Persevere: A Leith Love Song

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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.

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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:

“WE OBJECT”

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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:

“DRUM SLUM”

“HUM DRUM”

“DRUM SCUM”

“DUMMED OUT OF LEITH”

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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.

“SAVE ME”

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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.

Man-made, man-measured;

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,

Legendary barkeep.

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”

 

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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:

“LEITH 1

  DRUM 0”

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.

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Back to school: a journey in to adult education

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New posts from me have been woefully lacking this year.  Part of the reason for this, I must admit, is my addiction to the evil, easy, gratification of Instagram (read more about my guilty pleasure here).  Part is the result of real life: a full time job, study for professional exams and major house renovations have collectively sucked some significant sand from my hourglass.  And part is due to my new year’s resolution to write more.  What?  You ask.  How can a resolution to write more lead to less writing?  Well in a flurry of January exuberance I signed up for an adult education course at my local university, a course on creative non-fiction.  I hoped that some guided study with a professional writer would provide all the tools I needed to ease me away from amateur status towards the holy grail of publication.  Of course it is never that easy and, unbelievably, my big break still evades me, but I came away from the experience with some valuable insights none the less.  I met some interesting people of varied age and background, all with unique stories to tell and unique voices to tell them with.  I read work by writers I had never heard of, in styles that I had never come across.  And I produced a thing, a piece, some writing, in creative non-fiction form, something very different in content to my usual travel focused posts that appear here.  So dear reader, please indulge a small diversion in our journey.  The next post will be ‘The Piece’.  After that normal service will resume.

 

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The Arctic Circle – Winter’s Disneyland

I have never been to Disneyland but I imagine that it is a little like the Arctic Circle in December.  Manic children, frazzled parents, staff in costume, a babel of languages.

Just outside the town of Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland is a strange world, of gift shops and reindeer rides, plastic pod hotels and Christmas trees; 66 degrees north, Napapiiri, the Arctic Circle, self-styled home of Santa Claus.

You can fly direct to Rovaniemi from the UK on special ‘Santa flights’; three hours in the air, a bus ride, a photo with the big man, throw a snowball and back you go.  Maybe you select the three day option, ride a snowmobile or a husky sled, scan the sky for northern lights, herded in packs, in matching snowsuits, by young Finnish guides with fixed smiles.

Our journey to the Arctic was different.  Landing mid-afternoon in Helsinki the day before, driving nine hours north in to the darkness through hypnotic, falling, snow.  We spent the night at an old fashioned motel on the southern fringes of Lapland.  Arriving late and leaving early we didn’t see another person.  Keys waiting in the doors, a breakfast buffet laid out in an empty dining room, the only suggestions that we were not alone.  Three more hours on the road.

 

Finland is a land of lakes and forests, of vast, flat, unpopulated plains.  Its people have a reputation for stoicism and a quietude verging on the mute.  Stepping out of the car in to the technicolour, sensory assault of the Arctic Circle was a surreal and stark contrast after twelve hours of tree lined silent roads.

It is by no means a bad experience.  Strip back the kitsch of perpetual Christmas and you can’t escape the strangely satisfying sensation of standing on a physical embodiment of the point above which the sun does not set on the summer solstice, and does not rise on the winter solstice.

But Finnish Lapland is more than winter’s theme park.  Photographs taken, souvenirs bought, we were back on the road, pushing north.

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The mask-maker of Bangkok

Twelve years ago, the back streets of Bangkok.  We are somewhere near the river taxi dock for Wat Phra Kaew, and very far from home.  It is early but already the heat and the humidity are high.  I feel a familiar pressure behind my eyes.  A storm is coming.

Twelve years ago I carry only a small film camera; automatic, point and shoot.  With 36 frames a roll I must choose my subjects carefully.  A rationing that is at once restrictive and freeing.  I look first, absorb more.  My nostrils are pricked by the smell of drying fish.  Stall holders cry out above the buzzing traffic.  Their words reach me but not their meaning.  My finger rests on a grid on a map but I am lost.

The rain begins.  Through a curtain of water, jewelled eyes stare at us from the window of a mask-maker.  We go inside.  A quiet man behind the desk watches as we marvel at his creations.  Words like ‘need’ and ‘want’ form in my mouth.  The mask-maker senses his spell is working.  ‘They are gods’ he says.  ‘Choose the one that speaks to you.’

