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.
Next to the taps at my bathroom sink is a small piece of Cairngorm granite. Sometimes I like to turn it over in my left hand while I brush my teeth with my right and feel the reassuring solidity of the cold, square faced-sides of rock. If I screw my eyes up tightly, I can see flecks of purple, blue and pink reflecting out of the steely surface and onto the bathroom mirror. The shards of condensed carbon have been split, shattered and chiseled anew by the melting of glaciers and the shifting of earth and water for millennia. The rock was here before me and it will be here after me. That much is certain.
In today’s disturbed and uncertain world, the nights are long and the days can be darker. Recent terror attacks by violent extremists, the distorted fear of violence stoked by social media, and a resulting fear of the unknown in which the many will now suffer for the crimes of a few, means the stuff of urban nightmares risks becoming a daily dystopian reality. More than ever before, there is something reassuring about calling a small, peaceful place home. And knowing that the feeling of being at home can travel to even smaller and more at peace places.
Late November – the eve of the Winter Solstice and six months since Midsummer and our Hebridean journey. Time on the islands outdoors in the light and the space reminded me of how surprise encounters and learning can be gifted when simply being and not doing. One of the books I read in June was Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain in which she signs off “To know Being, this is the final grace accorded from the mountain”.
Her mountain, Cairngorm, has the grace to welcome me and my small black dog this weekend. And for that I am grateful. Grateful, still, for the sounds of pheasants croaking in the ferny undergrowth and moss-felted branches breaking underfoot. For the skeletal arms of fir and birch trees in early winter; flecks of their bark skin flayed by driving sleet. For seeing my breath exhaled in a sobering and honest morning air. For the tease of a snow forecast throughout the shape-shifting, living mountain. And for footprints, paw prints and tracks in the making.
Paws up super-woofers. Bons here. It’s been a while but the dog days are very much not over…
Some days conclude better than they begin. Today was one of them. The tell-tale signs were all there – the indignity of a wash n’ go in the bath, some frantic packing by the human, four sleepy hours on the road inside the BonMobile tapping a paw to Jon Bon Jovi. But then, at last, an evening befitting of a pup with some distinguished grey hair behind her velvety ears: a run through scented woodland, a chance to startle some dozy pheasants and a meat pie all of my own. Bon appetite pooches! There can only be one lady and one tramp on this highland mini-break and I know which I am.
Indeed, it’s quite touching to have a mountain range and national park named after some distant cousins of this hairy maclary mongrel. The Cairn terriers – and their not so bright, gormless pedigrees- Cairngorms!! Ha ha ha.
Small is always beautiful. Got my fur coat packed so roll over snowy huskies… Bx
Walking barefoot has gone out of fashion, but sensible people are reviving the habit.
Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
On the most solar-charged day of our Hebridean journey, Luskentyre on Harris delivered miles of white beach, shivering grasses and turquoise water. The lovely Laura Schreiner from Ontorio provided our lift out of Leverburgh heading north. Sinking deep into the generous sand so that the shells and rocks made fine by millennia of northwestern storms gave way to tired feet, we walked and talked before stretching out to toast our faces in the June sunshine and watch Bonnie negotiate the spaces between rock pools.
Always in the moment and of the here and now, dogs are zen masters. Not knowing if the journey from front door or tent door will be a short walk or a two week adventure, they shake between resting places to change state of being. I think we could all benefit from the shake-down method of preparing for transition.
Shape-shifting tidal patterns, like one of those sand boxes that change picture when shaken.
The human and domestic pet relationship is an uncomfortable one – that we should confine a wild animal to our den, keep it on a leash, and make it dependent on our whims for all survival needs. Taken to its extreme, such anthropomorphism has forever altered distance between man and animal to such an extent that it is hard to tell whether we are still ourselves creatures of nature or the collectors of a curated, tamed nature that reflects back mini-me versions of self in order to sustain a feeling of both purpose and dominance.
