Just wondering, in the event of revolution where would Edinburgh crowds gather, where is the city square, where the city’s heart? (Twitter Mon 21 Feb 17.50)
It was an impulsive question on Twitter. I didn’t really expect a response. During the Arab Spring it occurred to me that Edinburgh lacks a true centre. In the unlikely event of revolutionary fever spreading through the capital, where would crowds gather? Autumn has brought an answer of sorts.
I had asked a similar question (without the reference to revolution) when I first joined the board of the former Edinburgh City Centre Management Company. Excited by new plans for improving public space, I suggested we might hold a competition to find out exactly where the centre is.
The idea never caught on. So I was astonished at the number and speed of responses on Twitter. I stopped counting when 14 people answered within minutes. Sadly I never got round to making a copy of them; in retrospect they gave a hint of political upheaval to come.
“We could storm the palace then occupy parliament,”
Members of the SNP mostly suggested that Edinburgh’s political epicentre should be outside the Scottish Parliament. “We could storm the palace then occupy parliament,” I paraphrase but that was the gist back in February. (You can tell SNP tweets, by the way, because they sport the party symbol – if anyone wonders why the nationalist party now occupies parliament, if not the palace, just take a look at the social media savvy of their young bloods.)
A few Labour followers opted for Parliament Square, outside City Chambers, or round the Tron. Others just despaired: “We don’t even have a Pearl Roundabout let alone a Tahrir Square”. As far as I remember no-one suggested St Andrew Square. But now here are the non-party-political anti-capitalists politely setting up camp in the garden recently opened to the public. The land, leased to the council and maintained by Essential Edinburgh (which emerged from ECCM), still belongs to property owners round the square, including the Royal Bank of Scotland
Apart from admirable coverage by STV Edinburgh, the media has largely ignored the camp (though Occupy Edinburgh has a good website and well supported Facebook page). Some would say that’s because the occupy movement is not newsworthy, or not in Edinburgh anyway. But I am impressed by their good-natured organisation and the general confidence that the movement will take shape and spread if they talk and listen to enough people.
Maybe, maybe. At any rate I’m delighted to see that ACTive Inquiry theatre company is taking their latest forum theatre play to St Andrew Square. On 19 November Not for Profit explores alternatives to spending cuts among anti-capitalist campaigners.
And at night (pedal-powered) lights shine on rebellious banners slung round the plinth of that disgraceful old rogue Henry Dundas. Why does Edinburgh celebrate the last person in the UK to be impeached? And for misappropriation of public funds! St Andrew Square has reason to become the revolutionary heart of the city.
PS: Not many people know this but St Andrew Square is also Edinburgh’s Poetry Garden. The founder membersnurture dreams of projecting poetry on to the plinth. Thanks to Occupy Edinburgh we can see it would show up nicely after dark. And make good use of old Dundas.
I like to think this could be a sweetly subversive movement: poetry in motion, gently working its way into the nooks and crannies of city life; sometimes soothing, sometimes stirring. In London this summer at least some of the 3.5 million daily passengers on the Underground will find solace in six poems staring them in the face on the tube. And in Edinburgh? The Poetry Garden will bloom for a day in Castle Street on Friday 16th July.
In fact the Poetry Garden is rooted in St Andrew Square (where it was planted almost two years ago) but – Scottish summers being what they are – outdoor events can be a bit of a gamble. So Friday’s Summer Reading/Poetry in Motion has the great bonus of a mobile library (thanks to Ian Kirkby and Jane Douglas from Edinburgh City Libraries Direct Services).
As parking can also be a bit of a problem Mike Gallagher of Essential Edinburgh suggested Castle Street. That’s a brainwave which links two of Edinburgh’s new public spaces. While St Andrew Square is a fantastic success the great potential of Castle Street has yet to be fully realised (sadly the monthly Eating Place market no longer happens).
But parking poetry there between 10 am and 3pm on Friday seems to me a great opportunity to show how streets can come to life when people make creative use of them.
Hope I am not wrong! But with a little instant gardening (thanks to the horticulture team at the Botanics) and another inspired collection of poems handpicked by Lilias Fraser of the Scottish Poetry Library…how can anyone just walk on by? You can even use your library card to take out a book from the van right there and then.
SUMMER READING / POETRY IN MOTION
Friday 16 July, 10.30am-3pm
Mobile library van, Castle Street
Meanwhile Poems on the Underground continue to work their quiet magic as they have been doing ever since the idea was first dreamed up in 1986. Each season there is a new theme. This summer the theme is music with poems by, among others, Kathleen Raine, D.H Lawrence, Thomas Hardy and Gillian Clarke, celebrating birdsong, hymns, songs of love and longing – in tube carriages across London.
We’re planting in the Poetry Garden today so it’s not good to wake to a small blizzard swirling outside the window. But, would you believe it, by the time we carry our poems to St Andrew Square the sky is blue, the sun is shining and the snow is a perfect background for bright red dogwood fluttering with poetry.
