Category: England

Jean Findlay, Head of Publishing at Scotland Street Press, interviewed by David Garyan

David Garyan interviews Jean Findlay, Head of Publishing at Scotland Street Press

Interlitq Interview Series


Read Jean Findlay’s article, “Price Beyond Rubies: On Writing The Hat Jewel.”
Read David Garyan’s review of Jean Findlay’s biography on C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Chasing Lost Time
Read David Garyan’s review of C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s Ant, an anthology compiled and edited by Jean Findlay
Read David Garyan’s review of Jean Findlay’s novel The Queen’s Lender


DG: As an artist, you’ve worked and continue to be involved in a wide range of disciplines—from playwriting to having run your own theater company, but also journalism, fiction, and non-fiction. How did it all start and what you led you to become both the Founder and Head of Publishing of an independent label, called Scotland Street Press?

JF: My career did not have a logical or planned progression. I studied Law, French and Philosophy at Edinburgh University. I spent one year of an MA in Photography at the Royal College of Art in London, although at the same time I was running a theatre company in Edinburgh for which I made the posters, raised the funding, acted in and operated the lighting.  The company became huge and by the time I was 26 there were 70 employees and it was touring in Europe to great acclaim. I wrote and directed my first plays with large casts: the first was a group of strippers from the Edinburgh bars for whom I asked the choreographer Liz Rankin, who was working with the Royal Shakespeare Company at the time, to come and direct the movement.  It was unforgettable, especially the piece she developed for opera music. The theatre company burnt me out and I moved to journalism and to London, writing theatre reviews and directing the performance poet Murray Lachlan Young.  This evolved into travel, book reviews and arts features and one salient interview with the Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaya, whom I admire greatly. By this time I had my first son and I reduced work, although there was a short stint as a director at the National Youth Theatre. I kept writing plays while having a second son, and worked at a number of jobs; teaching drama, taking portraits, and eventually winning the commission from Chatto and Windus to write the biography of C.K. Scott Moncrieff. This was a good thing to combine with being a single mother (which is what I had become by this point) and I am grateful to the Hyam Wingate Foundation and the Society of Authors for helping to fund the long period of research and writing.

This book did very well, and more was written about it in good reviews than there is between the boards. However, I still had a vast amount of material and wanted to publish a collection of Scott Moncrieff’s own writings: short stories that were originally published by T S Eliot in The Criterion and war poetry.  Chatto and Windus did not want to publish this, so I set up Scotland Street Press, called after the street we were living in at the time in Edinburgh.


DG: Aside from your own impressive artistic career, you also have the good fortune of being the great-great-niece of C.K. Scott Moncrieff—the man who first translated Remembrance of Things Past (also known as In Search of Lost Time) into English and about whom you’ve already written a fantastic biography published by Chatto & Windus. Can you describe the writing process, along with perhaps some of the surprising things you discovered looking through the family archives, and also how Moncrieff’s wonderful, translation shaped all the subsequent ones done by others? Indeed, it was a very good translation, despite what Proust may have thought at the time, and it’s still considered one of the best today. 

JF: My mother handed me a battered suitcase full of the papers of her great uncle, the translator of Proust. It contained diaries and notebooks, poems, doodles, limericks and receipts, letters to US publishers and wrangles with Pirandello’s agent.   I had never written a book before, but as my mother, grandfather and great-great uncle had all been writers, I took it for granted that I could.  I must admit that my first attempt at the 10,000 word proposal was terrible and my agent must have despaired, however he managed to get a commission and to secure Jenny Uglow, the eminent biographer, as my editor.  Having such a great agent and editor was a stroke of luck.  Jenny took a red pen to every chapter I sent her and I learnt like a pupil at school.  All of Scott Moncrieff’s papers were not in the suitcase, there were hundreds of letters in private and public collections in the US and the UK. I travelled to The Berg Collection in New York for the letters to Sir Edward Marsh, to Reading for the massive correspondence with his UK publisher. The National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh holds the correspondence with the poet Robert Graves and the English Faculty Library, Oxford, has those to Wilfred Owen. It was a great adventure, not least visiting the battlefields of Ypres and Arras where Charles fought during the First World War and was eventually wounded.  But it was at the National Archives in Kew where I discovered what no one knew, that during his post war years in Italy, he was working not only as a translator, but as a spy for the British Government.

Scott Moncrieff also translated Abelard and Eloise, Beowulf, the Chanson de Roland, and much of Stendhal and Pirandello. He sold both Proust and Pirandello to the English speaking world.

