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:
Not everyone is your brother or sister in faith, but everyone is your neighbour, and you must love your neighbour.”
The Good Samaritan
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. The 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. And a semi-autobiographical story we retell every year.
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. Wisdom and foolishness. 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, there stands a commemorative statue of Rabbie Burns, bestowed in plaid waistcoat and breeches, his right hand raised over heart. Hidden in plain sight, he 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 tothe old manse at no.59 and chap on the door. Unfurl my scarf and flatten my hair. Shuffling back and forth, to and fro, tapping out a swaying rhythm in 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 a ‘It’s just me’ into the slit of electric light. See my breath be absorbed into the gathering warmth of the familiar 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. ‘Away and come 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
Yes, today is a non-named day (what shall we call it?) and far from yesterday’s anticipation of the many something tomorrows penciled into diaries. Yes, not even a very good day, a somewhat embarrassing day what with the ground that is a bit soggy and the skies that are a a bit dreich. Cagoules and cans clinking outside caravan doors. Saltires and Lion Rampants shrugging an awkward apology to Catalan and Anti-Trident bystanders. Joggers in Holyrood Park ready to take up arms on hips and knees and pausing on the hard ground outside the Palace to catch their breath- a breath punctuated by the rhythm of power ballads on continuous shuffle- endorphins pumping through their soft bodies making them still believe that the people, the people, the people are sovereign. Yes. Not an Independence Day, just a Thursday still, yes.
‘The Renowned Orders of the Night’ by Anselm Kiefer (my favourite painting at the Guggenheim). Photo credit: Bilbao Guggenheim
The solar eclipse on a cold, grey morning in Bilbao was somewhat underwhelming. Huddled together with other delegates from the UCLG 21 Culture Summit, I peered at the live satellite link up to clearer skies in northern Europe while a corduroy-clad professor from the University of Bilbao explained that we would have to wait a very long, long time until the next total eclipse. I lifted the cardboard eclipse glasses to my sad eyes in awkward compliance for a group photo. I wanted to be somewhere else.
There was absolutely no danger of being blinded by the sun that morning. And yet, while we might not have been able to see it, the powerful energy of the sun, moon, and other things we don’t fully understand, was all around us. There was a heightened sense of awareness.
NOT the solar eclipse
The Culture Summit in the Basque region of Spain gathered together mayors, academics, lawyers, and artists from across the world to consider the intrinsic and instrumental role of culture in sustainable development, particularly with regard to cultural planning in cities. The premise being that while the last century was about state to state international relations, we are living through a transition in the twenty-first century towards city to city leadership linked in a global network (If Mayors Rule the World). Cities might be able to promote and protect the right to cultural life where nation states have failed to do so because of realpolitik and a reluctance of many to adequately legislate for economic, social and cultural rights in general.
As the right to cultural life becomes embedded in the post 2015 Sustainable Development Goals, it is appropriate that city planners borrow the maxim from international development of ‘think global, act local’ (see the reports of the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Farida Shaheed). And so, acting local, I wanted to understand the impact of the Guggenheim Museum on Bilbao’s broader cultural ecology. (My home city of Dundee has begun the construction of a new V&A Museum and it is hoped that, much like the original vision for Bilbao’s Guggenheim twenty years ago, the multi-million pound investment will bring increased visitors to the city, become an architectural landmark and put Dundee on the map for design and fashion. Time will tell.)
Swim (Alhondiga Culture and Leisure Centre)
I visited Zorrozaurre in the Deusto district of the city. This man-made peninsula is industrial wasteland between the river and canal and is about a mile from Frank Gehry’s iconic building and the quaint bars of Bilbao’s old town. Our small group unpicked a trail through the abandoned ruins of old factories and urban decay. Stopping to look at the shell of a former paper mill on the banks of the river, our guide discreetly moved us on when I asked a question about the authorities’ response to the squatters living inside. The long-term regeneration plan is to annex the peninsula to create an ‘island for culture’ (“Manhattan is an island”, remarked one local without a hint of irony) but while Spain waits for the hangover of the economic crash to wear off, all regeneration work is stalled. It seems that in this transition phase, city officials will tolerate informal and imaginative uses of the dead space and its skeletons of concrete.
