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:
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!”.
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).
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.
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.
I’m just filming the pigeons. I know it looks a bit odd.
Aye. Get her in an ‘aw!, the man says, nudging his female companion. Are ye frae Embra, hen? Dusnae soun’ like it.
Oh, I’ve lived here- Constitution Street- the past few years.
Ah ken, different accent mind. Bonnie day, eh?
Anyway, back to the pigeons. I watch their daily ritual from the crossroads at the Foot of the Walk and Queen Victoria statue while I wait for the street lights to change to amber then green. Fixed as they are on the present, the birds ascend en mass at green without hesitation or doubt. The street surf- a tide of number 22 busses, skateboarders, pushchairs and urban wanderers- surges forward and the birds rise up and away, toward the peaks of an Edinburgh skyline stretched out ahead. The birds swoop south to west then north and east again, always in a clockwise, meditative formation – the beat of their feathers like the tattered rags of prayer flags left to disintegrate on a mountain pass.
But these are no tiny Buddhists. They are old punks. And have seen and heard a lot. With tattooed necks, skinny legs and darts of green plumage illuminating their blackened bodies and darker sky-surround, their look is one of pure, anti-establishment menace and their dance a carefully-staged rave. Guano hails down upon Victoria’s bronze robes. One is not amused.
Mixed emotions as plans unveiled for Port O’ Leith revamp. It played a starring role in the hit film Sunshine on Leith and was a quiet spot where Irvine Welsh drafted Trainspotting. The pub is renowned the world over as it started life as a place for sailors to drink when they docked in Leith.
Poppers. It’s only poppers! Will you no try some? Gie you a head-rush.
Nah, you’re alright’, I say. Debbie shrugs. Louise inhales. We’re choosing life. Choosing the Port O’ Leith closing-down party.
One more tune! One more tune! Our heels anchor into the foam beneath the ripped, leather bench on which we sway. Back and forth. Sweat dripping, tears streaming, arms flaying, hair slapping, thirsting, lusting, joy. And sorrow. Sorrow for all that has been before and never will be again. For absent friends. For kindness and beauty. And for the here and now, in between, swaying back and forth, at last orders. Because there won’t be another round.
Sunshine on Leith glow
The good pilgrims and the men
Drunk on a rainbow
Look lads, nae wedding rings! The lads with the poppers are now taps’ off, lassoing empties with someone’s green and white shirt, checking that we notice their aim and their hit rate.
A trio of old-timers bump and grind against the white-barred window frames to the rhythm of Madness, Our House followed by an obligatory Hey Jude. Sad songs made better. Tourists from Stockbridge stand and gawk in the doorway. One nudges the other open-mouthed. See, told you, this place is something else! I heard the landlady was a lot of fun back in her day. But she must be long dead now’.
Down the walk you see
Scarves like new leaves hung in green
On old skin, and me
A man I recognise as my window cleaner, Dougie, straightens and smooths his long, blonde wig before ringing a ship’s brass bell majestically to call last orders. Soft dancing and hard drinking land on the chequerboard floor tiles. Everything sticks. Half of a ‘no football colours, no trackies’ note is stuck to the side of a table leg. The ladies toilets are stuck on out of order. And then there’s Mary. Elegant and instantly recognisable in a long, leopard-print coat, diamante-studded slippers and coiffed hair, she offers a regal wave to the regulars. Plenty of queens in the pub tonight, she says, winking. Big Kirsty is wide-eyed and greetin’ in the corner. I blow her a kiss and she catches it.
Edinburgh is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Whaling ships from Leith brought the very first penguins to Edinburgh Zoo around 1900. Leith was merged with Edinburgh in 1920 despite a plebiscite in which the people of Leith voted 6:1 against the merger.
[From the comments section of the Evening News]
Are we going to lose one of the few genuine pubs in the area for some fucking interloper gastropub shite?!
But Leith is a different place now and if they’re not making money, what can you do?
