Entering the quotidian world

Many years ago I came across a photogravure by the French-domiciled Syrian artist Ghayath Al-Akhras. The image was entitled Passage Quotidien. Structured in descending bands of sepia, from light to dark, it depicted a simple scene on a flat-roofed house, where some family members were handing jugs of water from one to the other as they tended to a group of large potted plants. At the time I had to look up the meaning of ‘quotidien’. I immediately warmed to the picture’s notion of daily life as a form of passage or journey – taking us through one state or task to another in ways that could enhance the meaning of each. 

Decades later I was in conversation with Professor Muiris Fitzgerald, Dean of Medicine at University College, Dublin and ventured to ask about the composition of his role. He briefly emphasised the relatively rare ‘big picture’ activities, in which he got involved from time to time, and then quickly went on to  expand in detail on the ‘quotidian duties and tasks’ that took up most of his day. To my surprise he seemed to bring out a special sense of reward in dealing with these and in contributing to their successful accomplishment. His elegant use of the word quotidian stayed with me and somehow invested the everyday with a deep sense of value, lifting daily occurrences from the mundane or routine, irritating or irksome even, to a higher level of significance. 

The pandemic-induced lockdowns of 2020-21 foster and shape this sense of the quotidian. I note many commentators, friends, colleagues and family members who have thought more deeply about previously taken for granted – or sometimes neglected – daily routines. For those with the resources, this has meant such things as more reading, regular and longer walks, slower cooking and a renewed interest in the vegetable patch. Old musical instruments have come out of the attic, virtual choirs have been joined, sketch-pads have been acquired. Daily routines have been shared on social media, often with detailed photographs. There will no doubt be many a Shepherd’s Calendar to emerge from 2020 – the year that slowed down and opened our eyes just a little wider.

BBC Radio 4 has been broadcasting ‘moments of light’ in which people celebrate quotidian pleasures such as hanging out the washing, lashing butter onto hot crumpets, or indulging in the back catalogue of some long-running TV series. But this trope has not met with universal acclaim. Annoyed  by such apparent trivia, Rob Delaney delivered a moving account of the death of his son, and the boy’s continued presence in the daily life of his family. His moment of light had begun with contemplation of his own mortality.

We cannot ignore the dark side of the quotidian. For those whose home is a place of fear and cruelty, the pandemic has brought extra suffering. One woman I read about remembered her abusive husband’s chilling remark on hearing news of the first lockdown: ‘now the games begin’. For others, daily life in these times has been about isolation, loneliness and a creeping ‘social death’ wherein one’s own life becomes less and less relevant to others. For many sick or dying with Covid, separation from loved ones, fear, distress have all exacerbated its terrible physical symptoms, turning daily life into a nightmare.

The paradox – and heartbreak – of lockdown lies in these positive and negative dimensions. Both require our attention. 

But I do take heart from the idea that our ways of viewing things have been enhanced in the confines of the pandemic. I recall last spring thinking that there were so many more birds in my garden than ever before. Then I understood that I was simply looking at avian life more closely. I was beginning to engage in new ways of seeing, to take a phrase from John Berger. Nothing had actively prevented this more intense gaze in the past, yet now it came at the intersections of confinement, public debate about COVID-19, and a growing moral imperative to be more grateful for what you’ve got. 

It is these engagements with daily life and simple activities and how they can be shaped and understood by external circumstances that I want to explore on this site. There will be some global as well as local dimensions to the reflections, stories and memories I conjure up, as well as profiles on people I know and find inspiring.

I had a close encounter with the quotidian very recently in watching Sharon Lockhart’s film Double Tide, screened by the excellent Cample Line arts organisation, that is based near me in Nithsdale. The film comprises two sequences, each of about 45 minutes, taken from a static camera, in which we see clam picker Jen Casad going about her work somewhere in the mudflats of the Maine coast. The first sequence is at dawn, the second at dusk. The ‘double tide’ here is when the water is at it lowest ebb twice during one period of daylight. So it’s a propitious time for the picker whose work patterns are heavily regulated by tidal conditions. The rythm and physicality of Jen’s back-breaking labour is mesmerising and inspirational as she works random areas of mud with her sledge and basket, her hand expertly retrieving shellfish, each time with a noise that defies onomatopoeia. The film maker and picker seem to turn what might appear as quotidian toil into something balletic.

Should we be preoccupied with the quotidian in this way? I confess that for much of my life I have not been. Day to day concerns have often seemed like barriers to more important issues – political  crises, humanitarian disasters, structural determinants of health, wealth and poverty. Surely these – and many other such ‘public issues’  – need more of our attention? On the other hand daily practices, routines, associated beliefs and values make up the DNA of a culture. Perhaps their genomic sequences can reveal far more than we see on the surface, in ways that may be deeply consequential?

My starting point is that the quotidian belongs to us all, and through it we make and re-make ourselves. It is part of the very process that makes us human. 

Walking downstream

At my home in Dumfriesshire, I am fortunate to have a garden that is largely bounded by water. Below our house, a span of the Pennyland Burn sweeps round from a rocky outcrop to form a beautiful arc that straightens out just as it hits an ancient weir, where the water level drops a couple of metres. The sound of the burn is a constant accompaniment to our daily lives, from the lightest of tinkling when the water is lowest, to an urgent roar in times of heavy rain.

The name of the burn is caught in a linguistic tussle between Norse, Gallic and Brythonic influences. North and West from here the ‘pennyland’ was a unit of land measurement, comprising one twentieth of a ‘dhabhach’. But stretching up from Brittany, the commonly seen ‘pen y lan’ place name seems to denote the head or top of an enclosed piece of land, even a churchyard. I rather like the lilt of this old Welsh form, which is also found today in the name of a leafy suburb of Cardiff. At any rate it’s special to have a burn with such an evocative name, right at our doorstep.

