The Coronavirus Diaries, 5th June 2022

I got home late on Friday night. The train was delayed because of a trespasser on the line. At first we were told there were trespassers, and I imagined it was some kids who’d got onto or near the track. Later we learned it was a man with mental health issues. He had a razor, so it sounds as though he was threatening to kill himself. It took a while for the emergency services to do whatever they had to do, talking and listening I imagine, before he was taken away in an ambulance. I hope he is receiving the help and support he needs now. Our health service, run down by a cynical government who would like to see it in private hands, is on its knees. Make it fail, then open the door to the highest bidder and say goodbye to arguably this country’s greatest ever achievement.

I was very tired, and though I slept well, yesterday I felt jet lagged. Still, I got the washing done, stocked up on groceries and caught up with Celia. Today I feel more like myself. I have my barometer back. It’s shiny and beautiful, but it doesn’t work. Gareth, the man repairing it, could not find anyone who could supply the needed mercury. In fact neither of us could find anyone who is licensed to have mercury. There’s a list apparently of people who are so licensed, but finding this list is a something both Gareth and I failed at. If you know, please do tell.

Gareth left with the station clock from the sitting room which needs cleaning and some minor attention. It will be good to hear its sombre tick again. I have dead headed the roses, repotted the basil, collected up the stray bits of litter that were scattered about the garden, washed out the cutlery drawer (a much overdue chore), done some accounts, and prepped supper. So a day of small, necessary tasks.

The last view I had before leaving Ray’s house was of cow so close to the haha that separates field from garden she looked like she was in the garden.

Cow by the haha.

It felt a suitably bucolic image to end my stay. In the afternoon, Ray had chosen to remain at the house while Octavia and I went to Burton Agnes Hall. The hall is beautiful, but it is the art collection it houses which is jaw dropping. Marcus Wickham-Boynton, a younger son, inherited the estate last century. He restored the house and hung its walls with an astonishingly varied, superb array of paintings: Corot, Utrillo, Lely, Kneller and many many more. There are also modern sculptures, including one of Marcus, tapestries, including one by Kaffe Fassett, and the gardens are as lovely as the house. Here’s a glimpse.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 5th May 2022, Photos from the Weekend

Unfortunately I had accidentally switched my new pocket camera into video mode. I thought I had fixed that, but evidently I hadn’t so most of my photos from the first evening and Saturday are extremely short films. So we start with Sunday, my birthday as it goes, and our BnB, then our walk around Church Island and the bluebells with Cecilia. I don’t know if there’s an annual vote for most hospitable landlady, but my vote would be for her.

Then onto Belfast and the new bnb, where my favourite item was the coffee table made from a painted pallet set on casters.

Having not airbnbed before, I am unfamiliar with the styling guidance. We were surprised at the proliferation of fake flowers. Also signs with inspirational messages. Is this a thing? Cool table though. I want one.

The Titanic Quarter is photogenic, the wonderful exhibition is housed in a wonderful building. I use the word wonderful deliberately. A building and an exhibition which evoke wonder. So many of our words are overused and undervalued, it’s hard to find one that doesn’t sound stale or everyday. I think Belfast City Council was both brave and far sighted to approve the plans for this building. It could have been safe (no bad taste joke intended); it could have been demure; it could have been a host of things it isn’t. What it is is bold, beautiful, and defiantly representational. That prow. That iceberg. The magnificent ship meeting its match. Like a tragic hero. To my shame I should have to look up the architects. Surely we should all know who they are?

I am giving this a bigger space because it says so much. In the distance we can see the building I have just raved about. Belfast Marina is to the left. Celia is on the right walking past the saddest exhibit: that long sculpture, looking like a fish someone has caught, represents the Titanic going down prow first. That perpendicular position tells you all you need about the horror. There’s another picture of the sculpture in the next gallery. You’ll see it was quite dull and overcast when we went into the exhibition.

When we came out, it was a different story. The day had morphed into a bright, warm, sunny afternoon. We wandered. We looked. We sat. We contemplated.

The walk to the centre took us by Big Fish. I am fond of Big Fish as you’ll see. I also love the 1950s Unite Building close by.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 30th January 2022: Birthdays and Poetry

Today is B’s birthday. She got lots of jolly cards and she and J were off to a pub for lunch when I saw her earlier. They had also been to her native Bedfordshire yesterday for a catch up with school chums which was postponed from December.