Che Guevara flags and Saltires drape the old war horse. Later, knackered and thinned to the bone, she’ll be put out her misery by a squad of renovation henchmen. Hung, drawn and quartered, the limbs of red timber, wonky bar stools and scratched mirrors will be hacked off and seized by the clientele of coffee shops, design studios and pop ups in this, new Leith – gory souvenirs of the morning after the night before.
For now, it’s closing time and outside on Constitution Street, the light is changing and gulls from the docks circle overhead because the stewing dawn belongs to a different type of bird – pterodactyls of a lost, maritime valley. They swoop and cackle; swoop and cackle and gather in number like a marauding army of avian soldiers high on chips and sweet, brown sauce. They are lusting for a scrap outside the pub and point and jab their beaks like accusatory fingers.
You saw it,
You claimed it
You touched it,
You saved it.
Surveying the structural and human wreckage at the end of the night and as we searched for her black, leather jacket, Louise told me that now twenty years’ sober, there was once a time when she hadn’t expected to outlive the old boozer. The jacket was eventually found behind the bar- put there by a neighbour to prevent it getting dirty on the dancefloor. If love means to accept imperfections and to break the rules from time to time, then ma’ head is rushing and ma’ heart is broken.
Well, it’s not been a quiet month here on Constitution Street, where all the women are strong, the men are good-looking and the children are above average….
An announcement on a further Scottish Independence Referendum, the triggering of Article 50, a surprise General Election to be held out with the fixed term of Parliament, and the closure of the Port O’ Leith bar in Leith, have all kept things interesting the past month. Only one of these constitutional changes has a certain outcome. And, this, from the same shock announcement that had grown men lining the street, in tears, at 1am, holding hands and singing passionately about home, place and identity.
It seems that in politics, as in the drinking game, timing is everything and only those with cool heads and warm hearts stay standing. We will soon have had two general elections and two referenda in the space of three years, with more votes likely in the near future. The Scottish Government was told by the UK Prime Minister that now is not the time for a choice on Scotland’s future as an independent country as it would be a distraction to Brexit negotiations. The electorate was then told that now is the time to hold a snap General Election.
March – April has also been a time for written correspondence. It’s nice to see the revival of letter-writing. The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wrote to Prime Minister Theresa May setting out what she believes to be her mandate for a further referendum and of the need for people in Scotland to make an informed choice about their place in the UK and Europe ahead of the BREXIT settlement. The Prime Minister then wrote to the President of the European Council, triggering Article 50 and the UK’s departure from Europe. And back here in Leith, I wrote to my boss setting out my proposal for a 9-month sabbatical from the day job, beginning 1 July, to concentrate on the Constitution Streeters project. I’m delighted to have received a very positive, supportive approval for the career break from Voluntary Arts Scotland. My job will soon be advertised as a fixed term contract similar to maternity leave cover.
Nine months. Three seasons of the year. Five inches of hair growth. The full term of a human foetus. And perhaps, if I work hard and am lucky, time to develop a book.
The labour pains have been testing in these early days. A week off over Easter to read and assemble thoughts reminded me how challenging working from home can be and left me experiencing symptoms of nausea, guilt and worry about the inevitable fluctuations in creative productivity. All learning etc. But I recognise the importance, to me anyway, of a daily routine and breaking a big project down into small constituent parts. I am now actively seeking out a supervisor to help me prioritise tasks and maintain pace. And co-working space. I want the discipline of company and the quiet but reassuring hum of others in a room to keep witness to a working day. I have approached both Customs House (Scottish Historic Buildings Trust) on nearby Bernard Street and the Centre for Constitutional Change at Edinburgh University Law School about hosting a creative residency. They’re thinking about it.
My choice of timing reflects my wish to take advantage of daylight and community happenings in the summer months during the participatory research stage of the project and to minimise any potential risks to the arts charity I currently head up (funding and staff jobs are secure in this 9 month period). Office colleagues have all been very supportive about the change.
