Interview: Leither Jemma Neville on her new book, Constitution Street

Jemma Neville
Jemma Neville
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Author Jemma Neville tells David Robinson how her neighbours in Leith inspired her to think about the kind of country we should be aiming to live in

Jemma Neville knows all about transcribing interviews. For her new book, Constitution Street, she interviewed 60 people who all live on the same Leith street, none of them famous, unless you count a 69-year-old shaven-headed Buddhist nun from the temple round the corner who, when she was a model in Manchester, was the first girl George Best fell in love with.

Mostly, though, they are people like Margaret the lollipop lady, who has been helping children across Constitution Street for 43 years. Or Robyn the doula, who holds a Moon Circle evening in her house for women to welcome the new moon. Or Morvern the artist who, every New Year’s Eve, paints the surface of pebbles collected from the beach with her younger daughter and leaves them on people’s doorsteps. And as we sit outside in the sun outside her partner’s cafe, I’m thinking quite warmly about Constitution Street, where Jemma has lived for 11 years. There’s more to it, I’m beginning to realise – the street, the people, the book – than meets the eye.

“See across there?” she says, pointing up at Leith Assembly Rooms. “That was where Margaret got married. Only the other day, I found out that it was where one of Queen Victoria’s daughters did too.” I love little echoes of the past like that, or how her book opens up local history without the dead hand of guidebookery. Just up the road, she points out, is St Mary’s Star of the Sea, and even though a Pugin-designed Catholic church might still fill up on Sundays with the faithful from other nations, there’s just a little aperçu about the decline of faith in the fact that its five confessional boxes are now down to just one. Or again, there’s the old debating chamber of Leith Council, one floor above the police station at 81 Constitution Street, a whole wall of it given over to Alexander Carse’s painting of the arrival of George IV at Leith; once, in 1822, the royal visit to end all royal visits, now a doubly forgotten story, gathering dust in the former home of an abolished council.

Personally, I have always loved long-form journalism that focuses on ordinary people. This isn’t quite that, because those 60 interviews are too fragmentary to count, but I’ll take it where I can. And Constitution Street, while it does at least offer a hint of the extraordinariness of so-called ordinary people, is written with a feeling of closeness to and love for its subject. All too often the word “community” is emptied of meaning: here it’s not.

Yet this is a hybrid book. There are shards of history and snippets of individual lives, but its wider ambition is contained in its sub-heading: “Letters to the Law in an Age of Anxiety.” This chimes perfectly with Neville’s own background: a Dundonian by birth, she studied law at Edinburgh and went on to specialise in human rights. So her stories of the street, even its sense of the past, is really there for a wider purpose. What Neville – the director of Voluntary Arts Scotland and a former outreach worker with the Scottish Human Rights Commission – is trying to do is show how such lives and such places are relevant to human rights. If we drew up a new bill of rights, in other words, how would it be relevant to the people of Constitution Street?

“I missed the blindingly obvious fact that I live on a place called Constitution Street until a couple of years ago,” she says. “I set out, maybe arrogantly, maybe foolishly, to draft a constitution. I’d sent out 60 letters to people asking if I could have a chat, and when I did, I was asking them in a very legal way about what rights we needed to have enshrined in it.”

“Blimey,” I say.

“Exactly. It wasn’t a very good question. So the book became a bit more about my own life. Because I was always being surprised about how much my assumptions got challenged.

“You’d think you could guess, for example, what way people would vote, and when you’d get to know them you’d find that you’d got them totally wrong. There’s a guy across the street, for example, who’s half-French and he just can’t wait to get out of the EU.”

She doesn’t know how many people live in Constitution Street, though she seems to know everything else about it (175 different addresses, but they include the 17-storey Kirkgate House flats outside which she once saw Nicola Sturgeon – who recognised her and said hello – taking a break in the last election). “We’re not a left-leaning utopia here in Scotland,” says Neville. “But one of the practical reasons for full autonomy is that we would have responsibility for our economic, cultural and social rights. In this ward, for example, we have Michelin-starred restaurants, but we also have food banks. We have people looking through the bins every day for food. There are real extremes of wealth and child poverty – one in five in Scotland as a whole, but one in four here.”

These Brexity days, she says, do at least underline the importance of human rights, “especially as Westminster seems set on regressing them.” But party politics don’t seem the answer either. “All that stuff about independence and borders... that’s blink of an eye stuff. Life’s too short. Meanwhile, the planet’s on fire.”

So the solution? For her at least, it doesn’t seem to mean party politics, but something more placed-based, maybe just getting things right on the street where you live. If this all sounds quite woolly and idealistic, fundamentally it’s optimistic too – a celebration, like the book itself, of interconnectedness and potential.

“In a world of flux,” she says, “it’s good to lean into the local, because in many ways the local is the universal. And every street is Constitution Street.”

Constitution Street by Jemma Neville is published by 404 Ink on 5 September, price £12.99. She will be appearing with Ellie Harrison at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 20 August