So what's to tell about this New Year, ushered in by dronelights in the sky rather than fireworks? I wondered whether, with all our endless on/off restrictions, I would have anything at all to write about. I haven't been out much. I notice the weather and feel the cold. Snow is sparse here in our corner of north Edinburgh, a couple of stone throws from the Forth estuary.
However, one night, around 1.30am, switching off the Christmas lights before going to bed, I tweaked the living room curtain and looked out on a blanket of white, the whole street thick with it, on pavements and gardens, on car roofs, walls and railings, on bins and bike pods, and still falling, the new flakes a glistening, shimmering shower in the reflected street lights. Complete silence. No-one about. Magical it was. But it didn't last and hasn't returned. Rain has. Dreich cloudy skies. And darkness at noon. But, just occasionally, an almost summery blue sky and sunshine. A harbinger of hope? Dare we hold our breath?
Because the news hasn't been good, has it? Boris may have cracked open the champagne in No.10 in honour of his last-minute Brexit deal with the EU, but it's thin pickings for most of us. Emmanuel Macron froze us out of the Continent because of the new strain of the virus, miles and thousands of lorries backed up outside Dover. Was this a portent of what's to come? Then a brief lull, before British citizens returning to their homes in Spain encountered problems with their residence permits and goods going to Northern Ireland hit snags. Even the Scottish fishing industry, who'd hoped Brexit would restore their fortunes, are disappointed. Not only has the deal left them worse off, but new veterinary checks and paperwork are causing damaging delays before their fresh cargo begins its long race south to the Channel ports.
Not much sign of the sunny uplands of our independent, sovereign Brexitland visible yet, Boris.
Out of control, the new variant surge in Covid cases threatens to overwhelm the NHS and mortuary spaces are running low in parts of the south-east, recalling Bergamo in the spring. Vaccines were the promised light at the end of the tunnel. We now have three of them, but delays in production, in distribution, and questions over whether the Pfizer/BioNTech second jab can be delayed for up to 12 weeks instead of 21 days, so that more people can get the first jab now, in the hope we can all begin to feel safe again sooner, are muddying delivery. Nothing simple or straightforward, for all No.10's breezy optimism.
Then, upstaging all that, came President Trump's attempted coup. We knew he doesn't do losing. He's said so often enough. He wasn't going to go quietly. 'Be wild', he told his supporters on Wednesday 6 January, Feast of the Epiphany, unleashing his raucous swan song. That motley mob of white supremacists, QAnon conspiracy theorists, and other fervent believers in the Trumpist doctrine of the fraudulent, stolen election, rampaged through the sacred precincts of Capitol Hill. Police officers melted before their advance, the poor security contrasting with the National Guard callout during the BLM protests after the George Floyd murder last year.
The flagrant display of confederate flags. The unstoppable surge. Not a face mask in sight. Social distancing? Forget that, man. The broken windows, the overturned furniture, the litter of documents. A bull-horned man in a raccoon hoodie. The fear of those huddling inside. The shots. The five deaths. The quiet steely anger of Joe Biden. We sat all evening, glued to the news, on every channel we could muster – BBC, Channel 4, Al Jazeera, Euronews, CNN, back to the BBC again. Thus coups take place in countries we are less inclined to consider undemocratic. Just one vicious push against the fragile barriers of civilisation and down they topple.
Horrifying as that was to watch, more cerebrally shocking was the attempt inside Congress by prominent Republicans to filibuster the ratification of Joe Biden as the new president. Senator Ted Cruz from Texas invoked the 1877 Compromise as a solution to a perceived impasse. As far as I understand it, this was an inquiry established to resolve another disputed Presidential election which gave the Republicans, at that time, ironically, the party in favour of equal voting rights, the presidency, at the cost of withdrawing federal power from the southern states. It destroyed the post-Civil War Reconstruction programme and ushered in nearly a century of voter suppression of, and discrimination against African Americans. If you saw the Martin Luther King biopic, Selma
, you will recall the ways in which the character played by Oprah Winfrey is deliberately prevented from registering to vote again and again. That was in 1965.
Naively, I had assumed the issue of fraudulence concerned postal voting, which had received such a pasting from President Trump before the election. It seems that was merely a cover for something much darker.
A while ago I read Colson Whitehead's brilliant novel, The Underground Railroad.
The title references a network of safe houses by means of which African Americans escaping slavery could make their way north and across the border into Canada. Whitehead reimagines this as an actual, if primitive, subterranean railway system. There's an episode in the novel where one of those escaping slaves, a woman, is hiding in a narrow space in the attic of a safe house in a militantly anti-black township. She can barely move. She can't leave the house. If she does, the colour of her skin will mark her out and give her away immediately. I remember feeling intensely her claustrophobic entrapment. Whitehead's skill made me feel her plight as if it were my own. In those circumstances, what would you, could
Maybe 2021 will cheer up as the weeks and months pass. Maybe Trump will go quietly, maybe Boris Johnson will realise the error of the Brexit cause. Maybe pigs will fly. Let's hope though, at the very least this wretched virus will be overcome. Otherwise, we may all go mad.
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh