An essay by Jen Stout shared by Grace Franklin
When lockdown came my world had already shrunk to my four walls — 23 March actually widened that world to a tenement stair and the people in it. It brought unexpected happiness — and threw ‘normal life’ into stark relief.
Since I left the isles and began a restless, strange decade, the most painful disappointment — the sorest lack — was always community.
I think the word’s barely useful any more: overused, cynically deployed, woolly. Perhaps it prompted a silent groan as you read it — permission to write this off as earnest and dull. But I know what I mean by community, and it’s not the stuff of Blairite policy initiatives, or diversity checklists on a funding application.
I was spoilt, utterly: both hellish lucky, and hellish unfortunate. I grew up — as Alastair McIntosh so beautifully puts it — held in the basket of community. Mine had about 80 people, spread around 20 or so crofts; it hardly seemed to matter to which I was related; they were welcoming homes with people as dear to my as my ‘own’ kin. Stories going back generations anchored you to the people, and to the land itself; you were caught up in a net woven around you that felt very old, and very safe. For a child it was paradise, it was everything. A whole ordered, coherent little world, spread out beyond your kitchen window in a neat patchwork of fields and crofts, hill and cliff, one mile by three.
And so, as a child, to leave it was everything too. It was a ripping away of the ground beneath small feet. Our (now nuclear-sized, much-diminished) family unit disintegrated in the years that followed; anger and separation, cancer and loss, with homesickness — homelessness, in a way — at the heart of it all. I reached 17, began to move, and have never stopped.
I maintained a quixotic, increasingly painful hope that community, belonging, was just around the corner. Not helped by all the accounts I’d read of precisely this reeled off by those older than me, those fortunate to have lived in a less disintegrated society. In the difficult period spent getting into journalism — endless bar work, horrible living situations — I’d read voraciously the accounts of those who’d practically fallen into the profession as young, hapless men. They’d be taken under the wing, into the press gang. Someone would find them cheap digs with some eccentric landlady; they’d be welcomed in to the boozy, convivial world of newspapers from that first lunchtime pint. I’d never have amounted to anything, they’d write from comfortable retirement, without that first job (no qualifications required), that wise mentor, that mad old editor, that union comrade.
Friends who got into journalism around the same time as me felt the same pang. We’d imagined, romantically, a community of peers we would join and learn from. But the Press Bar was already earmarked for demolition and, in the grinding churn-jobs we’d been lucky to find, everyone just went home to the suburbs at teatime. Now, looking around at the scorched landscape of Scottish newspapers, I realise even we sound bygone and nostalgic to the new ones coming up, who unless rich, don’t stand a bloody chance.
I was reading Alasdair Gray’s Life in Pictures recently, and my heart ached over his memories of homes-from-home. Tenement kitchens in the Cowcaddens where he would turn up, dishevelled and usually hungry, and be welcomed in. Long talks late into the night with wily, self-taught men who enjoyed his company, encouraged his work. When I was a student I’d endlessly searched for digs with older folk, or with families. They just didn’t seem to exist any more; I ended up in a dizzying number of flatshares — some a month, some a year. The people were good, but everyone was so busy. You got used to eating your tea alone in your room; an acutely miserable thing to do.
On getting a PhD scholarship, I immediately set my hopes on some bygone ideal of academic life. Having read of the mad Oxford dons inviting students to their book-strewn studies and living rooms for discussion and boozy debate, I was inevitably disappointed. Perhaps this doesn’t even happen in Oxford (it’s a mythical world, after all) but certainly in Edinburgh’s George Square, haunting the basement computer labs to write essay after essay, I didn’t find it. Lecturers were stressed, distant. Fellow students were mostly insufferably posh and weirdly disengaged from the course, some rarely turning up.
What I did have was a pub. I worked there, all through university, and after a while I belonged there. Of a Saturday night — or a Tuesday night, if we’re honest — the bar staff that weren’t serving were buying, alongside their friends, the regulars. It was the home of folk music, my music; it had a long history, in which Shetlanders featured disproportionately; it was a place I felt known. I don’t remember an interview, but I do remember one of the regulars interrogating me on my first shift. So you’ll play chess, he said quite sternly, a statement of fact. I had to admit that I did not play chess. Ah. Well, you’ll play the fiddle then, being a Shetlander. Christ, no, I said vehemently, still scarred by memories of my school’s 50-strong fiddle group. He frowned. But you drink whisky? Not really, I mumbled. He puffed out his cheeks, cast a despairing look at the manager, who just shrugged.