Coincidentally, Celia and I have been planning a birthday treat. Celia’s birthday is 26th April, mine 1st May. We met and became friends through the poetry group which was a monthly affair at our local library. It was, as I have written before, cemented in 2013 by the awareness of other mothers’ increasing fragility, and then by their deaths. Before the summer had ended we were both orphans. In the autumn we went on a Dead Mothers Walk, a few miles of time out and blackberrying picking. We got lost, of course we did, but it was refreshing and we picked a lot of blackberries. It remains a stand out moment in my memory of that year: sitting on the ground, eating as many blackberries as we put into the containers we brought with us, often silent, being. I don’t actually remember much about that year at all. Death is like that. It is so consuming that when you look back things are a blur. So I am pleased my memory has hung onto that day.

Back to our birthdays. When I was in NI for Uncle Bill’s 100th at the end of October I was also able to attend the John Hewitt Birthday readings in Belfast. All three poets were great, and one knocked my socks off. Gail McConnell reading from her book length poem, The Sun is Open. Several of my friends received it as a Christmas present. I’m on the Heaney Homeplace mailing list, having been, in my small way a regular, if distant and sporadic supporter since it opened a few years ago. I saw that Gail McConnell was going to be there 30th April, talking to Jeannette Winterson.

Several years ago, again with Celia, I went to hear Winterson talking about her then new novel The Gap of Time. For those of you who don’t know Winterson, she’s not one of those shy violet types. The event started with incredibly loud music. I don’t recall what it was, but it signalled this was to be as much rock show as literary evening. We were hyped up before she walked down the aisle, a diminutive figure in jeans and a white shirt, a huge smile on her face and owned the podium.

Oh my, I wanted to be at the Homeplace 30th April. Snag. It’s close to where I stay with Cousin, but she will be just returning from Australia after visiting two of her children and their children – including a new granddaughter – for the first time since the start of the pandemic. So not possible to claim her hospitality this time.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 20th December 2021, Omicron Christmas

Today has had all the grey tones of a wartime film. Brief Encounter perhaps. We have just over twenty four hours to go before the days creepingly get longer again. In the meantime I would welcome some blue skies, even if it means colder weather. I have candles and fairy lights in self-defence. Or maybe that should be protection. Those cards I send are all written and posted, the ones delivered by hand all pushed through letterboxes; a rare few parcels to addresses beyond walking or meeting distance went weeks ago, and the others have been wrapped, all with MasterB’s help – unroll wrapping paper and he sits on it – and passed into others’ hands. All except the one for my six-year-old neighbour who I shall see on Christmas Day morning. The flat has suddenly started to look festive. The sideboard is covered with cards and gifts. It’s weird how one moment it seems too early to be thinking about Christmas, the next a mad dash to get everything done.

Omicron has slimmed down the actual festivities. Drinks and nibbles are off again for the second Christmas running. I did a jigsaw at the weekend instead. I expect to do another, maybe a third. I bought a Radio Times, but the Christmas television schedules fail to inspire so far. We have lots of channels now, some of which I can access, but lots of channels seems to mean lots of dross. Why people want to sit and watch a bunch of celebs doing everything from building snowmen to buying antiques mystifies me. There must be the odd nugget in there somewhere, indeed I know there is as I have started watching Outlaws which is streamed on BBC i-player, but I am hardly spoiled for choice.

Last night was live music. Octavia and I went to St Bart the Great’s for the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols which was sublime. Again I wished I had belief. The Christmas story is heartbreaking in its simplicity, in its promise of a better world, of redemption, a world saved by the innocence of a baby born in a stable. Peace on earth and goodwill to all people.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 6th August 2021

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, which is a reminder that there are worse things than Covid 19. I remember the date as it was also our wire haired dachshund’s birthday. Obviously she was born much later. The fact that we continue to manufacture and stockpile nuclear weapons, and some regimes have made it clear they are happy to deploy them, is also a reminder how callous and cruel human beings can be. Much of the time animals are much better company. Not that our dachshund was angelic. Like most of her breed she was stubborn and opinionated. A big dog in a small disguise.

Yesterday I rang the vet practice to make an appointment for MasterB’s boosters and annual check up. The receptionist exclaimed that she loved his name, and then referred to him as an older animal. Older? MasterB? No one has told him. He may be in his eleventh year but he still thinks he’s a youngster, a rather large kitten. But her words made me blink and wonder how many more years I have with him. Last year the vet pronounced him to be in perfect shape, perfect health, to have a perfect coat, to be simply perfect in every way. I had to agree. Now I just want him to stay that way.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 4th August 2021

There’s something about dusting and vacuuming up two weeks worth of shed cat fur that is grounding. I’d say I am more or less back home mentally tonight as well as physically, though there is still a slight sense of dislocation. Maybe a trip to an exhibition, a play, something of that sort will reconnect me properly with London.

