Banana republic: Inside famous Leith flats

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THE faces tell the story. Every groove, every fold, every wrinkle reveals hardship and hard work, ill health and illumination, laughter and love, tragedy and tears, a life lived on the edge – a life in Leith’s “Banana Flats”.

Captured by the camera of mature photography student Derek Anderson, the portraits of some of the residents of ­Cables Wynd House, a ten-storey curved block of 204 flats, are snapshot documents of a place where poverty lives alongside hope and aspiration, where ­eccentricity is everyday and where having weaponry on your walls is nothing special.

Residents of Cables Wynd House posed for the project.

Residents of Cables Wynd House posed for the project.

“It has been a great experience,” says Derek, 35, a former social care worker before his hobby of photography took over his life.

He is now studying for a ­degree in the art at Edinburgh College and his Banana Flats work is part of an environmental imagery project, which 
has been exhibited at Leith Library.

“My parents used to live in the Banana Flats. We moved when I was three so my only memory of them was of the landings.

“I wanted to go back and see what it would have been like to live there rather than in Arthur Street in Leith which is where we moved.

Environmental Portraits with residents of Cables Wynd House

Environmental Portraits with residents of Cables Wynd House

“I asked my mum and dad if they were still in touch with anyone there – my dad worked at the pub Anderson’s for years so he was well known – and that did help me get through some doors.

“Everybody has a perceived view of the place. It’s a place which few people think about unless they live there, or they read something bad about it in the papers, and of course it was made notorious in Trainspotting because that’s where Sick Boy lived. I just wanted to see what the reality of it was and to be as objective as possible.”

Over many months Derek would knock on doors and try and convince people to let him into their lives. “A lot of people said no, they were unsure about what I was trying to do, but others were much more up for it. The council also got involved because I was obviously seen by the concierges and on CCTV and they wondered what I was up to, but they were very supportive and tried to help.

“I just wanted to capture the honest reality of the place and the people who live there and I hope I’ve done that. There are people who love living there, whose houses are immaculate, and there are those who really don’t enjoy being there which is reflected in their attitude towards their flat. I wanted to show the contrast.

“It’s a very multicultural place as well and I wanted to show that. But I’ve really only captured a small part of it and the reality of the moment I was there – it doesn’t tell the whole story.”

Derek says he armed himself with a packet of biscuits in ­order to get people to let him in – but he came face to face with arms of a different kind once he was over some thresholds.

“Some of the guys, well you can see their lives in their faces and there’s a certain sadness there. Mick was a real character, he’s an old skinhead and was so hospitable. He just happened to have this sword, but it was blunt. He just said “check this out” and appeared with it – it made the picture. And he had around 1000 videos all stacked up which he still watches on an old VHS. He was some guy.”

He adds: “The guy who thinks he looks like Robert De Niro, he had these muskets on his wall and red velvet sheets on his bed – it was all a bit surreal. But he’s a lovely guy, recovering from throat cancer and doing really well.”

Then there’s “John” whose photo was chosen as the main image for the exhibition’s advert. “He lives a super active life, even though he’s lived with a tracheotomy for the last 20 years and has to be attached to a bag which feeds him. He was always smiling and laughing.

“And the photo of the young girl and her dad was taken at 7am in the morning, they were quite happy with me being there when they were just getting up and ready for the day.”

Derek admits that there are some who he photographed who are only just “managing” in their lives. “The block is full of people like that. But they are getting on. You can wonder whether it’s a great place to bring up a family, but many people are. There’s a sense of community among a lot of them, and the concierges are brilliant, so supportive of the folk who live there.”

He adds: “At the opening some of the people came along to see them and they seemed happy with what I’d done. I’d like to go back. Perhaps those who said no have seen the pictures they might say yes, and I can keep adding to this project.”

gdavidson@edinburghnews.com