On Saturday 9th May 2020, about 4pm, our other daily tasks and preoccupations complete, my 11 year old daughter and me set off for a Pennyland burn-walk. We clutch newly cut staves, the product of some recent hefty arboreal pruning. There is no drive or ‘walk in’ to the starting point for our trek. We simply circle round the back of the house, past some fruit trees that cling to the bank side and reach the water’s edge, just where the weir spills down to a shady pool below. The pool is fringed with ferns, acid green, their fiddle heads newly uncurled. It is over-looked by an old beech tree that holds perilously to the rocky far bank, the light through its leaves making blotchy freckles on our faces. On this side of the water is the huge stump of a six trunked alder that crashed to the ground in 2016, and is still keeping us in firewood.

Here we scramble down a narrow goit, fashioned at the side of the waterfall, where sea trout and salmon can be seen running in the spates of late October, if you are patient enough to watch for them. Today we are untroubled by the few inches of water that flow idly down the channel, which we descend sure-foot to the lower level of the burn.

Then we step into the current itself, my daughter in front, testing out her footholds. We are immediately in a dappled green and silvan gorge, that cannot be seen from the house or garden. It is steep-sided and swathed with bluebells rooted into leafy holes in the basalt. In the water there are scatterings of dressed sandstone pieces, that have washed off the top of the weir over the years. Covered in moss they bring a curated Japanese garden influence to an otherwise untended stretch of water.

Now we tilt, balance, wobble and slither through the gurgling ripples, finding footholds between stones or on small gravelly banks. Soon we pass an old sawmill on our right. It towers up from the water’s edge like some medieval edifice. The burn-facing wall contains some wonderful old red sandstone blocks, likely from the Locharbriggs quarry, about three miles away. Inexplicably they form the bottom left corner of the front wall, the rest of which is composed of our local rubbly whin stone. There are small glass-less window spaces, looking remarkably like vantage points for some defending archer. But no arrows are fired and we continue on, albeit without looking back.

We pass deep pools under rocky outcrops where small trout dart for cover, leaving just enough time for me to spot them in my peripheral vision. Then we come across a curious batch of pheasant eggs that inexplicably have found their way into the water, on a makeshift raft of long grass. A handsome dipper swoops past us before looping round at a bend in the burn and heading back upstream, its bright white bib sharp against the green bank-sides.

Fallen branches tangle up the burn and we need to briefly portage before regaining the river bed. We help each other across fallen tree trunks, and hold aside branches that cross our way. I have an intense feeling of companionship. Then we arrive at a metal bridge with paths leading off on both sides of the burn. We pause at the limits of our descent and my daughter wanders over to a stand of beeches, scoping out a spot where we start building a den a few days later.

I never had such a burn walk with my own father. Yet for a few moments, as I’m left alone, I am an 11 year old boy. The same age as my daughter today. It is 1964, back where I grew up in the town of Thornaby on Tees, and I am making my way along the road past the pleasure gardens, up the hill to the cemetery and then dropping down into a broad valley into an area known as Mandale Bottoms. With my pals, I am on the way to Flig Beck.

Where ‘Flig’ came from I do not know. Its Sunday name was Stainsby Beck, telling us something about the Viking influences in this part of North Yorkshire. Names suffixed in ‘by’ originate in the Danelaw, of which this area is a part. Whilst a variant of ‘Beck’ still describes a small stream in modern Norway (bekk) and Denmark (baek).

Whichever name we choose, as the water stretches downstream, it becomes The Fleet and then eventually disappears underground into the now hidden course of the old river Tees. It was here in 1810 that work began for a second time to join up the narrow section of an ox bow, to make the river more navigable, cutting out a diversionary loop that was prone to silting. Trade and commerce were already making heavy inroads into the land and waters here, and changing them forever.

By the time of my childhood, the local landscape was unequivocally and heavily industrial. ‘Post industrial’ was not far round the corner, but back then booming chemical and steelworks operated day and night. They pulsed out all manner of abominations, or what the local folk singer Vin Garbutt, more kindly called ‘synthetic hues’. We didn’t think much about their harms. Indeed my dad was fond of taking visitors to see our local variant of the arora borealis. It appeared most evenings, spewing out from the chimneys of ICI.

But the Flig Beck water was clean and we went there to catch minnows and sticklebacks. None of us owned a fishing rod. Had we done so, we would not have taken one there. The risk of It being prised from us by some older boy was too great. We made do instead with a stick, nylon line and an improvised float for the minnows. We ignored the sticklebacks: they were for little kids with jam jars and fishing nets.

The beck side was sometimes mired with canine ordure, cigarette stubs, empty beer bottles and sheets of yellowing newspaper. In the scruffy hawthorns, small clearings could be found, occasionally littered with the intriguing desiderata of lovers’ trysts, which stirred our pre-teen imaginations. It was a magnet for the likes of us. Now on the banks of a Dumfriesshire burn, I recall that boy of half a century ago. I remember too the times that followed, when I pushed upstream, escaping the industrial desolation and disjointedness that lay behind me in the valley of Tees. Later I navigated other watercourses, pursuing an academic career that on occasions had me negotiating tricky cross currents and choppy water.

But now, back in the gentle headwaters of the Pennyland Burn in May 2020, all that is behind me. The current is at my back and at least for a while I can venture downstream knowing I have the strength to turn around and return. If you stand by the broken weir, and if you have the patience to wait, you might just see me – heading home.