The Writers’ Response
ESTATE June 2021, Muirhouse, EDINBURGH
Last year, 2020, in response to the intense and, at times, cruel consequences of the pandemic, North Edinburgh Arts Writing project was formed from community participants in previous Theatre and Yoga projects. At the time, there was an inexorable need to encourage the voices of North Edinburgh to speak up, to create a framework to ensure the experiences of people who give so much to their community, often without recognition, would be upfront in the documented accounts of this global pandemic. Voices that have his/her/their story of critically engaged, radical and vibrant resonance, that at times, have had international acknowledgment.
Since then, the Writing project has published Writing the Times, held a Midwinter event of Writing the Seasons, and visited ESTATE art installation when it visited Muirhouse, Edinburgh, and participants have written their responses to the installation. Only a small number of people from the Writing project were able to visit ESTATE due to the circumstances in which so many of us were living at the time – self-isolation, being unwell, lockdown.
The Writers all contribute and care deeply to the lives of their family, friends and colleagues in North Edinburgh. For some of them, ESTATE brought vivid recollections of life in their area some decades ago. For others, it echoes their experience of living in parallel circumstances. All of them hold North Edinburgh Arts close to their hearts and well-being. It’s a place, an environment, of possibilities, hope, creativity, learning, acceptance and affirmation. It’s a community where people can critically reflect, contribute to dialogues, and see change as positive and always belonging to them.
North Edinburgh Arts Writing project
Self described 'creative soul', Anna is an artist/maker and occasional writer based in North of Edinburgh. Anna was born in rural Poland in the mid 1980s, and left her country at the age of 19, living and studying in few different countries. Her writing is inspired by her childhood in one of the post Soviet Union countries, full of stories about the Second World War, concentration camps and gulags. She often shares her sarcastic observations about Eastern European mentality trying to elucidate issues like lack of human rights, totalitarianism and religious fanaticism affecting millions of people in her home country.
My personal reflection and association I had with the visit to ESTATE, including my student placement at a construction site, as well as memories of Chernobyl and other abandoned post-Soviet buildings and cities, now reclaimed by Nature.
My palms are getting numb,
Freezing cold entering my bones,
My fingers deformed from holding the spatula.
Cementing morning till late nights
Miles of white walls,
Taking decades to complete.
My hands are sore from holding the brush.
Painting walls and ceiling for a lifetime.
I have not seen a single cloud or sun on the sky.
Just miles of grey walls being turned into white.
White desert of concrete blocks.
The first thing I see at dawn,
The last one before I close my eyes.
Retired, I walk around the block.
Locked in one of the cages myself.
Carrying my shopping in one of deformed hands.
I feed my eyes and hearing with sounds of life.
Bright laundry carried away by the gust of northern wind,
A cat around the corner chasing yesterday's newspaper,
Two pensioners like myself on the bench at the front entrance,
Some unidentified bottles hidden behind them in a paper bag.
And one day the explosion, the silence, lots of fire and smoke.
Hundreds of fire brigades, the army, police cars,
Paramedics and ambulances.
Few days of rush,
Dead bodies in a neat pile covered by plastic sheets.
Another pile-to be identified, low priority.
Third one-body parts, possibly to go to a mass grave
Or cremated, less evidence.
Frost and snow have now covered everything.
No trace of fire, no sound, no movement.
What was once a concrete prison for the living,
Now became an eternal home for the dead.
“I'm a widow from Muirhoose who likes nothing better than reading book after book after book. As a child my Grandma said I could read a cereal packet 1000 times and never be bored, so I suppose to take up some form of writing was inevitable. I love the creativity and companionships of being able to express my thoughts through the written word.”
When I was listening to the introduction of the Estate, I was extremely impressed by the level of enthusiasm and passion displayed by the custodian for both the artist and the project. Quite frankly I couldn’t wait to get in the container.
On entering, I was immediately captured with the atmosphere that had been so carefully planned and was drawn to the tower blocks in a surreal, unexpected way.
The detail and specification of each tower block is captured beautifully and even without the guide book the artist’s intentions would be very clear.
