Archive for November, 2010
Our first Open Space event took place in a very open space, a cavernous place, at the top of a shopping centre overlooking Leith harbour, one cold Sunday in November. There was no heating, no lighting, no floor covering but there was a fabulous view of the Forth. It seems a good place to start.
It seems odd reading that now, I wrote it almost five years ago when both my blog and Leith Open Space were very new. At that time I had no idea how much my life was about to become dominated by a voluntary involvement that would lead me into unexplored territory and – as poor Ray now knows only too well – swallow evenings and weekends whole and then come back for more.
On a personal level I do not regret it for a moment, I have met some fantastic people and made some great friends. On a more political level I know the journey is far from finished – there is a huge amount of work to be done in enabling talented groups to fulfill their potential to enrich society. My opening blog now seems a little idealistic.
I plan to use this space to explore a different kind of politics, and to tell some of the stories that rarely get into the newspapers. But first of all here is an account of a first small step towards better human understanding. For me, it offered a brief insight into the kind of multicultural community we could and should enjoy building. Full of human challenges, fears, hopes and opportunities. Just like an open space.
But there are causes for celebration on the fifth anniversary of Leith Open Space. Since November 2005, as I am about to record over on Leith Open Space, our still tiny community group has come a long way. Our two best achievements (I think) are the Opening Doors Shadow Scheme and our active involvement as founder members of World Kitchen in Leith. Both ventures have grown from the first meeting in that cold space in Ocean Terminal – the shadow scheme because participants in Open Space said it was time ethnic minorities became more involved in politics; World Kitchen simply because we discovered that the multicultural lunch was the best part of the whole day (not least because the inimitable Shaheen Unis brought a huge box of pakoras and samosas).
Interestingly that space at the top of Ocean Terminal is now a brilliant place for young people: the Transgression Skatepark. Now that is progress.
November 26th, 2010
Harder than it seems, members of the audience get involved in Change earlier this year (picture by Kasia Raszewska)
At the dress rehearsal I find myself on the edge of my seat. Why is Alice not gathering information and support from her local councillors, MSP, housing associations, neighbourhood groups? Who the hell is funding this supposed empowerment project? I want to shout out, “For goodness sake, find out how the system works!” and in the end I do, though I try to put it a little more politely than that.
It’s only a play but it’s pretty true to life. Alice sees that rising house prices are killing community spirit in her neighbourhood. Ordinary people, including her best friend, can no longer afford to live there. She wants to start a campaign for social housing on a derelict site but the shiny new local community ‘empowerment project’ plans to build a hotel there. What can Alice do?
Power to the People? the latest ACTive Inquiry Forum Theatre production – starting on Sunday in Out of the Blue – draws its storyline from real people in Leith where a shortage of housing pushes prices beyond the reach of too many buyers (too true and not just in Leith: Ray and I could not afford our own home at today’s prices).
So what can Alice do? The point of Forum Theatre is to inspire people to become “actively involved in society”. The audience is invited to intervene when they spot an opportunity to change course – so you can find yourself on stage which is much less scary and more fun than you might imagine. But also frustratingly difficult to do any better than poor disillusioned Alice.
Who could refuse? Gavin Crichton invites members of the audience to get involved in Change during the election campaign
At the dress rehearsal I am probably the only member of the audience who is not a student of community theatre. I have delivered too many election leaflets not to know that Alice should not start her campaign by knocking on doors – you are as welcome as a Jehovah’s Witness when you cold-call on people just home from work, interrupting their evening meal or the football match on telly.
A recurring line – “it’s the council’s job but you know how the council is” – reminds me how many highly intelligent people simply do not know how the system works, the name of their MSP or councillor, or how to contact them.
Learning the system: Ola and Maka shadow their local MSP, Malcolm Chisholm, through Opening Doors shadow scheme.
Power to the People aims to provoke questions about the meaning of power. I leave the performance feeling more than ever that knowledge is the main route to power. A successful campaign depends on knowing where power lies and how to lobby decision makers; gathering popular support means knowing how to talk and listen to people. It takes endless dedication and even more time.
Anyone for the Big Society? Such questions, and more, are the stuff of Forum Theatre. It will be interesting to see what interventions the real audience makes when Power to the People opens to the public on Sunday. Then maybe I could invite them to join the Opening Doors shadow scheme to find out how the system works.
