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Writers In Lockdown, part 2

One week; Surprising creativity; Online and outside

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

Week 9 in Lockdown
Geoff Barker

Mon 18 May 2020
After catching nine mice last week, this is the first day without a single mouse in the traps. I set three mousetraps under the cupboard by the cooker a week ago, having found my Terry’s Chocolate Orange packaging nibbled, an empty shell. I haven’t really the heart to kill them, but the missing chocolate orange was the last straw. A large slug triggered a peanut-butter-baited trap one night last week. That was the most gruesome sight I’ve been exposed to so far: giblets and slime. And one mouse that was still alive, caught by the paw. I let him go free yesterday, out through the front door. He shot under the leaves by the wisteria.

Tue 19 May 2020
Pulled a muscle first thing, making a cup of tea. Will need to get more exercise – back down to the allotment for digging, weeding and getting my knees filthy again. Taking on the school plot over the summer has been a great idea during lockdown. Somewhere you can go and chat – at an acceptable distance – and find out what other people have been doing. Might not be that much, but at least you can have a conversation away from a screen. And the contact invigorates you. As does the fresh air outside.

Late afternoon, I made a trip to our local Co-op. Recycling bottles. Plenty of clear and green wine bottles: we’re drinking more than usual. Most evenings in fact. Had to buy milk, bread, more wine, strawberries and chocolate for the girls. I felt conspicuous wearing a mask. Too bad. One other customer doing the same, and no staff at all wearing masks. Had a comment from a neighbour: ‘Oh, staying safe, then!’ she laughed, out shopping with family, as normal. Please don’t make me feel stupid for doing something that’s sensible: protecting myself and others, including you.

Wed 20 May 2020
A slight problem. Here, in the ninth week of lockdown, I’m struggling to get out as often as I should. In Scotland, we are now free to go outdoors as much as we like. Something’s stopping me, though. I’m very uncomfortable with this feeling: making excuses to myself for not stepping outside.

It’s noon, and I’m still sitting in my study. It’s cool in here, while the view out of my window shows the sun streaming in and light reflecting off the shiny green leaves in the garden. The sun would warm me up. Make me feel good. Refreshed. But I’m writing. I guess that’s fine – I’ve written to a flash fiction prompt on ‘an ordinary day in the office’, as well as these words. All fine, except I need to be outdoors. I’m going right now. Into the back garden, first, then to the allotment to plant leeks. Back garden: the first big red poppies have opened. Beautiful and blowsy. Pulled some weeds from the lawn, too.

Thu 21 May 2020
Friend’s father’s funeral on Tuesday this week. Covid-19. Fiona found out about her uncle getting admitted to hospital this evening, too. This is hitting home. Desperate.

Fri 22 May 2020
Mask (reprise)
Today I’m shopping for my in-laws. Last time I went to their local corner-shop, I wore a mask and received a weird reception: cold, hostile. Quite different from previous visits, before the Scottish Government advised us to wear masks when shopping.

I was curious how I’d be treated this morning, but wasn’t looking forward to the trip. Twenty seconds after I entered the store, the shopkeeper asked me to remove my mask.
‘Why’s that?’
‘The Post Office…’
It appeared they needed to see my face at the post-office part of the store – a tiny corner that I had no intention of visiting. I was spending over fifty quid on groceries, not planning to do a hold-up. The P.O. story was a smokescreen. More likely they disapproved of people wearing masks, thinking that this put other customers off.

Sat 23 May 2020
Blustery day meant we all stayed indoors. I sanded four stairs, ready for staining. Food delivery. Each time, we bring bags into the kitchen, wipe down the packaging with disinfectant, and wash all the fruit and veg in soapy water. With two of us, flat out, a weekly shop now takes half an hour to unpack, clean and put away.

I cooked a chicken curry for Fi, Lottie and me. Esme declined. We sat around tonight eating Cadbury’s Chocolate Fingers, drinking cups of tea and watching Lilo and Stitch and This Country. Good that we all spent time together, and no arguments tonight.

Sun 24 May 2020
Writing to prompts ever since 22 March. Today is Day 64: I’ve created almost 30 short stories (plus similar number of haikus/other poems). My goal was to provide some structure, and emerge a better writer. My short stories have been visiting places I wouldn’t often venture: there are some pretty dark tales…

No more mice – so the last one, caught by the paw (a week ago) managed to escape for good.


