Postcards from the Pandemic (Or, Learning to Live with Covid)

The First Class dining carriage on the Orient Express.

By The Shanachie

I intend to continue my mission to save the planet. My notebooks tell me that in 2019 I made 19 separate flights. In 2020 I made eight separate flights. In 2021 I made – or plan to make – three.
My carbon footprint is thereby much improved, thanks to the pandemic. Is this an example of ‘virtue-signalling’? And what about next year? The novels by Eric Ambler and Alan Furst, which I have much enjoyed this year, are set in the late 1930s, in Europe, as the War approaches. Their protagonists are usually ordinary civilians who find themselves caught up in the murky business of espionage or something similar. The plots invariably involve travelling across the continent, often into Poland, or the Balkans, to obtain sensitive documents or to engage in dangerous acts of sabotage. And – this is the point – they invariably make long journeys by train. They board a train in Bucharest and travel all the way to Paris. Sometimes the Gestapo appear, and the hero has to jump off the train and hike through forests patrolled by hostile border guards.  Is this the answer? Trains. Everybody knows somebody who has a fear of flying, and who travels around Europe by train. Why not? I have long had a fancy for travelling in a train with a (first-class) dining car, and a private sleeping berth. I suppose this fancy is born out of old black and white movies in which there are steam engines and carriages with corridors and windows you open with a leather strap. The train pulls into the station with a great hissing of steam. There are always policemen trying to arrest a hero – Richard Hannay in ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ for example.  Once upon a time I boarded the Orient Express in Linz on the way to Vienna. To my disappointment it was just an ordinary train. I think that I may have been expecting cow pushers and smoke, pullman carriages and lonesome whistles. And Hercule Poirot. I once spent 72 hours in a train travelling from Perth to Melbourne. Taking it a bit too far!

The Beauty of the Bus

The longest journey I ever took by bus was from Kigali to Kampala (and back) in the company of the Emeritus Laird of Shyogwe. This was the stuff of which hilarious (or hysterical) nightmares are made. Vomit from the seat behind flowing under your feet. African hip-hop blaring out from the radio. The stink of human sweat and farts thickening as the hours went by. The hours going by, extremely slowly (like the bus itself). Admittedly, a certain thrill as we crossed the equator. We spent an inordinate amount of time in Kampala  trying to locate the bus station from which the return journey was to leave. Eventually we did so and were delighted when the bus departed on time – only to travel a few hundred yards in an hour, as the Kampala rush-hour choked all roads out of the city. The bus, with some inevitability, broke down. I remember watching seven Rwandans change a wheel at the border. One old man did all the work. When it was done, the other six high-fived each other, as the old man walked away, shaking his head. Africa is a bus.
VSO Young Women thought nothing of travelling across Africa in buses or aboard trucks carrying livestock. Talk about intrepid. I remember being told that it was wise for a woman to wear a loose-fitting dress, the easier to squat by the roadside. Taking one consideration with another, and despite the wonder of the bus pass, I prefer the train.  (During lockdown it was possible to travel by train without paying – even if you wanted to pay. Free public transport seems like a good idea to me.)

An Air and a Ballaloo for a New Grandson

Flying through the ether came a most wonderful gift. Composed and played on the fiddle and recorded by Maestro RB, an air and a ballaloo! I know what an air is: ballaloo was new to me. I suspect that the Maestro invented the term – a cross between lullaby and hullabaloo, perhaps. The parents have been overwhelmed by the generosity of gifts. I suspect that none will be quite as remarkable as the music. His Dad has been playing the theme tune from ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ to lull him to sleep in the wee small hours. I will have to work out how to make the Ballaloo the stuff that his dreams are made of. Flying through another ether, courtesy of the Emeritus Laird, came news of another birth.  M’s lovely former housekeeper in Shyogwe has had another baby, born premature and (as I write) in an incubator. Not so many years ago she would not have survived. Baby Nishimwe Hope Faustine. We always look for connections. Hope and K born within days of each other. hat will the world show them – in Scotland and Rwanda. What will their worlds be like? I
dare not think.

