Campaigning group We Walk We Cycle We Vote staged a pop-up park under the banner ‘Shine a light: Help us Reimagine our City Streets’ outside St Andrew’s House on Edinburgh’s Regent Road as part of the 2018 Firestarter Festival last Friday. Volunteers, from organisations such as the Lothian cycle campaign group Spokes, and Sustrans, found themselves in shadow – in the shade of a building whose architecture Donald Dewar allegedly thought too fascistic to be considered a future home for the new Parliament. You can put on an event called ‘Shine a Light’, but you can’t make the sun rise above St Andrew’s House in February.
In an essay on Kathleen Jamie written while the Scottish Parliament was being reborn, I argued, maybe more in hope and optimism than anything else, that new Scottish writing rejected its historic dualisms and the ‘Caledonian antiszygy’ in favour of multiplicity and plurality. The last two decades have encouragingly seen greater ethnic diversity in Scottish writing, for example, but the old Jekyll-and-Hyde binaries remain surprising resistant – they were alluded to during the BBC’s recent documentary for the centenary of Muriel Spark, for example.
I’d spent Friday morning with Southside Community Centre’s wonderful writing group, warmed by the equally wonderful coffee and scones from Arthur’s Community Cafe, and the lunchtime looking at an exhibition in the National Galleries; I wasn’t cold. When I arrived to have a look at the site and decide how best to use it for creative writing that would help re-imagine the space, those who had been there since 8.30am were starting lose the use of their hands and feet – despite a warming skipping competition being one of the not-motorised options on offer. I quickly dropped plans of engaging directly with the pop-up park by writing about what we liked and disliked about the space and why, or saying what we’d change about it; or doing some take-a-line-for-a-walk flow-writing to see what the unconscious came up with about potential uses for it.
We set off up the supposed traffic-free road to Calton Hill a few metres east, and stopped in the first patch of sunlight, above the old Royal High School building and below the green slopes of the hill, flecked yellow by the emergence of the gorse. The sun branded shadow railings onto the road surface. We turned our faces to the sun and scanned the southern skyline, from the ancient blocks of the crags to those of the built environment, to the city centre monuments and cranes in the gap beyond St Andrew’s House and the end of the hill. I chose this road rather than going further along Regent Road, which was also in sun, because it was supposed to be traffic free, but we had to step aside several times to let vehicles pass. None of us had had occasion to take in precisely this cityscape before. We’d gained a bit of altitude over the pop up park, and about ten degrees celsius. It was light, and energising; you knew Spring wasn’t far behind. We shut our eyes to listen to birdsong and construction noise and attune the other non-visual senses, then recorded and shared our impressions before heading back down to chalk them on the wall in the cold shadow of St Andrew’s. Maybe the light / dark binary continues to be more applicable than proponents of multiplicity and plurality like to think; maybe it’s not always a bad or outmoded way of imagining the city. I left, for a warming cup of tea, buzzing with new ideas for combining poetry, activism and active transport, and a haikuesque poem-let for the day:
Half of this
‘no access road’
The other side –
Photos by Suzanne Forup of Cycling UK Scotland