 

A black and gold monkey.  I turn it over, looking for the price.  Twelve years ago I am months from graduation, no job waiting.  Our plane tickets have been bought with the air-miles of a friend in exchange for half their value.  The monkey goes back on the wall.  ‘There is more than one price’ the mask-maker says.  He nods towards a passing tour group, a procession of umbrellas.  They are middle aged, western, their wealth on display.  ‘That price is for them’ he says.  ‘For you, another.’

Times passes.  The rain continues to fall.  As we wait for the gods to claim us, the mask-maker talks.  He talks of his home village in the north, of his family he leaves behind to work.  Soon it will be Songkran, Thai New Year.  A time to return home, if you can afford the journey.  ‘Will your travels take you north?’ he asks us.  ‘Not this time’.  ‘Next time’ he says.  ‘It is very beautiful.  Very different to this.’  The sweep of his arms stretches beyond the stalls outside, beyond the street dogs and the tuk tuks, beyond the thousands of tourists at the palace.  It brushes against the city limits, encircling all the people, all the colour, all the noise.

We choose, or are chosen, by a grinning Yaksha, giant guardian of temples, by Garuda, eagle-headed mount of the god Narayana, by a green skinned, serene eyed Buddha with a golden crown, and by the monkey, the god king Hanuman.  The mask-maker wraps each one with care.   ‘Thank you’ he says.  ‘Now I can close my shop for the holiday.  Now I can go north’.

The rain has eased.  We turn to leave.  ‘A present for you’ the mask-maker says.  I reach out my hand.  He places a small bronze Buddha in my palm.  I do not recognise it from the shelves.  He closes my fingers around it, holds them there, tight.  Our eyes meet.  ‘It is lucky’ he tells me.  ‘Blessed by a monk at the market.’  With his gesture he has transferred that luck to me, bound me to my amulet.  I have no words.  I stare at my hand, still closed.  Khob Khun Mark Na Ka.  Thank you.

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333 years underwater – Stockholm’s Vasa Museum

Sweden’s most visited tourist attraction is a museum with just one exhibit.  How does something so simple draw such large crowds?  Well, it’s one special artefact.  The Vasa Museum, situated on Stockholm’s Djurgården island, is home to the world’s only surviving, almost complete 17th century warship.  Visiting it is a truly unique experience that quite simply cannot be found anywhere else.

The story of the Vasa is one both of over ambition and too much caution, an unusual combination.  The ship, which sank shortly in to its maiden voyage on the 10th of August 1628, with the loss of 30 lives, was at the time the largest ever built.  Designed to hold 64 cannon, its sheer size made it unwieldy but not necessarily fatally so.  Over the decades since its discovery in the murky waters of Stockholm’s harbour, there have been on-going investigations in to the reasons for the Vasa’s capsize.  That it was just too heavy seemed a fair assumption.  Examination of the upper deck has revealed that, daunted by the prospect of supporting more guns than had ever been carried, the ship builders erred on the side of caution, reinforcing the deck with far more wood than was actually needed.  The result was a top heavy ship, even fully laden, liable to tip in rough water or windy conditions.

The weight of the Vasa was not the only mistake in its construction.  The detailed measurements taken by the archaeologists working on preserving the ship have found that it is asymmetrical.  This is not, in itself, unusual in something produced before the aids of modern manufacturing, and as a result it was common for alterations to be made to a vessel for months after it first set sail.  In the case of the Vasa the mis-measurements were significant.  Amongst the artefacts recovered from the ship are four rulers, two in Swedish feet (12 inches to the foot) and two in Amsterdam feet (11 inches to the foot).  It would seem that each craftsman working on the ship brought with him his own tools and the units of measurement were not always the same; a problem encountered on large scale projects even today, for example the loss of NASA’s Mars-Orbiter in 1999 which failed as a result of confusion over the use of English imperial and US metric units.