As for his translation of Proust, many great writers including Joseph Conrad and Scott Fitzgerald held it to be a masterpiece in itself.  Virginia Woolf and James Joyce acknowledge its influence.


DG: Certainly, as a writer, you’ve had great success and are now enjoying similarly positive developments as a publisher. It would be interesting to hear about a few of the new and exciting things we can expect from Scotland Street Press in the near future, and, perhaps, also to know a bit about the some of the staff and agents who will help make it possible.

JF: Scotland Street Press was founded the proceeds of the US rights sale of the aforementioned biography, so I see us standing on the shoulders of giants: Proust and Scott Moncrieff and the writers they knew.  As I like to take on first-time authors and poets, and translations from Belarus, these are necessary shoulders to stand on. Although the staff have changed constantly over the first few years of start-up, relying heavily on volunteers, we are now a team of four women working part-time: Lucrezia Gaion, Antonia Weir, Kate Jowett and myself.  Last year we were proud to publish Alindarka’s Children, a difficult translation of a Belarusian novel in two languages, which won an English Pen Award and was long-listed for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. This year we have a themed schedule called International Women Series 2021, and this includes three poets who have collaborated with artists to create books that are conversations between art and poetry. Do look on our website for the titles : A Song to Keep, Restricted Movement, and Patient Dignity.  The first will launch on the 6th May on our YouTube channel, and everyone is invited to watch this stunning short film about the artists. I am lucky to work with young people who have constant inspiration and enthusiasm.

Like theatre, publishing is a collaborative art.


DG: I would like to speak now about your early days in theater; there will naturally be many who might disagree with me, but I’ve always felt this particular artform to be more intimate and personal than reading a novel, or even hearing a poem—an experience which does entail the presence of performative qualities. Since you’ve worked as both a playwright and novelist, it would be interesting to hear not only your perspective on which genre best captures the human condition but also which one you ultimately feel more fondness for, and why? In other words, what are some things you’ve done in plays that wouldn’t have been possible to do in a novel, and, likewise, what are things that now draw you to the novel?

JF: To go from writing plays to non-fiction and then to fiction is like taking giant strides in different directions, while circling around the centre. I agree with you, theatre is the purest, most direct form of artistic communication. My journey away from it was purely for reasons of survival: there is not a lot of funding out there for theatre. I don’t think I would have been able to raise a family while working in theatre. There is also the fact that theatre involves much travel and high nervous energy, which doesn’t work with providing a stable family home. But ultimately my heart is in theatre, I agree that it best captures the human condition, it speaks directly to the soul of a huge audience; you have a collective response and an individual response, and the power of being able to move people is much greater.


DG: Would you ever consider staging—either in parts or in its entirety—your novel-in-progress, The Hat Jewel, after it has been completed, or are you firmly committed to keeping this particular work on the page? In either case, it would be interesting to know why.

JF: I would love to stage The Hat Jewel!  Actually, the first response of the first reader was, “It reads like a play.” There are parts of it, especially the parts with the Fool, which are very funny; and the rest would work as a pageant of Scottish history. Again, it would come down to fundraising, but I expect I am better at that now.


DG: Speaking of the page, many people now wonder about the future of printed books. Having already discussed playwriting, the analogy could, perhaps, be constructed in this way: Flipping through the pages of a printed book (and to make it more interesting, let it be a rare first edition) versus reading the same text digitally is like having the privilege of watching an amazing performance in presence instead of merely witnessing it online—the parallel isn’t one-hundred percent accurate, but there’s some logic in it. My question, hence, is two-fold: Firstly, how do you see the proliferation of e-books? Secondly, will they completely replace printed ones soon, and if so, will that increase or decrease readership in general?

JF: Just as online performances will never replace theatre, so ebooks will never outsell printed books. As publishers we get yearly data on ebook versus printed book sales and even during lockdown when ebooks had their ultimate boost, printed books were still vastly more popular even though more expensive and more difficult to obtain.  Most people are not fully satisfied by virtual experience. Scotland Street Press publishes books with feel and colour and paintings and different types of covers.  We have an excellent designer in Antonia Weir who is also incidentally a theatre artist. This summer we hope to stage outdoor poetry readings during the Edinburgh Fringe, with the entry ticket being the purchase of a poetry book.  As all of our books are cheaper than your average theatre ticket, we are providing great value.


