Welcome to Constitution Street

Welcome to Constitution Street

Words by Ellen Desmond

I’ve recently finished reading Constitution Street by human rights campaigner, Jemma Neville (nonfiction, published by 404 Ink, September 2019). The book is inspired by the street where I work and it uses the area of Leith, where I live, as a springboard for a wider conversation on rights. 

The concept is both timely and multifaceted, and I’m very taken with Neville’s outlook and the angle she used for this book: ‘Human rights famously begin in the small places close to home and, much

like the mix of neighbours living side by side and in common on a street, are interdependent on one another…’ Constitution Street considers what the stories told by neighbours on one street in Edinburgh reveal about today’s ‘constitutional crisis in an age of anxiety’. It’s cited as ‘part memoir, part social history, part exploration of a new constitution for the day we live in.’ 

Plenty of the stories that Neville chooses to share in the book highlight how grassroots people, local businesses, and working-class communities are often the ones who make great change through everyday actions. This is something important to remember as we so often feel powerless in the face of political upheaval and late capitalism. I particularly liked the story of Margaret the local lollipop lady, and that of Kirkgate highrise flats – which can be seen from all over the area and allegedly host some of the best views in Edinburgh of both the city and the sea. 

Reading the book has given me a lot to think about. Too often we feel alone in our homes, and almost always we feel helpless in the face of constitutional change. In great contrast to Neville’s ability to throw herself into her neighbourhood, this sense of urban isolation, purportedly a widespread 21st-century problem, can be explored in The Lonely City by Olivia Laing.

I don’t consider myself isolated, but I don’t really know any of my nearby Leith neighbours. I don’t know the folk living in my apartment building either, though the area does feel like home to me now. Growing up in Ireland, my neighbours were like family. I think that’s often a working class thing. My immediate neighbours on the right of our wee yellow, terraced house were like grandparents to me when I was little. One of them taught me to write my name when I was three, and she also gave me a lot of my sense of humour. I’d spend most days at their house and have to be dragged home at night. I even used to say ‘I’m going in home!’ when I popped round to visit their place.

Oddly, I don’t know if I really do want to get to know my Leith neighbours right now. Maybe I just haven’t settled yet in that secure, non-rental way. But I also don’t think I have that level of trust in as many people, and I don’t think I’ll ever again have the closeness I had with those neighbours growing up. 

The rental crisis, and the fact many millennials and Gen-Zers will likely never own our own homes, adds to this fear of allowing yourself to feel settled. I also think it’s one of the reasons so many of us are struggling with anxiety or mental health challenges; there’s no security when I know I may fall in love with Edinburgh completely and then be booted out after Brexit. Or if one of my loved ones here gets deported, that I may have to leave Leith too or lose them forever. 

This pressure means I’m grounded by an anxious sense of place, which is perhaps what has led me to change my neighbourly interactions. I ended up reflecting on that a lot earlier this year when one of those old, important Irish neighbours of mine passed away, and I couldn’t get a flight home in time for the funeral. It’s not my bereavement to claim fully, but I felt lost, and it was one of the furthest I’ve ever felt from home.

I felt far from my origins again when I was met with this book, but I also realised there are so many who welcome me here and in many ways, the book in itself was a ‘welcome in’ for me. Constitution Street showed me that I need to live in the present, where possible, as a person with such an uncertain future. 

“I’m grounded by an anxious sense of place…”

I’m coming to terms with the fact that what home means to me reflects the flux of political change I’ve grown up with; I call two countries half of home right now. Worrying about being forced to leave or having to desperately follow work opportunities won’t change anything, but embracing where I am now in an everyday sense will change a lot. Perhaps it’s even a political act in itself, and while many around me have a lot less, I’m very lucky indeed to even have that right for now. 

Whether you relate or not, Neville’s book is worth a read to broaden your horizons, examine your own rights, or to support independent publishing. The picture included here is one I took on a lunch break on wonderful Constitution Street, where I’ve had my fair share of bizarre, emotional, awful, great, and funny journeys myself, and where I now feel slightly more than half at home. 

You can follow Jemma Neville: @jemmatweets and her publisher: @404Ink to learn more about their work.

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