La vie est belle

When I last wrote there were 80,000 dead in the UK. Now there are 148,000 dead. 

What was I doing while 68,000 died in just over 2 months?  

Not much. And plenty. 

It’s now month 4 of lockdown #3. All restaurants, bars, libraries, museums, and indoor leisure facilities are closed. Schools finally re-opened after three months of closure and we have been given a date for our lifestyles to resume (26 April 2021), but the virus is refusing to be quashed. New infections in Scotland are hovering at 5-700 a day, many in school age children, and there’s this niggling worry in the back of most thinking-people’s minds that the virus might mutate again, or the South African or Brazilian variants might get a foothold, and our defences ie. the vaccines which are being rolled out in the UK at a phenomenal pace, will be breached, and we will all be sent straight back to jail, do not collect £200. Please no.

I have been creating into this abyss. Not words, they have felt strangely too small and discomforting. My impulse has been to create spaces in the world where we can safely be together. COVID defying outdoor landscapes full of colour and light and love. 

First I built @OutdoorPlaybarn, which has become a mainstay for many Glasgow toddler mums – myself included – through this interminable lockdown, and just last weekend I opened The Belle Tent Field, a series of bell tents and play tents surrounded by outdoor games and toys on the edge of Pollok Park, where children can mark their birthdays and experience the joy of celebration. 

And now, with some young souls I have met along the way, I am plotting the next thing: The Pony Club. We used to run a horse riding school. It was my mother-in-law’s business. After she died we kept it going, but eventually it was too much for us and so we transitioned into a DIY livery yard with just a handful of horses. The riding school had 5 stable blocks, and one particular block, nicknamed the ‘pony stables’ was soon squatted by a family of pigeons whose disgusting habits could have started another pandemic. But they are gone now. The stables have been decontaminated, the builders are stripping out wood, the walls are getting whitewashed, and we are moving in with big rugs and wooden tables and couches, and under the beautiful original wooden ceiling, something new is going to grow.

The Pony Club will be an indoor space, and it feels audacious to imagine us back inside together, but yesterday I acknowledged how much I missed that. Writing workshops. Art classes. Discussion groups. Crafternoons gathered around a wood-burning stove, exchanging ideas, sharing our creations, laughing. God, how I miss the casual laughter of a gaggle of close friends, rather than the anxious exchanges with just one other as you pad side by side through the park, trying not to breathe on each other. But I am no a fool. This pandemic has taught me the difference between idealism and optimism, between magical thinking and science, so The Pony Club has a big new window, 2 doors which will be left wide open (with screens to stop the pigeons coming back) and in Phase 2 – underfloor heating and an improved roof – there will be skylights that open. Ventilate, ventilate. Float away virus. Away from our bodies, away from our dreams, away from our little lives that mean so much to us. 

I should probably take pictures of the renovations, in the same way that I should probably be taking detailed notes of the pandemic, but it’s too hard to take snapshots of the murk. I try to write things down, to remember this time, this time we really lived through, this time that future generations will want to read about. Providing it doesn’t kill us all. Because there it is. The fear that we don’t dare speak aloud, but still we wonder. Other creatures have lost their habitats. Other creatures have gone extinct. Why not us? Will our intelligence save us? Is science enough? And to quell those fears, we put up some more bunting, write some songs, make some music, bake some cakes. Because while science is trying to save us, creativity is making the inbetween tolerable, sometimes even beautiful.

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What will I tell you?

I remember a thought I had in the early months of the pandemic. It was a Sunday in late May, lockdown was starting to ease, and I was stopped at a set of traffic lights on Glasgow’s Crow Road. While I waited, I glanced at the people in the car next to me and it struck me that I could probably guess exactly what they were doing because they would be doing the same as me, because that’s all there was to do: driving home from a country walk, via a supermarket.

It was oddly comforting. A bit like that feeling you get when you shut your front door of an evening, when all your family is safely at home and no one is going out again.  

No matter how fabulous, or clever, or jet set, or brilliant someone else was, right now they were in the same place as you. Stuck, waiting, co-ordinating their actions with everyone else in order to protect everyone else. There was such as sweetness to that thought – but it was also a thought that made me wonder how it would be possible to put words to lockdown? 

Mostly we read to try and understand an experience beyond our own. But to read about a worse lockdown experience that yours just seems to invite unnecessary heartache at a time when you are probably just managing to keep your heart afloat, and to read about a better lockdown experience seems an unnecessary exercise in fuelling jealousy and resentment, whereas to read your own humdrum echoed back at you is unbearable. Who needs to relive the dullness of one day through words when you can achieve the same by just going to sleep and waking up again?

So what to say about this extraordinary time of human history? What is worth documenting? And who are you documenting it for? As I write this I realise exactly who I need to write this for. Fintry Annie Bell. My daughter, who has lived through all of this, and because of her young age – 2 – won’t remember much of it, although I do wonder if any of this will feature in her list of earliest memories. 

So Fintry. What will I tell you? 

It started off a novelty – just like the virus itself. 

There was almost a relief to being told we had to stop whatever we were doing because we were so accustomed to doing so much, and I for one had forgotten how to not operate at warp speed. 

We were in South Africa when the first lockdown happened. We had been due to fly back to Glasgow a month later, and then go to Rome for a few days before jetting to New York to visit Uncle Clinton who was working on a big show on Broadway. I had a “one life, live it” mentality and my idea of “live it” meant doing as many and as varied things as often as possible. That’s not to say I didn’t value contemplation and reflection, I did, but I scheduled it for plane journeys, time at my writing desk and for walks in the hills. The idea of just spending days and days on end, at home, with no plans was anathema. 

Without COVID, my behaviour would never have changed. I would have forever carried on chasing a faint scent of something more glamorous and seductive that always seemed just beyond my reach, before dropping down dead in a silk kimono, orange lipstick and smelling of Vivienne Westwood perfume. 

Now I am wearing acrylic (supermarket clothes shopping), my perfume has been discontinued and can’t find my lipstick anywhere, even though considering I am at home all the time, it must be here somewhere. 

You don’t seem to be suffering from it though. By the age of one I had you doing an activity every day. I rolled my eyes at parents who overscheduled their child’s lives and then did exactly the same. Ballet on a Monday, swimming on a Tuesday, mum and baby group on a Wednesday, ballet again on a Thursday, and worried that I hadn’t found something to fill up Fridays. 

I have chatted with other mums about this now and we all laugh at how  agree that it was as if we were afraid to be alone with our children, that our mere presence wouldn’t be enough for them. Perhaps that’s exactly the capitalist myth. You are not enough, never enough. You need other things to fill in the spaces between you. And now we have realised that those spaces are actually part of the links that join us together. 

Spaces where you get to set the agenda, rather than having the agenda set for you. That is where your future motivation and direction will come from. The fertile ground of empty space, endless time and open-ended days. Like how I grew up, before the world became packed to the gills with things to do.

And then didn’t anymore.