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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The Prove – constitutional change on a street called home

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.


Streetview

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.

Const St entrance

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”[1]) 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”[2] between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.” [Wikipedia].

See also Mike Small, TEDx Portobello on Liminal Land: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aNhoq-PNEvI 

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:

“Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!”


Human rights begin in small places, close to home

Written in the nation-building era of the post war period, the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human rights 1948 famously states:

“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.

Const St exit

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 ferment

Under a damp, warm cloth

Ready to rise or fall

Then we must weigh it in our hands

For this, our daily bread is

Proving

See also:

Mientras

Roamin’ in the gloamin’ with a Bonnie by my side

On Constitution Street

Tae Leith