and I am in the train too now and summer is going South as I go north…
the rain with the national conscience, creeping,
Seeping through the night.
Briefly witnessing first-hand some of the human and environmental crisis unfolding in Lesvos, Greece, last summer felt bleak and over-whelming at times. Europe had utterly failed in its response to the biggest migration of people since the Second World War. Despite good intentions, it was difficult to see how short term volunteers in the refugee camps were making any sustainable contribution. I sought out reasons to remain hopeful among the kindness of strangers- from the friendship of women like Merwe and her mother Debe from Afghanistan- and by snatching moments alone, walking in the pine woods outside Mytilene, listening to old Leonard Cohen songs.
Three weeks ago, I again left Edinburgh, our Athens of the North, and chased the end of summer in Greece. I was clearer about my expectations this time and despite the undeniable human rights challenges that persist in camps across Greece and elsewhere, I encountered some good news stories when reconnecting with old friends. Merwe and Debe took me to the beach for a picnic and talked excitedly about their new life ahead in Germany now that they have been granted boarding passes for onward travel. And Jamal and Jalal, two friends from Kara Tepe camp, are both now employed by international aid agencies and hopeful of reunification with family in Belgium and the Netherlands respectively. We caught up with one another’s lives as we sipped iced coffees on the rooftop of an occupied squat and community centre in Thessaloniki, northern Greece.
I was in Thessaloniki for the TRISE conference on social ecology. The conference seminars hugely expanded my learning about the interconnection between human rights, environmentalism and economics. I left with a long reading list and felt humbled and inspired hearing presentations and interventions from Greek colleagues who took part in the Squares Movement of 2011, from Spanish housing rights activists leading Barcelona En Comu and Madrid Ahora, and from meeting Kurdish writers who introduced me to the work of imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan. His ‘non-state’ solution is particularly radical for those of us schooled in state to state diplomatic relations.
Then with the start of a new month, I returned to Constitution Street and surprised neighbours Reyhan and Aykut, owners of Rocksalt cafe, with a ‘rojbas’ greeting (good morning in Kurdish). Interview highlights this month have included with PC Mark Muir at Leith Police Station (the old town hall on Constitution Street), with Edinburgh City Archaeologist John Lawson (about the medieval remains excavated during tram works) and with Ray Clark on a tour of Leith Docks.
And back to Room 31 at IASH, Edinburgh University, in Hope Park Square when I have been joined by a new intake of research Fellows. Early autumn, the season North Americans call Fall- the time of students returning to term, of sticky fingers picking blackberries in the hedgerows, the smell of woodsmoke drifting above city chimneys, of ruby-coloured plums, hydrangeas and leaves- leaves everywhere, giving, falling away. I went in search of these romantic scents, textures and colours in the glens at the weekend but was out of sync by a week or two and found only a smudgy green blotting the home landscape of hill fog and steely-grey lochs. Perhaps I was characteristically too impatient for the seasonal transition to complete. Instead I found discarded antlers in the long grass behind Glen Clova bunkhouse- remnants of the rub and fall of deer rutting on the heather moor, the young males competing for dominance of their herd.
It was the ancient Greek philosopher, Hereclides, who observed that one can never swim in the same river twice, such is the perpetual and dynamic flow of nature. That we too are part of nature’s diverse and interconnected ecosystem was a key principle in the work of Murray Bookchin, father of the modern social ecology movement that I was introduced to at the TRISE conference in Greece. Nature is a web of inter-dependent species. The unity and complexity provides for peace and stability and so a continuum of human possibilities requires a re-harmonisation of the relationship between human and nature- to understand that we are of, by and within nature and not its master or mistress. We begin by building the new world in the shell, or the leaves, or the antlers of the old.
This month, I have been reading:
Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice
Harry Bingo by Peter Ross
Revolution in Rojava by Anja Flach, Ercan Ayboga, and Michael Knapp
The Life and Times of Leith by James Marshall
The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’ Farrell
In my edition of MacNeice’s long-form poem, Autumn Journal, the introduction by publishers Faber and Faber states that the poem records ‘the trivia of everyday living set against the the events of the world outside, the settlement in Munich and slow defeat in Spain’. The poem was written between August and December 1938 and yet it feels wholly contemporary.
Observing the wider world outside today- a Brexit UK poised for economic collapse and European isolation, the Spanish state’s increasingly hard-line opposition to Catalan self-determination, a Nobel Peace prize winner presiding over ethnic cleansing in Burma, the ever-present threat of nuclear fallout between Trump and Kim Jong Un and the continuous environmental degradation of our rivers, parks and seas at home and abroad…. it is clear that our ecosystems are entirely out of balance and peace. Recording everyday trivia seems the essential, perhaps the only, place to be right now. It might just be here that we can see and feel our way to any thin cracks in the darkness that let in shards of soft autumn light. I certainly hope so.
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:
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
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.