POSTCARDS FROM THE PANDEMIC: THE SHANACHIE

Above: Monument to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in Madrid. Picture by Bill Heaney

I chastised the Lodger when he admitted to drinking a beer or two on the train while on his way to watch Celtic (6) play St. Mirren (0). “Alcohol is not permitted on trains” I pontificated.
We have to learn how to live with Covid. He then reminded me – with more relish than the situation required – that when we were in Oban this summer, I bought opaque water bottles into which I decanted red wine to consume on the train back to Dumbarton. Oops.
I quoted Emerson. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of tiny minds.” But there was no doubt who won that father/son exchange.  (Living with Covid – some key indicators, not including deaths. Is the waiting time for delivery of new cycles reduced? Is fly-tipping less prevalent? Is dog ownership still on the rise? Is the number of discarded blue face masks littering the streets falling?)  Painting: The Lodger by Joan Eardley, National Gallery of Scotland.

Makar

I was pleased to read that Kathleen Jamie is Scotland’s new Makar. I enjoy her poems,
lyrical, accessible and – short! (We like brevity.) I was moved to fetch a copy of ‘The
Overhaul’ from the bookcase. Alas there is no sensible alphabetic order there, no order of
any sort, and I ended up with ‘Rain’ by Don Paterson instead. No harm to the new Makar but
Paterson is The Greatest Living Scottish Poet (discuss). I remember being charmed by his
poem for his baby son, ‘Waking with Russell’, which contains some favourite (and oft
quoted) lines. “See how the true gift never leaves the giver: / Returned and redelivered, it
rolled on / until the smile poured through us like a river. “
The poem was published in 2006. Russell must be in his late teens by now. I wonder what
he thinks of the poem. Does he live with his Dad in Dundee?
The first poem in ‘Rain’ is called ‘Two Trees’. Two 12-line stanzas. In the first Don Miguel
splices an orange with a lemon tree, to make a magic tree. In the second the man who buys
his house takes an axe to the tree. Just when you (me) think that the poem is going to end
with a flourished metaphorical and metaphysical insight into the nature of reality, the poet
whips the tablecloth from off the table, leaving our expectations overturned. The poem ends
“They were trees, and trees don’t weep or ache or shout.
And trees are all this poem is about.”

The Future ain’t what it used to be

Young women on National Day in Madrid. Picture by Bill Heaney

Once upon a time, in the Era B.C., our diary would have boasted a number of trips and outings. A visit to Madrid in early October (a birthday meal in El Caldero on Calle de las Huertas) and a return late November (Christmas markets in Plaza Mayor). A trip to Riga or Budapest or Vigo. A concert or an exhibition somwhere. A visit to Cork or Galway, just to make sure that all is as it should or used to be. Now, living with Covid, there seems little point in planning too far ahead. Improvisation is the plan. Live from day to day.Take off on a whim. Explore the local parishes. I do have a concert in the diary! I had a ticket to see Andy Irvine and Paul Brady play Perth Concert Hall last March. The show has been re-scheduled for 31st October. I never did see Planxty live, alas. Missed a show in Galway by one day (all the tickets had probably gone long before). I hope that the new date is confirmed soon. Andy Irvine is a legend; “an old dog for the hard road”. He is 76.
I would also like to hear Paul Brady sing ‘Arthur MacBride.’ All that in a future that is almost foreseeable. (For some reason I am reminded of a concert which Charlie and I attended some years ago.
The Dubliners. By that time only Barney McKenna and John Sheahan had survived from the original line-up. We were not sure what the late incarnation would be like. We had a meal in Pulcinella, washed down with the usual quota of red wine, and brandies on the house. We were of a mind to sit on. Ach, well, we thought, we will go and if we don’t like it, we will bugger off. Of course, we were charmed. They were great. Barney, who had to sit to  perform, sang ‘I wish I had someone to love me’. Not a dry eye in the house. Poignant?!

The Falkirk Wheel

I walked another stretch of the Union Canal, this time from Falkirk High to the Wheel (and
back). The Forth Valley was shrouded in mist. Church spires and industrial chimneys blurred
images. The canal waters – in half light under over-arching trees – were a bilious shade of
green. Inert, yet oddly soothing. The Roughcastle Tunnel, a dawdle compared to the creepy
600 metres of the Falkirk Tunnel, was lit like a disco. The tourist barge emerged from the
Wheel and passed into the tunnel, packed to the gunnels. (We made this trip two years ago.)
I have sung the praises of the Victorians who built viaducts and aqueducts and bridges and
railway tracks through our wild places. Here’s also to those who designed and built this
amazing wheel! It runs on the same amount of power that it takes to boil 8 kettles, and lifts or
lowers barges and boats the 35 metres in height between the Union and the Forth and Clyde
Canals. So I am told. I watched as the Emma Louise, a motor launch of uncertain age, was
lowered in barely two minutes from one canal to the other. The ease and elegance of it!
And the Kelpies are only six miles away…..