What I didn’t expect, and what took me completely by surprise, was the trip down Memory Lane and how, without knowing my city in the 80s, the artist had captured the infamous Granton Ramps for me.
In the early 80s heroin was king and HIV/AIDS had hit the area extremely hard.
My mind wandered back to the ramp no one entered, as it was controlled by youths who, to survive, were not adverse to relieving you of your worldly goods.
The bottom ramp or pensioners’ houses, where finding a shopping trolley in someone’s bath would not have been a ridiculous idea, as social care was unheard of.
The feeling of impending doom that there were no other houses, you worked to pay the rent, people lived and died in this cesspit and paid the council for the privilege.
The pagans made me think of the four houses occupied notoriously by the 'Hells Angels' who barred and controlled access by their wall of motorcycles.
The police with little control, prisons were at capacity, the sad thing was drugs were so prominent, and the area so infamous for using them to escape life, even those who weren't addicted where treated as such.
No jobs offers due to the area you lived in, no jobs, no money, no money, no way to better your accommodation or change your social status.
The exhibition’s deliberate placement of memorabilia and specific items to make you laugh out loud or cringe was exhilarating.
I think ESTATE will reach different people at different levels; it’s designed to make you think and feel, laugh and cry. For those who have never lived in an estate the whole concept maybe alien and feel could only be accomplished with Armageddon.
But for me it made me smile, to think I’ve lived through this and I’m still surviving. The helicopter at the end brought me right back to today, as the police helicopter now provides the theme tune to our daily lives.
This truly was a memorable experience and a brilliant, complicated and thought-provoking piece of art. In a word: brilliant.
Mary is from Aberdeen and has lived in North Edinburgh with her dog Dougal since 2009. She is about to become a Granny and is so excited about this.
The way these people had to live was unbelievable. Unfortunately, there was no other way, no option. These flats, to say the least, were substandard conditions.
One family, Mum, Dad and their five children, could find no other way to raise the money to feed and clothe themselves, but to steal from any shops that they could. The oldest child, at sixteen, but looked much older, was the only one who went out to steal.
Sadly, one day he had so little sleep he became clumsy, got caught and was sent to prison. His Mum Maisie and Dad Ted were devastated and felt guilty, they decided somehow to find another way to do things.
Mike the fourteen year old suggested that they organise some form of swap market, where people who had a little more food would swap food for repairs in their homes.
Dad Ted was a dab hand at fixing things so soon they had more food. Then the people would swap clothes and barter for food.
Things worked out well and they felt that something had been achieved. The oldest girl, thirteen year old Wilma, was headstrong and impulsive, went out and stole a pair of shoes, and landed in the children’s prison.
Sandra is Office Manager at North Edinburgh Arts, Drama Queen and devoted Yogini, who was happy to do her bit.
Hell in a Box
My visit to The Estate Exhibition was very surreal. It was like stepping back in time to an Edinburgh housing estate in the 1970’s when the local drugs war first started. There was not only rubbish strewn about every stairwell but bodies as well, I am pretty certain that seeing this gave Irvine Welsh the idea for Train Spotting.
Where are these people now? The ones that stayed in, behind locked doors and windows, only to go out when absolutely necessary. Lower class citizens that the council slotted into little boxes piled on top of one another “the more people in the block the more money coming in for rent”. People who were struggling to make ends meet it reminded me of a documentary about third world countries.
I remember a number of years ago I went home with one of my work colleagues to her flat near the top of a multi, the stench was awful and I wondered how she could bare to bring her family up in these conditions. Then we entered her flat ‘oh my goodness’ she took me straight into the kitchen and as she offered me a cup of tea she lifted the babies potty of the floor and poured the contents into a sink full of dirty dishes. I think it was the fasted I had ever flown down 14 flights of stairs.
As the years passed I ended up in a tower block myself, the lifts were nearly always operational which was good as people seemed to think the stairwells were public toilets, again the smell was awful but at least they weren’t littered with bodies. The block I lived in had three flats on each side of the corridor, which was great except the council kept putting teenagers in the other two flats on my landing, wild parties and fighting were among the quieter times.
These children thought nothing of knocking at my door anytime of the day or night with “have you got milk, sugar, salt, spare booze, condoms, drugs, fags, tampax” to name but a few.
