'Scotland After the Virus', edited by Gerry Hassan and Simon Barrow (published by Luath Press)
In February, my partner Peter Macdonald died suddenly. The ground beneath me cracked open. A torrent of shock and grief cut me adrift from all that anchored our shared life and gave it direction. But the care and kindness of family, friends and strangers kept me afloat. They journeyed with me, held me close. We shared tears and touch, laughter and stories. Hundreds gathered to bid Peter farewell.
And then lockdown came.
Heather Black from Muirhouse died during lockdown. It was hellish for her and her daughters. Fear, isolation, and the anguish of a distanced, sanitised funeral for a sociable, campaigning woman who had done so much for HIV/AIDs sufferers in her community.
Mercy Baguma died this year in her Glasgow flat. An asylum seeker from Uganda, she lost her job when her right to work expired, and starved to death with her baby son beside her.
Scotland After the Virus
is dedicated in memory of Peter and Mercy. Peter knew and worked with Heather in the 1980s. The story of her death is in Dani Garavelli's moving essay Death in the time of COVID-19
Death haunts this book, as it has shadowed all our lives in 2020. Pandemic has mightily disrupted the world. The ground has cracked open and at the edge of the abyss we are confronted with existential questions: Are some lives more important than others? What do we value? How do we connect with each other? Who has power and how is it used? How do we sustain wellbeing and nourish the spirit? What matters?
Gerry Hassan and Simon Barrow have invited over 40 contributors to consider Scotland from this place and time of profound crisis, and to imagine how we might emerge from it. The result is not a set of political or economic proposals (though these are not absent) but fragments of memory and fable, threads of insight and analysis, the casting of runes. Voices of lament and prophecy are heard in poetry and prose. There is no overarching perspective: this global trauma has exposed the depths of inequality, abuse, constraint and harms; the multitude of personal, systemic and environmental disorders which have been troubling our 'normal' for a very long time.
What unfolds across the pages, as themes and concerns push up through cracks in the carapace, is hopeful alignment towards mutualism and the local, a rediscovery of and desire for active, listening communities of care, where there is space to breathe and time to grow. The contested constitutional status of Scotland is rarely foregrounded, but often implied. It makes a difference to have that debate positioned and therefore relativised by the broader, deeper questions at stake. It's the spirit of love, connection and creativity that really matters.
The book is organised into seven sections, encompassing many domains of our corporate life, though there is plenty of overlap as contributors reach for ideas and images which roam across the pages. Stories of Our Time
is the right starting place. Writers including Kirstin Innes, Julie Bertagna and Allan Bissett capture some of the new commonplaces of life in lockdown, the dissonances and ambivalences. The stress and hyper-vigilance; obsessively tracking the pandemic's course; stuck indoors and alone, yet discovering community. We are all survivors of the 'Rona, but are we really 'aw in it thegither'? In the face of anxiety and disorientation, can we hear the birds sing? Or recover what might be lost forever as COVID-19 intersects with climate emergency?
After the Black Death we invented clocks. Now the planet has reclaimed time and we must reset our imaginations.
– Julie Bertagna, Wynning
Storytellers feel their way for the right words… but when the old certainties fail, there is nothing to lose:
Cast off yer maps… Airt with yer een; find wi yer feet; send scuttlin stanes. There are skies elsewhere.
– Thomas Clark, Invisible Cities
Lisa Williams' Cardinal Dreams
finds a powerful form and language to evoke the everyday intersections of the virus and racism in a land where there are 'portraits dripping with centuries of blood', and yet 'I place my bare feet on the shared, freshly mown lawn. I look up at the sky. I breathe deeply and stretch gently'.
The discursive chapters are sometimes more prosaic, but the prevailing style is exploratory and expansive, rather than forensic. The editors have surely encouraged their diverse contributors to be adventurous in redrawing their maps for new horizons. That is not to say that the book is lacking in evidence or analysis of our current malaise. There are expert commentators and activists on everything from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), through civil society and social media, to the state of Scottish football. They offer mostly lucid and often passionate synopses of our national (though deeply fractured) life, in some of its cultural, political, economic and social manifestations.
A lot of this is not new: depending on your standpoint and interests, you may already be pretty familiar with the terrain covered by such as Mike Small and Bronagh Gallagher, Kirsty Hughes, Pat Kane and James Mitchell, and their conceptual worlds – not to mention the prolific editors.
Michael Gray's thoughtful chapter calls us to reshape how we debate, listen and engage with people with whom we disagree, and to challenge knee-jerk hostility. Yet diverse as the voices here may be, they don't by any means encompass the full range of Scottish experience or opinion. That doesn't make them any less worth reading. Some of the more personal chapters are compellingly direct, like Flavia D'Avila's Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here: From Hell to Creative Scotland Form Filling…
Angela O'Hagan's essay, Towards a Caring Economy
, is the heart of the matter, echoed by others. The pandemic has exposed the obscene consequences of an economic system that devalues care at the cost of justice and wellbeing. The traumatised body – human, political, ecological – keeps the score. But in this small country we have the capacity, and also some of the infrastructure, to be compassionate, brave and bold. This fine book is a call back to the soul of Scotland to choose life.
Lesley Orr is a feminist historian, writer and activist for gender and social justice. She is involved in non-party progressive politics and active citizenship initiatives, a member of Women for Independence National Committee and on the Board of Stellar Quines Theatre Company