Leith Library, Ferry Road
I’ve completed my first interview. This was with a couple who recently moved their family home and architecture practice from no.63 Constitution Street. There was no particular significance attached to starting here first. It was simply a bright sunny afternoon and it suited me to join them for a dog walk in their new leafy location to the southwest of Edinburgh. As with all the informal conversations with neighbours thus far, the interviewees expressly wanted me to know their voting pattern (I would never ask) and seemed very happy to have been asked for their particular telling of the Constitution Street story.
What other things am I learning?
To say as little as possible during the interviews to give respondents space to shape their own contribution and not second-guess my views.
Taking my fold-out chair to the front door steps in the morning sunshine gives a special snapshot of the street-view. Masked by big sunglasses, a book and even bigger mug of tea, I can discreetly observe and listen to fragments of passing conversation, be warmed by the lightness of familiar greetings, notice the patterns of comings and goings and can trace the faint April sun’s journey east to west– my sun-deck at the front door steps of no.68 becomes a cold shadow by the afternoon and across the road is then the place to be. I sat like this finishing the sublime ‘Lonely City’ by Olivia Lang, a book I found myself underlining entire paragraphs of. Given her subject matter, it seemed entirely appropriate to complete while alone but amidst the street surf of people washing in and out the front door to the tenement stair.
Beneath everyday household clutter, the table in my spare bedroom is an attractive and functional desk space.
Retaining professional and social networks during a period of solitary writing will be important. If you’re reading this and are in one of those two categories, or any other category actually, please don’t be shy at picking up the phone!
People have been generous in their reading recommendations. These are my trail markers for the navigation of a broad subject. This month I have been dipping into or revisiting:
The Rings of Saturn, W. G. Sebald
Autumn, Ali Smith
The Lonely City, Olivia Lang
Lifetimes of Commitment, Molly Andrews
A welcome confidence boost came from getting a place on a series of essay writing workshops entitled ‘Genre-Bending’, tutored by some personal literature crushes including Max Porter and Karine Polwart. Experimenting with form and spending two days experimenting with other writers feels pretty jammy.
The sabbatical is unpaid and I only have three or four months’ salary saved. But somehow I’m surprisingly relaxed about that. I am fortunate to own my flat, to have a modest income from occasional yoga-teaching and to not have any dependents aside from a dog to feed and medicate. And regards Bons/ Guru-B, we have a literary collaboration of our own in mind too. I really do think everything is going to be alright.
It’s been far from an easy few weeks but I’ve made some small steps. It turns out that being on, within and of the street is all-engaging and that anything is possible. In the weeks ahead, I will be prioritising finding a mentor and a work space in time for the July start date. 1st July is also the date of the Barrathon Half-Marathon that I have been arm-twisted into entering by my friend Christina (see Halfway House poem). I love the isle of Barra (Barra bunting) and regardless of running ability, the surge of fresh air, exercise and good company will ensure that this new phase of life begins with a top-up of endorphins.
Finally, Leith library (Ferry Road) is a place of under-recognised grandeur, free book loans and undemanding company. At first glance, it appears a bit grotty like the street outside – old flyers on the community notice board, toddlers throwing plastic toys at one another while their parents negotiate broken computers and English-language lessons- but look closer and you see the black and white vintage photographs in frames depicting our streetview of yesteryear, the suspended reading lights that resemble planets in a solar system and a steady flow of fellow citizens arriving for MSP surgeries, settling into a quiet corner to be lost in one’s own thoughts with a good book, or simply wanting a warm, safe place in which to have a doze. We lose public libraries at our peril.
Wind howling. Sleet slapping. Jaw clenching. Sky dripping black and blue. Knuckles flaring red raw.
Palms beneath the knuckles clasp around a bulging cylinder of vegetarian haggis. Its phallic sheath coating oatmeal, black pepper, nutmeg and nods to both heritage and modernity. Hands, grain, spices. Bound together and becoming one. This, my pulsing, transparent offering to neighbours.
