I've been troubled in recent weeks by a new trend of government ministers being interviewed with a union jack prominently on display beside them. I imagine this is an attempt by Conservative politicians to emphasise their union credentials. Unfortunately, its recent association with Brexit and aggressive right-wing groups carries far from reassuring overtones. I wish they would stop it.
Generally, I find watching the bear pit of politics dispiriting. At Westminster for now the Animal Farm
boos and catcalls have died away, although the Prime Minister's haircut still resembles the top of a windswept haystack. The few politicians who attend in person sit socially distanced, like alienated figures in an Edward Hopper landscape, wrapped up in their own preoccupations. Aside from Keir Starmer, we scarcely know who sits on the opposition front bench. Jonathan Ashworth, the Shadow Health Secretary, and Anneliese Dodds, the Shadow Chancellor, pop up occasionally. Like books published this past year during lockdown, they haven't had a proper launch yet. Politicians zooming from home or delivering policy speeches to empty rooms don't carry the same conviction.
First Minister's Questions at Holyrood seems livelier, but not in a good way. Nicola Sturgeon does her best, dodging the sniper bullets from a perpetually frowning Ruth Davidson, a trying hard to be nice but really he must find something to criticise Willie Rennie, and a reasonably neutral spokesperson from the Greens. None of them ever seems to have anything positive to say, nothing to commend anything she has done. Just constant carping. I'm not entirely naive. I understand something of the game of politics, but it does leave me wondering if, in such a massive crisis, as in war, what we have is actually the best way of conducting the government of this, or any other, country.
We had our vaccines, my husband and I, on the Friday of the big freeze. 'Weather for wolves', as Andrew Marr memorably called it on the one Sunday morning I was up early enough to catch his show. A friend had a terrible time getting herself out to Edinburgh Airport the previous Wednesday for her appointment. Trudging through a fresh snowfall to pick up a taxi at an accessible point, not to mention the expense of the journey, then another trudge through snow to catch the 200 Skyline bus back into the city before another snow trudge home.
My husband was all for striding out to the bus stop for our appointment. I took one look at the iced pavements surfaced like cobbled glass and insisted on a taxi. Having three compatriot friends who normally drive taxis, he called one of them. The friend turned up in his own smart grey VW, scarcely recognisable, only his alert eyes visible between knitted bobble hat and face mask. He drove us to Leith Medical Centre, backed up along the sidestreet to drop us at the head of the queue, then parked up and waited to take us home. As we were early we had a bit of a wait in the cold before they let us in to some warmth. After that, the jag itself seemed an anti-climax. 'Was that it?' I asked the face-masked nurse. She nodded. It was. Joyously, we picked up our chauffeur who, having glimpsed us through his rear window, was already reversing towards where he had dropped us off.
Never in my life have I been more grateful for a lift.
Subsequently, my husband has been engaged in trying to change the minds of various vaccine deniers among his ethnic minority acquaintances as well as in his own family in Morocco. Later that day, he met one of his friends from the mosque who was horrified. 'You haven't had that vaccine, have you?!' he said. His conspiracy theory featured freemasons, which flummoxed my husband. Where do they get these notions from? The embedded microchip notion, the fertility killer notion, the destruction of your DNA notion? No sign of scepticism over this nonsense. But the experts now, the doctors, the scientists? Oh no, it has to be a hoax, like COVID-19 itself. You can't believe everything they say on television. The mainstream media seems to be making a serious attempt to address this issue now. I hope it works.
A writer acquaintance of mine took my collection of short stories on a 'blog tour' across various Facebook platforms a couple of weeks ago. A first for both of us. She had been very complimentary so I decided to reciprocate by reading her debut novel, a post-pandemic story, set in Scotland and written before COVID-19 became a global phenomenon.
Its main protagonist is a middle-aged female librarian, resigned for a number of reasons to a mediocre career in the antiquarian book section. She wakes up one morning in her Glasgow studio flat to find herself one of a mere handful of survivors of a mysterious illness that has wiped out most of the population. Aside from this, she has personal demons to fight, secrets from her past, an unusual abnormality, an inherited tendency to alcohol addiction. All her life she has had to fight to get her voice heard in what she has experienced as a profoundly misogynistic world. She may not be easy to like and her story is a gritty, troubling one. There is considerable privation, random violence and much deception among the people she meets to deal with, but there is resilience and redemption also in the community they form.
Although a more imagined fiction than Douglas Stuart's Booker winning Shuggie Bain
, it has something of Shuggie's atmosphere of bleak authenticity. I found it page-turningly compelling and evocatively characterised. It not only speaks to a topical theme, it does so with a strong Scottish accent. It's called Incunabulum
by Carol Mckay. It's published by a new independent Scottish publisher, the PotHole Press in Hamilton, and is available, as most books are, as an ebook and in print from Amazon.
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh