Postcards from the Pandemic
Or, Learning to Live with Covid
By The Shanachie
It was the best of times it was the worst of times. The third wave was lost in a heatwave. People died. Some drowned. The most odious government of our lifetimes continued in its feckless fucked-up ways. Some citizens flew off to countries on ‘amber lists’ in acts that smacked of desperation. I wore shorts, shades, and sandals, frightened the horses, and resolved to explore a few more places in this small country. (We know what happens to the best laid schemes, and this scheme was not the best laid.) The notion was borrowed Kenneth Roy’s ‘Travels in a Small Country’. John (Swan) gave me a copy of this book – published in 1987 – after I gave him Roy’s ‘The Invisible Spirit’, a review of what made the Scottish news 1945 to 1975, informed by Roy’s intelligence, journalistic rigour and acerbic wit (no friend of the establishment). I have also read ‘In Case of News’, the book he wrote while in hospital in the last four weeks of his life. Wonderful – and very sad.
Anyhow one morning in July – the heatwave was still rolling onwards – I took a train to
I had been in Linlithgow before, although I cannot say when or why. On journeys to and from Edinburgh I had seen the Palace with its extraordinary top to the tower and muttered ‘must explore’. I think I thought in a few well-chosen pithy phrases I could capture the essence of a small Scottish town which had not depended on mining or other heavy industries in the central belt and had been home to Mary Stuart (for whom a pub selling real ale is or was named).
What actually happened was that I took a wrong turn and found myself sooner than expected on the tow path of the Union Canal. I forgot about Linlithgow and set off on a glorious morning along the canal bank as far as Polmont (another small Scottish town whose charms remained unexamined.) It felt like the hottest day of the summer. Trees crowded on the southern bank crowded over the canal, drawn towards the water. Which was still and dark, unstirred by breeze or current, decked with algae and reeds. It emitted a slightly dank odour, as if the canal had bad breath. The canal stretched on, a winding ribbon passing under several old hunchback bridges, until it crossed the wonderful aqueduct over the River Avon. I thought that the cobbled ledge was unnecessarily narrow and the rampart unnecessarily low, uncomfortably aware of the cubic feet of nothing by my elbow.
Nearing Polmont I caught glimpses of the grimy grim grandeur of the industrial chimneys at Grangemouth, belching fumes into the blue air, a striking contrast to the pale hazy beauty of the Ochils across the Forth valley.
I glimpsed three small Scottish towns and learned nothing new about them. But what a day it was.
(A couple of weeks later I returned to Polmont and walked the stretch of towpath to Falkirk. The Falkirk Tunnel was quite a thrill – 630 metres along slippery cobbles in the half-light, with a backdrop of drips. The canal had not brushed its teeth since the previous visit. I saw nothing of Falkirk.)
I was listening on the radio to an expert answering questions about epidemiology. She began every answer with the word ‘so’. I got so infuriated that I switched the radio off. By contrast I like the way some Irish people end a sentence with the word ‘so’.
On an unrelated theme – while on my way to the river of a morning, walking by houses with cars parked in driveways I noted how many cars have personalised number plates. In my belated maturity I have learned not to wonder aloud what character defect makes people want to have personalised number plates. After all I used to have a collection of bright and silly ties – a sure indication of a personality disorder. I still have one with Munch’s Scream on it. I bought it in Oslo.
Meantime, I do not forget that Paisley people sometimes end their sentences with ‘but’.
Hardly counts as a small Scottish town and exists in my mind more as a country – as in ‘the past is another country’. Not a town but a time. Paisley’s soundtrack is rooted for me firmly in the 1960s. It was not a wish to travel in time that took me back. As I have mentioned before, the key question in life is not ‘to be or not to be’ but ‘to do or not to do’. In this case ‘to renew the St. Mirren season ticket’ or ‘not to renew…’. The new system of online booking was an omnishambles and a cluster-bourach. I went in person to the ticket office. Main stand F33. Remember the cartoon character – Caspar the Friendly Ghost? A hundred Caspars followed me about the familiar, changed streets. I passed Tannahill’s cottage, and row upon row of shuttered shops, by once fine sandstone tenements, by Coats Memorial Church, almost gothic in its self-regard, by Fountain Gardens (where I spent summers in the Paisley Parks Department’s school for the bewildered.) All this in thrall to the days when Dad lifted me over the turnstiles at the old ground in Love Street into a new world that stank of stale beer, nicotine and urine. Love Street? That was also an early lesson in Irony.