Burns Night. January and the year still blinking and bleary. Our annual celebration of the national Bard. Ritually marked with a supper of sheep’s stomach stuffed with offal and washed down with drams of whisky. Then the re-telling of a long Scots poem no one can quite remember one year to the next. Something about a drunken man (Tam) riding home on his horse from the pub one stormy night and happening upon a witches’ dance led by the devil playing bagpipes, with one particularly beautiful, young witch (Nannie Dee) dancing in her nightclothes, her cutty sark. And all the meanwhile, Tam’s long-suffering wife (Kate) waiting at home, nursing her wrath.
A toast to the lassies and a reply. Tam and Kate. Tam and Nannie Dee. Kate and Nannie Dee. A conversation. A song. A quarrel to be soothed. Union and disunion.
At home here on Constitution Street, Leith, we women are gathering by invitation to celebrate exactly twenty years’ sobriety of our friend and neighbour. No booze, no meat, no men. For tonight at least. The best of times and the worst of times. And only just beginning.
Later, the fake haggis will be cooked in the microwave and its split insides served with a clapshot of neeps, tatties and tomato ketchup. Plates on trays on knees. Children and dogs tumbling at our feet. The TV volume turned low, providing an unsettling, constant hum from the wider world and the news out there that threatens louder voices.
While further along the street at the north/ south junction stretching parallel to the sea, a commemorative statue of Rabbie Burns bestowed in waistcoat and breeches, his hand raised over heart, hings his head wistfully toward the temptations of the Docks, the dancing girls, the honest poverty, the dignities and the hamely fare on which we will dine tonight. For a’ that.
I climb the eight slanting, concrete slabs of the steps to no.59 and chap on the door. Unfurl my scarf and flatten my hair. Shuffle back and forth, to and fro, tapping out a swaying rhythm in my heeled boots, trying to keep warm and to not drop the haggis. Poised. Ready. Hovering on the threshold of inside and outside, the day and the night. On the periphery. In between. The sky above and the ground below. Here and now.
I knock again. I’m late. Push open the brass letter box and post my ‘It’s only me’ into the slit of electric light. See my breath be absorbed into the gathering warmth of the hallway beyond. I wait. A dog barks. A pair of denimed legs attached to bare feet appear in the rectangular picture frame of the letter box, hinging and enlarging into view across floorboards like a half-shut knife.
‘Ah, it’s yourself” comes the reply. ‘Come away in’.
I’ve been reflecting on the particular spatial and temporal qualities of ‘in between’ times – the best of times and the worst of times. Anxiety and excitement are two sides of the same coin after all.
The dystopian reality of current global politics- Brexit, Trump, Europe’s utterly inept response to the biggest mass migration of people since the second world war, the era of fake news- combined with the over-stimulation, self-saturation and cult of instant gratification stoked by social media, has rendered us scrolling junkies jittery for a deeper connection fix. It can be comforting then, detoxifying even, to look up from small screens and grasp big, everyday acts of kindness where we can still find them. The hyper-local world view- the view of the neighbourhood, the street, or tenement stair- brings into focus that empathy and love are not finite resources that can be mined by short-term greed and narcissism. Active participation and face by face interaction is where we find meaning to the world around us and define the contribution we chose to make. This is the daily practice of think global, act local.
My street is Constitution Street in Leith, Edinburgh. It is an 1800 thoroughfare stretching east to west, parenthesis explaining city and sea, bookending the port of Leith and the nation’s capital. A street where statues to the unlikely bedfellows of Rabbie Burns (Bernard Street junction) and Queen Victoria (Duke Street junction) are in awkward conversation and where maritime docks meet new creative industries. It is a place of faded grandeur, hidden vaults, perpetual gossip, light and dark, and general under-recognition by town planners. Comprising a medieval graveyard, Georgian townhouses, Victorian tenements, ’70s highrise and the Tram-track scars of post-recession Britain, this is everyone’s land and yet, still, a liminal land of constant dualities and curious misfits persevering side by side.
looking east towards the sea
I have lived and worked on Constitution Street for the past decade. The last ten years have been a time of sustained political unrest in the UK, charting the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 and the European Referendum of 2016, alongside deepening economic and health inequalities. The average life expectancy of a woman in the Leith Walk electoral ward is 74, compared to 89 in more affluent Barnton, west Edinburgh, less than five miles away.