So human error led to the Vasa’s loss, and it was human endeavour that caused it to be found.  At various points in history the ship’s resting place has been marked on maps charting Stockholm’s harbour but, as time passed, and inaccuracies crept in to drafts based on copies of copies, its location was forgotten.  That was until 1956, when navy engineer and amateur archaeologist Anders Franzen, having studied the historic sources and armed with a home made coring device, pulled a sample of wood from the harbour floor.  Tests revealed a match for the presumed age of the timbers used in the Vasa’s construction and divers were sent down to investigate.

Diving conditions were difficult; the water cold, dark and thick with mud.  In limited visibility and with adrenalin flowing it is hard not to let your imagination run away with you.  I can only guess at how the divers felt as the structure of the Vasa began to emerge from the gloom, but I think it is a safe bet to assume that mixed with the excitement was a little bit of disbelief, a failure to adequately process.  That is certainly how I felt, standing in the dim, cavernous hall of the Vasa Museum, staring up at the towering ship and struggling to comprehend that before me was not only something almost 400 years old but that it had spent more than three centuries underwater.  Human brains are not designed to understand such things, if we could we would be in danger of imploding with the knowledge of our own transient insignificance.  Instead I spent a lot of time saying inane things such as ‘I can’t believe how well preserved it is’, ‘I can’t believe how big it is’, ‘I can’t believe how old it is’,  ‘It’s hard to believe it’s real’ and generally feeling rather overwhelmed.  Though slightly disconcerting, it is an experience I would highly recommend and certainly one you are unlikely to have again.

The practicalities:-

The island of Djurgården, where the Vasa Museum is located, is not on the subway line and so you will either need to walk from the centre or take the tram (line 7N).  The tram is included in a Stockholm travel pass (see my previous post here for more details).

The museum is open from 10 until 5  from 1st September to 31st May (with extended hours until 8pm on Wednesday) and from 8.30 until 6 from 1st June to 31st August.  Entry is free for 18s and under and at the time of writing in October 2018 student tickets cost SEK 110 which is roughly £9/US$12/€10.50 and adult tickets cost SEK 130, roughly £11/US$14/€12.

For more preserved wooden boats, this time of the Viking sort, read my post on the Roskilde Viking ship museum here

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Skansen, the world’s oldest open air museum – Stockholm

National history museums are often high on my ‘must see’ list when visiting a country for the first time.  They are the perfect place to learn about the local culture, both from the artefacts on display and the displays themselves: what a people consider important and why is often as interesting as the material thing.  Museums also lend themselves to photography, the buildings as much as their contents, as nothing sets a treasure off better than a grand backdrop.  But even the most avid museum buff can find their loyalty tested by some unexpected sunshine.  The weather during our long weekend to Stockholm was, quite simply, glorious.  Luckily for this vitamin D deprived traveller, Stockholm is home to Skansen, the world’s oldest open air museum, the ideal combination of sunshine and history.

Skansen is located on the central island of Djurgården, which is where you will also find the Vasa Museum (more on this in my next post), the Nordic Museum and Gröna Lund amusement park.  Spread over 75 acres of parkland, Skansen opened in 1891 as a means of preserving and celebrating Sweden’s architectural and social history, bringing together original buildings from all over the country, ranging in date from 1720 to the present day.

Maps are available at Skansen’s website and from the ticket office with suggested walking routes to make sure that you don’t miss the key sites. We chose to follow the two hour itinerary.  This is definitely a minimum rather than a maximum time as you could easily spend a full day in the park.  We started in the Town Quarter, home to a mixture of replica and working shops, including a glass blowers, bakery and printing works.  The photos above are from the iron mongers, whose displays date from the 1930s.  Throughout the town, as with the rest of Skansen, are people in period costume who will happily chat about the history of commerce and craft in Sweden and show you a whole range of interesting artefacts.

After the town, our route took us by a number of farms, formal gardens and allotments which in late May were full of spring flowers, cherry blossom and wisteria.

Other highlights included:-

Selgora Church (above left), an entirely wooden construction dating from the 18th century which was moved to Skansen in 1916 when it was scheduled for demolition and replacement with a modern building.  The church was closed during our visit but is open on Sundays and can be hired for weddings.

Vastvest storehouse (above centre), one of the oldest buildings at Skansen, dating from the 14th century.  It was used as a store at a farm in Telemark, Norway and is the only building not to come from Sweden.  It is covered in Norse carvings and its position on a rise at the edge of the park means that it is a great spot to take a break and soak in the peaceful atmosphere and the fantastic views over the city below.