Anyhow I was very happy last season NOT going to watch any games.
The series of Scottish small towns continued with a trip to the Borders. I had been to Melrose before, don’t know when or why. All I remember is a Fete or Fair by the Abbey. A wee boy let go a helium-filled balloon and watched with outstretched arms as it rose and rose into the sky, his face a picture of dismay and wonder. We (Charlie, John F and I) climbed the beautiful Eildon Hills. In the years since then, the Eildons have grown taller and steeper, as hills do. What a panorama the tops reveal! After dinner in the Station Hotel, I wandered happily round the town. Crossed the chain bridge over the River Tweed. Only 8 people on the bridge at any one time. Watched a heron stand still in the shadows, mid-stream. Passed St. Mary’s independent boarding school. Saw an evening training session at the Greenyards rugby ground, men, women and children all enjoying themselves. Strolled by large sandstone mansions and beautiful gardens, brilliant with blossoms. The Market Square – with the unicorn topped cross – was not a square but a shapeless space that dropped down four or five streets. The Abbey is as splendid ruin as ever was once an abbey. I searched in vain for where the poor people lived. Melrose was moneyed and confounded my view of small towns as places in decline, missing their pasts.
In Melrose I dropped into the Ship Inn. (I have long since given up wondering why thoroughly land-locked towns have Ship Inns.) I have this notion that travel writers depend on public houses as sources of local colour. The wisdom of barmen and women. The Ship Inn was a disappointment. No local character; slot machines and flat screen TVs broadcasting music videos. Staffed by lovely young 12-year-olds. No local ales. Could have been anywhere. I could not imagine the Ettrick Shepherd dropping in for a tankard at close of day. He must have found a howff elsewhere to work on Justified Sinner (now there is a Great Scottish Novel!) Nor can I imagine Thomas the Rhymer trying to shake off the spells of the Faery Queen by hiding in a corner of the beer garden. Nor Sir Walter Scott – in from Abbotsford – thinking how to make the opening few hundred pages of ‘Ivanhoe’ utterly indigestible. Or hearing Mrs. Hogg’s censure of his publishing her border ballads. She is alleged to have said “There was never ane o’ my songs prentit till ye prentit them yersel’ and ye hae spoilt them a’ together. They were made for singing an’ no for readin’, but ye hae broken the charm noo. An’ they’ll never be sung nae mair.”
I guess that if you asked what word most people associate with Stirling the answer might be ‘Castle’. My answer would be ‘packed lunches’. (Two words, I know). The first school trip I organised was a History Department outing from Dumbarton to Stirling. We took in the Castle, the Wallace Monument, the battlefield and visitor centre at Bannockburn. I remember all these things being less important than the quality of the packed lunches for 200 hungry kids, and less memorable than the stink of vomit for the travel-sick. I avoided all the tourist sites on a recent daytrip to Stirling (which is not as run-down as many other Scottish small towns.) I hoped to visit the home of the Big Noise, Scotland’s answer to the Venezuelan Sistema. Bringing music to the “impoverished young”; the premises were, as I should have anticipated, shut. Instead, I wandered by the Back o’ Hill to the walkway on the banks of the River Forth and crossed over the old bridge with its cobblestones. There are many streets in the old town below the castle which are still cobbled. The old buildings, some crow-stepped, are so much finer than the new.
On the day on which Scotland moved ‘beyond level zero’ (whatever that means), Anne drove us south to the end of the A77. I remember a family holiday in Portpatrick in the early 1960s. I had a mouth ulcer and spent more time on the putting green than anyone should. I looked up from the village to the imposing splendour of the Portpatrick Hotel, sure that such a place was for Rich People and not for the likes of us. Nearly 60 years later we duly checked into room 105. (“We will not enter your room during your stay with us” a little welcome notice advised.) Wonderful view over the little bay and harbour and the row of hotels and holiday houses beautifully done up in various colours – shades of Tobermory.
