I live on the boundary of Leith, Edinburgh’s docks. Technically, I’m in Edinburgh, but, coming as I do from the seaside, I reckon that temperamentally I’m a bit more of a Leither. Leith has its own coat of arms, prevalent on some of the old lampposts down by the docks. It depicts an ancient two-masted galley, both sails furled, and seated in the ship is an out of proportion Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus with a white cloud hovering above their heads. Some depictions (like the one outside St Giles’s Cathedral on the Royal Mile), see the cloud replaced with a decorative arch, but apparently the original – the cloud – is said to be symbolic of protection. As I look at it I remember the old hymn: ‘Mother of Christ, Star of the Sea…, Guide of the wanderer here below’. Regardless of how the crest is depicted, the scroll below is always the same, spelling out Leith’s simple but strong one word motto: ‘Persevere’. Persevere, whether or not you believe you are being watched or guided or protected. Persevere, and be rewarded with a durable but flexible backbone. Persevere, because that’s the nature of the people here. Craig and Charlie of ‘The Proclaimers’ fame, proud Leith men that they are, named their fourth album, ‘Persevere’ and released it (in 2001) on their own label: ‘Persevere Records’. ‘Persevere’ is the strapline for the Hibernian football team, located on the Leith side of the Leith-Edinburgh ‘border’, and ‘The Persevere’, known locally as ‘The Percy’ is a long established Leith public house.
It’s a fine motto to live by, a quality we all ought to aspire to, and it just might be one of those muscular mental attributes that strengthens with age while some of our physical strength depletes and other muscles atrophy. What else, if not perseverance, builds life’s foundations and helps to grow one’s confidence and self-belief? How else, if not by persevering, do we reach our goals and come to know ourselves? Yes, it’s a fine motto and an excellent mantra to hold within your mental armoury when the going gets tough. Its close relative, tenacity, helps us to cling on for fear of being dashed against the rocks and lost – that’s when Mother Mary is needed. Yes, one perseveres during the storm, batons down the hatches, and gets ready for the worst to come. Then, one perseveres further by picking oneself up and dusting oneself down, by keeping on keeping on. It’s not the running of the marathon that is the hard bit (though I can tell you it isn’t easy) it’s persevering at the training beforehand that is the hardest.
But perseverance should not turn into summit fever – blindly and bullishly battering towards the end point regardless of the cost. It is not unfettered fanaticism. Knowing when to give up goes hand in hand with perseverance. Perseverance is the voice that gently, quietly says: ‘not just yet’, but sometimes also says, ‘that’s enough now’. And that’s where I think that bringing a modicum of serenity to perseverance should be applauded. For here is my confession: for all of my ringside approval and high esteem in which I hold and value perseverance, I don’t like the actual word. It’s just so off-putting, abrupt, overbearing and downright…. severe. I’m aware that I am digressing into silly territory here, but wouldn’t it be a lot more appealing to persevere at something if you were told you had to ‘perserene’ at it? It engenders a much more gentle, tranquil and effortless feeling rather than the images of gritting your teeth and hanging on for grim death that ‘persevere’ conjures forth.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 is a popular for weddings and yet its core message is not, I think, terribly romantic. It’s all about perseverance; about sticking at it through the tough times. “Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove.” Essentially Shakespeare is telling us: he or she is eventually going to annoy the hell out of you, rub you up the wrong way, exasperate you and test your patience. Take that as read, get on with it, hold fast, quietly, with serenity, and (mostly) you’ll come out the other side.
Sometime in the last week, a new piece of pavement art has appeared on Leith Walk on its intersection with Albert Street where the pavement widens. Within a large circle of about six feet in diameter someone has painted a golden horned two-headed unicorn with the word ‘Persevere’ writ large below it. Inexplicably (I wish I knew the reason) the words ‘from Canada with love’ are painted in the same gold colour along one edge of the mural. I slow my step as I walk over it and silently thank the anonymous street artists for reminding me of the local motto.