Of mutants, past & present

News of the new variant, the mutant, has careered into our humdrum existences. Just as we were getting used to living entirely out of doors, never going to the theatre, never listening to live music, news from the “hiheejins” (as the Scots call the experts and politicians) is that “the English” have accidentally mutated the virus to make it even more transmissible, potentially through giving blood plasma containing COVID antibodies to someone whose immune system was so severely compromised that it only served to show the enemy how “healthy” people fight it, and the virus was then able to practice getting round those defences over and over again in someone who had no fight left in them.
Man vs nature. Nature wins again.

Unsurprisingly news of a mutant spike protein has sent my anxiety spiking. Never when you are awake though Fintry, only after you go to sleep. All day long, we hold it together with painting, PVA glue, stickers and Play dough, and then I begin to unravel with wine while you are in the bath, and once you are asleep, I am free to have a nice panic attack which loves to play out as COVID symptoms, which I am usually able to quell with a bit more white wine, a scroll through Facebook and a few deep sighs.

That said, I have had a good few days. I have been staying out of the supermarkets and have just invested in some good quality masks to replace those homemade masks festering in the car. 

I went to Shawlands this morning. It was raining. The snow has gone and Glasgow’s infamous grey skies are back – though there is talk of the snow returning. 

Shawlands was deserted, except for the old man and old woman in Sainsbury’s, both with their big noses hanging out of their masks. It’s clear that the message is still not clear enough: this is an airborne disease. You can wash your hands as much as you like, but you are mostly likely going to catch in from breathing it in. There is no way it would spread so easily if it was all about touch. But that was the message at the start. “Wash your hands,” stupid Boris said over and over. “Wash your hands for as long as it takes to sing happy birthday and you will be fine.” And then he ended up in ICU and we all held our breaths while he couldn’t breathe. 

The poetry of this pandemic plays out in my mind day after day. We are choking the planet with our carbon emissions, choking the birds and the fish with our microplastics, and now the planet is choking us back. The virus takes our breath away and we have to be pumped with pure oxygen to have any hope of surviving. 

I read an article describing what it was like to wear a C-PAP mask. “Like hanging your head out of the window of the car on the motorway, for hours on end.” I have done that for a few seconds. It’s awful. Dogs like it. Humans don’t. 

It was a good article – in The Times – written by a junior doctor, who was explaining how hard it is to be a doctor right now, not just because of the long hours and the personal fear of disease, but because you can’t make people better. There is no quick fix, just tending them, nursing them, helping them while their immune systems do or don’t overcome the illness. And in the worse case scenario, their immune systems overcome the person rather than the virus, and there is nothing to be done. 80,000 dead now in the UK. Close to 2 million in the world. In less than a year. 

When we were still allowed to go further than 5 miles from our council boundaries, we took a day trip to the National Museum of Flight in East Lothian. It’s in the grounds of old army barracks from the Second World War. Squat, drab, grey buildings that look straight out of a film set of a war movie, except they are the real thing.

One of the hangars has the discontinued Concorde on display. Such a beautiful plane, a film star of the skies. Interesting that her exterior lines are timeless but inside her décor feels dated. It gave me a buzz to see her and climb aboard. Gavin recounted when he travelled with her from Aswan to London with other journalists. I had heard him tell this story many times before. It was good to the first time, but got weaker with age. Like when you keep pouring water over the same coffee granules. 

I am not good with repetition. Gavin always tells me stories as if he has just met me. Sometimes it feels like he is not quite sure at which point I entered his life. Or rather, that he is certain that I entered after all the stories had been made. I am the wife of the epilogue. He will say I am talking nonsense and that me, and especially me and Fintry, the latest arrival, are the best part of his life. I don’t entirely believe him though. Sometimes I think he romanticizes us as much as he romanticizes that flight from Aswan to London. 

Anyway, I digress because I can, what freedom to write again and have time to write. Fintry is with Nanny Brodie in the outside barn with the roof. She goes there four mornings a week now and I can hang out in my office with the yellow floor and the view over the rhododendrons – which seem more like triffids, the more we stare at each other. 

What I want to write about is what I saw in the third hangar at the National Museum of Flight. Though I also want to point out that the best bit was in the second hangar: a homage to ordinary people’s personal relationship with flight – the hobbyists who have built planes to fulfil their own dreams of taking to the sky. One of my favourites was a guy from Ayrshire who had built a plane in his house, with the fuselage in the hallway and the wings in the rooms off either side (He had to take it outside eventually to fix it all together). He used the hot water in the bath to mould the wings and his son said his mother complained that the bath was never the same after that. (This is the plane – and you, Fintry – below)

But it was the third hangar that has been interrupting my thoughts at red traffic lights and other times of day when you find your mind drifting off. The third hangar is dedicated to the use of aircraft in the Second World War and the Cold War. A plane that was used to carry actual nuclear weapons stands quietly outside. Inside is a Spitfire, a Messerschmidt, and loads of other planes, photographs and films depicting how this beautiful form of travel, this mimicry of birds, souls and stars, has been used to kill, maim and destroy. 

As I wondered around, wearing my mask to protect me from the microscopic virus potentially floating around in the air, I couldn’t help but think how dated this exhibition was. Not just for the aesthetics of the aircraft and objects built in the 30s, 40s, 50 and 60s, but for the actual concept of going to war against fellow humans. 

Right now, scientists across the planet are involved in the greatest collaboration we have ever seen. Using the internet and shared data bases, medics, researchers and the military are actively pooling all their brain and computing power to try and find out what genetic strain of the virus is on the loose, to observe how and where it is mutating, to test treatments, develop vaccines and use logistics to deploy these vaccines and treatments to the greatest number of people in the shortest amount of time. Across the planet, humans are working together to stop other humans from dying, and yet in hangar 3, all that was on display was human endeavour to kill other humans, and to my COVID-tuned eyes, these relics of war seemed not only deeply unfashionable, they seemed like acts of madness. 

And you can’t help wonder: has this virus been sent to cure us of our craziness?

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.