A commons and a parcel o’ rogues
Anxiety contains interesting information because it tells us something of who we are. A therapeutic response to feeling unsettled might be to remember where and who we are right now because the thing scaring us probably isn’t in the present moment but in fact a past scare evoked by something in the present. I learnt this analysis from my neighbour Claire, a therapist.
With the announcement of a further Scottish Independence Referendum now imminent and a voting date likely to be in autumn 2018, we are living in a heightened in-between, anxious/ exciting, time of constitutional flux. A binary choice of Yes or No to ‘should Scotland be an independent country?’ doesn’t allow for de facto in-betweens of ‘Yes, hopefully’, ‘No, apologetically’ or ‘I don’t know’. The intra-referenda period 2014- 2018 is the space for a more fluid, ambiguous settling and unsettling of our constitutional viewpoints.
“In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.” [Wikipedia].
I value the diversity of my neighbourhood friendships. I am invited by Tony (72, Scots-Nigerian- Leither) to adjacent Cadiz Street for a lunchtime bowl of soup and gossip, and across the road to no.59 to play dress-up with Maddie (12, Scots- English- Leither). Both have lived here longer than me and have taught me much. I am curious about Tony and Maddie’s futures on Constitution Street and their individual priorities for constitutionalism in a new Scotland.
With an ageing population and changing family structures and relationship choices, more of us than ever before live alone. Loneliness can be a particular side-effect of liminality- a perception of being lost and not yet found anew, of being temporarily in-between company. In her acclaimed ‘Field Guide to Getting Lost’, Rebecca Solnit notes that the word ‘lost’ comes from the Old Norse los meaning the disbanding of an army; soldiers falling out of a formation to go home, a truce with the wider world.
For the German-born Jewish American political theorist, Hannah Arendt, belonging to a community and being visible in civic space was vital to promoting and protecting the rights of others. She believed that in 1930s Europe citizens were primed for the appeal of totalitarian leaders because they were isolated from any community — political or otherwise:
“What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century.”
Here and now in Scotland, I am curious about whether the social-dynamics of involuntary, domestic intimacy in tenement housing may help buffer against feelings of loneliness. The residents of some eight or nine flats stacked up and down and side by side share a common stair, roof and front door. Living in isolation and suffering from a fear of the unknown is somehow less likely when there are everyday, collective issues to resolve like a leaking roof, or the common landing between flats in which to negotiate eye contact and say good morning to our neighbours. And then there is the hyper-local politics of a cleaning rota.
Side by side conversations allow for active citizenship and the imagination of the possible to blossom. And, I think, that the nearness of tenement architecture to city centres in Scotland is in contrast to the comparable absence of affordable housing in English cities but I will need to find out more.
I often fantasise about moving out of the city to a rural idyll with more living space and a garden, but on return from weekend escapes, I am reminded of the reciprocal benefits attached to living within urban community. Looking out of my tenement windows to the street scene below, I know the names of the people passing by. I know where they live or work. If I wanted to, I could tap on the window glass and be confident that my neighbours- my Constitution Street-ers- would look up and wave back. Maddie would stick her tongue out. This is immensely reassuring in an age of anxiety and perceived urban anonymity.
