Yesterday evening I took part in a protest. It wasn’t on the streets or outside a building. There were no placards, no hecklers. There was no lobbying, no them and us. It was a book launch. In a library.
I’ve taken part in a protest in a library once before. Nearly 40 years ago, my union branch occupied Little Portland Street library, threatened with closure by Westminster City Council. Lady Porter, its leader at the time, had a habit of selling things off.
We were unsuccessful but I was reminded of that moment last night as Jemma Neville, the author of Constitution Street, welcomed us to its launch — and thanked us for taking part in an ‘act of protest.’
In my 16 years living in this city, I’ve walked past Edinburgh Central Library hundreds of times. Yet until last night, I’d never had cause to step inside — or, somewhat shamefully, even been more than peripherally aware of its existence.
It was the perfect setting for the launch of Jemma’s book. A public space, which — unlike the closure of Little Portland Street library — has survived decades of cuts by, and to, our public institutions.
The space we were in was filled with light from a magnificent domed ceiling, befitting an event which sought to create more light than heat. And because we were in a library, the space was wrapped, reassuringly, by double-height shelves of books. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person there who longed to delve into them.
I haven’t read Constitution Street yet, so this isn’t a review. It’s merely a few words about last night’s scene-setting for what I hope to find in the book’s pages. Not only in the words but in the spaces between them — because the event wasn’t just a prelude to reading, but to thinking and feeling too.
The book’s full title is Constitution Street — finding hope in an age of anxiety. Its launch, during a week when the existential garb of our nation(s) has been worn inside out, could not have been more apt.
It was, away from the emotional noise of constitutional turmoil, an opportunity to reflect on the idea of a different kind of constitution.
Part memoir, part social history — centred on the geography of a street and the people who live and breathe in it — Constitution Street is also a call to action framed by, and centred on, human rights. And that’s why our very being there, to welcome it into the world, was an act of protest.
It was also an invitation to connect, not just with Jemma, but with each other. And so, as I queued to get my book signed, I struck up a conversation with a young woman from Lighthouse Books who were hosting the event.
I found myself, embarrassingly, on the verge of tears as our brief exchange began. The event had been profoundly moving and a reminder of the power of quiet, conversational protest.
And I found myself thinking of another conversation, between Allan Little and Elif Shafak, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival just a couple of weeks back. Elif has a remarkable gift for graceful protest — more akin to gliding on a lake than marching down a street.
I’m not seeking here to dismiss the place of louder demonstrations. They are a vital part of our democratic tradition. But they can, in their anger, be less than inclusive. And they can reinforce the very binaries which give rise to them in the first place.
Protest through discussion at a book launch or festival is based on dialogue and reciprocity. It isn’t merely about dissenting and disapproving. It’s about talking and listening — imagining a different kind of settlement between us as human beings.
When I finally reached Jemma, who I’ve had the odd exchange with on Twitter, I remarked on something which had taken hold in my head earlier in the day — a sense that the crisis we’re in is, all too often, seen as one-sided rather than something which is happening to all of us, whichever binary choice we made before or might make again.
Jemma was quick to respond — firmly, yet softly. But it’s not about that, is it, she said. It’s about belonging. She’s right, of course. And so, I left with a question.
Can we find a way to belonging?
I don’t know the answer. But like Jemma I want us to find hope in an age of anxiety. Which of us doesn’t, whatever side we’ve barricaded ourselves into?
I only know that if we’re to stand a chance at all, it isn’t just about finding a way back to something which might or might not have been. Granted we could all do with retracing our steps.
But a question we might all usefully ask ourselves, and each other, Jemma suggested, is not ‘What do you do?’ or ‘Where are you from?’, but ‘How did you get here?’
Finding a way to belonging is also about moving forward. It’s about possibility and opportunity. It won’t be found encased in certainty but by confronting doubt. It’s nuanced — and as grey as it’s black or white.
It will, by its very nature, be found in the liminal spaces we inhabit in our daily lives, notwithstanding the necessity of resolution at the heart of our democratic institutions.
And as we scratch our heads in dismay at the chaos which has befallen those institutions — shouting occasionally in vain at our radios and television screens — there’s something we’d do well to remember.
The solution will have to be found by all of us — sometimes in noisy protest, but, just as importantly, in the calm and connection of kinship, neighbourhood and civil society too.