In my last post here, I talked about the ‘forgotten’ flu pandemic of 1918. The coronavirus seems an overwhelming force across the globe, and I wonder what its legacy will be. After reading the incredible new group lockdown diary, Writedown, one thing I’m sure of is that this pandemic will live in our collective memory.
One of the contributors to Writedown is also one of my favorite writers, Mary Smith. (If you haven’t had a chance to read her incredible Afghan adventure serial diary, give yourself a treat and start with this one, take a look at some of her funny and heart-tugging books here, her blog series My Dad is a Goldfish about caring for her father with dementia, or most recently her ongoing cancer journey.
I invited Mary to describe the Writedown project, and here’s what she shared.
The Writedown project came about through author Margaret Elphinstone. She tutors a writing group, Glenkens Writers but, of course they could no longer meet at their usual venue during lockdown. She decided to try an online project and invited her existing group to take part but also widened the net further by inviting others with a connection to the Galloway Glens. The initiative was inspired by the Mass Observation project which encouraged ordinary people to keep wartime diaries (http://www.massobs.org.uk – a fascinating project) and 22 of us took up the challenge.
We sent in diary entries once a week. Margaret often provided a theme but we were free to interpret the theme as we liked – or write about what was on our minds that particular week. At the start there was general apprehension about lockdown and Covid-19, then the pressure began to hit. Margaret sums it up: “None of the writers was on the ‘front line’ and most were aware that life in Galloway was better than in many places. But there was mounting anxiety for absent friends and family, and for what would happen to our communities.”
We were so lucky here in many ways – the natural beauty of Galloway and the brilliant spring weather brought inspiration and comfort, though at the same time, illness and stress created ominous silences among the contributions.
We never met as a group – still haven’t – and we are from different backgrounds. None of us knew everyone in the group but over the weeks strong bonds were formed. As one of the writers, Christine Rae, said: “We became a close knit supportive group and it was lovely to be part of it all.”
For me, personally, it started me writing again. Despite all the free time I had at the start of lockdown I never seemed able to get on with writing projects so the discipline of producing a weekly diary entry was invaluable. It also helped me – and I guess the others – to process what was happening to us as individuals and to our community in our wee part of the world.
Writedown: Lockdown in the Galloway Glens at the Time of Covid by Margaret Elphinstone et al
- Genre: Epistolary Memoir
- Author: Margaret Elphinstone et al
We hear so much about covid fatigue—and we all get it. It’s been the hardest year most of us can remember. One of my personal casualties is reading. It’s just been incredibly difficult to pick up books I know I would have loved a year ago. Instead I’ve been spending time catching up with old friends, religiously keeping virtual dates for group video chats, craving human and especially physical contact, and hoarding time spent (virtually of course) with loved ones.
So Writedown is more than a book. It’s a corona bridge—the contact we craved during the first lockdown, and fear losing during the current one. Imagine the chance to chat with a funny, serious, insightful, and above all real group of people. Their experiences are your own, they feel the fears and joys you feel. They tell your life.
There’s the shock of realizing you’re one of the ‘vulnerable’. As Rose says, “The natural order is reversed.” We hear of friends and family who get sick. Some of them die. We have to pay attention. “It’s official. I’m ‘social distancing’.”
I remember the shocked realization that somehow instead of being the one who steps in to make everything okay, I’m now supposed to need protection. As Cath says, “The tables have turned. I’ve always been the nurturing Mother figure, the wise one (or so I liked to think) to whom everyone came for shelter and sustenance. Now the younger generation are protecting us.”
Our new reality settles in. Family and friends bring supplies but never touch, and Mags realizes, “I need a hug more than I need the groceries.”
One way or another, each of the 22 journal writers is making a journey. And it’s my journey too, to our new here and now. As Margaret points out, the answer is to live completely in the present, “…so I’m being where I am with a vengeance.”
At first it’s odd. We have these two worlds, the one of full calendars and too little time, the other of freedom and a surfeit of time. Mary realizes “…a surprising sense of lightness at having nothing I need to do, no one I need to meet.” Mike tracks the progress of his busy calendar—booked with exciting trips, family visits, shared celebrations with friends—now all cancelled. “And so we live our parallel lives. ‘Today we would been…,’ we muse, looking at the cancelled world on our wall. ‘Tonight we would have been going to…'”
But there’s also a sense that somehow the universe is misbehaving. June notes, “Time becomes strange. A week feels long. Yet each day rushes past.” Rose says, “My diary now works in reverse—I put something in after it has happened. I note down if I have phone call or unexpected encounter… I need a record of what’s happened, to keep hold of the pieces of the jigsaw.”
We lament the loss of social structures that have sustained us. Weddings are cancelled, people die separated from loved ones, and are buried alone. We have to bear our joy and our sorrow like our isolation—alone. Cath mourns for a lady who died at 109, but whose extended and loving family can’t grieve together.
“No shared sorrow and social communication of memories and stories from all those years. No chance of a rare family gathering which such occasions usually generate. No reminiscences, appreciation and comfort given and received. This is the way of it now.”
There are huge gains from this. I was fortunate, as so many point out, to spend my lockdown in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Did we really have an exceptionally lovely spring and summer, or did we just take the time to appreciate it? Christine celebrates simple gifts. “I could hear the birdsong this morning. I took pleasure from standing there with Jack, and listening.” June marvels at her bird neighbors as she spends time in her garden. “Since lockdown I’ve realised different species take their turn to start singing. Song thrushes were among the earliest, then robins, blackbirds, tits chuntering away in the background. Then suddenly dunnocks. Chiffchaffs arrived, mighty wrens started, now greenfinches.”
As Mary points out, it’s a balancing act. “I feel my life is divided between weight and lightness.” Lockdown time so unexpectedly handed to us is freedom from commitments, duties, “have-to-dos.” But it also bears the weight of guilt while others are dying, performing risky jobs, volunteering, plus the anger at mismanagement by those who should have been stepping up to the national challenges facing our health, economy, and welfare.
I realize I’m not actually reviewing Writedown. That’s because it’s not really a book as much as it is a chat with 22 friends going through the same things I am. Some I like more than others, some of their stories are heartbreaking, some are as completely riveting as the one of the young mother and daughter rescuing Crispy, the baby lamb, and then learning the hard lessons of country life. It’s the story of lockdown in Scotland and it’s the story of me.
Writedown is beautiful and annoying and comforting and sad and funny. It’s all the things that time spent with friends should be except with possibly less alcohol and lockdown haircuts. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
[As a parting gift from Writedown, Mary leaves us with Diana Ross’ “Reach Out and Touch“]