We set out along the Southern Upland Way. 214 miles to its end at Cockburnspath in the east. A pleasant stroll along the clifftop path – the Mull of Kintyre visible across the Irish Sea – suddenly turned into a struggle up and down steep stony steps with the accompaniment of a chain handrail. We huffed and puffed on until we had sight of the Killantringan lighthouse, a mighty fine sight. And turned back with 212 miles still to go. In the evening I had a hot seafood platter in the Crown Hotel (‘Scotland’s Seafood Pub of the Year’). I had quite a struggle with the lobster. I suspect that the lobster, had it been sentient, would have considered itself the winner. The Crown was doing a roaring trade. All the outside tables were occupied.
We strolled, as people do, around the harbour, by the lifeboat, to the breakwater that provides shelter from the waves. Very beautiful.
The Mull of Galloway
For the second time this summer we found ourselves on a single-track road heading for a Lighthouse. This time there was no horrendous trek down and up steep zig zags as there had been in Kintyre. The carpark/visitors’ centre/gift shop was busy. The Lighthouse – another Stevenson special – was splendid, gleaming white in the sun. (Apparently it was pouring all over Scotland; not in the Rhins of Galloway.) The land around the Mull was purple tinted with heather and vetch. We could see the Hills of Antrim and of the Lake District.
Once upon a time, a heather ale was brewed on the Mull according to a secret recipe. When a king demanded to know the secret, the brewers threw themselves over the cliff, rather than divulge the secret. Robert Louis – whose grandfather built the lighthouse – wrote a poem about it. “But now in vain is the torture / Fire shall never avail. / Here dies in my bosom / The secret of Heather Ale.” I am a bit ambivalent about this story. The secret of an ale with magical properties lost to humankind!
On the way back great harvesters worked the golden fields, tossing out golden bales of hay.
Later we walked south from the Port along the clifftops past Dunskey Castle (which looked as if a westerly wind might cause it to crumble and fall into the sea at any moment.) We crossed a gorgeous gorge by means of more steep stony steps. The rugged coast with its little bays and geos and cliffs spoke of smugglers and shipwrecks.
We collected an order of potato scones – far famed potato scones – from Gillespie’s the Baker and drove north into rain.
(Of Stranraer, another small Scottish town, we saw little, apart from the abandoned ferry terminal.)
In Embro to the ploy
In more recent years Festival and Fringe have been choked by the throngs of ‘artists’ and tourists. I used to enjoy the Festival. Lately a quick raid to see a play or recital or book session has sufficed. In the Time of Corona, what would the city be like? Anne went off to visit the new shopping centre at the top of Leith Walk, and then Calton Hill and the Royal Mile, all apparently very busy with tourists. I stayed around the quieter west end. Visited Hadeel, the Palestinian crafts shop in George Street. I could see the new shopping centre. It is shaped like a Whippy ice-cream. Or, if you prefer, like a steaming turd. Given that it served as a backdrop to the statue of Henry Dundas, who delayed the abolition of the slave trade and thereby is a participant in the cancel/ counterculture wars, turd might be the more appropriate image….
I wandered through Dean Village, quaint and idiosyncratic, over cobbled stones to the gallery formerly known as ‘Dean’. Visited the Ray Harryhausen exhibition about the genius of special effects of long ago. I have a vague memory of seeing ‘The Clash of the Titans’ in the pictures; the skeletons rising out of the ground brandishing their broad swords. Good fun.
I wondered what Ray would have made of Computer-Generated-Images. I see him shaking his head in a mixture of admiration and dismay.
A carter and his horse by Joan Eardley in the Gallery of Modern Art.
Then across the road to the other Gallery of Modern Art to see, in particular, the seven Joan Eardley oil paintings (and pastel/ gouaches/ watercolours). Sea and landscapes around Catterline. Wonderful. I have seen them a fair, few times now and they always thrill me. All that elemental energy. Still a hugely under-rated artist. One of Isobel’s favourites. (That she and Isobel died from cancer at the same age- 42 – stays in my mind.)
We stayed in a super cheap, super smart hotel near Haymarket. So smart that it requires a degree in computer technology to switch on the lights. Or else, have a child with you.
There you are. We visited two different cities. More than one ploy in Edinburgh.
(A friend once told me that the phrase “getting off at Haymarket” is a euphemism for coitus interruptus. When I get off at Haymarket, I usually think of this with a wry shrug.)
In the socially distanced queue to enter the Gallery I began to understand better what Living with Covid means.
What’s next in the land beyond Level Zero? Another unanswered question.
All the best, The Shanachie (anglisised word from the Gaelic for storyteller)
Good luck and good health!