23 May 2009

On the woad (part III)

When Unkie Dave came to the last words of the chapter -'...as a theologian I stayed silent, and ate my naan' - it was morning.

Wednesday was the first full day of my visit to Edinburgh. I had elected to stay in a hotel, lured by the prospect of complimentary mints on my pillow, a turn-down service, and a 42-inch flat-screen TV in my room. My traveling companion Donn was staying with our friends Dan and Yaz, and finding myself awake at an ungodly hour I set off out into the city to explore with only a piece of prose posted by Ken MacLeod on his blog as a guide.

As it turned out this was all I needed.

Edinburgh is an amazingly beautiful city. While other cities may be built around a harbour or a river, Edinburgh spreads in undulating circles around a long-extinct volcanic vent and the impenetrable rock its last eruption cast across the landscape. Unable to drill through or remove this rock, the city has grown around and above these barriers, with the red stone of the Salisbury Crags and Arthur's Seat dominating the skyline from almost every angle. It is a city of steps and climbs, of hidden courtyards and bridges that rise high over railtracks. It is a city of yellow stone tuned blackened grey in the smokeclouds of the industrial revolution. It is a city of ancient industry and Empiricist thought, and the platonic ideal of every steampunk fantasists' architecture.

It is everything that by rights Dublin, the second city of the British Empire, should have been, but wasn't, and the industrial success and grandeur of the city lends credence to Max Weber's elevation of the Protestant work ethic as the cornerstone of a triumphant capitalism.

It is perhaps because of the all pervasive spirit of industry, commerce and class division that has shaped the history of Edinburgh that the city now boasts such a strong alternative arts and political scene. Low rents and the availability of large spaces in the form of deconsecrated churches, coupled with a profusion of volunteers eager to be a part of something bigger than themselves, have facilitated the creation of a number of community spaces, drop-in centres, and alternative art workshops.

The Forest is arguably the largest and best established of these, and I spent more than a few hours here over the course of two days. Part cafe, part activist enclave and artist workshop, I had heard about it for quite a few years now and will admit that it was one of the main reasons I wanted to come to Edinburgh, just to see how such a non-profit collective space could be run. It's what Seomra Spraoi could become if it had more space and resources.

The Forest was just one of the inspirational spaces Edinburgh had to offer. Using MacLeod's prose as a guide I found myself at Word Power Books, possibly the best bookshop in Scotland. I say possibly, for I didn't visit any other bookshops, but what I found there was pretty amazing all the same. A small shop with a friendly dog, it boasts possibly the best political section I have seen off-line, with a wide range of left and far-left books and magazines, along with the occasional bit of neoliberal pro-globalisation propaganda thrown in just to incense the customers in a "know your enemy" sort of way. Never has Freidman's "The Lexus and the Olive Tree" looked so alone and unloved.

As I sat nextdoor in Susie's Diner, an amazing vegetarian cafe, and showed Dan a sampling of the books I allowed myself to buy, he casually mentioned, "oh, AK Press, they're based here in Edinburgh, would you like to drop in and say hi?". Thus Thursday morning saw us spending time in the tiny European distribution center/office of AK Press, the anarchist publishing company whose works have graced my shelves for many, many years. Dan, who seems to know everyone, introduced us to the amazing Alexis, part of the AK collective, who made us a coffee as we browsed the shelves and talked with her about the left in Dublin and the difficulty alternative bookshops here seem to have in staying in business.

The coffee bit is important, because I had hoped for a herbal tea so that I could use my "Why do socialists drink herbal tea? Because all proper tea is theft" joke, either at the time or at some unspecified dinner event in the future where it was sure to be the jape of the season. But we drank coffee and so the moment passed, somewhat unfulfilled.

The thing that united my visits to these places, and the conversations I had there with Alexis in AK Press and the folks in Word Power and The Forest, was how encouraging and supportive they all were to some of the ideas I had for action here in Dublin, providing advice and suggestions on how to launch and sustain a project or two I have in mind. They had never met me before, but instantly treated my ideas with seriousness and a positivity that actually surprised me.

All in all it was a welcome change from the overwhelming pessimism and negativity that infects the Irish psyche, an ailment I am far from immune to myself.

A few photos from the trip



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