But despite failing these entrance tests, I was soon part of the furniture (and of course, they taught me how to love whisky). That net drawing in, safe and comforting, of folk who knew me well, who’d do me a favour — a hundred favours — no question asked. I could never walk past the place, for one of them would be leaning against the red-painted exterior, smoking, and would draw me in ‘just for one’. And just as on the island I’d felt the land was ours because we worked it, here too I felt that legitimacy: our small team formed an odd, dysfunctional family, some of us sharing flats, all bound to the same place which was ours because we ran it, loved it, knew it inside out. When an old regular died we mourned them like family. When two married we celebrated them, the tiny pub decorated and covered in photographs, a great cheer going up as the newlyweds walked through the door. No strangers would’ve come in that day; it was our house.
I once heard Scottish pubs described as ‘community centres with booze’. Of course the latter part was the glaringly obvious problem, and particularly on returning to Edinburgh after my mother’s long and painful death I found too many pints waiting on the bar for me, too many nights ending in a numb blackness. No one was in my life, interrupting it, pulling me out of my thoughts. One night, very late, the sound of drunken shrieking from the nearby Grassmarket on a loop, I wrote down the things that make me happy. Dancing, community, bairns, the sea. And I looked at my life, and found none of these, and felt loss like a chasm widening.
It’s not to say I didn’t find good friends. I did, all over the country, and it makes me smile to think of the map of bright spots. They bring me huge joy. But most were my age, busy, moving frequently too. We were in a society where to drop by unannounced was unheard of. Scheduling people in, like a dentist appointment, had become the norm. And I hated this. It was hard to admit, like I’d failed somehow; I was extraordinarily lonely.
You could say I didn’t stay anywhere long enough to ‘bed in’; it’d be fair. But I’d clung on to an idea of how things had been, on the island, and I clearly was in a different world now. Then I can remember so often there being strangers at our table — old friends of my parents, people come to help on the croft, birders lodging as B&B guests, incomers being made welcome (and being sussed out). Until we left the island, that is, and unsplendid isolation set in. But I’d known it, and I needed it, and the further I travelled around, lost and increasingly angry, I realised that what I’d had back then was unusual, and that I might never find it again. That was too painful to sit with.
That’s a story of two extremes. But I tell it because I think this is an unusually fragmented society, and my child-like, furious longing for what I once had gives me a vantage point from which to look around and insist: This isn’t normal, how we live now. It’s a cliche to say nobody knows their neighbours, but we don’t, and that’s dangerous.
I now live in a red sandstone tenement, like tens of thousands of others, in a densely-populated neighbourhood of a large Scottish city. I’ve been here two years, nearly; another temporary home that until recently I spent little time in. I inhabited it, in those scant hours between going-to-work, going-out. But in recent months? Well, I really live here.
I rattle between these two rooms like a bluebottle, occasionally descending for food and exercise. Not because of lockdown — I’d been signed off sick since February, and my life had already shrunk to these walls. Lockdown, when it came, was a happy, wonderful gift, because everyone else was suddenly in my boat. From knowing the names of my neighbours, and having once had a drink with one, I suddenly was spending long, languorous sunny days with them. Two on the stair have been here for decades — single women in their sixties and seventies, though you’d place them far younger — and the elder, who I privately think of as Stair Matriarch, was desperate to do up the back court. She needed a man, she’d complained, maybe she’d ask the lad upstairs. I made a doubtful noise, thinking of the sweet, rather shy academic. Why don’t I do it, I said. I like digging. I’m built for it. Can dig all day.
Oh well, she said, unconvinced. Well I mean, if you have the time…
So — at an appropriate distance — we set to work in the back court. It contains a huge number of ceramic pots, with roses, herbs, shrubs, bulbs, carefully maintained by the matriarch over the years. But she’d been ill, and a lot of digging and stripping was required — moss, weeds, ancient compost heap, gnarled tree roots. I was in my element, most happy on the day when, with hacksaw and bare hands, I ripped out the thick roots — more like buried branches — of a sycamore stump.