DG: As you’ve worked and been successful in a number of artistic fields, what advice would you give journalists, playwrights, and novelists on the eve of their careers?

JF: Do you mean dawn of their careers?  There’s not much left at the eve?

If you mean beginning, then I would say: always put the demands of life before the demands of art.  There are many who would put career first, especially women who will put off having children in case they interfere with an artistic career. But I would say there is no art without life. My best ideas have come though working with my own children or with young people, and there is no greater creative production in existence than giving birth.  I’d go so far as to say that if you want to understand creativity in its fullest sense, then you cannot get any nearer than creating another human being. It stretches every faculty, and we are here to be stretched. That of course puts Proust and Scott Moncrieff in a different light, but I expect they would have agreed with me.

If you actually do mean ‘eve of career’, and I certainly don’t think I have reached that yet, then the answer is: never give up, always go back to the blank canvas.  There are novelists like Mary Wesley who started writing at 70 and had a full career beyond, or PD James and Diana Athill who wrote and published well into their 90s.  I look to them and see myself as a youngster.


About Jean Findlay

Jean Findlay was born in Edinburgh. She studied Law and French at Edinburgh University under Peter France and Theatre under Tadeusz Kantor in Kracow, Poland. She co-founded an award winning theatre company and wrote and produced plays which toured to London, Berlin, Bonn, Rotterdam, Dublin, Glasgow and the Pompidou Centre in Paris. She spent years in London writing drama and book reviews for the Scotsman, and has written for the IndependentTime Out and the Guardian.  In 2014 she published Chasing Lost Time: The Life of CK Scott Moncrieff, Soldier, Spy and Translator with Chatto and Windus, now in Vintage paperback and with FSG in New York. She founded Scotland Street Press in Edinburgh in 2014 and now runs this small, award-winning publishing house. For writing The Hat Jewel she won a Hawthornden Fellowship 2018 and a Lavigny International Writer’s Fellowship 2019.


David Garyan Interviews British Poet Fiona Sampson – Interlitq Interview Series

Ravenna, Italy


Interlitq Interview Series

David Garyan Interviews British Poet Fiona Sampson

Fiona Sampson


DG: In a large number of poems from your most recent collection, Come Down, there are symbolic overtones related to colors, along with light and darkness. In the piece, “Deaf,” for example, a powerful line reads: “darkness falling from your feet / so deep you could fall through it,” while in “Lady of the Sea” the poem’s speaker hints at the “black mask” of the Virgin Mary, and if she lets it fall, “could she / move among us?” Throughout the collection, there’s a strong emphasis on movement, whether it be literal and physical, but at the same time, the speakers within the individual poems never cease to understand that death is likewise ever-present, as the poem “Boat Lane,” along with its epitaph by John Davidson suggest: “I’m following / my father / who belongs / to marsh water / and to the sea.” Indeed, the sea both symbolizes movement but also death in the case of the great aforementioned Scottish poet; it’s a place where things both rise from (if we speak of divine beings like Venus, for example), but the sea is equally comfortable submerging even the most powerful mortals. You’ve chosen to title the collection Come Down. Can you, then, perhaps discuss these overarching themes related to movement, perhaps in the sense of following, but also in terms of leading and being lead—the movement from life to death, navigating depression and sadness, and why you ultimately chose colors along with notions of darkness and light to symbolize this movement?

FS: It’s interesting you’ve picked up so much on John Davidson. He’s not a very important poet to me, or indeed to most British poets working today. It’s just that he wrote a poem about Romney Marsh, the area where my poem ‘Boat Lane’ is set, that’s very resonant for those who know and love it. The Marsh remains somewhat remote and unspoiled even though it’s in the crowded south-east of England: ‘As I went down to Dymchurch wall /I heard the south blow o’er the land /I saw the yellow sunlight fall /On knolls where Norman churches stand.’

(I should add that the poem ‘Marsh’ was by contrast a poem commissioned by the Aldeburgh Festival about its venue, Snape Maltings, and its great founder-composer, Benjamin Britten. But I like the cross-hatching of this thematic link in the book.)

‘Boat Lane’ is a poem about my (adoptive) father, who is still alive, and who grew up on the Marsh. We used to go there on family holidays, and it the place is part of my imaginative hinterland. His father was the vicar of one of those ‘Norman churches’, and we used to go and visit my grandparents there on family holidays when I was a child. It’s quiet, secretive and forgotten country. But the skies above it were the setting of the Battle of Britain, and – as my poem mentions – my father is old enough to have seen active service in WWII. He rescued crews who had to ditch in the sea.

