Finding hope in an age of anxiety
Book review — Constitution Street from Jemma Neville
As the UN Secretary General warned last week, the COVID-19 pandemic is not only a public health crisis but is becoming a human rights crisis with many states exploiting the situation to curb human rights and the rule of law. As this crisis exacerbates and highlights systemic inequalities and discrimination, it also an presents an opportunity to springboard solidarity and to re-claim human rights. After all, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights were written after the Second World War to create future protection against such atrocities and gave hope to many generations. This pandemic might give us the necessary anxiety to take action and re-imagine human rights.
I found hope reading the book from Jemma Neville, a fellow alumna, Constitution Street with this very appropriate subtitle: “finding hope in an age of anxiety.”
“Understanding anxiety can make us curious about how we want to be more at ease in the world. The ultimate challenge is to harness stillness in the noisy, revolving chaos of change.”
Often it feels that she has written this book especially for the period we are living in right now as she remarks that “we are in a moment when we need to ask ourselves fundamental questions about what kind of place we want to live in and who want to have companionship with.” The book was published last year and written as a reaction to the uncertain political situation following the Scottish Referendum for independence and the Brexit vote.
Jemma has successfully managed to do with this book what I have attempted to do in other ways: to bring human rights back to the local and personal level. Jemma lives on Constitution Street in Leith, Edinburgh. Through conversations with her neighbours and people working in her street, she explores 12 rights in particular, which could become a part of a future Scottish Constitution. She talks of constitutions as “formal statements of collective expression and interest.” She has brilliantly tapped into people power by uncovering the power within her community. She does not let herself fall into the trap of romanticising her community but shows deep respect and love for it. I believe she is absolutely right about describing it as “tough co-existing”; I am convinced that the key to a rights-based approach lies in attempting to live together respectfully and in solidarity, constantly learning from it.
Jemma has a knack for bringing human rights close to home and making them a personal and local affair. Her often poetic memories are interwoven with political debates and concrete application of human rights in her life and the lives of her neighbours.
She mentions that James Joyce, when writing about the streets of Dublin, said “that he was able to go to the heart of all the cities of the world because in the particular was contained the universal.” Her exploration of human rights in Constitution Street does contain a universal message of hope.
“Active, local participation and face-to-face interaction is where we can find meaning in the world around us and define the contribution we choose to make.”
You can order the book here.