Sunrise on the Long Crags

I was on the riverbank as the first light rose in the east, turning the sky above the Crags into a pearly grey. Then the sun rose, a slow time-lapse, turning pearl to gold and bathing the surviving leaves in burnished light. The river was a mass of precious metals! Extraordinarily beautiful. It brought to mind – even though it was not quite appropriate – Camus’s line about in winter discovering an invincible summer. Maybe more accurate to suggest in autumn a promised spring. Anyhow, I strode on, the spring in my step deriving from the moment’s elation. (I have been afflicted all my life with inexplicable bursts of elation. I’d do that wee clicky-heel jig. I’d fall over if I tried it now. I remember feeling this way, even as a wee boy on my way to Paisley Grammar School (a place I did not love.)
The morning remained bright – but cold. Even L began to shiver, despite racing round Hermitage Playpark, zooming along the zip-cord, scaling the rope climbing frame, and eating my millionaire’s shortbread. “Shurrup and Dance” she told me, to my bewilderment. (Turns out it is the title of a pop song). Later, she ate half of my roast honey ham and egg roll. Sharing’s caring? Bah.) She impersonated a dinosaur and gave a masterclass in facial expressions, deploying minimal, subtle changes in eye movement. When L gives you the eyes it is time to seek cover.  By the by, Camus wrote ‘In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.’ Wow!

An Online Joust with Bureaucracy

There is no train nor bus that goes across the Irish Sea to Dublin. Even so, I decided to investigate the possibilities of travel to the Republic. I ventured into the world of government websites. I ricocheted from one link to another. I attempted to decipher this regulation and that. Proof of vaccination? Easy ra peasy. Covid tests, PCR or LFT? Hmm. Passenger Locator Form? Required apparently. Ricochet to another site. Not required apparently. Common Travel Area, after all. Quite simple. Why then was I reduced to a weeping willow drooping sorrowfully into the web spun by bureaucrats? Suddenly the simple business of a
short flight from Glasgow to Dublin became an adventure into the unknown. What’s more, I was non-EU. And then I was in O’ Connell Street, one mild autumn morning, before 10.00 a.m., not having shown proof of vaccination or passenger location form to anyone, despite anxiously brandishing them to all and anybody, and having gone through a Non-Queue at the Non-EU immigration. (All the taciturn border guard said was “Take your mask off”)  The strets of Dublin – ‘to walk alone in the crowd’ – were sweet relief.  ‘On Grafton Street in November…’

The Jim  Larkin statue, one of many inO’Connell Street, Dublin.

What a city for statues. I always visit Larkin near the GPO and Connelly near Liberty Hall.  When I stood by the Joyce statue in North Earl Street, two Romany mothers were eating a sandwich, with babies nearby. It would have been a great photograph, but I did not have the brass neck to intrude. At the Oscar Wilde statue in Merrion Square I heard a tourist say “Wilde? Wilde?” I wanted to see the two new statues of Luke Kelly. One – just his head, carved out of marble – stands near the North Dock, a Dublin slum where Kelly was born and now the International Financial Services District. What would Luke – a communist – have made of that?  By chance as I stood by the statue, a van stopped at traffic lights and on the radio, Luke was singing ‘Dublin in the Rare Ould Times’. I had a quick look over my shoulder to check if an  Irish Merlin was nearby, a connoisseur of coincidence.  On Grafton Street it seemed as if there were fewer buskers and more beggars than before. Outside the Dail, on Kildare Street, cars were driving round and round the block, honking and tooting horns. ‘Drivers against the Fuel Increase’. In the National Library I listened to recitals of Yeats’ poems. Tread softly because you tread upon my dreams.  Gulls squabbled over breadcrumbs by the pond in St. Stephen’s Green. The Green had many more colours than green. A rich russet blush on the trees. I passed another new Luke Kelly statue on South King Street, brass with banjo. Temple Bar was quiet – the whole city seemed quieter than usual. I passed the mural of ‘Dublin’s Last Supper’, with its ethnically diverse disciples, male and female. Sadly graffitied. ‘Vaccination = sterilisation’. A seagull shat on the head of the Great Liberator. Luas rumbled and clanged east and west through the city. In St. Mary’s Pro-athedral, I lit candles for Kieran and the Girls and others.

The Taking of Christ
I had a pre-booked ticket for the National Gallery. With its various wings and stairs and rooms it is a real maze and, despite following the arrows, I kept arriving back at where I had started, passing old favourites several times in the process. Jan Steen and Vermeer, Paul Henry and John Lavery – and Caravaggio’s wonderful ‘The Taking of Christ’ (worth coming to Dublin to see on its own.) Van Dongen and Chaim Soutine. The Goose Girl by…Er?  I also visited the Hugh Lane Gallery on Parnell Square. Lane died on the Lusitania. I left my  Harris tweed bunnet behind. When I returned to seek it out, I was greeted by a friendly woman behind whose mask I knew there was a wonderful smile.

