A vessel kind of place by Tom Jeffreys

Portobello is a vessel kind of place, a town long shaped by histories of manufacturing and trade, where burns flow like veins and seas connect the Forth to the world. Kayakers paddle towards the container ships of Leith; hidden networks of underground pipes transport waste water to Seafield from homes and industries across Edinburgh and beyond.

In the wood-panelled upstairs rooms of 16th-century Huntly House on Canongate, now the Museum of Edinburgh, all manner of vases, jars, bowls, bottles, flasks and flagons are on display, made by some of the many pottery manufacturers that once stood along the shore from Bo’ness to Cockenzie. Boldly branded and used for the storage and transportation of various fluids, pastes and ointments, many of these ceramic vessels draw attention to links between health and capitalism. In one cabinet stands a bottle for Household Ammonia manufactured by The Plynine Company. Nearby is a little jar for Virol, a bone marrow preparation “ideal… for children and invalids”. These days, it is better known as Bovril. 

My eye is caught by an earthenware figurine clad in indigo blue robes. It is Lord Brougham giving his famous 1831 speech arguing that to stave off revolution, the vote must be extended – but only to men with a certain income. The papers he clutches read ‘The True Spirit of Reform’. It’s a little pun, perhaps satirical, for this Lord Brougham is in fact a flask, designed to hold whisky.

Vessels relate not only to life (xylem, phloem, rivers and arteries) but also to death: things dried out, turning to dust in urns or graves. And death is also an industry. The bottle-shaped pottery kilns that still stand prominent in Portobello today were constructed in the early 1900s by the firm of A.W. Buchan. In the 1920s the Buchans patented the Portovase: a cylindrical vessel with a long spike for pushing into the ground in order to hold flowers – real or artificial – by the side of a grave.

A number of the works commissioned as part of VESSEL navigate connections between life and death, growth and decay. Some artists invoke the myths which once smoothed the inevitable journey to the lands of the dead. Others have become fascinated by the seeds which pass through not only our bodies but also the most thorough of waste treatment processes and end up growing in the fertile dark earth that remains. Some respond to rising sea levels; others to worsening droughts.

Climate collapse calls for new (or ancient) approaches to resilience and adaptability. And yet decades of politically motivated austerity have decimated services, destroyed the mental and physical health of individuals and communities, and tried to turn those with common interests against each other. For many, each day is a struggle just to stay afloat. But this ought not to be used as justification for the political refusal of hospitality to those who try to make journeys towards a better life, often risking everything to do so. As Harsha Walia reminds us: “in our struggles against capitalist austerity we must emphasise that our enemy arrives in a limousine, and not on a boat.”

The vessel has previous as a metaphor in such discussions. The likes of Trump and successive Conservative governments in England have sought to oppose free movement by repeating the idea that a country could be full up. This draws upon the discredited modelling of eugenicist ecologist Garret Hardin, who in the mid-1970s espoused the idea of ‘lifeboat ethics’ – i.e. that the privileged few sitting in a lifeboat should not help those drowning in the sea for fear of using up their own remaining resources. Hardin’s model might lead to interesting discussions in a philosophy class but it should in no way be the basis for political decision-making. A country is not a boat. Food is not a finite resource, nor is healthcare. Economies expand the more people contribute. Scarcity is not ‘natural’; it is artificially imposed for profit and political control.  

Hardin’s model has not only been embraced by the extreme right currently in power. Environmentalists too have been seduced by this idea that planet earth is a vessel and it’s running out of room. Those who campaign for population control – among them David Attenborough – are also drawing upon the same, ultimately eugenicist, logic. If certain resources really are limited, this should not be an argument for refusing help to those in need but for curbing the wasteful extractiveness of the rich. Thinking – and acting – ecologically involves making priorities and choices, and is therefore always political: not all environmentalism is progressive. VESSEL is the most explicitly ecological iteration of Art Walk Porty to date; politics is a subtle, strong, complex presence throughout.

Tom Jeffreys is a writer and editor who lives in Edinburgh. He is the author of The White Birch: A Russian Reflection (Little, Brown, 2021) and his next book is The Ballad of Gida and Lutea (with Kirsty Badenoch, forthcoming 2023).