Right hear, right now
Kirstin Innes discovers another side to Edinburgh, the city of her birth, when she walks the Leith Murmur
Right here, at the foot of the Walk, is as far down as I’ve ever got into Leith - Saturday morning trips to the newly-opened Waterworld with a childminder, scoffing at my little brother’s friends taking on the wave machine. I left Edinburgh at 18 without ever having crossed down to this side of town: Trainspotting takes place in a completely different city to the one I grew up in.
Gina Belling also has childhood memories tied to the Foot of the Walk. That bank on the corner of Kirk Street used to be the old post office, and there were benches outside where the drunks would sit. Belling and her friends were playing ball when one of the drunks approached her and asked her to buy him meths. Gina was terrified and ran home to her mammy, who said ‘at least he wisnae after Brasso!’
Gina doesn’t know that she’s told me this story, because I heard it on the Leith Murmur - a sort of oral orienteering tour of the old port that you can do at any time you like, with your mobile phone. I’ve printed off a faint, hand-drawn map from the website, and I’m guiding myself around totally unknown streets looking for the bright green plaques bolted on to lampposts and fences. Each one says only ‘Murmur’, the phone number and a code, and on phoning each number you hear residents’ recorded memories and local histories. The Murmur originated in Toronto, as a way of recording community histories, and spread all through Canada. This is its first incarnation outside of North America.
As I listen to each person’s memory and visualise it happening, however many years ago on that very spot, it begins to feel as though I’m walking through a collection of short stories, something like Sherwood Anderson’s Winnesburg Ohio; a slow-building portrait of a community told through tiny moments in the lives of its residents. There’s the dreamer who once lodged a Spitfire he was trying to sell on the junction at Duke Street; the conspiracy theorist who claims that the council ripped the heart out of the Kirkgate because it was attracting more tourism than the Royal Mile; the old Teddy boy taking his ‘lemon curd’ for a fish supper after the dancing; the owner of the Indian restaurant at the Shore who moved in when it was still a red light district. For the most part, the storytellers are long-time Leithers, bitter or laughing bemusedly about the very recent gentrification. Up a close off the Shore, a woman who works for Leith Community Radio points out that they can’t afford the rent for this building any more - it now belongs to an advertising company. I’ve still got my phone to my ear when I’m nearly run over by two big shiny cars pulling out. It’s almost a bit too serendipitous.
At the Port O’Leith pub, as I’m listening to owner Mary Moriarty recall meeting ‘my first Russian sailor! He was a great big fella with a leather jacket and a bottle of vodka in his back pocket,’ the story starts to involve me; the barman and the regulars having a fag outside begin chatting to me. There’s a sign above the door of the bar offering ‘Trainspotting Tours’. As a first-timer, I think I’ll stick with the Murmur.
Follow or participate in the Leith Murmur by going to www.edinburgh.murmur.info