Tuesday, December 03, 2019

‘Constitution Street' by Jemma Neville

3 December 2019

In 2017 Jemma Neville took a 9-month sabbatical from her role as Director of Voluntary Arts Scotland to write her first book. Responding to issues raised by both the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and the 2016 United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, and drawing on her own background in human rights law, Jemma wanted to explore the potential for a rights framework in the form of a written constitution. She did so, rather brilliantly, by looking at the national (and international) picture through a very local lens, setting out from her home in Constitution Street in Leith to walk and talk with her neighbours – literally taking a constitutional. The resulting book ‘Constitution Street: finding hope in an age of anxiety’ is a compelling read. Through 60 interviews with residents of Constitution Street Jemma examines the reality of human rights in our everyday lives. The stories of the people she gets to know are beautifully told. The structure of the book follows the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but the focus is always on the individual people, with the underlying message subtly in the background. Jemma is an incredibly generous narrator, giving ample room even to views she clearly doesn’t share. ‘Constitution Street’ is a deeply personal work, taking the reader through Jemma’s own moments of joy, confusion and grief. Although the book draws mainly on Jemma’s expertise in human rights law it was good to spot some small influences from Voluntary Arts – both in a focus on ‘the commons’ and on the use of exploratory ‘open conversations’. At this worryingly unsettling time in national and international politics ‘Constitution Street’ is an important book, gently persuasive and refreshingly human. It’s also a fascinating social history of a particular community and a really entertaining and enjoyable read. Last Thursday, having almost finished reading the book, I found myself walking along Constitution Street to visit Jemma in the new Voluntary Arts Scotland office on Customs Lane. I had walked down Constitution Street many times before, but now I was seeing it differently, recognising particular buildings from the book and imagining particular individuals behind the doors. The street itself is currently closed to traffic during the construction of the extension to Edinburgh’s tram system. With the road surface inaccessible behind high metal fences along the edge of the pavement and subject to excavation and resurfacing, and the closing chapters of the book fresh in my mind, Constitution Street felt like a film set being dismantled after shooting had finished. Or maybe a community being prepared for the next chapter in its history. ‘Constitution Street’ is an amazing achievement: if you haven’t bought your copy yet go straight to: https://www.404ink.com/store/constitution-street-jemma-neville



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