By the time our neighbour and I were at the afternoon coffee, the sun had burned all the lowlying cloud away. Lovely. We mused over the exact stage in social history at which women
(not men, surely) stopped darning socks. Was it around the time a Tory P.M. told the nation
that “We have never had it so good”? (And who were the ‘we’?)

The Pandemic’s Bad Words

‘Algorithm’ is a horrid word, but it predates the time of Corona. ‘Variant’ is nasty too. Makes
me think of Zombies, or that thing that burst out of John Hurt’s chest in ‘Alien’. But a word I
have heard too often, while learning to live with covid, is ‘jobsworth’, usually applied to low
paid workers trying to enforce (inflexibly) the rules regarding restrictions. To permit a breach
of the rules would be more than the job’s worth.
For example, would-be passengers hoping to travel on the MV Graemsay from Stromness to
Hoy and who had not booked a passage were prevented from boarding, even though there
were no other passengers. And a comrade in the Leven Litter Pickers who deposited beside
a litter bin a bag full of litter was told by a Highway Maintenance man that he was guilty of
fly-tipping and liable to a £1000 fine.
(Meantime people who flout the rules get away with it. Some are cabinet ministers. Some
are Grandpas who like red wine. The pandemic has both exposed and reinforced inequities.)
Once I flew with a school party to Linz. One of the students suffered from an anaphylactic
allergy. His parents contacted Ryanair HQ to be told that it was their policy to sell peanuts on
flights and there could be no exceptions. In the event Ryanair staff at the airport and on the
plane could not have been more helpful. Priority boarding, no peanuts, PA reminders all
through the flight. (I sat next to Robert with an epi-pen.) Who were the jobsworths, then?

The Past ain’t what it used to be

Johnstone, a small town near Paisley and my place of birth, is in between here and elsewhere. I returned there some years ago to find the house in which I lived for the first six
years of my life. This week I returned to look at the town. I wandered along the High Street. It was both unfamiliar and familiar. No unifying stone to give it character (cf. Stirling or
Stromness). The old art deco cinema – now the Globe Bingo – has re-opened. Was I ever at the cinema – or ‘pictures’ – there? A classic Disney cartoon? Captain Hook, perhaps? I cannot remember. Lidl. Beauty and Nail Spa. Little shops that sell this and that, new curiosity shops. An artisan crafts shop which doubles as a hair boutique. Houston
Square – a fine open space with a fountain (dry), a bandstand (empty) and a cenotaph (last year’s wreaths still in place). Somehow barren.

Winnie takes the view that small towns will come out of the pandemic better than cities. The sun was shining. People were going about their business, as people do. The usual blethering that goes with chance encounters. At the corner of Collier Street, I overheard a masked and bearded Sally Army man say “We were at Grenfell”.  I strolled on to Campbell Street and paused outside ‘Fernlea’, the semi-detached red
sandstone villa where our Family lived. No blue plaque. (I’d prefer red.) I ran through the Memories. Getting my head stuck between the railings of the playpark opposite the house, which required rescue by the fire Brigade. Being trapped under concrete slabs in Keanie’s Builder’s yard, which required rescue by my Dad. Raiding a posh neighbour’s ornamental garden pond to steal goldfish. Being scared by two sinister figures in black, who turned out to be nuns. Hiding in the disused hen house to avoid going to school. But these are not originals; these are memories of memories. The past ain’t what it used to be. There’s a whole lot of forgetting going on.

Fire and Rain

Glasgow School of Art – glimpsed the scaffolded shell of the Art School.

B was my predecessor as VSO Education Adviser in Muhanga District in Rwanda. I visited him at home in Bridport, Dorset, the week before flying out to Rwanda. He could not have
been more helpful. When he arrived in Dumbarton as part of his Scottish Tour, I was
delighted to see him, ready to be Boswell to his Johnson. We had a meal in La Barca on the
evening of his arrival. The next morning, we walked to the top of the Doughnut Hill, which
was covered in a moist mist that did not quite burn off.

Then, once the mist had burned off, we took a train into Glasgow. Saw, as instructed, the
statue of the Duke with the traffic cone on its head. Strolled through the city centre, looking
up at the Victorian architecture, the art of 19th century stonemasons, and – on street level –
the people’s determination to enjoy the sun. (I was dismayed to realise how much I have
forgotten about the architecture; knowledge that has been burned away like a morning mist!)
We wandered by the ‘To Let’ signs in Sauchiehall Street, by a busker singing James Taylor’s
‘Fire and Rain’ and glimpsed the scaffolded shell of the Art School. Through Kelvingrove
Park and through the cloisters of the university, where a graduation ceremony had lately
finished. (Nearly all the graduates were south-east Asians.) A beer outside the Park Bar and
a meal in Mora.
It was a lovely day. I had more than 40+k steps, and B 30+k. B is 6’5” and I am 5’6”.
(I take 2 steps to B’s 1.) Was there talk of Rwanda, then and now? You bet.
(During lockdown he listened to all 230 of Bach’s cantatas. There’s stamina for you.)