We made the back court beautiful again, a little city oasis. I’d done this easy thing — been strong and useful and capable — and she was pleased, and that was a simple joy. Afterwards we’d have a glass of wine, out on the front step. I’d smoke rollies and she’d tut at me, and she’d fall asleep in the garden chair, wakening with a snort, and I’d gently take the piss. Her friend — our, now — from the ground floor flat would join us, and one day early in the lockdown, as we sat in the last of the day’s warmth, the sound of someone playing the piano drifted over our heads. One of the tall tenement windows nearby was wide open, and a woman was playing the piano inside. She kept halting and restarting, negotiating with a fellow musician in a Dublin accent, and I realised she was alone but playing with them over Skype. As they began again we both started and smiled at the familiar song. James Taylor; one of my mum’s favourites. ‘I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end /
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend.’
We sang along and when she finished I called up to the window. A tall woman with curly hair appeared and we talked easily, new neighbours. Her name was Cassie, she’d been there nearly two years. Just like me. We shared a wall, we realised — all that time we’d been feet away from each other. This is absurd, I thought, crossly, sitting back down.
Then I looked around. No, this is idyllic. The blissful absence of cars meant the air was sweet and the city’s noise was a gentle bustle, instead of traffic’s drone and roar. Joggers passing on the street, people greeting us as they walked by with babies and dogs. The birdsong clear and loud, and Cassie’s music floating over our heads. I would normally be working til gone 10pm today, I thought, and the matriarch would be at one of her many meetings and events, and none of this past fortnight would ever have happened. Instead, here we all are. It struck me: life could be really good here — if we didn’t work every living minute of the day.
I think lots of people have been looking around and thinking: ‘This is different. Some of this is better. What will we get to keep?’ Articles, conversations, zoom calls, proliferate on the topic. Some of those I tuned in to were with a writer who has long been able to describe the spirituality, the community, of the place I belonged to, and the ethos that goes with it. Alastair McIntosh’s discussions with campaigners and writers on community, environment, and the way forward after lockdown made me think hard about the life I’d had, its sad longing and its happy beginnings. How can we be connected, how can we thrive?
In one live-streamed talk he spoke of a cycle of belonging — starting with a sense that “I have a right to be here”, turning into identity: “I am X because I belong here” (he gave examples of people named by their place in the Hebrides, but it was no different in Shetland; I knew old folk named for their croft). From that sense of legitimacy and belonging, comes a sense of responsibility — literally an ability to respond, to be an activist in your community, to build resilience and interconnection.
It made me think of the obligations that come with living on a small island, and how these bed you in, make you a part of the whole. I do for you, you do for me; I give generously, and gladly, and the same will come in return; I won’t keep a tally because I trust, and it works. This obligation is fundamental to the well-oiled workings of island life, surely to community life in general, and is woefully misunderstood by incomers with less communal mindsets — as so perfectly if unwittingly exemplified by Tamsin Calidas’ recent book documenting her ‘rejection’ on a Hebridean island, and then explained in Amy Liptrot’s gentle rebuke of the same.
I know there are so many of us who live these lacking lives. Loneliness is an epidemic. My working hours precluded any regular groups, choirs, clubs, and I know so many friends who are just the same. We work so much. It is supposed to have some pay-off, some end result. Of course my job is interesting and sometimes enjoyable. But there has to be more than that. Real lasting meaningful connection to those around was never factored in. Learning recently about how plants and trees communicate through root systems and fungal networks, I thought of the potted plants in our back court. Beautiful they are, but since the roots can’t get out, aren’t they lonely? Closed off from each other, from the wider web of life.
I think about my friends, the ones I consider ‘close’, and how many times in the past year we’ve seen each other. A handful? Having folk round for tea was for a while my greatest joy; I’d never been able to afford a flat to myself, so when I finally got this bedroom and kitchen, it filled my heart to sit friends round my rickety table and give them food and wine and laugh till we cried. But I remember too that it was a rare occurrence. Always this exchange: ‘When are you free?’ ‘Ah, maybe in a month, that Thursday… After 8pm?’ And a day before, you must check — ‘Still on for tomorrow?’ Often they are so sorry, but ‘so tired — work’s been mad — maybe next week?’ Or they come but they are exhausted, you are exhausted, dinner is rushed, we drink the wine fast because it staves off the shuddering yawns, lets us at least have a couple of hours of ill-advised laughter until we get back to real life. Real life!
I’m going to move soon, north, to Shetland. My door will always be open, because you can do that there, and people will come into my home, no scheduling in advance, just drop by and interrupt me, be part of my everyday life, and I’ll be glad of it. Maybe, after a while, there’ll come a sense of home.