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Constitution Street by Jemma Neville

PART OF THE The Guestlist ISSUE

David Robinson Reviews

‘Rather, we need to be asking one another, what do we hold in common? Who is my neighbour? How do we want to live together, here, on this street?’

The streets of Edinburgh hold a million stories. Sometimes you see them being told by caped storytellers to interested tourists in the centre of town. But, as David Robinson found out, there is more than one way to tell our capital city’s tales. . .

 

Constitution Street: Finding Hope in the Age of Anxiety
By Jemma Neville
Published by 404 Ink

 

If anyone has a year or three to spare to write it, here’s a great idea for a book, and I’ll give it to you for free. It’s very specific, because it’s about just one street in Edinburgh, the people who have lived there in the past and those who live there now. And before you can say, ‘Why should I care about that if I don’t live there?’  – let me tell you.

I’m talking about the Cowgate. Why? Because it’s got everything and been everything. Back in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, this was where you wanted to live if you were, say, an ambassador to the Scottish court or a high-ranking courtier in it. Yet in the nineteenth, it was an overcrowded and mainly Irish slum, the place revolutionary socialist James Connolly called home. ‘To look over the South Bridge and see the Cowgate below full of crying hawkers,’ wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘is to view one rank of society from another in the twinkling of an eye.’

Exactly. But rather than do the usual riff on that quote – you know, divided city, Jekyll and Hyde, Caledonian antisyzygy, yadiyahiyah, let’s imagine someone else leaning over South Bridge and looking down. Someone who, as far as I know, never even visited Edinburgh in the first place.

Let’s imagine that the great American oral historian Studs Terkel (1912-2008) not only came back from the dead but to Scotland’s capital too and that he also took in that very same view from South Bridge. Right now, in the middle of the Festival, the ‘blackened urban ravine’ of Cowgate is plastered with flyers and crowded with Fringe-goers ‘haphazardly crossing over or standing in little knots in the middle of the road as if no-one had told them that roads were for cars and pavements were for pedestrians.’ (The quotes are from Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, which gets one thing about the Cowgate absolutely right: even in daytime, there’s no street in Edinburgh where it’s easier to run someone over.)

But let’s imagine too – indulge me – that a reborn Studs Terkel isn’t just looking for stories from the Cowgate in August, but the rest of the year too. That he is ranging, tape recorder in hand, round, say, the Cowgate’s hostel for the homeless, or the grim black box of the city morgue nearby (where most of the bodies in Ian Rankin’s novels end up), or just interviewing random strangers he encounters on a street which has a shop selling dinosaur fossils at one end and a parliament at the other. What story-hunter wouldn’t swoop down onto the Cowgate utterly confident that they were bound to return with the most amazing tales? The kind of stories that we don’t hear any more, and haven’t heard ever since journalism started haring off after celebrity instead of being properly curious about real life? A no-brainer, surely?

When he wrote his career-defining book Division Street in 1967, Terkel was looking at Chicago as a microcosm of the US itself, and for street interviewees who, in their diversity, were a microcosm of the city. ‘I was on the prowl for a cross–section of urban thought, using no one method or technique,’ he wrote. ‘I guess I was seeking some balance in the wildlife of the city as Rachel Carson sought it in nature.’ He hadn’t, in other words, any predetermined thesis to prove: his only aim, as he set out to do the 70 interviews in his book, was to take the collective pulse of his city and, by implication, his country.

Set it on the Cowgate, and that’s a book I’d love to read too, and if you’d like to write it so much the better. As for what to call it, I was thinking about Scotland’s Street but Alexander McCall Smith has sort of got there first. A Street through Scotland? Division Street Revisited? You write it, you decide. Just let me know how you get on.

Whatever you call it, such a book would be fairly unusual. I can’t think of anything ever written in Scotland remotely like it. Or I couldn’t until I picked up a copy of Jemma Neville’s debut book Constitution Street, out next month from 404 Ink, and I was delighted to see that she had been thinking along similar lines too. Similar, but different, because while my putative book (the one I was too lazy to write) would have followed Terkel in “using no method or technique” – in other words, just letting the interviewees’ stories speak for themselves – Neville has a far clearer purpose in mind.

What she wants to do is twofold. First, there’s an overlap with what I would have wanted the Cowgate book to be: a reminder of the sheer diversity, singularity and unpredictability of people’s lives. Neville comes up with a particularly good example. A few yards from the end of Constitution Street is the domed Bank of Leith, which dates back to 1793. Once upon a time, Sir Walter Scott was a customer. These days, it is an outpost of the Buddhist Samye Ling Centre. And Ani Rinchen Khaniar, the shaven-headed Buddhist nun, who brought the former bank and turned it into a centre for meditation and yoga is … and this is what I mean by unpredictability … a former Mancunian model called Jackie Glass who was the first love of George Best’s life. According to the Daily Mirror, they went out for two years before she dumped him.

Neville is more high-minded and right-on than me, so she doesn’t call that chapter (as I would have done) ‘The Nun Who Gave George Best The Boot’. Instead, it is called ‘The Right to Freedom of Religious Belief’, which is a key to the second – and arguably more important – purpose of her book. Because Neville’s extended stroll down Constitution Street isn’t just an exercise in journalistically reflecting what she finds. It also asks the reader to think about how its residents’ lives could be improved too. In these uncertain, choppy, Brexity waters, she argues, Scotland needs its own written constitution. Constitution Street – where she has lived since her student days – would be as good a place as any to start looking how a new Bill of Rights could work.

Neville’s background in human rights law (she worked for the Scottish Human Rights Commission before taking up her current job as director of Voluntary Arts Scotland) makes her a good guide to the topic. Her love of Leith, both past and present, and the warm-hearted intelligence she shows in her writing about her neighbours, give the book all the necessary grounding it needs to interest all those readers who aren’t idealistic constitutional lawyers. As books about streets through Scotland go, Constitution Street is informative, empathetic, and almost certainly the best on the market. It will probably remain so for a long time – at least until someone heads down the Cowgate with a tape recorder, notebook, pen – and a publisher’s contract …

 

Constitution Street by Jemma Neville is published by 404 Ink, priced £12.99

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