We met with the organisers of a community arts collective called ‘Mientras’ (meanwhile). Faced with a likely ten year delay before the bulldozers and town-planners return, artists have reclaimed space for murals, small market stalls, craft workshops and a fully functioning theatre. It’s an altogether gentle, positive act of civil disobedience. Without links to regular public transport, street lighting, or basic utilities, projects like these are cut off from the main infrastructure of the city and disconnected from the footfall of visitors spending in the gift shop and restaurants of the Guggenheim.
Anxiety and excitement are two sides of the same coin and, for some, knowing that your community garden could be flattened or the theatre show cancelled at any moment might add adrenaline and a sense of urgency to creative experiment. There is no permanence, only ‘meanwhile’ moments of cohesion and cultural dialogue suspended between a fragmented past and the contested offer of something else to come. The artists in Zorrozaure looked like they were having fun.
From northwest Spain to northwest Scotland a few days later when I travelled to Ullapool for the Changin’ Scotland ‘festival of politics, culture and ideas’. After 25 previous festivals, organisers Jean Urquhart and Gerry Hassan brought in Mairi McFadyen and Andy Summers from National Collective to curate a programme with new voices. I was humbled to be one of those new voices and led a session on ‘Be the change you want to see in Scotland’. Somewhat daunted by the challenge of how to structure the only workshop in the programme (other sessions all being panel debates) for an audience of 150 people, I took time in preparation to reflect on the relationship between civic action and our emotional responses to change. I also sought advice from my friend Simon, an art therapist, about how to create a safe and inclusive space to let go of attachment during a time of transition.
Wester Ross, Scottish Highlands
It would be fair to say that most of the regular Changin’ Scotland participants were Yes voters in the September 2014 Independence Referendum. The festival weekend had to move away from a Yes/ No dichotomy while acknowledging that many are still hurting from the crushing disappointment of a No outcome and uncertainty about how to sustain authentic leadership and direction from within Yes campaign groups. Scotland is in a ‘meanwhile’ transition all of its own- from the recent past of IndyRef hysteria where our anxiety and excitement built in momentum towards a defined calendar date that punctuated time, to an unpredictable future in which a buoyant SNP may hold the balance of power between political parties after the May 2015 UK Parliamentary Elections.
For me, many of the most energising conversations in the last two years of political debate took place around fires. Sometimes these were real fires but often they were the fiery, shared spaces of pubs, offices and bus stops. If a ‘meanwhile’ phase can feel ambiguous, unsettling and a bit existential, things that are real and tangible provide reassurance. I introduced three physical states of firewood – ash, timber and kindling – as metaphors for past, present and future; asking Changin’ Scotland participants to explore in small groups what each meant to them.
The kindling was a metaphor for energy and collective action. It is wood with purpose, committed to the fire. Being small, and light, people seemed to like holding the kindling bricks in their hands while they talked or built small structures with the wood. When I invited people to record a personal, one-word mood reflection on a piece of kindling before throwing it into a real fire later that night, I was surprised by how many did. Words like ‘heal’ and ‘repair’ fueled the stove back at the Ceilidh Place as we ate, drank and sang together.
Then timber. The moss-covered silver birch and oak rounds represented roots, knowledge and truth. Completely by chance, the logs had been collected by Mairi on her drive through the Great Glen the day before – an entire woodland blessed by His Holiness The Dali Lama when he visited Scotland in 2012. We might not have reached an inner peace at Changin’ Scotland exploring our transition between past hurt and future aspiration, but I like to think that we travelled some distance on the path to acceptance of the ‘meanwhile’ phase we are in – a time of regrouping as activists, building new political and economic alliances, and learning from mistakes. We certainly had a fun weekend trying.
03/04/15, Constitution Street
I like stability and certainty so am most instinctively drawn towards the tangible, solid roots of the wood/ tree metaphor. And yet I admit that my most productive periods for creative output coincide with when I feel the jagged splinters of human ups and downs most intensely and events don’t necessarily catch alight in the way that I had planned or expected them to. To use a yoga reference, when we anticipate the possibility of a big change to come – career, housing, health, relationships, relocation- our root chakra can become damaged and the body compensates by over-activating our heart and head chakras. That over-activation results in repetitive and sustained emotional hurting and mental confusion until we regain our firm footing or grow new roots.
Keeping focused on the here and now, at a ceramics workshop in Leith.
If you could reassure an unemployed friend that they are about to secure a full-time job, they would enjoy the extended leisure time free from worry and stress. Or if someone feeling single and alone could see into the future and know that they will one day meet their soulmate and start a family of their own, a lack of commitments and compromise would be treasured like the gift the present is meant to be. Obviously life isn’t like that. Reflections only become clear with the benefit of hindsight looking back.
