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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Running in circles

There’s a Gaelic saying ‘Eadar da theine Bealltainn’ which means something like to be between two Beltane fires, or in order words, to be between a rock and a hard place. The springtime energey of Beltane season is behind us now but the political bonifres of the preceding weeks are still smouldering hot.

June and early July went by in a bit of a blur for me. It was hard to keep up with the capricious pace of change on Constitution Street, let alone the intractable mess of UK constitutionalism post General-Election and pre Brexit. Here are few things that seemed to be important.

The UK feels a bruised and bruising place right now. The tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire in London shocked the country and prompted important and difficult questions about class, race and social housing. As David Lemmy MP said “It is as though we live in Dickensian times with a tale of two cities”.

I’ve never been inside the tower block at the far end of Constitution Street, Kirkgate House, and to have any understanding of our lived expereinces on the street, it’s important that I meet these neighbours too.

The General Election winners appeared as loosers, the loosers as winners and all of the political pundits were proven wrong. The Prime Minister gambled and lost her UK majority and the SNP lost a third of its seats in Scotland while the Corbyn bounce-effect for the UK Labour party exceeded all expectations and the DUP in Northern Ireland (where there is no functioning devolved government) held the balance of power in the UK to give the Conservatives their majority at Westminster. The muddied landscape of territorial politics looked more slippery and uncertain than ever before

Back on Constitution Street and with ten minutes until the close of polling stations on 8th June, I drove Tony the short distance from his ground floor flat on Cadiz Street to St Mary’s Primary School polling station on nearby Leith Links. Reporting excellent home-care from the NHS, Tony told me that he didn’t see the point in voting but that he would be quite glad to get out of the house and go ‘cruising’. After greeting his many local friends staffing the electoral registration tables within the school gym hall and with the clock striking 10pm, Tony triumphantly declared “I’m an elector!”.

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Tony after voting

I don’t know where Tony put his ‘X’ in the box but Edinburgh North and Leith constituency recorded a 71% voter turnout with the SNP’s Deidre Brock holding her seat (19,243 votes, 43% of the share) despite a close second from Labour (local councillor Gordon Munro taking 31% of the vote) and surprisingly close third from the Conservatives (27%).

Reading later about the breakdown of votes, I learnt that our constituency has the highest proportion of residents living in tenements and flats of any parliamentary constituency in the United Kingdom and that the constituency also includes Bute House, the official residence of the First Minister of Scotland.

The First Minister acknowledged that talk of a second independence referendum was a contributing factor in the nationwide voter swing to unionist parties and it is now  unikely that a further referendum will take place before the 2021 Holyrood Parliamentary term, if indeed at all. This is disappointing news for independence supporters but the residual constitutional ambiguity amid a protracted Brexit negotiation may serve to further underline the need for a rethink about how the respective nations of the UK exist together and how finance is fairly distributed. Constitutional questions about the right to self-termination remain unresolved.

 

 

 

 

Leith Gala Day ‘Tory-free zone T shirts’, Yes 2014 grafitti on the Constitution Street pavement and a park bench inscription at Customs House Lane.

Another post-election harr hung low over Leith docks on the Friday morning after the election night before. Then the following day and in the final minutes of extra time, Scotland lost their lead in the football against England. Roars were followed by heavy sighs in the pubs up and down Constitution Street. We had been robbed, again. Standing in line for some consoling chips, I was cheered by meeting Adriano, owner of Perinos  Fish and Chip Shop. He asked me when he can be ‘booked in’ for his Constitution Street interview. Word has gotten around.

Perseverance, the Leith motto, is what we’re good at here. The annual Leith Gala Day on the Links to mark the start of Leith Festival was packed out with candy floss, wee dugs, reggae music, raffles and home-baking. Poor Tony was laid up at home not well enough to get out dancing to his favourite band, Messenger, much to the annoyance of Festival Chair, Mary Moriarty, who had booked the band at Tony’s insistence. With the help of Bonnie dog, I guided visitors around the Constitution Street Corn Exchange, on the Leith Late Walking Tour and I performed my Porto essay at the Glasgow CCA one evening.

 

 

 

 

Rain water poured in through the living room ceiling on my last day of salaried employment after a deluge of rain in an unseasonablly wet June. Combined with a parking ticket from Lidl, propsects felt a bit gloomy. Leaving a damp Edinburgh behind, I set off for a few days away from the street. I was fair chuffed to complete the Barrathon – a half-marathon following the circumferance of the circular-shaped isle of Barra- and then to join island friends on the north western side of Lewis at Uig bay in the Mackenzie sisters’ caravan (see At the Half-Way House at Balallan).

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the caravan at Uig, isle of Lewis

After a magical time in the dunes and on gneiss rocks watching seabirds and the moon grow fatter under a spring tide, I returned to the mainland for my first working week of the sabbatical. The taxi driver that delivered Bonnie and I back to Constitution Street from Waverley train station late on Sunday night remarked, with considerable nostalgia, that his big brother, now deceased, used to live at number 72.

Perhaps like a running race, the beginning (the first 5km or the first few weeks) can feel like the steepest. My body feels heavy and slow in these early days of the project and I am full of self-doubt. Still, I am now committed to the effort and know that I need to find my own rythmn. I am trying to find that while a Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Humanities (IASH) at Edinburgh University and, with greater ease, while in residence at my Grandma’s house each Friday. I am loading up on sugary snacks and good tunes to pace myself.

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the view from 31 Hope Park Square overlooking the Meadows

 

Things I have been reading this month:

  • The First Day, by Phil Harrison
  • His Bloody Prooject Project by Graeme McCrae Burnett
  • Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott

It’s goodnight and goodluck from Constitution Street for now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome

Burns Night, 25 January 2017

I cross over the road.

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’.

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.