Beyond this, the South is very much a shared European dream. I’ll leave aside the extent to which traditional British culture was Mediterranean in origin (the Bible; the classical Greek and Latin which long formed the education of those few who received any schooling at all). Nor does it just have to do with sun-seeking tourists. There’s an almost tidal longing, a nostalgia for something we never quite had, that the South – in this poem, the South wind – conjures up. As in the great nineteenth century Macedonian poem, ‘T’ga za Yug’, ‘Longing for the South’, written in chilly Moscow by Konstantin Miladinov about his homeland.


DG: Another important symbol throughout the collection is that of the wind, which strongly correlates to the movement referred to earlier. In his famous novel Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s narrator describes the main character, Kurtz, as a “tree swayed by the wind.” Indeed, the further Kurtz sails downstream, the more he gives in to the darkness of his own psyche. Having already mentioned the important symbolic connotations of water in your collection, it’s pertinent to touch upon the wind as well, which is strongly connected to the oceans and sees. Returning to John Davidson’s suicide, for a moment, it’s possible to see it as an occurrence of fate, which he himself predicted in his last book, The Testament of John Davidson; at the same time, however, if we see life in terms of a ship metaphor, perhaps it’s possible to adjust our “sails” and to some extent control direction, as the titular poem “Come Down” seems to hint at with its line of strangers sailing away on “difficult waters” (once more with the connotation of leading and being lead), along with the “distant ship” which “dreams of a child” who believes she “can reach Australia.” In stark contrast, then, to John Davidson’s suicide, the poem “Cold War Afternoon” pays tribute to the great Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad, who passed away suddenly, without any premeditation. In both cases, hence, we can say that fate doesn’t distinguish between events which are planned and those which occur accidentally—both Davidson and Farrokhzad, it could be said, were individuals of their own unchangeable fate. Since wind and water figure so frequently in your work, how do you perceive the life of an individual? Is everything purely chance as the title suggests—that things come down in a way which is based solely on the principles of gravity—or is there another message, such as the one in “Marsh,” for example: “We choose the room / we need to live in.” Can you perhaps elaborate on this tension running throughout the collection?

FS: Another way to think about this might be that the book Come Down as a whole is concerned with breath. You will see that the poems are each a single sentence – all-one-breath – this includes the nine-page title poem. The form is given internal tension by regular numbers of feet or stresses per line (but the feet themselves are not regular: they’re as various, just as they are in speech).

I’m using a single breath, and declaring punctuation redundant, while retaining meaning and music, as a way to connect every part of a poem to every other part. Of course, poetry is a chronologic art like music. Poems unroll through time, even when you read them to yourself. But there are ways to perform such poetic transformations as bringing things together to ‘speak to’ each other. And one that I’m very interested in right now is this all-one-breath movement in a poem. This is the culmination of a long development through my last four collections away from punctuation and towards composing on the breath.

There are also traces of the idea of the breath-of-life, the human spirit, in the book’s  preoccupations with both how to live and how to live meaningfully. The Forough Farrokhzad quote I’m thinking of is ‘The wind will carry us’ which, as I’m sure you know, is also taken by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami as the title of that stunning 1999 film.