The imposing Hallestad belfry (above right), from the Ostergotland region of Sweden, was built in 1732 and is over 40 metres tall.  At the time of the tower’s construction most churches had separate bell towers, presumably to reduce the risk of the main building being destroyed by a lightning strike.  When wood is the building material of choice, fire prevention is a real concern.

If historical buildings are not your bag, or if you need something to entertain smaller members of your travelling party, Skansen has plenty of other attractions to offer, including a petting zoo, aquarium, playpark, cafes and funicular railway.  If you are in Stockholm then do consider adding Skansen to your itinerary.  I can’t promise that you will get the weather we had, but I do hope that you will enjoy your visit as much as we did.

The practicalities:-

The island of Djurgården, where Skansen is located, is not on the subway line and so you will either need to walk from the centre or take the tram (line 7N).  The tram is included in a Stockholm travel pass (see my previous post here for more details).

Skansen is open from 10 until 8 during the week and until 6 at the weekend.  Entry is free for under 4s and at the time of writing in August 2018 costs 60 SEK (£5/$7/6 EUR) for children up to 15 and 195 SEK (£17/$21/18 EUR) for adults.

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Vintage Fun at Gröna Lund, Stockholm’s city centre amusement park

Gröna Lund from Södermalm

It had been a cultural morning, a stroll around Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town, followed by a visit to contemporary photography gallery Fotografiska in the Södermalm district.  The gallery is on the waterfront and, as we stepped out in to the sunshine and let our eyes wander across the city skyline, our attention was drawn to a glinting jumble of structures on the opposite shore, the unmistakable towers and tracks of an amusement park. My travelling companions’ faces lit up.  My insides tumbled.

Gröna Lund, Stockholm’s city centre amusement park, has a long history.  Established in the 1880s it was owned by the same family until 2001, and you can tell.  There is a peculiar charm to the place despite the crowds and the noise, the colour and the fear.  Part of its character is its size.  Perched on the edge of Djurgården Island it has nowhere to expand, on three sides there is water, at the back the road.  But small is beautiful and nothing is lacking, from the more sedate teacups and merry-go-round to adrenalin fuelled 95 metre drops and rollercoasters that hurtle at over 55 miles an hour.

Then there is the styling.  Love fairground kitsch?  Love 50s pastel hues?  Love lights and glitter and vintage fonts?  You will not be disappointed.

It is a photographer’s dream and a voyeur I would happily have stayed.  It is no secret that I am ever so slightly risk adverse and the thought of plummeting to my likely death strapped to a flimsy bit of plastic is not my idea of entertainment.  For someone who has only recently made peace with the use of lifts (elevators to my US friends) and once had to sit down on an escalator in Japan because it was ‘too high’, a rollercoaster ride is kind of a big deal.

Perhaps it was the balmy spring weather, perhaps fun is infectious, perhaps it was peer pressure, perhaps it was my faith in Scandinavian health and safety standards.  Whatever the cause, I took the plunge, metaphorically and literally, and braved my first ride (above left).  Admittedly a ride designed for children but a ride none the less.  Feeling jubilant, having survived my swift swoop through a witch’s house (the ride is called Kavasten which is Swedish for broom), we took it up a notch and boarded ‘Jetline’, sitting in the front cart.  Needless to say, my time on the park’s oldest, highest and faster rollercoaster was spent screaming and swearing I would never do anything so foolish again!

My companions laughed.  I ate a restorative ice cream.  All was right with the world.

The practicalities:-

Gröna Lund, and indeed the whole island of Djurgården, is not on the subway line and so you will either need to walk from the centre or take the tram.  The tram is a good option, with stops directly outside (line 7N), but be warned, at peak times they can get very crowded and you may not make it on to the first to pass (unless you have sharp elbows and low morals!).  The tram is included in a Stockholm travel pass (see my previous post here for more details).

Entry to the park is free for children under 7 and for adults 65 and over.  For everyone else admission is SEK 120 (roughly £10 or $13 at the time of writing).  Each ride costs 1 to 3 coupons.  You can purchase an all day pass, with unlimited rides, for SEK 340 (£29 or $37) or various sizes of coupon books.

 

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