I can’t remember whether or not I own a copy of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year: I moved up here to the Pentland edge of Edinburgh, from the edge of Holyrood Park, ten years ago in May and have never properly organised my books. Looks like I may have an unexpected opportunity to do so before the anniversary. I suddenly have a desire to make home tidier – this is not new, but it feels more focused, urgent, maybe more likely to lead to action now. As we all adjust to a ‘new normal’ we didn’t want, here are some of my first reflections. Plus a couple of links to other writers’ work, because they, and small / indie publishers, need support just now.
There feels to have been a sort of antebellum build-up been going on a while, an unsettled zeitgeist, from the 2019 General Election and Brexit, to the poetry-world Twitter.
I cancelled classes on Monday, and spent a lot more of it and Tuesday than usual online: emailing, giving feedback on the work of a class I normally meet in person, chatting on Messenger, participating in a mad but promising first Zoom session with Other Poets.
By Wednesday my mind was too full of chat(ter). Too much composing of replies to email and FB posts in my head. Too many questions: will the availability of Zoom etc. for those who can access it actually mean more isolation for other demographics? Freelance writers and other artists maybe have a head start with the new regime, in being used to, needing even, a degree of social isolating, and by being adept at structuring their days and workload – but will we be the first to get bored and frustrated as others learn to adapt? Why has a Facebook post I shared about financial help for self-employed artists been taken down? It’s all well and good to go to ground between Christmas and New Year, but can we handle this in spring, and for a longer and less voluntary period? Primed to emerge from hibernation, we didn’t manage this too well in the heavy snows two Marches ago.
I started feeling some pressure (from myself, and social media generally, not students, clients, peers or friends) to move work online. I sensed the beginnings in some cultural and educational sectors of a bit of an entrepreneurial, not exactly rush, but movement to get everything re-booted virtually. As it takes a while to become market-competent in this area (where of course many good things already exist), I’m not keen to get caught up in a race: I’d rather be writing, reading, walking, gardening, sorting the house out, doing the kind of remote editorial client and mentoring work I do already. It feels like work enough to adjust to the changes just now: self-care, rather than the piling on of additional stresses by embracing something one doesn’t have a natural affinity for, needs to take priority.
I developed a headache from too much screen-time, and needed to medicate with one of my anyway not very big supply of paracetamol. I’m coming to realise the need to work out a new balance between maintaining enough social contact, when real contact is dwindling, and not getting sucked into an entirely online existence when there are hills to walk and books to read and more time, and more daylight, to do these things.
My friend and Pentland neighbour, poet Dorothy Baird mentioned the ‘stable presence’ of these hills in a recent communication on Messanger. I think Capelaw, the the one on the right when you look up from Edinburgh, fulfils this function for me best, its long summit plateau edging further away from the city than its higher neighbours Allermuir and Caerketton – but many other places serve that purpose too. Anything made of Lewisian gneiss, many locations in the Pennines and Yorkshire. I seek out these places not just for leisure, but to work, to walk out ideas, or, weather permitting, to sit with them, read and write.
One of the themes of StAnza Poetry Festival two weeks ago was Coast Lines, those non-stable land / sea fringes, the liminal edges. A more apt metaphor for the times, perhaps, coasts, beaches and shores will in the coming weeks be important and comforting ‘safe’ places for many who can access them. I walked back and forth along the East Sands of St Andrews, along the fringe of the North Sea, assimilating the words of a wonderful weekend before my return to Edinburgh, sensing things were about to change pretty drastically and also unable to envision exactly how. Since then, upcoming festivals, events and performances have of course been cancelled. We’re no longer in the antebellum phase.
I logged out and took to the hills with my notebook and Eleanor Rees’ quite miraculous collection for times she couldn’t have anticipated when writing – visionary, mystical poems about the edges of experience. Perfect for my social-distancing offices on the Capelaw plateau and the edge of Bonaly Reservoir. The skylarks are back, their song gradually drowning out internal chatter. Later I read out loud to them, to the grass and rocks and paths and the city and firth beyond – something completely instinctive in a week dominated by planning. Two young women were singing ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ on the path below Capelaw and I joined in across the col at the top of the Howden Glen. I still haven’t looked out my copy of Defoe.