My memory of the summer of 2019 will be that it was long, and hot, with storm-clouds on the horizon. The hum and stir of politics was the background to life: the doings of government and parliament a frenzied, interminable story, without a plot. We all crave a plot, but in the UK nowadays, it seems we're doomed to live without a resolution. We're stuck in the fat middle of a bad story, all tension and dread, never-ending. We live with Brexit headlines, repeated declarations of emergency and crisis. Like everyone else, I am sick of Brexit, and like everyone else, I can't tear myself away from the news.
Ho hum, life rolls on, with shouts of crisis in the background. We work, cook, eat, and sleep. While our institutions and our constitution may be unravelling, there's enormous comfort in the humdrum of private life. Our days, after all, should not be a pantomime of striving and breaking things, despite the venal, ruthless ambition on display in our public life. In this mood, I went on holiday to Brittany, in the north-west of France. Damn the emergency – while the Scottish and British parliaments got back to business after recess, I would shut my eyes and rest, across another border. My motto would be the wonderful Annie Dillard's reminder: 'how we live our days is how we live our lives'.
The itch to scroll through every detail of Brexit news ceased after a few days. The phone was left forgotten, uncharged, for large stretches of time. I slept lavishly, ate everything (tufts of white bread with cheese, dripping peaches). That's when life arrived in a late-summer glut. Temperate Brittany in September is a quiet paradise.
Spots of time: a green bottle placed on a dinner table as the bells of the nearby church rang. A wasp gorging on the golden crust of my crème brûlée, until it fell off, sugar-drunk on its back. A neighbour inviting us for 'coffee' and then coolly opening a bottle of pink champagne.
I felt like I could breathe, at last. There was no plot here on holiday, and we were fine without one. After days of eating and idling, we visited Île-de-Bréhat, which is actually two islands (and a sprinkle of islets), a 10-minute boat journey from the coast of Brittany. Bréhat shouldn't exist in the real world: it's a dream of rural France – the one you see in movies. From Port-Clos, where the boat arrives, we walked down narrow lanes bordered by stone walls and fuchsia flowers. Bréhat is car-free, and everywhere there are jaunty, colourful bicycles for hire.
We stopped at a little coffee hatch on the side of a restaurant and had our petit café in the sun, before we headed into the lunch rush in the main square of the only town, Le Bourg. Due to the island's micro-climate, palm trees and eucalyptus plants flourish. Flowers sprang out, joyful, adamant, over every wall. I can't imagine anything bad ever happens in Bréhat.
We followed a route along winding country lanes, to the mini-wilderness of the northern island: a landscape of moorland, red rock, and the Paon and Rosédo lighthouses. We watched colossal waves smashing into rust-coloured stone. In Bréhat I remembered how it felt to love all the details of a day.
Only when we're at rest does the real substance of life become visible. Back home in Scotland – working, cooking, eating, sleeping – I was apt to forget the wealth of good fortune that I live in. With a roof above my head and a job that I enjoy, my days are benignly reinforced by security and schedule; and these are the mere foundations upon which a happy life is built. Beyond that, there must have been so many good things, but I had not noticed them during the past weeks of Brexit turmoil. Small moments, like the green bottles and the church bells, would have passed me by. A true loss, as it's the small moments that endure in memory, and in the end mean so much more to us, than the dim approximation of the world that we see in the infinite news scrolls on our phones.
Most important, easiest to take for granted, is the health and presence of family and friends. I thought of the humour and generosity, resilience and diligence, the myriad quiet kindnesses, of the people I spent time with recently, so far removed from the obscene and shocking exploits of others that we read about in the news. So this was a real holiday: noticing what's real and what should be given attention. It was a reminder that I sorely needed.
After 10 days away I was quite horizontal with holiday spirit, and was beginning to look forward to our return to Scotland, and to humdrum routines.
There's a bit more to that quote from Annie Dillard that I took as my motto:
'How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days […] A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order – willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living'.
This is a time of turmoil, without reason or order. If ever we needed instructions on how to build a lifeboat, it is now. When I arrived back in Edinburgh, summer had just turned to autumn, and it felt like the right time for a change. I've been calling up friends and talking about everything – all that matters in life – except politics. I've ensconced myself in a schedule. I still read the news but have tried to be more thoughtful about it: enough each day, but not too much. I've gone outside and paid attention to the autumn chill in the air, leaves stirring, life transforming again, to its own seasonal schedule. While we find our way towards a Brexit resolution, however long it takes, I'll be catching the humdrum days in a net.