The UK is the only country in Europe or the Commonwealth without a written constitution. As an undergraduate law student at the University of Edinburgh, I was taught that instead of a single document, the separation of executive, judicial and legislative powers in the UK is governed by constitutional convention. With the maturing of Scottish devolution, we have quasi-constitutional statutes in the form of The Scotland Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998– legislation which set out the competency within which public bodies, including local and devolved government, are permitted to act. However, both these pieces of legislation are subject to the parliamentary supremacy of Westminster. In these uncertain, shifting and shifty, times of Tory majority rule from London and lacklustre Labour party opposition, the Scottish devolution settlement and the Human Rights Act are both vulnerable to repeal. Beware the Rabbie Burns lament:
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” (Eleanor Roosevelt)
At a journalist friend’s house party in a tenement flat on Leith Walk last year, I was naturally drawn to the spare bedroom where the window was flung open (such is my obsession for seeking out fresh air) and, somewhat ironically, then joined a huddled congregation of shivering, committed smokers. We discussed the bruising experience of 2014 Indyref campaigning and consoling, and made predictions on the various ‘what if’ scenarios that may influence the First Minister’s gamble on whether or not to call a further indyref. I asked Shetlander Jordan Ogg (editor of The Island Review) what he thought we might come to call this in between, intra-referenda, age of anxiety period. He proposed that the kneading together of arguments, the heated desire for change and the need to wait until the Yes vote has risen sufficiently could be described as akin to bread proving.
In the 2014 White Paper on Scotland’s Future, the SNP government confirmed that an independent Scotland would have a written constitution incorporating international economic, social and cultural rights and that such a constitution would be shaped by an inclusive, participatory approach involving civic society. There are examples from elsewhere, such as Iceland, where more radical citizens’ juries or mini-publics have been tasked with determining those principles and rights so fundamental as to be recorded constitutional importance.
Back on Constitution Street, as an icy, northeast haar stumbles in across the Firth of Forth, we hold our collective breath in anticipation of what successive Caledonian springs might bring and whether we, the citizens, will rise or fall to the challenge. I want to ask my neighbours to crowdsource a constitution for the place and times in which we live.
What does the right to food mean to the Turkish cafe owners, the young mums digging in the community garden and the office workers queuing for a fish supper from Perinos on a Friday night? What does the right to private and family life look like for families of same sex couples, single parents, great grandparents, and student house-shares? What might the right to culture involve for the mix of licensing, festivals and voluntary arts groups? And how has the smoking ban, alcoholism and drug addiction shaped our attitudes to the right to health? These questions and others will help frame doorstep, side by side conversations in the coming year on Constitution Street.
looking west towards the city
I am mindful of a duty of care not to patronise, fictionalise, or misrepresent my neighbours. The rich social and industrial history of Leith is increasingly well documented. We have our own cultural exports too. Trainspotting most celebrated. I want to take my cues more from Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ than McCall Smith’s ‘No. 44 Scotland Street’. I hope to avoid asserting any overtly Yes or No to Scots Indy leanings and instead to take up residence on the threshold of in-between spaces. So far, conversations have taken place over hedges at the allotments, over pints at Leith Festival AGM, in the City Archives maps department and in the law library. I’m loving it.
The small places, closest to home include Leith Links, the Dockers Club, the Port O’Leith bar, Printworks coffee shop, the no.16 bus stop, St Mary’s playground, the quayside, and perhaps even Stories Home Bakery further up Leith Walk where macaroni pies and fudge donuts fuel all night revellers and early-morning grafters and where I am hopeful loaves of bread are still proven and baked fresh.
And so, like this, my recent late-winter days have been a time of hunkering down and of testing and fermenting the bubbles of a new writing project. It will be part-participatory ethnography, part-political theory, part-storytelling. And like all love letters, the words will likely flow easier with the benefit of some distance.
Short poems or essays may continue to appear on this personal blog from time to time but I shall be focussing on field notes for Constitution Streeters in the main. All feedback, introductions, reading suggestions, and gentle critique is, as always, welcome.
Let it breathe,Grow and fermentUnder a damp, warm clothReady to rise or fallThen we must weigh it in ourhandsFor this, our daily bread isProving