When all else fails

Posted by in March's Magazine

I’ll be honest, when I came across the headline – Is Leith really the Camden of the future? – I wished for a Paolozzi-sized palm to come slap me on the forehead, literally. Geographical cultural comparisons, in this context, do my nut in. Granted, Camden is Amy Winehouse’s former manor, however our argument is not best served by individual (if tragic) heroines.

The article in question – posted as a video-log in the Scotsman by Roger Cox sought out the denizens of the plethora of galleries and self-run artist studios that have latterly materialised in and around Leith. I was familiar with many of the interviewees. Indeed my overriding impression was that their ability to represent themselves as conscientious and positive forces in Leithʼs art ‘renaissance’ was entirely laudable.



The offending headline is cribbed from an interview with Leith Lateʼs Morvern Cunningham: “I envision Leith to be a Camden of the future… I think it could become a really cool place, a place that tourists come to – and not just because there’s a ship moored somewhere near a shopping centre.”

Her observation, if you take out the first ten words, is something I believe in and support. However, under Mr Cox’s pen, the quote has been hung on a question mark, do we engage with it sceptically or rhetorically? Or is the reporter taken aback by the bold comparison to one of London’s more boho neighbourhoods? Morvern, of course, could just be making a contextual comment on Leith’s perceived progression.

Comparisons, and the need for them, aside, are we being asked to presume that Leith is proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with Camden, an Emo-ridden flea market full of misaligned celebrities? Comparing, contrasting and collating are all part of the deal for a species that, remarkably, betrays similar traits throughout its near 7 billion units. Take one of the 21st Century’s biggest success stories, Google, which is born from our need for structure.

In Scotland too we have differing examples of the ‘Bilbao effect’ emerging on the east coast. Dundee has seen its long investment in creativity rewarded with a breathtaking waterfront development predicated on teaming up with the Victoria & Albert Museum. Aberdeen, conversely, careens towards civic planning disaster – both financially and culturally – as an oil-services tycoon, Sir Ian Wood, encounters far less opposition and scepticism than is strictly healthy as he tries to implant his vision of downtown Americana on historic Union Terrace Gardens.

Closer to home, I’ve never heard arts rich Glasgow being compared to anywhere else. It’s a confidence issue. They have it in spades. Conquering music’s global compass whilst providing a conveyor belt of Turner Prize winners. Glaswegians simply wouldn’t dilute their potent creative brand by issuing comparisons – give or take the odd ‘Glasgow’s Smiles Better’ from the 80s. Undoubtedly it punches way above Edinburgh in the sheer quality of its cultural and arts offerings throughout the calendar year (August not withstanding). Is this then the nub of Cox’s message? That Leith has the potential, albeit through recession, to provide a more sustainable and affordable backdrop for artists to galvanise themselves and produce exciting creative work throughout the calendar year rather than the one trick pony that is an Edinburgh August?

Do we dare remain confident that, despite arts venues such as Cabaret Voltaire and the Bongo Club teetering on the brink, Leith and its environs will provide a safe haven for creatives in these beleaguered times? After all it has been said before of Leith that somebody took a bite out of Glasgow and spat it out on the Firth of Forth. If comparisons must be made let them be with our cousins along the M8 rather than some spurious association with a hipster hangout 400 odd miles down the A1.

Curiously, The Leith Agency, rumoured to be opening an office in London’s uber trendy Shoreditch, have proved themselves more than willing to embrace and interact with the Leithness of Leith. From their eponymous record label to live shows and club nights on the old Mary of Guise barge in the Water of Leith basin. And Leith’s Nautical College, albeit spuriously, enticed one Paul Reekie across the water from Fife. His, much missed, DNA is all over Rebel Inc’s seminal publishing (Leith in spirit), Irvine Welsh’s chutzpah (Leith in fact/or fiction), and bolshie newcomer Neu! Reekie! (Leith, in deed).

Alas the tram will not be (was never) disembarking anywhere near Leith. So, although commercial rents would surely have risen as a consequence of increased connective and touristic activity, it’s a tough blow on the sterling work the likes of Superclub, Such & Such, Rhubaba and Leith Late have already endeavoured to create. And lets not forget the many businesses that have suffered and/or will continue to suffer due to interminable, and inexcusable, council floundering.

As you walk The Walk, with the likes of The Proclaimers peering down at you from their flagged perches, be sure that you wonder at what makes this part of the world special to you. It sure as hell won’t be an imaginary cultural twinning with Camden. After all, Bill’s Tattoos (Elm Row) leaves a lasting impression whilst Winehouse’s anchor has long since sunk.

Illustration by Author

5 responses to “When all else fails”

  1. Leith lady says:

    Haha! Very good!

    • Guest says:

      Leith never has been static it has a life all its own the comparison with Glasgow is close but Leith is always evolving despite the best efforts of the Trams to trash it like the pheonix it will arise even br Leithers still have community naturally enriched by all the incomers

  2. Richard Sander says:

    You should call Roger up and thank him for giving you a hook for your tedious think piece.
    Actually, you should have called him before embarking on it, had your questions answered and then written something interesting instead.

  3. Roger Cox says:

    Hi Jaco – afraid you’ve got the wrong end of the stick here. Newspaper reporters don’t write headlines – sub editors do. I wouldn’t have chosen to highlight Morvern’s Leith-Camden comparison myself, but clearly whoever was subbing my piece that day thought it was a good idea. I guess they thought it might provoke a reaction or two – which, I guess, is the point of a good headline.

  4. Jaco says:

    Thanks for the advice Richard, but it seems I should have called the sub editor. Or the mail boy.. the tea lady..

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