Posted 1 year ago by John

Conversation and Place 

Jemma Neville

To be fully constituted is to stand together with someone. Standing with my neighbours on the street, I learnt as much about myself as about the common ground we walk upon.

Conversation means to turn around on the spot. It is an exchange of experiences, a form of hospitality from one person to another. The geography of a street offers a specific setting for encountering hospitality. As neighbours, we are active participants in the negotiation and use of shared public space, including pavements, bus shelters, tenement stairwells and crossroads. When we turn around on the spot in these small places on the street, our feet do the work of encounter.

My street is Constitution Street in Leith, Edinburgh. During 2017- 2018, I interviewed over 60 of my neighbours about our lives in common up and down the street. This coincided with a period of immense uncertainty for the constitutional future of Scotland in the UK in the months preceding Brexit. My conversations with neighbours informed the writing of a book about constitutional change and human rights. 

I learnt that much of the apparent apathy people have with party politics stems from people feeling unnoticed and under-represented. Many votes in the referendums were a form of protest. People said that they didn’t feel listened to. They no longer trusted the conventional way of doing politics. 

During my encounters, I asked my neighbours questions such as How do we want to live together? What are your hopes for the future? And, what do you want to leave behind? Unlike in the news coverage of the anxious, chaotic months preceding Brexit, my interviewees weren’t politicians, lawyers or well-known commentators. They were people like you and me. 

I learnt a lot about trust and listening in the street conversations. People trusted me to record and share some of their own stories. I tried to be as mindful of how I found people as I was with analysing and transcribing the individual recordings. Rather than following the linear structure of one house number after another, I started across the road by talking with the neighbours I knew best and then asked each person I met for a further introduction. The meetings and flow of learning then extended outward like concentric, connecting ripples. 

The process was about side by side conversations. I found that side by side dialogue is usually more cooperative and less combative than facing directly opposite. It appears less hostile and it allows for the possibility of travelling together in the same direction. To be fully constituted is to stand together with someone. Standing with my neighbours on the street, I learnt as much about myself as about the common ground we walk upon.

It was an immersive experience for me personally. Word spread locally that there was a woman with a notepad and her dog asking lots of questions. The sense of daily recognition felt good overall. I, too, was listened to. I began to feel more grounded during a time of political and personal flux. The down side to the local visibility was a lack of privacy. There were times when I wanted to step out of my front door and not immediately meet someone who knew my name and much of my own personal baggage. Sometimes it felt overly exposing and invasive to have my work and home lives so intertwined. However, the project that I crafted was about exploring the daily life of a street and the encounters, both positive and negative, had to be lived as a personal practice. I had to stand by my true expression of self, in the same way that I asked open and searching questions to others.

I noticed too that my positive regard for the street was connected to the time of day and season. Often the weather dictated the unfolding of a particular moment and a mood. Writing inside my flat, alone on a dark evening, the nocturnal sounds outside and below the window - a can being kicked along the pavement, a fox tearing into a rubbish bag, someone vomiting on the steps, or the shout of football chants outside a bar - could be amplified to feel like something threatening. By contrast, the flow of daytime, domestic noises like birdsong, pushchair wheels, skateboarding, or a baby crying, seemed reassuringly routine and harmless. Perhaps it is because I belong more to one mood of the street than the other, or it is because I fear what I can’t see in the dark and thus don’t understand. 

All of the inter-cultural exchanges and conversations expanded my own understanding about how participatory democracy could be overhauled to more closely involve rights-holders - you, me, and our neighbours - in the decisions that directly affect our lives and about how to normalise democratic engagement so that it embodies its original meaning - people power - and not something left solely to politicians and lawyers. 

I have now completed the research process and a book, Constitution Street, will be published by 404 Ink in September. However, the process of the UK leaving the European Union has not yet been concluded. And neither have my conversations about people and power. Through the continued, daily practice of offering and receiving conversation on the street, I have become in and of this place. I am turning around and around to see my neighbours, and myself, in new and surprising ways. 

Jemma Neville is Director of Voluntary Arts Scotland. She has a professional background in human rights law. She was Community Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, 2017-2018.

Voluntary Arts Scotland is a national partner in A Year of Conversation and is helping to host A Day of Conversation on Saturday 11 May 2019. Food for Thought is at the Scottish Poetry Library: https://www.voluntaryarts.org/food-for-thought-a-conversation-around-food-memories

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