‘Listen Now Again’


I visited the Seamus Heaney exhibition by the Bank of Ireland on College Green. The same young woman at reception as on previous visits gave another wonderful smile behind her mask. I had the show to myself. Had forgotten my reading glasses, so made do with listening to Seamus reading his poems or talking about what inspired them. Warm and ineffably wise.
“Between my finger and thumb / The squat pen rests. / I ‘ll dig with it.”
In the final room, the final item includes Seamus talking near the end of his life about a play he had translated in which the old king is summoned by a mysterious voice to go up the hill and he goes, into the ground, out of the ground, into the ground. And he goes, gratefully. “Not exactly an epitaph” Seamus says. “But it would do.”  Then as you go out you see on the wall his last (texted) words. “Do Not Be Afraid.”

The world of ‘porter-perfumed farts’

I dropped into Grogan’s on South William Street. ‘Dropped in’ sounds as if it was easy but here for the first  time I was asked for proof of vaccination AND ID. Being asked for ID in a pub at the age of 73 tickled me pink. No standing at the bar, no high stools. People turned away, although there was plenty of space in the pub. I sat in a booth on my own opposite the bar. Several half-poured pints of Guinness on the go, columns of black marble swirling, settling, waiting for the second pull.  A magic show. I could watch it for hours. My pint was delivered to the booth. I sat and admired it for several moments, unwilling to spoil the perfection of its lines, the creamy froth atop the black pillar. And then, nectar…. I was sure that Caravaggio would have admired the dark lustre of the drink. (It was easier to enter the country than it was to enter a pub – or a restaurant. The rules seemed tighter than at home, and compliance greater.)
After dinner in Salamanca, I watched the Ireland v. Portugal football match in The Flowing Tide (opposite the Abbey Theatre). Once again would be drinkers were turned away, although the pub was barely half full. 5.50 euro a pint, by the way. (Football aficionados may wish to know that I saw Eden Hazard score for Chelsea against Spurs on the Tide’s TV, a goal that guaranteed Leicester City the championship at odds of 5000 to 1 against.) I had only 28 hours in Dublin (hotel prices are, like Joyce’s sea by the Sandymount strand
‘scrotum-tightening’),but I enjoyed it all. Mind you I spent more time on airport buses than in the air. Traffic jams in Drumcondra and on the M8. Beauty of the bus?

Remembrance
Softly as only in Ireland the rain fell on the Garden of Remembrance on Parnell Square. For all those who died in the cause of Irish freedom. I recalled Moira seeing HM Queen laying a wreath here on TV, in a Spar. The whole shop stood and watched. It was, Moira said, “a moment”.  Thousands of Irish people died on the Western Front. It is a complicated story. I had the notion to take a train out west, across the Shannon and by Ballinasloe to Galway. I am sure that there are shadows in Murphy’s Bar waiting for me. Sometime soon.

Howdie-Skelp
While the unfortunate delegates to COP26 were busy failing to save the planet from extinction, I was busy with my litter picker and black bin bags trying to tidy the bank of the Leven near the Castle. Recent high tides had dumped all manner of human-made debris, including beach whistles, syringes, and even a full bottle of gin. I filled four bags and lugged them to a pick-up point near the football stadium. Another team of litter-pickers arrived and filled another 17 bags. By which time I was watching the Scotland v South Africa game on TV (50 years after the SRU’s shameful welcome to the Apartheid ‘Boks!) I had forgotten to watch the previous week’s game – and so felt as if I had let down some dear friends. Turned out the game was on Amazon Prime. This gave the housemates the opportunity to pour ridicule in my direction, as I am forever boasting about my boycott of Amazon. Ouch. I quoted Marx. “These are my principles, and if you don’t like them, I have others.”  By bedtime, it was clear that, whatever small steps had been won, COP26 had failed. I
listened to John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’, intending no irony. Now I am off to get my booster jag and the flu jag. Inexplicably, I have mislaid the appointment letter. I wonder if a Passenger Locator Form might serve in its place.  In Hodges & Figgis, I bought Paul Muldoon’s ‘Howdie-Skelp’ just because I liked the title. A
‘Howdie-Skelp’ is the slap on the bottom a mid-wife gives to a newborn baby. Wake up!

James Connolly, the rebel Irish/Scot from 1916, and his statue at Liberty Hall in Dublin.

Good luck and good health!

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