional statutes in the form of The Scotland Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998– legislation which set out the competency within which public bodies, including local and devolved government, are permitted to act. However, both these pieces of legislation are subject to the parliamentary supremacy of Westminster. In these uncertain, shifting and shifty, times of Tory majority rule from London and lacklustre Labour party opposition, the Scottish devolution settlement and the Human Rights Act are both vulnerable to repeal. Beware the Rabbie Burns lament:
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” (Eleanor Roosevelt)
At a journalist friend’s house party in a tenement flat on Leith Walk last year, I was naturally drawn to the spare bedroom where the window was flung open (such is my obsession for seeking out fresh air) and, somewhat ironically, then joined a huddled congregation of shivering, committed smokers. We discussed the bruising experience of 2014 Indyref campaigning and consoling, and made predictions on the various ‘what if’ scenarios that may influence the First Minister’s gamble on whether or not to call a further indyref. I asked Shetlander Jordan Ogg (editor of The Island Review) what he thought we might come to call this in between, intra-referenda, age of anxiety period. He proposed that the kneading together of arguments, the heated desire for change and the need to wait until the Yes vote has risen sufficiently could be described as akin to bread proving.
In the 2014 White Paper on Scotland’s Future, the SNP government confirmed that an independent Scotland would have a written constitution incorporating international economic, social and cultural rights and that such a constitution would be shaped by an inclusive, participatory approach involving civic society. There are examples from elsewhere, such as Iceland, where more radical citizens’ juries or mini-publics have been tasked with determining those principles and rights so fundamental as to be recorded constitutional importance.
Back on Constitution Street, as an icy, northeast haar stumbles in across the Firth of Forth, we hold our collective breath in anticipation of what successive Caledonian springs might bring and whether we, the citizens, will rise or fall to the challenge. I want to ask my neighbours to crowdsource a constitution for the place and times in which we live.
What does the right to food mean to the Turkish cafe owners, the young mums digging in the community garden and the office workers queuing for a fish supper from Perinos on a Friday night? What does the right to private and family life look like for families of same sex couples, single parents, great grandparents, and student house-shares? What might the right to culture involve for the mix of licensing, festivals and voluntary arts groups? And how has the smoking ban, alcoholism and drug addiction shaped our attitudes to the right to health? These questions and others will help frame doorstep, side by side conversations in the coming year on Constitution Street.
looking west towards the city
I am mindful of a duty of care not to patronise, fictionalise, or misrepresent my neighbours. The rich social and industrial history of Leith is increasingly well documented. We have our own cultural exports too. Trainspotting most celebrated. I want to take my cues more from Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ than McCall Smith’s ‘No. 44 Scotland Street’. I hope to avoid asserting any overtly Yes or No to Scots Indy leanings and instead to take up residence on the threshold of in-between spaces. So far, conversations have taken place over hedges at the allotments, over pints at Leith Festival AGM, in the City Archives maps department and in the law library. I’m loving it.
The small places, closest to home include Leith Links, the Dockers Club, the Port O’Leith bar, Printworks coffee shop, the no.16 bus stop, St Mary’s playground, the quayside, and perhaps even Stories Home Bakery further up Leith Walk where macaroni pies and fudge donuts fuel all night revellers and early-morning grafters and where I am hopeful loaves of bread are still proven and baked fresh.
And so, like this, my recent late-winter days have been a time of hunkering down and of testing and fermenting the bubbles of a new writing project. It will be part-participatory ethnography, part-political theory, part-storytelling. And like all love letters, the words will likely flow easier with the benefit of some distance.
Short poems or essays may continue to appear on this personal blog from time to time but I shall be focussing on field notes for Constitution Streeters in the main. All feedback, introductions, reading suggestions, and gentle critique is, as always, welcome.
Let it breathe,Grow and fermentUnder a damp, warm clothReady to rise or fallThen we must weigh it in ourhandsFor this, our daily bread isProving
I haven’t posted on this blog for a while. The sudden and unexpected deaths of both a close friend and a grandparent on Christmas Day left me shaken and in need of solace beyond the written word.
I was lucky enough to find that, in part, beneath the vast desert skies of Baja, California Sur, in Mexico during a pre-planned yoga teacher-training course. A landscape where mountain ridges give way to the Pacific coastline and plains of cacti and sand-blasted rock formations stretch out in between. At home, I have a black and white exhibition postcard tacked onto the kitchen wall above the sink of the artist Georgia O’Keeke standing hands on hips, looking out in awe and with a sense of purpose at the all-encompassing, sensual landscape of her beloved New Mexico beyond. She keeps me company while scouring pots and pans.