DG: In a rather subtle and most pleasant way, the concluding poems of the collection emphasize symbols of nature, most notably that of the earth. Especially poignant is the piece “Juno’s Dream” with the opening salvo: “Juno lies / under the earth / her great dreaming / has begun,” and these lines are powerful because they invert the ancient goddesses role as the overseer and protector of Rome; in this sense, the effects of time are brought to the forefront in the most ingenious way because Rome—once a great empire—has long ceased to exist and even its language is now extinct; at the same time, the city itself bears tribute to the glory of its past and the ruins lying among the earth are the ultimate testament to that. Juno, hence, simultaneously lies under the earth and dreams of Rome’s insurgence but since we also speak of her, she’s not completely invisible. Similarly, the tribute poem to Mary Shelley, “Last Man,” harkens back to things underneath the surface, using powerful nature images to evoke the sense of passing time: “the bare feet in the bare / orchard,” along with the surrounding bareness of winter powerfully evoke the notion of “walking / through the frost / under bare trees,” which harkens back to the impermanence of all things—from Rome to simple frost and snow (the latter being a symbol which likewise recurs often in the collection from start to finish). Also, too, in “Wild Equinox,” the natural properties of cold are used a symbol of alienation and movement (both literal and figurative); the poem ultimately returns to the imagery of light and dark to accentuate the tension between fate and freewill: “ everything is / and knows it is – / wild equinox / balancing light / with the / inseparable dark.” Indeed, as humans we both are and know what are—the tension of simultaneously being a part of the wilderness, yet, at the same time, having left it for civilization is a sign of the balance we’ve achieved in this world; even stranger, however, is the fact that the aforementioned evolution also signifies a type of darkness as we continue moving through time and further destroying that which we came from. Since these are recurring themes within the collection, it would be interesting to hear your perspective on perhaps the fate of humanity. In “Manoeuvres,” for example, you seem to take a satirical tone regarding civilization alleviating all our problems, subtly challenging John Bruton’s statement that the EU is “the world’s most successful invention for advancing peace.” In that sense, do you think the solution to our problems lies in politics or must we find the strength within ourselves to improve the world? And by extension, given the degree to which Greek and Roman mythology figures in your work, do you think a Roman-style collapse of the EU is inevitable or can we mitigate it in some way?

FS: The opening poem of the book is called ‘Come Down’, and the closing poem is ‘Surfacing’, and the long title poem is also (of course: it’s the title poem!) called ‘Come Down’. I think you can see that this maps a descent and then a departure by ascending. But since the descent is into a valley full of rural imagery, ecopoetic arguments, and myth – rather than being in any way the Valley of the Shadow of Death – I guess it’s a book about arrival, settling, and ‘putting down roots’. Really, a sequence as much as a book.

Life has a grainy texture, doesn’t it? Living is decidedly not a slick operation. There are lacunae and losses, terrors and stresses. I want the book to be alive in this way, not inert on a scholar’s table. I would rather poetry took risks and was messy than it be irreproachable and dull. I mean that as a reader and as a writer. Let my prose be well-behaved! But let my poetry have fiercely incorporated technique (so well-incorporated perhaps that slack readers miss it) but let it be fierce in what it takes on, from life and for poetry too.

Which includes the political. I don’t think we can live outside politics – it is everything in society, even when it pretends not to be. ‘I’m not political,’ says the political conservative – meaning, ‘I see no need to question how things are or to change them’: which is a deeply political statement. I’m sorry that ‘Cold War Afternoon’ reads as though that I’m challenging John Bruton. I want to do the opposite.  We have had peace in Europe, apart from in the former Yugoslavia, for the longest time in Europe’s history: and that is because we have created and cemented alliances instead of jockeying for local national advantage. My aged parents are typical of their generation, the one that actually remembers what war is like, in grieving Brexit. They say it has destroyed everything they spent their lives building.

Unlike Rome, or indeed the old European empires, the EU is not an empire. I can think of countries that have imperial ambition, that meddle in the affairs of others: but the EU is a stabilizing check and balance on rogue governments, on global capital, and on mega-businesses cruising in from the US, China, to asset-strip us. It has raised the living standards of millions, and the standards of hygiene, water, food, medicine: all the important things. Because it had no vested interest in doing otherwise. Our future now, outside its protection, is as a vassal state of the US, a place for dumping cheap goods and fighting proxy wars with, in particular, Russia.


DG: Perhaps the most sui generis poem in the collection is “Old Man.” Quite outstanding in its stand out way (from the rest of the collection), it takes multiple risks not just with theme but also language, posing a question throughout, yet never using the punctuation mark to emphasize that fact; in this sense, it reflects life, which is inherently composed of questions we either don’t dare ask or will never have an answer to—hence the form and structure of the poem itself can be thought of a symbol. The piece ends on a note which spares no embarrassment or shame: “I tried to touch you after / we fucked stroking your wide / back made you groan / with pleasure your eyes shut.” In reality, this poem isn’t really a departure from the rest of the collection because its theme returns to the passage of time, the movement of emotions, and the disconnect which can happen as a result of those things. In terms of the title, Coming Down, do you see, then, age as a symbol of drowning or is it a form of rising from the sea towards wisdom and enlightenment? The poem seems to suggest the former, but poets rarely place everything on the surface of a poem. Aside from the poem itself, how do you feel about the issue of age in general?