After eight years the council got fed up with me camping on their door step and gave me the keys to paradise: a maisonette in Muirhouse
Community activist David has lived in Drylaw for 40 years. He is Editor of North Edinburgh News (NEN), the local community newspaper and online blog.
ESTATE: Home truths
Jimmy Cauty's ESTATES 'Municipal Disaster Zone Tour' stopped off in Muirhouse recently.
Muirhouse has welcomed many art exhibitions over the years, but never one like this. North Edinburgh Arts, and sometimes Muirhouse Library, are the natural homes for local exhibitions … but they don’t lend themselves easily to housing a hulking great shipping container!
The 40ft shipping container is home to ESTATE, a thought-provoking art installation, and the artwork found a temporary home in the goods yard off Muirhouse Avenue, alongside North Edinburgh Arts and in the shadow of a housing construction site.
Muirhouse was the right location for the ESTATE tour. The community has seen huge changes in recent years through regeneration, but the shiny new buildings that are slowly rising on the foundations of the old are still overlooked by high-rise blocks riddled with damp and impossibly expensive to heat.
Those high-rises are unfit for human habitation, and one councillor – and a Tory councillor at that – recently accused the city council of being no better than a slum landlord. City councillors wring their hands, pleading poverty. Councils blame Holyrood, Holyrood blames Westminster and so it goes on, forever … and all the while tenants’ lives ebb slowly away, sinking in these rotten, decaying buildings.
So when ESTATE called for communities to host the event: ‘Do you live in an area decimated by human failure? A place badly affected by economic decline, poor town planning, cultural toxicity, political contempt and broken promises?’ you can see just why Muirhouse was the perfect fit.
ESTATE is a dystopian model village featuring four two metre high abandoned concrete tower blocks housed in a 40-foot shipping container in the goods yard off Muirhouse Avenue (beside North Edinburgh Arts).
I had missed the opportunity to book a visit as slots were quickly filled, but fortunately I was able to organise a brief visit in between pre-booked slots just before the exhibition moved on to Glasgow’s Easterhouse. I’m so glad I got the opportunity to see ESTATE, but I really wish I had had more time to soak up the whole experience.
The tower blocks - Icini Heights, HMP Camp Delta-Zulu, Roman Point and Watch Tower 4 - each serve a different function in the ESTATE and each building contains chilling scenes in miniature of mass social, economic and environmental devastation.
Visitors experience a mini-walking tour like no other. From the very start it’s a full frontal attack on all your senses.
A dark, menacing environment is pierced by spotlights, floodlights and strobes against an aural backdrop of helicopters, alarms, sirens and the shrill tones of former Home Secretary Amber Rudd help to set the scene - and chill the blood. There's smoke, too, to add to a distinctly disturbing atmosphere; shrouding the brutalist tower blocks and giving them an even more menacing, brooding presence.
But for all the darkness there is also light, and peering through the shattered windows of the tower blocks tiny scenes are picked out in beautiful detail.
There is so much to see through those blasted windows: a plastic duck here, a faded portrait of Queen Victoria there ... but everywhere destruction, devastation, desolation.
What fate befell those poor – and they had to be poor - residents? In these Covid-dominated days it’s all too easy to imagine that some all-powerful virus has swept the globe and that the humdrum everyday lives of millions of ordinary citizens were snuffed out in an instant. No time to say sorry, no time to say thank you, too late to say goodbye. No time. The end.
It’s the little things that get you … like the blinking TV sets, with no-one watching. Or that lone rubber duck, abandoned forever.
Cheerful it's not, but ESTATE is a powerful experience which haunts you long after you leave the dark confines of the shipping container.
As I stepped back blinking into the Muirhouse sunlight I vehemently wished I had loitered just a wee while longer to take in more detail. I thought: "I must go back" but I knew that would be impossible.
The sun had now dipped behind the new flats. The brightness had gone; the new construction blocked out the sun and had taken on a dark, hulking presence. ESTATE visitors are warned to ‘expect upsetting architecture’, a ‘town planning disaster’. Perhaps I’m staring right at it – but this is not art, this is real life.