PERFORMANCES (all free):
Sun 21st Nov 2010, 3pm, The Out of the Blue Drill Hall, Dalmeny Street, Leith
Mon 22nd Nov, 3.30pm, McDonald Road Library, McDonald Road
Weds 24th Nov, 7pm, The Lighthouse, 20-22 West Harbour Road, Granton
Fri 26th Nov, 6pm, Pilmeny Youth Centre, 44 Buchanan Street, Leith
November 18th, 2010
Never look a gift horse? I’m wandering up Broughton Street in two minds. It seems churlish to complain about bright new shops opening so soon after the old businesses closed down. In the age of austerity too. But the old curmedgeon in me can’t help feeling it’s a shame there are so few shops selling things people need. How many gift shops can Broughton actually support?
Whatever happened to places where you could buy purposeful things like string and nails and steel wool; stores with floors that creaked welcome and oozed no-nonsense smells: paraffin, jeyes fluid, linseed oil and maybe just a heady whiff of glue.
When we first came here there were at least four hardware stores within walking distance, two of them in Broughton Street. There was Alec’s and a basement place on the corner where you could buy buckets and brooms and get keys cut and shoes mended (or am I rolling several shops into one). It was a long time ago, so long B&Q had not arrived in the neighbourhood, if you wanted paint and plaster board you went to Dodge City down by the Water of Leith.
Alas poor Grays: will this be the most interesting display to appear in the new shop?
Now they are all gone. Even Grays has turned into White Stuff. The old Edinburgh ironmonger hung on a surprisingly long time in George Street while all around banks turned into bars. Unlike the venerable Crockets – still going strong in Glasgow – Grays seemed to lose its way in the last few years: neither ironmongers, electricians, nor furniture store. But it was a comforting break between bistros and fashion chains.
This is grumpy old woman stuff. The other night we went to see The Illusionist (as beautiful a film as friends said it was) and I found an unexpected nostalgia welling up inside me for the days when Patrick Thomson ruled North Bridge, when Jenners was Jenners and shops were shut on Sundays.
Things change. Two months ago I wrote about the energising pop-up culture which sees opportunity in empty shops and I was really encouraged at the comments which appeared on my blog, along with news of imaginative new enterprises. One of them, Frugal in Musselburgh, has now graduated from being a temporary pop-up to a growing business in permanent premises.
On Broughton Street two of three empty shops have quickly reopened as gift shops, The third is a lovely space which used to be Alec’s hardware store full of nails, timber and steel wool. I don’t suppose there is any chance a pop up ironmonger will reclaim it?
November 9th, 2010
But spare the bald young clerks who add
The profits of the stinking cad;
It’s not their fault that they are mad,
They’ve tasted Hell.
Politicians say daft things from time to time because after all (contrary to the view of Hugh (hedge fund) Hendry on Question Time from Glasgow last week) they are human. But I wonder how many ordinary people were genuinely shocked by Boris Johnson’s reference to Kosovo or Chris Bryant’s ‘sociological’ cleansing in the context of housing benefit cuts. The flurry of artificial fury sent me scurrying to my poetry book.
I was amazed to discover that Come Friendly Bombs, John Betjeman’s polemic against the industrial invasion of Slough, was written in 1937. That was just three years before the real hell of the blitz rained down on London and other UK cities. But it was also 20 years since the First World War: Betjeman would have lived through Zeppelin raids on Britain. What he wrote, sometimes more in ironic sorrow than anger, was deliberately intended to shock readers out of their complacency.
It’s not their fault they do not know
The birdsong from the radio,
It’s not their fault they often go
Come Friendly Bombs is one of my favourite Betjeman poems. I love the incisive language from a writer more often associated with affectionate, even sentimental, verse about Britain and the British. Instead, this is a beautifully accurate, full frontal attack on greed and stupidity ( inspired apparently by a plan to build 850 factories in Slough). That is why I am surprised to discover it was written as long ago as 1937; it has the feel of the 50s or 60s.
I am sorry to read in Wikipedia that Betjeman’s daughter says her father later regretted writing the poem. The imagery works because it is offensive. But no-one reading the words believes Betjeman wants to blow his fellow human beings to smithereens. It’s attitudes he’s attacking.
Come, bombs and blow to smithereens
Those air -conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans,
Tinned minds, tinned breath.
So how about Kosovo and social cleansing? Last week’s righteous indignation from the coalition deliberately (and successfully) distracted attention from their potentially disastrous cuts to housing benefit. Surely I wasn’t the only one who did not find the ‘cleansing’ references offensive? Hyperbole is justified when it is the best or only way of drawing attention to a crude and callous policy targetting the ‘undeserving poor’. The actions of the government are likely to cause much more harm than the words of their critics.
Treat yourself to a moment of John Betjeman’s real wrath – here’s Come Friendly Bombs on one of many websites printing the poem in full. And then let’s look out for our current poet laureate. Carol Ann Duffy knows how to wield a powerful metaphor.
November 1st, 2010