Seemingly alone in the old Mexico desert during a wilderness experience that the new-age Californians at Yandara Yoga termed a ‘vision quest’, I was awakened by the presence of another creature sharing my improvised pillow of rucksack and blanket. For a moment suspended between mutual respect and curiosity, a large hermit crab and I looked one another in the eye and then each jumped back in alarm triggered by evolutionary survival instinct. The hermit, a greater expert in nomadic ways, scurried his transformer claws through the sand dunes in search of a more peaceful resting spot. I sighed and rolled over.
Later, from the relative comfort inside my tent pitched on the El Pescadero peninsula, I could just about make out the mournful songs of migrating gray whales rising up from deep beneath the Ocean surface. The ancient sea mammals seemingly sending out a bass note for those drifting in and out of sleep on the shoreline to receive in call and response. Then the sound of these soothing hymns was punctuated by the percussion of angry waves crashing against forgiving rocks made soft by repeated nightly blows. The tidal waves were powered by the reverberating energy of a new moon, which in turn caused healing aloe vera plants rooted in the desert dust to blossom into momentary flower overnight before sealing tightly shut again come morning, as though in an imaginary dream. And just enough moonlight to light up a New Year’s Eve dance floor for playful yogis on the beach.
The generous, undemanding intimacy afforded by strange creatures in the night helps navigate the more ambiguous terrain of loss and grief, signally new trail markers on which to get back on the path to a familiar, firm footing of living in the day to day present alongside loved ones.
The Yandara teacher training in Baja had an emphasis on regular bhakti, devotional practice involving singing and dancing as a community in the evenings. This was called Satsung, together time. Mantras included the chanting of ‘guru dev namo’/ ‘I bow to the divine teacher within’. I first sang this song, over and over again, until in a blissed out trance of mind and body union, with the woman who introduced me to yoga some ten years ago, Tabitha Dean. I initially misheard ‘dev’ as ‘Dave’ and so she came to be known to me as Guru Dave, later shortened to Guru-D. It suited her. And so it stuck.
The source of the divine means different things to each of us. For me, it is simply the oneness and inter-connectivity of the natural world that surrounds us and is us. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The universality of Om.
Perhaps the surprise gift of whalesong is nature’s way of reminding those of us land-bound to keep singing and dancing throughout the surfacing ups and deep downs of a life well lived, for we will all return to the sea one day and, meanwhile, might do well to truly appreciate the sensations of salty air stinging our bare arms and of solid quartz cooling and supporting tired feet. Both Tabitha and my late grandfather, Tom, loved to sing and dance, whether at a warehouse party in Dalston or on the Scottish football terraces. They were both gurus in their own unique ways and I will miss them both so very much.
Mix fried onions, tinned tuna fish and baked beans. Cover with mashed potato, toasted bread crumbs and grilled tomato, then cook in a casserole dish for 30 minutes at 180 degrees. Atop the mashed potato mound should be a homemade flag attached to a cocktail stick – initials, a saltire, or in 1990- a skull and crossbones. Maggie Out Pie was alike in recipe and ingredients to Boxing Day pie, United for the Cup pie, baby Lucy arrives pie, and Dad is cooking tea pie. But all the more filling because we had never tasted it before. I didn’t know who Maggie was to have deserved her own pie except that Dad seemed particularly pleased with himself that Sunday evening. Everyone asked for seconds. Big helpings of the pie filled our small tummies and we slept soundly. The sweetness of the baked beans and fried onions went in. The bitterness of the Poll Tax, the Pitts and Privatisation went out, I was told. Now our bigger tummies and open eyes are hungry again for new pies and it is our turn to cook them.
When the moon waxes it makes a B, when the moon wanes it makes a D
and C is for Christina, her twin sister, and me in between
at the Half-Way House, Balallan
– parish of the lochs, a lord and the poachers,
the longest village in Scotland.
Long are the nights, and darker the days
when twin sister asks ‘do you believe in good and evil?’
Waxing and waning
peat flaking on the stove, me pouring the gin,
our waterproofs steaming from Todon moor
and C is for the Caledonia tape in the caravan.
‘Let me tell you that I love you’, we sing.
Half-way between Harris and Lewis
with black dogs and bibles on our knees.
Sunday is already here,
when I reply ‘no, I believe in this’.
The village of Balallan (Gaelic: Baile Ailein) is a crofting township on the border of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides, stretching 4 miles along the head of Loch Erisort. The Sabbath is strictly observed by many islanders.