Keeping the Big Bad World at Bay

Once upon a time I was devoted to Current Affairs. Newspapers. TV programmes.
Documentaries. In the Grove Bar in 1970 I sat with the Saturday Guardian, a pint and a
packet of KP peanuts, and read Pilger’s reports from Vietnam. I was engrossed by the
Sunday Times ‘Insight’ investigations. I read what I could about the Troubles. And so on.  Now I can barely bring myself to look at the News, or to read a newspaper (other than the death notices in the Herald.) Another response to the Pandemic. Avoidance, if not Denial.
But, , inescapable, the tragedy in Afghanistan. Santayana’s dictum has never had
more force. “Those that fail to learn from the past are condemned to repeat it”. I recall a
lecturer in the History class in 1968 telling an (apocryphal) story; during the Afghan wars of
1878-80, the Foreign Office ordered larger scale maps so that Kabul would seem to be
further away from Delhi. Ha. The tragedy which unfolded in the wake of the West’s
treachery makes me heartsick. One evening I listened to ‘Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares.”

So Near So Far

I walked the West Highland Way. More precisely I walked the first mile of the West Highland Way en route to the lovely walk around the Milngavie reservoirs. It is many years since I set foot in Mugdock Park, and I began to think that I had never been there, so little did I recognise. More splendid Victorian engineering. Wherever light plays on water there is a magical show, of which one never tires. The Good People of Milngavie were out in force, jogging, cycling, dog-walking and enjoying the sun.

Many years since I had been in Milngavie town centre. Such a pretty, pedestrianised precinct. I was ready to unleash my prejudices – “decorous flowers of affluence” (that kind of thing) – but I found myself liking it. The women in Gregg’s laughed openly as I nearly strangled myself while trying to put on a face mask. And, as in Melrose a few weeks before, I saw no sign of where the Poor People live. On a train I had to put my novel aside so that I could eavesdrop better on a conversation between a Grannie and the Grannie’s Sister’s Grandson, who was with a Huge Dog whose jaw was bigger than its head. The Boy has a couple of charges coming to court soon.  Dealing in cannabis. Both Grannie and Boy had a sophisticated knowledge of the subject.  Disagreed about the difference between marijuana and cannabis. Grannie said (of her sister)
“She’s always been in the shite.” The Boy said, “As long as I have a bond with my Mum, that’s all that matters.” Grannie said, “Go on yersel, son.” Then she said, “I have changed since the cancer.” The Huge Dog moseyed over to drool on my shorts.  There is a short story on every train journey. In this case, a shorts story.

The New Nostalgia

Some of us lucky enough to have pensions, a garden, and an anti-social disposition will look
back on last year’s lockdown as a kind of golden age. No loud and vexatious crowds, quiet
streets and empty skies, diaries free of duties. With this new nostalgia in mind – and after a
flurry of forays further afield (alliteration is awfully addictive) – I had a ‘retro’ day; a stroll by
the Leven and by the Clyde shore in warm sunshine, an hour or two reading a novel, a beer
in the garden, listening to EST playing ‘Seven Days of Falling’ and then a takeaway meal for
dinner. ‘The blessed stretch and ease’ of a day. There was what appeared to be a Sunday
School Picnic for Grown-ups on the Common. A three-legged race, a sack race and an egg
and spoon race. What fun and games! What tremors from a barely remembered past!
In the course of the stroll, it occurred to me that I owe an apology to wood pigeons. I hardly
ever mention them in these pages, yet they are by far the most common feathered creatures
around here. I guess that I airbrush them away, out of prejudice against their feral urban
cousins. Mind you, a nice fat pigeon makes a tasty starter, although you must look out for
the shotgun pellets that killed it. I cut M’s grass and trimmed her hedge and had a vegan friendly ham and cheese baguette from Gregg’s. The future is Vegan.

The Bucket of Uncertainty

On an early walk I passed three Boys of the Buckfast Brigade, smoking and drinking Irn Bru
on a bench on the Quay. “Anyone ever told you, you look like Ange?” one said. “Who the
fuck’s Ange?” said his comrade. I have been told that I am (used to be) a dead ringer for
Gerry Adams and for Eric Clapton. I like Ange. Any Celtic manager who can say to a press
conference “That’s a bucket of uncertainty I am not dipping into” is OK by me.
The leaves have begun to fall. Our Road has drifts of them, dried up crinkled and rusty. And
yet – even though November is about to arrive – it does not feel like the End of the Summer.
Were ever rowan berries so red?

Good luck and good health!

The Shanachie

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