FS: I think we live in an era of catastrophic ageism, a commodification of the body but also, worse, of the human self. And that this is being compounded by coronavirus, which has made it crystal clear that youth culture has created such a self-centred take on life that younger people at less risk of serious illness really think their ‘right’ to go to a party is greater than the right to life of other generations (incidentally the ones who wiped their baby noses and bottoms, labored to educate them, etc). This seems to me as jaw-droppingly immoral as condoning modern day slavery (through human trafficking, sweatshops etc) on the grounds that our ‘right’ to have cheaply painted nails/throwaway fashion/sex is greater than the right of other people to freedom and life.

I certainly hope there is nothing in Come Down that suggests I think age is a form of drowning! I want, when I do get to the point of beginning to age myself, to continue to function as a free energetic agent, just like my many friends and colleagues who are multiple decades older than me.

But the poem ‘Old Man’ is a specific revenge poem, taunting a particular someone who has been quite vain but who is by now, I think, too old ever to secure another lover like the one I was for him some years ago. Even though he is a man, and of course ageism is not nearly so crushing of life chances for men: I give you the ages of American presidents, for example. It’s just me having what I hope is the last laugh.

As you’ll gather, I am very strongly committed to human rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit, if not of happiness, then of a meaningful life. I am equally strong in believing these rights are unvaried by identity. Doesn’t matter who you are: you have these rights (even when people steal the opportunity to exercise them from you). I am very interested in identity, but not as a variant on rights, but as part of the mystery of individuation. So the long title poem ‘Come Down’ is about tracing my half own identity: two years ago, discovering my Australian natural father and my entire Australian family history of emigration. (I traced the other half of my identity more years ago.) My father had died before I found him, but the poem’s epigraph, ‘I wanted to know the true nature of the otherness I had been born into’, is so telling about non-indigenous Australian identity, and it was written by the greatest Australian artist to date, Sidney Nolan, who ended up living near the valley in which my book is set, here on the Welsh border.


About Fiona Sampson

Fiona Sampson has been published in thirty-seven languages and has just received two major European prizes: the Naim Frasheri Laureateship 2019 and the European Lyric Atlas Prize 2020. She has also received the Zlaten Prsten (Macedonia), the Charles Angoff Award (US), the 2016 Slovo Podgrmec Prize and the 2015 Povelji za međunarodnu saradnju Award (Bosnia) and the Aark Arts International Poetry Prize (India), and been shortlisted for the Evelyn Encelot Prize for European Women Poets. She received an MBE for services to literature in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours, 2017.

Life Under Lockdown, an article by Jessica Rydill

(Image: the meadows near our house)



Life under Lockdown by Jessica Rydill

I may have had the virus, but I don’t know, and won’t know until they make antibody testing more widely available in this country. It’s possible I picked it up on a visit to friends in London in late February, when we attended a packed exhibition at Tate Britain on the work of 18th century artist, visionary and writer William Blake.

Some time after returning to Bath, my husband and I came down with what seemed like two odd viruses: one gastro-intestinal and the other causing a cough. Neither of us was seriously ill, but the viruses were noticeably unusual, and we lost our sense of smell.

In my case, the cough persisted for a long time, and there were episodes at the start where I coughed so badly I nearly passed out. I went to the doctor twice, and there was no evidence of problems with my lungs, but the cough persisted for months afterwards.

It is possible that it was a different type of coronavirus, not COVID-19 at all; there is no way of knowing. But what happened was that in late March, a week before the government put the whole country into lockdown, Stephen and I decided to self-isolate because we are in a high-risk category.

This meant that we stopped going out, except for exercise, and started to order our shopping online. We also bought some antiviral snoods, rather odd tubular things that you pull over your head and which make you look a bank robber in a stocking mask.

In the end, we remained under lockdown from late March to mid-June. We were not in one of the groups instructed to shelter by the government, but we were extremely fearful.

It is difficult to sum up the experience, but I think the word “terrifying” is apposite. We did not experience great hardship, like some people. We have not lost anyone dear to us, though friends have; but it is impossible not to recognise that something has happened, not just to England but to the world.

What do I think of? How kind some people were, especially at the outset. Our younger neighbours sent us notes offering to do shopping for us. The local pharmacy delivered our medications for a nominal charge. One neighbour brought round armfuls of bluebells from her garden. Every Thursday, we stepped out the front door to “clap for carers” and said hello to our next-door neighbours.

This was important for morale because apart from the odd visit to a local shop at the very beginning, we saw nobody.

