curiosity about the ways of the world

Poetry and politics in the city


It has happened. Thanks to a great group of people led by Ewan, a fantasy lurking at the back of my mind has made it into real life. Yesterday in the Scottish Poetry Library, a treasure of a place tucked out of sight down a close in the Royal Mile, a cluster of literary souls signed up to a brave new creative adventure bang smack in the middle of commercial Edinburgh. Some odd political sensitivity requires us to call it Poetry in St Andrew Square but the people who made it happen know it simply as The Poetry Garden.

And I am dead chuffed because it began as my idea. It is undoubtedly one of my better ideas but it is happening only because I chanced to mention it to an unusual politician who knew exactly how to make it work. Of course it wasn’t complete chance. When he was the Labour council leader, I had heard Ewan Aitken speak with real passion about education and the opening of Edinburgh’s Refugee Centre. He seemed the kind of man who combines political ability with a deeper belief in the things that matter in life. What you might expect (but don’t necessarily get) from a worker priest.

When I bumped into him at the Andy Warhol exhibition last year, we agreed that the city has a terrific buzz during the festival and wasn’t it great that St Andrew Square wascolumn.jpg opening to the public at last? That’s when I mentioned my idea that we should dedicate the new space as a Poetry Garden to balance the Book Festival at the other end of George Street and introduce something more uplifting than shopping to the heart of Edinburgh. (As a director of Edinburgh City Centre Management Company I have never been convinced that retail is the most important element of the capital city.)

I spoke to the right man. Ewan – newly liberated, perhaps, by becoming leader of the opposition – is a fantastic ambassador for the Poetry Garden. When we had a more businesslike meeting a month or so later he very quickly identified the path we should take through ECCM (soon to become Essential Edinburgh who manage the public space) to Coffee Republic (who run the cafe which will host poetry readings), to the talented but often under-funded group of literary organisations who will bring expertise and spark to the plan.

It worked. Everyone is enthusiastic, not least ECCM‘s manager Ian Broadfoot and Coffee Republic’s Paul Anderson. I have never been to such positive, heart-warming meetings, dedicated to making something happen. And at the Poetry Library yesterday I tried to give credit where it is really due.

There’s much more to say about ECCM’s vision for public space in the city. But right now, here’s to the steering group chaired by Ewan. The people who signed our ‘common commitment’ are The Unesco City of Literature, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Scottish Poetry Library, Scottish Writer’s Museum, Scottish Book Trust, Edinburgh Makar, ECCM and Coffee Republic. I hope, when the The Poetry Garden officially opens some time in June or July, they will all get the much fuller recognition they deserve.

I am interested to see that the opening statement on Ewan’s blog says: “The idea of Edinburgh is a combination of place, soul and symbolic leadership of a nation.” Very fitting.



  1. Administrator

    Thanks Rob

    and thanks to Stuart Kelly of Scotland on Sunday who was at the signing ceremony. He said he would write something about the poetry garden. And he did. In case you don’t get the paper either here’s the online version:
    Published Date: 01 June 2008

    The Browser
    Can you dig it?
    At the Poetry Library in Edinburgh last Tuesday there was a superb collaboration between the Book Festival, the Book Trust, the Writers’ Museum, the City of Literature, the Edinburgh Makar, the library itself, Coffee Republic and the Edinburgh City Centre Management Company (the library’s director, Robyn Marsack, quipped that they should get a poet to rename their office) to institute St Andrew Square as the first ‘Poetry Garden’. You can have haiku with your latte, and catch a sonnet before the bus. It’s a properly imaginative initiative. In other gardens, Dalmeny Street Park has started a Dada Pantomime and a Poets’ Corner – it would be great if all the city’s green spaces became art spaces as well.

  2. Robert

    How delightful. Well done!

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