This is not a David and Goliath story. It is not about left versus right, big business versus small, rich versus poor; it is not about rot versus regeneration, stasis versus change, history versus the future, although some will say that it is. No, this is a tale of perseverance; this is a Leith love song.
Leith Walk flows like an arterial river from the heart of the harbour, spreading the sea’s influence inland. The sea, the sea is everywhere: it is in the architecture, the ropes and the boats and the lighthouses of stone; it is in the street names, Shore Place, Quayside Street, Ocean Drive; it is in the Seaman’s Mission and the Incorporation of Masters and Mariners, in the Dockers’ Club and St Mary’s Star of the Sea. Above all it is in the people, from the inscriptions on the graves in the churchyard to the girl at the Tesco checkout; salt in the blood, salt at the core, salt of the earth.
As is the way with rivers, all manner of life has come to rest on its banks. Glass and whisky, lime juice and harpoons have been exchanged for African hair salons, Indian wedding jewellery, Polish pierogi and Portuguese pastel de nata. Although Mary’s face is ever present in this town within a city, she is not the only one worshipped. Whether your god waits in the vaulted rafters of tradition or on the shelves at the library, is found in quiet contemplation at the community croft or calling from the stands of Easter Road, there is a home here for them too. Yes, the river is a densely populated and diverse community, and community is key. Speak of Leith and the world pictures heroin addicts in Council flats and be-spectacled singing twins. Leithers however know a different place, where independent traders run the majority of businesses, where your neighbour will put your bin out and bring your washing in if it rains, where you don’t have to be afraid walking home at night; a place where people look out for each other, get up if they get knocked down, stand tall, stand proud, persevere.
It is a hot summer, the hottest anyone can remember for years. A man sits at the foot of a lamppost. The pool of shade it casts covers his head and no more. A point of stillness, a rock in the river. Life flows by, just out of reach.
Someone fords the gap. “Here mate, take these.” A four pack of ice cream. The man accepts, removes a wrapper and eats carefully. He looks at the box. “Would anybody like one?” he asks to the river. Ripples from a stone thrown. “I don’t want them to go to waste.”
The ripples spread and grow bigger. A wave in the river. The ice creams are distributed, no payment requested, though some is offered.
It could happen anywhere but it has happened here, and does daily, this exchange of humanity, a life raft on the flood. It stings the eyes a little, makes you hopeful. It teaches you to persevere.
Behind the lamppost is a row of shops, a low, squat, sandstone terrace. Workmen are boarding the large windows of the nearest, respectfully closing the eyes of the deceased. Perhaps it is the heat but something chimes discordant. Running a small business is hard, a change of hands is nothing new, but the boards, with their implied permanence, are different.
Days pass. Rumours drift like fallen leaves on the river until the current catches them. They begin to circulate, coagulate, until they become fact. The boards are multiplying. The community is mobilising. The first words appear:
Enter the developers, Drum Property Group, the latest ship to try and navigate the river. It should be a foregone conclusion. How could anyone reject such a generous investment? Fifty. Million. Pounds. The very words are fat with promise. They do not know that when they say rejuvenation, regeneration, Leith hears gentrification, homogenisation, that their patronage is viewed as patronising. The glossy website is telling. An artist’s impression, all wood and glass and clean lines. Sterile. So much nicer, that banal adjective, so much more pleasing to look at. But, says the river, without weeds where will the fish live? And there it is, in friendly typeface, a statement of intent, the transformation of “an inhospitable industrial site”. Inhospitable? A worse word could not have been chosen. No winning of hearts and minds here. Yes, Drum’s use of language is misjudged, but their name? Their name is a linguistic gift for the protestors who reach for the chalk and let the words roll:
“DUMMED OUT OF LEITH”
The pen is mightier than the sword but has anyone measured the power of chalk? The wielder of chalk is not a threat. They are children playing hopscotch, they are stick men and rainbows, they are Bert and Mary on a jolly holiday. The wielder of chalk is not a vandal because chalk is not permanent. Chalk can simply be wiped away, and it is, time and time again. But the hand that holds it?
“WE STILL OBJECT”
Oh chalk and its legal loophole is perfect for protest. It defies without defacing. Erase, repeat, erase, repeat, erase, repeat. Persevere.
And if chalk is for children then thread is for women. Sewing has always been such a wonderfully respectable, indoor activity. The devil, he makes work for idle hands and craft keeps a lady busy, keeps her quiet, calm, contained. But as tightly as threads bind, the mind remains free. Whilst the hands work there is so much time for thinking and before you know it the lines of control have blurred and the norns are reaching for their scissors. On the boarded shop fronts chalk is joined by crochet, a vibrant, insistent, colourful challenge to the monochrome conformity of the developer’s vision. Leith embodied. Words are weaved in to the stitching, not your standard sampler alphabet but messages of resistance.
The minutia of the planning process takes time. Developers are used to this, they are happy to play the long game. The protesters must learn to persevere. Maintaining engagement is essential, no easy task in a time of instant gratification and shortening attention spans. And so there are t-shirts and tote bags, public meetings, concerts, blogs and visiting politicians to carry the momentum.
But most powerful of all, there are names, over twelve thousand of them. As individuals they are small, but together a stream becomes a river and a river a torrent. Swollen with support it is hard to dam, because this is Leith and perseverance is second nature. Take a look and you will see the invocation everywhere, not so much motto as mantra. To each one of the twelve thousand it sounds different. For some it is a lullaby whispered by the water, for others a rallying cry roared over waves. Strip it to the core and it is a love song, from a place to its people and from a people to their place.
Above all, she is a mother,
Leith’s Lady of the Sea.
Riding the waves with her child,
She stares down the tempest,
Casting wide the net of her embrace
Beyond the babe in her arms
To all souls seeking to be saved.
“Tell the sailors in the storm, persevere”
Mary of Guise, a pawn amongst kings.
A Knox-cursed, dangerous, woman.
Marie de Guise, a challenger of kings.
Twice widowed, thrice grieving a child.
Law giver; Regent; Queen Maker; Queen Mother.
“Tell the soldiers in the siege, persevere”
Another time, another Mary.
Queen honoured Queen o’ the Port O’ Leith,
Keeper of order, keeper of secrets,
A regular port o’ call.
A safe port in a storm.
“Tell those without love, without funds, without hope, persevere”
It is a cold day in January, very different from the heat that heralded the arrival of the first boarded window. City of Edinburgh Councillors are four and a half hours in to a planning meeting. It is not the sort of thing that usually garners much attention but a crowd is waiting in anticipation. News of the decision begins to break. “It is a victory for Leith, for Edinburgh and for local democracy” a spokesman says. The chalk puts it succinctly:
The battle is over but the war is not won. The developer still owns the land, still remains “wholly committed” to the project. They have their own story to write after all, their own rhythm marching them on. But the protestors are hopeful. An open letter is published requesting the boards be removed and temporary leases granted. A community planning workshop is held, brainstorming alternatives, a meeting is scheduled to discuss the next steps. A river can wear away stone, given long enough. And the river is at the heart of it, is the heart of it, as it always has been. Whatever the outcome, the river will keep flowing. Its banks may look a little different and its course may meander, but it will always flow, it will always persevere.
For anyone wondering what on earth this diversion from the usual travel posts is, check out here for an explanation.