At first, we could not for love nor money get our groceries delivered by any supermarket. They were all booked solid. And everywhere was cleaned out of loo roll, hand sanitiser, and staples like pasta and rice. A kind of mass hysteria set in and there were scenes on TV and social media of people fighting in the supermarket aisles, and of empty shelves.

Because we live on the edge of the countryside, we were able to place orders over the phone with local farm shops, and drive there to pick up our shopping. They would emerge from the store with a box of food and put it in our car boot. It all felt absurd, and exciting, and slightly frightening.

My mental health dropped off a cliff because though I see a therapist on a regular basis, the start of the lockdown coincided with the Easter break. After that, consultations continued by phone, but the three weeks of the Easter/Passover holiday were not good.

I was fairly convinced that I must have the virus, and that I was going to die. I spend quite a lot of time worrying about dying, and always have. This time, it felt like a certainty.

In fact, there have never been high levels of infection in this area, and relatively few deaths. But what one became aware of was other people dying, and the daily death toll; the reporting by government figures on television, and the bravado of the Prime Minister until he too became seriously ill.

And it was strange how people online turned to plague mythology and tropes. To reading The Plague by Albert Camus and The Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe.

(Image: Lormes and friends by Seed Arts)

I own two tiny figures made by resin artist Seed Arts that she calls Lormes. They are miniature versions of the iconic figure of the Plague Doctor, named after Renaissance French physician Charles de Lorme. Somehow, I found these tiny figures comforting, as if they had apotropaic properties, and was slightly distressed when I dropped one on the floor and couldn’t find him.

It made me aware once again how important culture and art are at a time like this. And we learned how to talk to friends via Zoom and Skype, so that we could have meetings and even birthday parties!

But the isolation played on us. We started to become reluctant to leave the house. To begin with, we had ventured out into the beautiful meadows at the rear of where we live, and tried to walk reasonably often. As the lockdown continued, we seemed to spend more and more time asleep in the daytime, and to stay up all night until long past dawn.

The astonishing peace and lushness of the countryside was noticeable, together with the flourishing of birds, animals and insects in the absence of humans. There were many fewer cars driving past out house; and once we went out for a drive and saw the city of Bath looking emptier than it had ever before.

And then the news came out about Dominic Cummings. The government’s chief adviser and the eminence grise to Boris Johnson. He had driven up to Durham with his wife, who was ill with the virus, and their children. He had stayed on his parents’ property and gone on an experimental drive to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight.

After that, it seemed somehow the government could no longer sustain the lockdown. It seemed as if they would do anything to preserve the reputation and status of this unelected individual, who refused to resign though in clear breach of regulations he himself had instituted.

What frightens me is the thought, however fugitive, that in order to justify their position, the government might have moved to relax the lockdown rules earlier than they would otherwise have done. Or because the public mood had shifted drastically due to Cummings and his excursion.

Politics can’t be left out of this altogether. This country has had an exceptionally high death rate for its size. And there is clear evidence that old people were discharged from hospital into care homes, where they infected other residents with the virus, and many died.

(Image: Empty Bath)

The government were supposed to be shielding these people. And in some instances, hospitals refused to treat gravely ill people who were suffering from conditions that were not coronavirus; they were sent home, and they died.

Though hospitals have been undoubtedly dealing with impossible circumstances, such as years of government underfunding of the NHS, and a lack of the PPE needed to keep their staff safe, it seems as though people have died who should not have died. They should have been protected.

Several of us whose parents died in recent years admitted that we were relieved that neither they nor we had to live through this crisis. But other friends did lose a parent; and there must be thousands of people across Britain (and the world) whose lives have been affected, and changed, by the virus and how it was dealt with.

Don’t even ask me about Trump or Bolsonaro.

So the current state of play is: not dead yet. We have started to emerge from lockdown. But we will be wearing face masks in the shops, even if people give us funny looks. And they do.

Whatever the government predicts, we will move at our own pace. But not everyone has that luxury, and that is wrong. No-one should be forced to return to work without adequate protection.

There has been something about the lockdown that is irreducible, impossible to capture. The incredible stillness of the fields with long grasses and wild flowers in the meadow. The silence. The city of Bath almost empty of cars and people.

It’s like a warning. A wake-up call. We live and die, we stand or fall, together. Or as Tom Lehrer said, “We will all go together when we go.”


About Jessica Rydill

Jessica Rydill is a fantasy author from the west country in England. Her first novel, Children of the Shaman, was short-listed in 2001 for the Locus award for best first novel.