Perhaps anxiety and insecurity are painful but necessary precursors in a transition to being fully ready for a calmer, lighter state of being in the future – whether that is about strong, loving relationships; an independent social democracy for Scotland; or an integrated cultural plan for Bilbao. And so, there has to be value in embracing different types of ‘Mientras’ – releasing the pause button of expectation, pressing play on acceptance and dancing with an open heart and mind into the heightened sense of awareness of here and now- not waiting and worrying for something better to begin that is completely beyond control. Everything could be a lot more fun that way.
So I’m staying put, for the meanwhile. And trying to be comfortable with it. At least, I think that’s what I’ve learned from recent travels. But i’m far from ‘being the change I want to see’. Much like the next solar eclipse on a clear day, that will take a long, long time.
Dancing ‘Nana’ sculptures by Niki de Saint Phalle, Bilbao Guggenheim. They seemed to embody pure joy.
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.
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.
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.
This was the week that the three horsemen of the UK apocalypse rode north in tartan cagoules to hold hope to ransom. The fourth horseman, the former Prime Minister, prepared the ground the day before with his assurances of more (yet to be specified) powers.
The partisan pantomime of ‘He’s Behind You’ in the Polls would be a comic farce if it wasn’t such a shameful affront to the positive, civic engagement that has taken root in Scotland during the Independence Campaign thus far. The people of Scotland haven’t been meek observers of political grandstanding; we have been active agents of self-expression and self-determination. It’s been joyous and challenging and inspiring. We’ve seen a flattening of power and influence in our celebrity obsessed modern world. An undergraduate friend casually remarked to me that Noam Chomsky had emailed him asking for a recommended reading list to the IndyRef.
So it was with some irony that the pro-Union side of the campaign were the ones to hoist Saltires and declare outpourings of unrequited love this week. Hitherto, the campaign had been blissfully absent of Balmoral sentimentality. This debate was never about nationalism. It was, and is, about democracy.
Mainstream media has woken up and started to take an interest in our Referendum. I don’t recognise the “divided nation” reported by the BBC or what The Observer journalist Alexander Linklater described as the “[atmosphere] tense, nervous and unimaginative”. For two years, the debate was dismissed as a northern joke, a distraction, a playful game of Scottish tribalism. And now that the polls have confirmed a too close to call result, we’ve been dealt a one week catch-up with frenzied hyperbole, day trips, photocalls and a possible courtroom wrangle if the results appear inconclusive. Rather, we could have had two thoughtful years of reconsidering UK-wide democracy. So very, very sad. Panicky, partisan politics is not the context in which to affirm the best constitutional structures to promote and protect our public service delivery and exercise of human rights.
You’re so vain, you probably think this vote is about you
So England is feeling bruised. It thinks the Yes campaign is an anti-English protest vote in which it doesn’t get a say. This fundamentally misunderstands the outward-looking, letting-go potential of a new Scotland freed from its underdog, victim-hood baggage. And I say this as a card-carrying Eastenders addict who lived in Brixton as a young child. To pit English against Scottish is crass and outdated. Scotland is the ultimate ‘mongrel nation’ and, given the full legislative powers to do so, would welcome a more mature relationship with its island neighbours and an immigration policy that protects the human dignity of the new arrivals that want to contribute to working and living in Scotland. Well, let England shake. Perhaps it is time for a shake-up of a system that election after election conserves the narrow interests of a crowded, priced-out southeast at the expense of redistributing wealth and opportunity.
Shock and awe
Many of us had already voted by postal ballot when the new devo-max offerings appeared as if by magic at the start of the week. I sense that many Labour Party politicians are uncomfortable, embarrassed even, to find themselves on the same campaign side as Nigel Farage, George Galloway and orange order marches. I cannot understand why yesterday’s Labour men share a platform with today’s Condem masters of ‘shock and awe’ campaigning (their words).The Scottish National Party used to be known as the ‘tartan Torys’ by those leaning to the left, or in our house, ‘The Silly Nose Pickers Party’. Now, gone is Labour of love.
Choosing to make Scotland your home, wherever you have traveled from or are heading to, entitles you to a say in this national debate. Yes/ No, win/ loose, the bigger prize is about democracy. The battle for participatory democracy and empowered civil society has already been won. A 97% voter registration and the predicated record-breaking voter turnout will prove this. And then we can get on with other things.