Lockdown Reflections
Doug Johnstone
I was just short of halfway up Edinburgh’s Crow Hill when I started to feel dizzy. It was a warm day, the coconut smell of the yellow gorse bloom around me, bees zigzagging between flowers, cars gleaming in the sunshine down below on Duddingston Low Road. No one was around. Despite being right next to Arthur’s Seat, Crow Hill is always empty save for a few locals in the know.

The dizziness got worse, the sky spinning uncontrollably, and I had to sit down. I waited, hoping it would pass, but instead I felt suddenly nauseous, them vomited onto the grass by my side. I lay down, eyes closed, the base of my skull pounding like a jackhammer was working on it. I tried to breathe and stay calm as the world spun around me.

It was a stroke, we found out hours later in A & E, a mild-to-moderate clot in the cerebellum, which affects balance and coordination. I was lucky in one sense, it could’ve been a lot worse, and I was only in hospital for three days. But I was also very unlucky, I had no risk factors, I’m fit and healthy, still in my forties. The consultant shrugged: ‘Sometimes it just happens.’

All of which happened two and a half weeks before lockdown spread across the country. I mention this because it sometimes feels to me like I got a head start on self-isolation. For my first few days at home, I did very little except sleep. I’m now on medication for life, statins and blood thinners, plus there were plenty of painkillers at the start for the headaches, which lasted for a couple of weeks.

My brilliant and tireless wife looked after me when I couldn’t get out of bed, when I couldn’t stand loud noises or bright lights, when I took a lifetime to get up and work my way across the bedroom using the help of walls and furniture to get to the toilet. And, quicker than I expected to be honest, I was able to do stuff for myself. Make a cup of coffee. Walk around our small garden. Watch a bit of television or read a few pages of a book. When lockdown came I was already well and truly locked down.

I think this has been important for me in a couple of ways. There was something about the shock of having a stroke, that life-changing experience, that psychologically changed me. And it’s something that has been useful in lockdown, that feeling of focusing my attention on the little things in life, living from moment to moment, the necessary if hopefully temporary shrinking of your life, your prospects and outlook.
In those early days of isolation a trip to the supermarket or a walk in the park was a big event, and it was doubly so for me. When I first went for a short stroll through the park next to our house, just for a few minutes, the sense of weirdness at putting one foot in front of the other in an outdoor space was almost overwhelming.

I found as the recovery continued that I craved routine. At first this was mealtimes and fresh air, but gradually I needed to get back to writing. I had set aside some time before the stroke to plan my next novel, but I found when I sat down at the laptop that I couldn’t stand the idea of wasting time on plans when I could just be putting words on the page. So that’s what I did. I formed a regular routine, every weekday from ten in the morning until one o’clock in the afternoon, I would sit and write, dissolve myself into my own imaginary world, unleash myself into the freedom of Edinburgh and the rest of the planet that I was denied in real life.

I was shocked at my own creativity, to be honest. I’ve always considered myself quite lazy, and given the chance to sit and watch box sets and read thick novels, I presumed I would jump at the chance. But I’ve turned out to really need the creative process, the simple work of putting one word after another, one foot in front of the other. That has been a big surprise.
I still have problems. My stamina isn’t what it was, I certainly can’t stare at the laptop screen for a whole day, but that’s maybe no bad thing. If I spend too long writing, the tension and tiredness headaches come back, and I worry that my brain is fuzzy and my blood is plotting against me again. As a result I’ve learned to work, and live, at a slightly slower, more careful, more mindful pace, and to be honest it suits me just fine.


Ins and Outs
Donny O’Rourke

The week before lockdown began I was due to watch ‘Portrait Of A Lady On Fire’ at the Glasgow Film Theatre. Neither the screening nor the associated university class I teach went ahead. I had been surprised that the cinema had remained open until then. And yet the next evening, Tuesday, a performance of ‘Fidelio’ was still scheduled to be broadcast live from the Royal Opera House. That seemed unlikely. The show must not go on, it was soon announced. My ticket, along with many others for performances of every sort, remained unused, awaiting a refund. In this production’s finale, all the prisoners are liberated along with Florestan. I managed a smile at the irony. On the Friday morning the last day of term, I was supposed to fly to Munich. Almost empty, the easyJet plane took off, without me on board. Waiting for the government to intervene, institutions and individuals were prudently acting on their own initiative.

Finally, the key was turned. The Scottish Government issued calm and calming instructions which I willingly followed. Male, fat and elderly, with a couple of ‘underlying health conditions’, I was grateful for every unventilated breath. Anticipating quarantine, without hoarding or stockpiling I had ensured that larder and pantry, freezer and fridge were providentially well provisioned.