Bonnie came from the Leith Cat and Dog Home and we have been through a lot together. Over the last seven years, different friends and boyfriends have come and gone but it is Bon that is always there in the morning, never resentful, and just grateful and joyful to be alive.
They say that dogs have the emotional intelligence of a toddler but there aren’t many small creatures that would keep walking one paw in front of another, without grumble or mutiny on the long journey from Barra to Lewis and Skye. Arriving at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic College, in Sleat, southern Skye, colleagues tried to persuade me to leave Bonnie overnight in one of their cars to allow me to enjoy the comforts of a warm room inside the student dorms. But by this stage in the trip, we had traveled a long way together and it would have felt a great disloyalty to have split from my small, black dog. I unpacked the tent.
Without Bonnie, I couldn’t have kept going along the bleak path to Rodel Church in South Harris, or have camped next to the ghostly cottage in Berneray, and I wouldn’t have met the crofters that wanted to tell me about their old collie dogs, or the children that encountered a real-life Hairy Maclary.
The Gaelic language has many double-meanings and a rich vocabulary to describe the natural world. At Sabhal Mor Ostaig, I learnt from the outgoing artist in residence, Murray Robertson, that the Gaelic name for the Isle of Skye, An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, denotes a land of grey clouds and mist and that the famous Cuillin mountain range, An Cuiltheann, means ‘hound of the blacksmith’. This stubborn, black dog was true to form and despite willing the mist to clear from the mountains, we never got to see the Cuillin summits on our visit to Skye. It was strange to be in this land of volcanic rock but see only the lush, green and flat forests of Sleat.
Hitchhiking in a Hebridean Galaxy is a lesson in 42 feelings of rejection and acceptance. I have backpacked in Sierra Leone and Sarajevo but securing a safe lift to Stornoway on the Sabbath caused me more uncertainty. Standing at a crossroads with large pack and dog, passing drivers make a snap judgement on the extent to how much you appear unhinged or unclean. Accepting repeat rejection is then followed by the surprise and gratitude of help along the road (even if this did result, in our case, in being dropped off outside REPTILE WORLD in Skye. On the whole, the Range Rovers and empty people-carriers passed on by and Bonnie and I received lifts from postal vans, other young women in hire cars, or friendly, local teenagers in old fiestas.
Now, heading for home on Midsummer’s Day, I am grateful for knowing my own country and, in turn, myself, better. It’s been an intense, immersive experience! The Bon in a Box carrier never came out of the rucksack. Neither did my bikini. I learnt to sharpen an eyeliner pencil with a pen knife. And that I don’t feel like wearing eyeliner after a few days in the wild. I met some inspirational 30-something women. Women like Christina Mackenzie, a colleague at Proiseact Nan Ealan and Lewis crofter; Laura Schreiner, a Canadian researching her Scottish ancestral heritage; and Charlie Johnston making home in Howmore, South Uist. I’m massively proud of Bonnie. And a wee bit proud of myself too.
a Shieling hut
Across the bog and heather of the Lewis moorlands can be found numerous Shielings. These huts made from corrugated iron and other simple materials were, up until the second world war, makeshift shelters for women leading their animals away from lowland crofts to graze on the higher pastures in summer. Alone with their animals in a wild, harsh landscape, these were strong women. There are nostalgic tales told by the women still alive who remember these days in the Shielings of coming together to make cheese from buttermilk and of liaisons with the men who came to cut and stack the peat on the moors. These hard days are gone but I think we should consider bringing back an annual retreat to huts in the wild for lone women and their animals.
But before then, there is a no. 22 bus to catch back down the hill to Leith.
Bow wow wow. I was a model student at the Sabhal Mor Ostaig in Skye- woolfing down contraband sausages from the dining hall, excelling in some late night drinking sessions and leading a fieldtrip to the Knoydart peninsula.
On the way home now and I’m fair dog-tired. Please, no one say walkies. Bx