My dreams on Monday night were very muddled, switching between Ireland and home. MasterB was asleep at my feet, a comforting, constant presence. He has been very cuddly, very purry, very affectionate. I’m hoping Cousin is walking Westie Boy and Poppy now I have left. If she is, perhaps she has met Poppy Junior, the gorgeous young retriever at the bottom of the first hill. She, Poppy and Westie Boy have made overtures of friendship, mostly through the fence.

Poppy Junior
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The Coronavirus Diaries, 1st August 2021

One more breakfast in Northern Ireland before I go home. Today was beautiful, bright sunshine and cool winds. Pretty perfect. We walked around Lough Beg this afternoon, admired the carvings of fox, badger and stoat, watched a calf digging in a sandpit – a first for all of us – gazed at the view of Church Island, and read the extracts from Seamus Heaney’s poems.

A couple of weeks ago, my cousin Mary’s son Richard was doing the same walk with his wife. They saw two women who they took to be mother and daughter taking picnic of each other in front of the view. Richard asked if they would like him to take a picture of both them. They did. Afterwards the four chatted. The older woman was Marie Heaney, Seamus’ widow, and the younger their daughter Catherine.

This evening’s walk was also lovely, though for half of it I had the company of Joshua, Cousin’s twelve-year-old grandson, or the Incredible Whinge, as I was calling him by the time Cousin came to take him away from me and leave me and the dogs to enjoy our walk without constant complaints about how far we were walking and how long it was taking. I hadn’t made him come, and when we were barely out of sight of the house and he talked of turning back I should willingly have accompanied him and then resumed the walk on my own. I’ll know next time he says he’ll walk with me to run out of the house before he has his shoes on.

We met Poppy Junior, the gorgeous young retriever, on the way back. All dogs were excited. Westie Boy so far forgot his manners he tried to mount her. Fortunately he is neutered and she seemed to have no idea what he was attempting. Poppy the Labrador wagged her tail, greeted Poppy Junior’s young mistress. If we had had somewhere we could have let all three dogs off the lead to play it could have been wonderful. As it was there were a series of frustrated play bows.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 23rd July 2021

I think the weather is going to break tomorrow or Sunday. Yesterday I did virtually nothing other than sit in the shade drinking mint tea or water, read and just enjoy being. Today seems to hold much of the same. Last night Poppy the overweight Labrador decided it was still too hot at 8.30 to walk, so after just a few hundred yards we turned back. I thought I’d walk her this morning, but by 9.00 the sun was already beating down. There’s little shelter from the sun for much of our walk, so exercise is again deferred.

Next week I’m hoping to see Uncle Bill on Monday, meet up with Fiona one day and see my friend Jo on Friday. Rain is forecast for the latter part of the week, but only light rain, so I think we’ll cope. I’m sure to be back in Belfast anyway.

ideally I’d like to revisit the exhibition on La Belle Époque with Charlotte McReynolds, it’s curator, but
as the pandemic rolls on, and numbers continue to rise while our freedom to spread and contract it remains uncurtailed, curators tours are unlikely to happen. In place of government leadership requiring us to exercise caution, individual businesses and venues are having to step up to the plate.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 21st July 2021

I have just read that Led by Donkeys is responsible for the very moving Covid memorial beside the Thames and next to St Thomas’ Hospital. Well done them. I hope it remains.

Today I have been in Belfast. It was hot, and by the time I arrived at the bus station to come back here I was weary. Belfast, I realised today, is a city not designed to give shelter to pedestrians. In warm weather you bake, in wet weather you get soaked.

After a brief visit to the Linen Hall Library – no visit to Belfast is complete unless this is on the itinerary – where I enjoyed two exhibitions, I dropped into tourist information for a free street map. Then across the road to City Hall and beyond, heading for the university quarter, where the Ulster Museum sits in the Botanic Gardens.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 20th July 2021

One of the dogs has lots of stitches, the other has put on so much weight since I was here two years ago she looks like a sideboard. You could lay an array of dishes on her back, it’s now so broad.

It’s Westie Boy who has been in the wars. He feels very sorry for himself, but before you start feeling sorry for him too, it was all his fault. He rushed out of the garden a week ago to assault a large dog he has taken a dislike to and came off worst. Apparently the two dogs have been eyeing each other with some hostility for some time, but usually there’s a barrier between them. Westie Boy can’t currently wear a harness or a collar so no walking for him for the moment.

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