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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On Constitution Street

I am lucky enough to live and work on Constitution Street. Constitution Street is a broad, nineteenth-century thoroughfare connecting Edinburgh city and sea, of fading grandeur and plenty of soul. It is book-ended by statutes of two unlikely bedfellows in Scottish history. Queen Victoria is queen of the Great Junction Street and Leith Walk empire. And Rabbie Burns, Ayrshire poet – newly uprooted to make way for tramgate indecision- looks east towards the Docks and mischief-making.

Victoria is not amused. She presides over a scene of grey gloom. A place where it permanently looks like a November morning, and always smells of the fried onion scraps left behind by the burger van and fought over by pigeons. Spiked metal railings make a fortress around the two chemists and their supply of methadone scripts. Bored-looking husky dogs loyally stand guard over heartbroken alcoholics . Scars of 1960s civic vandalism are evident in the hulks of concrete tower blocks and shopping prescient that intimidate the frailty of surviving medieval and Victorian architecture and their exposed layers of social history.

This is less than one mile from Edinburgh’s affluent New Town, or three bus stops from John Lewis at the top of Leith Walk. But it is forgotten or largely invisible to the solicitors, bankers and estate agents that taxi into Leith for meals in The Shore’s Michelin star restaurants. I, too, pass on by. I pass on by to coffee shops, business meetings and jogs in the park further along the street.

I love this street. I love the urban friendliness of its shopkeepers, landladies and neighbours. I love the ‘Sunshine on Leith’ chorus on a Saturday night; the sandstone frescoes chronicling maritime trade on the Corn Exchange facade; the 30 somethings designers and tech start ups jostling with old time dockers for a seat on the quayside; and the new arrivals dreaming of a garden but making do with a window box. Civic pride is alive and well @Constitution_St .

Yet by acquiescing the health and housing conditions of our neighbours at the end of the street, we are all complicit in the tacit normalisation of poverty. It should come as no surprise that Leith is a stronghold for the flourishing Caledonian spring that, for some, offers up an alternative to the status quo. ‘Yes’ brands many windows, shop fronts and pavements on Constitution Street.

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The Shore, Leith. A tale of two cities.

Nationally, one in five Scots children live in household poverty and a life expectancy of 72 in some postcodes is one of the lowest in western Europe. If messers Cameron, Miliband and Clegg wanted to demonstrate their new ‘love’ for Scotland, they could put down their flags and come and spend time alongside the young graduates working three jobs on zero hour contracts to pay the rent, the asylum-seeking families unable to work or volunteer under right to remain restrictions, or the older people facing social exclusion in poor quality, high-rise housing.

An independent Scotland will not be a celtic utopia. I don’t consider myself a nationalist. I’ve lived and worked in different countries across the world and am inherently mistrusting of separation over unity. Nothing is black and white and I can identify with parts of both Yes and No.  However, I have come out as a Yesser because I think it’s the best chance we’ve got to address structural inequality – Rabbie’s ‘A Man’s a Man for Aw That’ if you will, with a feminist update.

A written constitution- written by and for the people of Scotland- is a chance to set down a formal benchmark for the things that matter on my street and the many other streets like it – the right to adequate housing, the right to accessible healthcare, the right to work, the right to play spaces, the right to cultural engagement, and the right to take part in the decisions that affect you. These are the social, cultural and economic rights that we don’t have sufficiently protected under British ‘constitutionalism’ and the vulnerability of successive governments playing party politics with membership of the Council of Europe (European Court of Human Rights) and the European Union.

The draft interim constitution currently out for consultation by the Scottish Government states simply that “In Scotland, the people are sovereign“. This contrasts with the principle of UK Parliamentary Sovereignty with Royal Assent. ‘Team Scotland’ negotiating constitutional settlement with the UK must bring rights home and give roles to the forgotten powerless at the bottom of the street.

As Lesly Riddoch articulates in her book ‘Blossom: What Scotland Needs to Flourish’, we need a new social democracy for Scotland, above and beyond a ‘Yes, where power is legitimised by authentic, local relationships. To facilitate these relationships, we need to increase our accountability of local government leadership and ensure meaningful participation in local service delivery (see the rise of so-called ‘mini publics’), and much more besides.

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No and Yes peaceful domesticity at my sister and her boyfriend’s Leith flat.

I realise I have been seduced by the inclusive, positive embrace of the new young radicals leading the Yes charge. Several of whom, locate their activism out of a self-titled ‘art cave’ on nearby Great Junction Street. With the IndyRef result on a knife edge, I feel strangely anxious and protective of their fragile hope. This Generation Yes looks and sounds ever younger with the recent arrival of the UK homeguard.

With a No vote, or indeed a protracted legal dispute in the event of an inconclusive result, dreams will be crushed and hearts broken. The energy powered by the civic confidence of the last two years will have to be released somewhere. I worry that the Yes generation will feel let down by their doubting older peers, see no future in a ‘business as usual’ UK with high youth unemployment and look to abroad for the development of their talent and creativity. The potential for this new brain drain concerns me far more than the possible relocation of some banking brass plaques. As you might expect, there are no brass plaques at the foot of Leith Walk on Constitution Street.

On Thursday, and the days that follow, I hope that we can all have the courage to ‘Tak A Cup O’ Kindness Yet’ to accept, reach out to, and love those who have voted a different way, wherever we call home.