Mine is a large, airy, light-filled tenement flat, bought cheaply, thirty-five years ago, on the edge of the bourgeois/bohemian West End, midway between Glasgow University and the City Centre. Beyond my open bay window, all through April, cherry blossom blushed and swayed. The high ceilinged Edwardian rooms teem with paintings, sculptures, antiques and books; recordings of films and music, the cultural accoutrements of a life in – and living made from – the arts. It is not Alcatraz. Nor does it resemble the cramped quarters to which millions are precariously restricted. I have no children to home-school, a little money is coming in and I can do such work as has not been cancelled using my iPad or MacBook.

Solitary by inclination, I have always lived alone. Paid to perform poetry, teach and make speeches, I can be gregarious, of course. But this is shy showing off. Haunted by the hermit in his hideaway, the mystic in her cell, I had been rehearsing pandemic induced semi house arrest for decades. So enforced withdrawal was a matter of degree. Supported solitude prevents aloneness from lapsing into loneliness.

I own no phone and use social media scarcely at all. Yet my private film and poetry classes continued non-corporeally and friends have regularly ‘dropped in’ for virtual chats.

The screen has let me ‘curate’ bespoke, gratis alternatives to the Festivals I will not be attending as an audience member or artist. Among a host of highlights ‘Gloriana’ from Covent Garden, ‘Cypress Avenue’ at the Royal Court, ‘It Is Easy To Be Dead’, courtesy of the Finborough Theatre, Steven Sondheim’s ninetieth birthday webcam party and almost everything nightly from the Metropolitan Opera. This corona cornucopia has been remarkably sustaining, every free to view offering, an act of exemplary generosity.

A retreat does not require a wilderness and I have attempted to use the time unexpectedly at my disposal to contemplate and take spiritual stock. The New Yorker, New York Review, and the London Review Of Books had been piling up unread. This backlog of back numbers provided pabulum for my pondering. The books I had intended to get round to never left the shelf. They had been set aside for a rainy day. But it didn’t rain.

For more than two months and exactly coinciding with Lockdown, the sun refused to be sequestered. Scotland has enjoyed the warmest, brightest spring since records began. Awe and wonder love an early sunrise and a late gloaming and so do the songbirds ‘live streaming’ their daily choral concerts.

Unfeverishly, breathing normally, I kept to a strict and detailed regime; lockdown’s ins and outs.

Morale and mood weren’t consistently good. For Newtonian Physics there was a new normal with space contracting as time slowed down. After six weeks immured, I’d have been climbing the walls had they not been closing in. Coping. Hoping. Moping. Ennui. Anomie. Accidie? All three! I made an inventory of the myriad things I should have been doing. At least I wasn’t listless… My legal walks (and illicit loitering on closed cafe terraces and secluded benches) reminded me, a non-driver, of how attractive this neighbourhood can be when liberated from the ceaseless surge of traffic. Riverbanks, canal towpaths, two big and beautiful parks and the local greengrocer, fishmonger and cheese shop open. Glorious baguettes baked by former prisoners made my daily bread easy to procure. The pavement hogging cyclists and moistly panting joggers did their narcissistic thing, keeping empathy and reproach at bay with headphones. For the most part, the citizenry behaved impeccably. You don’t need any platitudes from me reiterating the idealistic hope that we can retain some aspects of the holistic, green, compassionate consensus when and if the all-clear sounds.

I tried to turn these promenades into peregrinations; physical exercise as spiritual exercises. Often I sought inspiration in the works of Du Fu, the eighth-century Chinese poet who having suffered every conceivable catastrophe, including pestilence, was exiled several times, writing movingly about separation. I remembered the inmates I had run poetry workshops for in Perth High Security Prison when we were really locked down. As a former television scriptwriter, I was imagining this calamity as an episode, dramatic in every sense. And I was feeling sorry for all those kept apart, myself included.

‘Adapted for the Screen’

Present remotely, absent, you appear,
Beyond embrace though technically, here.

I smile and place my hand upon my heart,
Take my cue, from Du Fu, twice deeply bow,

Virtually à deux while miles apart,
Yet never closer, dear, than here, just now.

Through the ether you blow a lockdown kiss,
Then trace an X across the iPad’s screen-

A sign that I shall pine, long, yearn and miss,
Sensing fear’s depths behind what’s heard and seen.

As slowly time, so swiftly space, will pass,
We each reach out; press prison-visit glass.

When FaceTime fades, unbridging love’s abyss,
Your fingers linger longest…I’m touched by this.

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