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How a June lockdown funeral was much better than expected and the strange ecclesiastical style of a UE Boom speaker

Trigger warning: contains references to death and Margaret Thatcher.

The minister in full length black robes stood by the open grave on a hillside and waited while my uncle’s grandson started to livestream the service to relatives in New York, namely my uncle’s daughter and granddaughters.

In this pause, an exultation of skylarks flew overhead. Everyone looked up, put our own interpretation on this omen, or none. It was a moment of lifting eyes and heads and I felt the better for it. The minister went up to the iPhone screen and welcomed the overseas mourners, folding them into company.

It helped that he knew my uncle well and liked him, knew his affable, clubbable nature, his anecdotes, the kind that make you groan internally before a man’s death and make you smile after. Like the one about the time, as a director of education, he met Margaret Thatcher and she’d asked for his advice which he said was rare. ‘Mr Calderwood, you’re a Scotsman, what malt do you recommend?’  … My favourite was the story that began ‘I remember the phone call that told me you were born …’ because nobody else in the world could say that.

It helped that the minister was a man of god. By that I mean a lover of flawed human beings. He, a protestant, met us mix of atheists, Catholics and agnostics where we were. Which was in a cemetery and sad and apprehensive.

Alan Calderwood 1931-2020

It helped that the minister encouraged the good singers among the ten of us to start us off in the hymn my uncle had chosen. My cousin had sent us a link to a video so we could practice. I tried several times, hoping each time I’d get through it before my voice broke. I only managed this at the service. We made a decent sound.

A smirr of rain fell. Someone, loud-voiced, came too close to tend to another grave. My aunt leaned on her walking frame, surrounded by her son and grandchildren. The rest of us kept a two metre distance.

The lockdown rule was ten mourners and thirty minutes for the service but after the earth was crumbled over the coffin the gravediggers and funeral attendants kept a silent and respectful distance for another half hour while we met and chatted with relatives we’d not seen for years. That was our wake. Loss shrank the distance between us and allowed a window of normality to talk about normal things. Work, university study, a teacher’s concern about the coming estimated exam results, what my aunt’s favourite biscuit from Betty’s was, so I could send her a package. It was Fat Rascals, an epithet that could once have been applied to my uncle. And had anybody else noticed that our grandparents’ gravestone was in the wrong place? Apparently due to a landslip.

We were almost alone in the hillside graveyard, the youngsters dressed head to foot in black, maybe because that’s what they wear anyway. It could have been a funeral from the film of Sunset Song. Apart from the iPhone and the Bluetooth speaker whose volume control buttons fittingly formed a gold crucifix on black.  

Afterwards, no cup of tea, no dried up sandwiches and sausage rolls and empire biscuits. No alcohol. But the solace of ritual, shared remembrance and a gathering. And a marathon for the bladder. I had a small whisky when I got home, one of the few times I drink it, to celebrate my uncle Alan’s life, a service that had been surprisingly poignant and comforting, and a welcome day out to the city I grew up in, noticing significant changes to the landscape after months of walking circuits of overfamiliar streets near our home. A day out.

New Writers Award in pandemic

At the end of 2019 I was celebrating my good fortune in being given a New Writers Award. 2020 was gearing up to be one of the most exciting years of my life. Meanwhile, Covid-19 was stroking the cat on its lap and planning to dominate the world.

In early March a group of awardees gathered for a retreat at Moniack Mhor writers’ centre near Loch Ness. There was a monastic feel about that week, a deep silence in the building as people worked in their rooms or in favoured spots in  outbuildings. I was lucky to have a room with a view over hills and fields and to have space and silence. I loved the solitude and dream-time and went for walks with a notebook, took recordings of water in its various forms: crunch of boots on crisp snow, the crack of my boot on a frozen puddle, the trickle of melt water. There was snow lying. The air was brittle cold. That triggers asthma and mild air hunger heightened a sense of unreality.

I came across a woodland centre managed by Abriachan Forest Trust. A member of staff welcomed me, offered me coffee and took me round an exhibition of illustrated booklets created by a group Syrian women to pass their stories on to their descendents. A smell of onions frying for soup. I took my coffee outside and watched chaffinches bickering on a bird-table. A gardening group chopped logs and spread compost. One young volunteer encouraged a man using a Zimmer to explore woodland paths, even though they were snow covered. It felt as if I’d stumbled onto to a small utopia and I left with the feeling that if I came back by car next year I’d not find this place again. Maybe this is how people felt in the summer of 1939. A sense of something long taken for granted that’s about to change in ways you might guess at, though experience teaches that it never works out quite how you imagined.

After the evening meal the group gathered round the wood-burning stove to converse in small groups, read or play a game of literature-themed Jenga before we all returned to our rooms by 10 pm. Such a celebration of introversion and that capacity to ‘sit quietly alone in a room’. I’ve been to Moniack before where we sat drinking and blethering in a large loud group at the table, but we were here to work, to make the most of a rare opportunity.

On my second last day at the retreat I heard from my sister that my niece was in quarantine after coming into contact with Covid and that she had sent her small children to be looked after by a relative to keep them well. On 8 March I heard Dr Margaret Harris describe the situation in a Lombardy hospital. ICU beds were being restricted to over 65s. I’m 67. I went into lockdown that day.

Writing through lockdown

Scottish Book Trust quickly moved everything online and reassured us that the plans for the year would go ahead as planned. I decided to act as if lockdown was just a continuation of the Moniack retreat. Yes, this was mildly delusional but it worked for a while and there’s something about having work and deadlines that distracts from daily briefings and 24 news.

I revisited Camus’ The Plague which I’d first read as part of a French literature course at university. The dogged stoicism of Doctor Rieux in attending to his dying patients is heroic, along with his refusal to judge either his fellow humans or an all-powerful deity. It seemed not too much to ask of myself to get on with writing poems.

What to write?

I wrote about anything and everything. About how good it was to have shouty conversations with my neighbours at Clap for Carers and see their wee kids in their sleepsuits, about imposter syndrome, about night-time dreams, daytime anxieties about my frontline NHS daughter. I wrote notes from online courses, notes to self on how to stay mentally healthy, poems about lockdown, poems about anything but lockdown, to-do lists for getting poems edited filed and submitted, notes on the symbolism of the goddess Kali or the I Ching. Purple notebook with a matching pen works magic. Otherwise, you know, the words won’t flow. The poetry in that time wasn’t the best I’ve written but it served a purpose in taking me every day to a place where there was no pandemic and no lockdown.

Thanks for reading.

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