With luck they will all last for the whole of the Carry a Poem programme, which is this year’s brilliant idea for the annual reading campaign organised by Unesco City of Literature and theScottish Poetry Library. There are all kinds of stories behind the poems people choose to carry with them as you can find out from the free books they are handing out all over the city (at The Botanics they’re saying it with snowdrops). The display in St Andrew Square is just one of the events because (say it out loud) this is Edinburgh’s poetry garden.
“They did the same last year,” someone says as we finish planting clusters of red and green dogwood hung with 100 laminated poetry labels. So we did, or at any rate we did something very similar – in February last year the theme was the Lost Worldso willow stakes wove a trail of pictures, poems and extracts from Conan Doyle’s adventure story round the garden. And people started reading the labels as soon as we got the willow hammered into the ground.
That’s the amazing thing. Lilias (who’s from the Poetry Library), Celia and I (we’re volunteers) had great fun attaching the poems to the dogwood, stopping every now and then to read a line of poetry that was just calling out for attention (who can resist When I Grow Old I will Wear Purple?). With Ray’s help we even enjoyed planting the poetry in the cold, hard ground round the pond in St Andrew Square.
But, just like last year, the best part is seeing how quickly people come to read the poetry. There it is just fluttering in the breeze, a line that stops you in your tracks. As Celia says, “It takes away the fear of poetry.”
I might just have to keep popping up to St Andrew Square to keep an eye on the dogwood. Perhaps I should invest in a red hat too.
When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
Home is a controversial word for Iyad Hayatleh, a Palestinian poet who was born in a Syrian refugee camp. “The most controversial word of my life,” he told us. He has never been to Palestine but to mark Refugee Week, Iyad read poems about home in Arabic and English as we gathered round a dead tree in Edinburgh’s Poetry Garden.
It was a simple idea. Poems about home written by refugees were hung in the old cherry tree near the Coffee Republic pavillion in St Andrew Square. I was one of the volunteers who had joined Ryan van Winkle just a couple of days earlier to hook the little laminated poetry ‘leaves’ on to bare branches. In pouring rain we got soaked and the words gathered tears of their own.
That was Tuesday 16 June. Oddly when we met for the poetry picnic on the sunnier 18th some of the poetry had vanished. Including the three word poem, “Here and There” and Iyad’s three poems written in beautiful Arabic script.
Never mind. We had real, live poetry while shoppers passed by. Iyad, who now lives in Glasgow, read two of his own poems and one by Mahmoud Darwish in both Arabic and English. Ryan, who said he refused to be insulted by the disappearing poems (“Let’s hope they are decorating someone’s fridge somewhere”), read one about his family home in the US. Gordon Munro (a Leith councillor with a not so private passion for poetry) read a poem in Scots dialect about Leith’s welcoming internationalism by the Leith poet Rodney Relax. While Jason Bergen of Oxfam reminded us that Scotland is not always a welcoming place for refugees.
Gordon reading Rodney Relax. (Pic by Nick)
Poems in the tree were written by refugees at a workshop in The Welcoming led by Ryan van Winkle, Reader in Residence at the city libraries and Scottish Poetry Library. The workshop was organised by the poetry library in partnership with The Welcoming and Oxfam.
And the poetry was supposed to be on display until Monday 29 June but the poems were vanishing so fast it looks as if poetry library volunteers won’t have much clearing up to do after the weekend. Where “Here and There”?
The next instant it was gone – and so was our dinner. Ed Malone in the Lost World
Hot foot in the snow to St Andrew Square to check poetry stakes are still in place. So far so good, though last week I obviously blogged too soon. The Lost World vanished from the garden within a day of me writing about it. Prose, poetry, pictures and willow stakes: gone without trace.
Take 2 (or, actually, please don’t take any just yet): Lost World poems and pictures replanted in St Andrew Square in fading light on Friday afternoon. I shot up to the square on Saturday morning to capture the scene but, would you believe it, the camera battery died just as a group of young people gathered to read poems by the pond. You will just have to take my word for it.
A huge black shadow, twenty feet across, skimmed up into the air; for an instant the monster wings blotted out the stars, and then it vanished over the brow of the cliff above us. Ed Malone in The Lost World
On the No 8 bus this morning I peered anxiously out of the window as we passed St Andrew Square. Ever since I helped to plant poetry in the garden for the Lost World Read the weather seems to be doing its best to blow the whole lot to the kingdom of Fife. Or some dark corner of Harvey Nicks, maybe. Come to think of it, that would be a nice poetic irony.
The Lost World Read is this year’s big give away for Edinburgh City of Literature. Along with Glasgow and Bristol, they will be handing out thousands of copies of Conan Doyle’s adventure. All free of charge. Not only that but there are free exhibitions and flights of fancy in unexpected places.
While the Titian painting has been secured in the National Gallery for a mere £50 million, creative souls elsewhere in the capital city are achieving small miracles for next to nothing.
