Midget Gems number 16

A Sunday morning walk across Leith. Up top the air is fresh, and below the pavements are sticky with vodka and coke. Dogs duck and dive to avoid broken bottles, and every 100 metres or so a three-quarters-full drink from last night rests on a wall or step, gathering dew.

The sky is eye-droppingly gorgeous, a blue somewhere between sea and heaven, its sun low and weary. Joggers run from something or other, dirty stop-outs carry stilettoes and secrets close to their chests and old ladies buy tabloids for housebound Mary in flat 2 and grieving Jimmy at number 67. A car pulls up and from its window someone shouts ‘Stevie, STEVIE’; in Leith there is always someone shouting ‘Stevie’.

I’m walking to a part of Leith I’ve not been to before, walking off my hangover with a stroll into the unknown. I’m walking to a place that no longer exists. I pass a church whose lanky spire stabs at the sky and cross cobbles towards a wall high as a lamppost and dense as a tomb. On metal gates in the wall someone has etched ‘VIVA LA FORT’, just as we used to etch ‘I LOVE DANA SCULLY’ into classroom desks with our compasses. ‘VIVA LA KINGDOM’ says the next gate.
Fort2Through a small door within the gate – think urban prison chic – I enter the Kingdom that was. The gatehouses remain, one on either side. On the wall of one is a noticeboard with events and benefit form deadlines that were once up-and-coming and are now dead-and-gone. One of the gatehouses was latterly home to the Warden. ‘Press for attention’ reads a sign, only someone has scrawled the word ‘unwanted’ before ‘attention’ in bright green marker pen. Rebellion is best served sardonic. Cobbles between the gatehouses mark a path to a further gateway. On one of its pillars a sign reminds us that after a Tuesday now gone ‘This stairwell will be secured’; ‘secured’ and then knocked down.

Before La Kingdom was a housing estate, it was, of course a Fort. There are boards up today to tell us all about it – something about men with boats and canons and moustaches, then later men with barracks and rifles and bunkbeds. It is, like much of Britain, a former site of something interesting, though this one has actual archaeologists and their volunteers scraping away like filthy dentists.

But guns and swords and uniforms don’t interest me. I’m interested by what it was next, the thing they have just knocked down in which thousands of lives were schemed and lived out for forty years until demolition day. Where the children of the middle-class now scrape – it is family day at the dig, and kids called Jonah and Martha have been brought along by ruddy-faced parents in Berghaus gear – it is not inconceivable that working-class people rejoiced over their first indoor toilets.

Beyond the pillars a ‘NO BALL GAMES’ sign stands alone in the mud. The wall surrounds this entire settlement, protecting (or hiding) it from the rest of the world. On the far far side I can see goalposts chalked onto it and a street sign for a street no longer there. The last of the cobbles before the mud carry orange letters still declaring this space to be for ‘EMERGENCY VEHICLES ONLY.’ Ah yes, the emergency vehicles, for towards its end the Kingdom was a troubled one – living in Leith you knew the scrunched up faces people pulled when you mentioned it, you knew the tales of stairwell fires and the cheapest drugs in town. In the end, the Kingdom’s heavy-hearted residents voted for its abolition.

A tall man in jeans and a gilet takes photographs with a camera worth more than me. As he snaps away, he talks. He grew up here and it was heaven. They walked on those walls, had real (but dead) canons to play with, and concrete mazes in each corner of the estate. All the kids round here wanted to live in the Kingdom. Everyone looking after eachother, families sharing laughs and deaths, lending fivers and bread. They should’ve had a motto: what’s Latin for We’ll no’ see ye’ hungry? The tall man sighs. He’s left his working-class castle, his magic magic world, and now he’s back looking at the space with sad eyes. He turns away, walks out of the metal gate and clambers into his Aston Martin. The Kingdom did him no harm.

A boy and a girl of 18 or 19 pass me so I turn to watch. They stop at the mire’s edge and look at where their homes once were. “Already seems like pure ages ago,” says the boy. “Aye,” replies the girl, “but we’ll always be fae the Fort, ken.” I walk off and I hope to fuck that life gives them an Aston Martin or anything else they want.

2 thoughts on “Midget Gems number 16

  1. Hi Daniel, Great Leith Feature on STV channel. We’ve posted it on our youth centre face book page. Re Leith and its rich history. You may be interested in our commemoration project.
    “Remembering the Leith Battalion” – Leith’s Own

    The Pilmeny Youth centre, Leith and community in the Leith Walk ward are planning on commemorating the Gretna Train Crash and the loss of 216 soldiers The tragedy, which happened on 22 May 1915, is a forgotten story that left a lasting impact on many Leith Families.
    Details on commemoration plans and the four themes being established to highlight this tragedy can be found at our Project face book page.

    1. Hi Bryan, hope you’re well. Thanks for the kind words. This is a wonderful project. I have a note to do a piece on this story, funnily enough, do you mind if I drop you a line? Best, Dan

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