The Journal of a Plague Spring or Some Thoughts on Being Online and On the Hill

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.





Surviving & Recovering: A Post-Script

Surviving & Recovering: A Post-Script
— Read on

From October 2018-September 2019 I was Writer in Residence at the Yesuare Partnership, Erskine Building, Dunfermline.

The residency, funded by Santander Foundation, involved working with people whose lives have been affected by trauma. At the same time, the Erskine building, a derelict church, was being renovated for community use.

One of the requirements was to produce a blog to document the project and showcase participants’ work. The link to the final post of my creative writing blog on Yesuare’s Wix site is above. I’m about to start editing some of the original creative work for a pamphlet which will be launched at an event t celebrate Yesuare’s work.

The blog contains writing prompts that anyone can use. In the spirit of the oral tradition of creative writing exercises, many of these are adapted from well-kent, tried and tested methods and approaches. Some I devised myself, and developed for the various settings where I’ve worked. Where I have a particular debt to another facilitator, colleague or mentor, I acknowledge this. Feel free to use the prompts for yourself; if you do so in the public domain (online or at a workshop), please acknowledge the source.

Some Seascapes by Helen Boden

My poems responding to Emily Learmont’s exquisite ink and egg tempura miniatures Sixteen Seascapes

Emily Lavinia Learmont

Some Seascapes    Helen Boden

  1. Graphic

‘She gets so attached to things’

they’d say in other rooms, thinking,

or not, she was out of earshot.

It’s true she insisted on keeping

the wrappings from Christmas presents,

tried to hold onto holidays, clutching the rail

at the back of the boat as islands receded


begins her newest fable

from this July’s fortnight

in a shore cottage in Sleat


an inkblot cloud pursues the Ardvasar


galleon         sail         cloud

all speech bubbles

flurries of vowels        morphemes       ideas

on a punctuation-flecked sea

swirls       whorls

of inverted commas

conversation billows

between  the Ardvasar and the Glenelg

a thought detaches from the former          memory sprays

a wake for the clearances

will they consolidate

into a skerry of…

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Pop-Up Light and Shade


Campaigning group We Walk We Cycle We Vote staged a pop-up park under the banner ‘Shine a light: Help us Reimagine our City Streets’ outside St Andrew’s House on Edinburgh’s Regent Road as part of the 2018 Firestarter Festival last Friday. Volunteers, from organisations such as the Lothian cycle campaign group Spokes, and Sustrans,  found themselves in shadow – in the shade of a building whose architecture Donald Dewar allegedly thought too fascistic to be considered a future home for the new Parliament.  You can put on an event called ‘Shine a Light’, but you can’t make the sun rise above St Andrew’s House in February.

In an essay on Kathleen Jamie written while the Scottish Parliament was being reborn, I argued, maybe more in hope and optimism than anything else, that  new Scottish writing rejected its historic dualisms and the ‘Caledonian antiszygy’ in favour of multiplicity and plurality. The last two decades have encouragingly seen  greater ethnic diversity in Scottish writing, for example, but the old Jekyll-and-Hyde binaries remain surprising resistant – they were alluded to during the  BBC’s recent documentary for the centenary of Muriel Spark, for example.

I’d spent Friday morning with Southside Community Centre’s wonderful writing group, warmed by the equally wonderful coffee and scones from Arthur’s Community Cafe, and the lunchtime looking at an exhibition in the National Galleries; I wasn’t cold. When I arrived to have a look at the site and decide how best to use it for creative writing that would help re-imagine the space, those who had been there since 8.30am were starting lose the use of their hands and feet – despite a warming skipping competition being one of the not-motorised options on offer. I quickly dropped plans of engaging directly with the pop-up park by writing about what we liked and disliked about the space and why, or saying what we’d change about it; or doing some take-a-line-for-a-walk  flow-writing to see what the unconscious came up with about potential uses for it.

We set off up the supposed traffic-free road to Calton Hill a few metres east, and stopped in the first patch of sunlight, above the old Royal High School building and below the green slopes of the hill, flecked yellow by the emergence of the gorse. The sun branded shadow railings onto the road surface. We turned our faces to the sun and scanned the southern skyline, from the ancient blocks of the crags to those of the built environment, to the city centre monuments and cranes in the gap beyond St Andrew’s House and the end of the hill. I chose this road rather than going further along Regent Road, which was also in sun, because it was supposed to be traffic free, but we had to step aside several times to let vehicles pass. None of us had had occasion to take in precisely this cityscape before. We’d gained a bit of altitude over the pop up park, and about ten degrees celsius. It was light, and energising; you knew Spring wasn’t far behind. We shut our eyes to listen to birdsong and construction noise and attune the other non-visual senses, then  recorded and shared our impressions before heading back down to chalk them on the wall in the cold shadow of St Andrew’s. Maybe the light / dark binary continues to be more applicable than proponents of multiplicity and plurality like to think; maybe it’s not always a bad or outmoded way of imagining the city. I left, for a warming cup of tea, buzzing with new ideas for combining poetry, activism and active transport, and a haikuesque poem-let for the day:

Divided City

Half of this
‘no access road’
is green.
The other side –
Enlightened grey



Photos by Suzanne Forup of Cycling UK Scotland

Umbrellas of Edinburgh, redux

Fellow contributor to the Freight Books Anthology UMBRELLAS OF EDINBURGH [I have to do caps; if I type instructions for itals this Word Press dialog box tries to send an email . . . ]Laura Clay on the reading at Edinburgh University last week. I was rather fazed by the vast expanse of bright carpet, and felt as though I should be doing some gymnastics, not reading a couple of poems, but it was a very enjoyable evening. At the end of it, a group of poets occupied said carpet to discuss poetry mags and traffic jams.

This whole project has been a joy, from offsetting the January blues last year by researching my locations (Morningside / Royal Ed; and Dreghorn & Redford woods, haunt of Wilfred Owen on the edge of the city), to launches, readings and events at the end of the year. Much thanks to editors Russell Jones and Claire Askew for the energy, commitment and professionalism they brought to the whole enterprise. I read this new anthology of a city already so well written about, and fall in love again with the place where I’ve lived, by a considerable margin now, longer than anywhere else.

Writings from Otherworld

Last night, I read my story A Beltane Prayer at the University of Edinburgh, as part of the latest fab event since the Umbrellas of Edinburgh anthology launched last autumn. What with having never read this story aloud before and not having done a public reading since October, I was more than a bit nervous.

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