Looking out the bus I could see the poetry stakes were still there. Willow wands were doing what willow always does, bending to the wind, poetry labels were fluttering valiantly in the storm. It’s an unobtrusive kind of display, almost just a part of the garden. The idea is that people can find hidden messages, brief thoughts hanging in the air. and if they feel like it they can stop to read as they take a short cut through a public space. Amazingly people were stopping to read almost as soon as the poetry was planted.
Take the No 8 a few stops in the other direction and you will find more poetry hidden among the lost world plants in the Palm House at the Botanics. Along with extracts from the Conan Doyle book, and discreetly placed stories about plants from a world of nature that may soon be truly lost.
All this on a budget of next to nothing – unless of course you add up the time and imagination enthusiastically given by small but richly talented groups like City of Literature, the Scottish Poetry Library and the remarkable behind-the-scenes folk at the Botanics.
At the end of the journey I picked up my free copy of The Lost World. If there is a moral to this tale it is that, in the right creative hands, a little money can go a very long way. I just hope the willow stakes will stay where they are for at least a few more weeks.
And so, let’s pause a moment here, draw strength – and reclaim what is ours. Ron Butlin
It was a fine affair: a red carpet, a string quartet, speeches from private and public bodies, a poem composed for the occasion, and fizzy wine to wash it all down. But, rather oddly, the official opening of St Andrew Square was closed to the public. I was in a hurry or I would have stopped to take a photograph of the sign on the locked gates. It didn’t seem quite the right spirit to celebrate an otherwise generous and welcoming space. Ron Butlin’s poem, on the other hand, was perfect.
Perhaps it is churlish of me to mention the locked gates, I was among the privileged company ushered into the marquee specially erected for the occasion. But it seemed a strange contradiction to close the gates while inside the big tent speakers and guests proudly celebrated the opening of a new public space. Since Alex Salmond proudly announced that he walks up the Royal Mile from parliament to city centre (was that why he was 30 minutes late?), he was unlikely to be phased by meeting a few folk on the way to the red carpet.
Even so, it was good to hear so much enthusiasm for the garden and due credit given to the old Edinburgh City Centre Management Company who made it happen. They had to work hard to negotiate ‘the possibilities and prohibitions’ of the capital city as the Makar, Ron Butlin, so succintly puts it.
And credit is certainly due to Essential Edinburgh and their event organisers for including the Makar in this official opening ceremony, for giving the poet a place on the platform, and for publicly celebrating the fact that St Andrew Square is now Edinburgh’s poetry garden.
Here’s the last verse of Poetry in St Andrew Square which Ron first performed in draft form at the completely public opening of the poetry garden two weeks ago.
Ours is a city of possibilities and projibitions where we do our best to find the best way forward, and to seek out kindness where we can but only in these very public gardens, only in the green spaces of these very public gardens, can we feel the reassurance of the Earth beneath us.
And so, let’s pause a moment here, draw strength – and reclaim what is ours.
Let’s do just that: the gardens are open every day from 8 am till 6am.
It has happened. Thanks to a great group of people led by Ewan, a fantasy lurking at the back of my mind has made it into real life. Yesterday in the Scottish Poetry Library, a treasure of a place tucked out of sight down a close in the Royal Mile, a cluster of literary souls signed up to a brave new creative adventure bang smack in the middle of commercial Edinburgh. Some odd political sensitivity requires us to call it Poetry in St Andrew Square but the people who made it happen know it simply as The Poetry Garden.
And I am dead chuffed because it began as my idea. It is undoubtedly one of my better ideas but it is happening only because I chanced to mention it to an unusual politician who knew exactly how to make it work. Of course it wasn’t complete chance. When he was the Labour council leader, I had heard Ewan Aitken speak with real passion about education and the opening of Edinburgh’s Refugee Centre. He seemed the kind of man who combines political ability with a deeper belief in the things that matter in life. What you might expect (but don’t necessarily get) from a worker priest.
When I bumped into him at the Andy Warhol exhibition last year, we agreed that the city has a terrific buzz during the festival and wasn’t it great that St Andrew Squarewas opening to the public at last? That’s when I mentioned my idea that we should dedicate the new space as a Poetry Garden to balance the Book Festival at the other end of George Street and introduce something more uplifting than shopping to the heart of Edinburgh. (As a director of Edinburgh City Centre Management Company I have never been convinced that retail is the most important element of the capital city.)
I spoke to the right man. Ewan – newly liberated, perhaps, by becoming leader of the opposition – is a fantastic ambassador for the Poetry Garden. When we had a more businesslike meeting a month or so later he very quickly identified the path we should take through ECCM (soon to become Essential Edinburgh who manage the public space) to Coffee Republic (who run the cafe which will host poetry readings), to the talented but often under-funded group of literary organisations who will bring expertise and spark to the plan.
It worked. Everyone is enthusiastic, not least ECCM‘s manager Ian Broadfoot and Coffee Republic’s Paul Anderson. I have never been to such positive, heart-warming meetings, dedicated to making something happen. And at the Poetry Library yesterday I tried to give credit where it is really due.