Emma Dove: through the lens and beyond

A person in the American palliative world that I much admire, once told me she never ignored an enquiry from someone who wanted to make a connection with her work. For who knows what may come of it? The approach is one I have tried to emulate over the years, though it seems somewhat at odds with the instrumental ‘work smart’ ethos that pervades so many organisations today and is unsympathetic to serendipity. So when out of the blue I received an email in autumn 2018 from a person interested in a new project I was developing with colleagues in Japan, we arranged to meet at short notice, just before she was due to fly out to Tokyo. The person was Emma Dove. The meeting place was Thomas Tosh, already featured in these interviews.

Over coffee and scones and with my nine year old daughter listening-in attentively, I learned something of Emma’s background, skills and interests. Trained in film and with a strong interest in photography, she had been drawn to a concern with end of life issues as a result of her personal experience. Working on an arts project with collaborators in Scotland and Japan, she was interested in death cafes, cultural representations of dying and death and the ways in which art might contribute to debate and understanding.

I was immediately impressed by her thoughtful approach. There was also a lot of overlap with my own work at the time and with the team of researchers and students we had assembled in the University of Glasgow, under the banner of the End of Life Studies Group, and based in Dumfries. Quite quickly we were in discussions about collaboration.

I introduced Emma to my collaborator in Japan, a Professor of Philosophy in Shizuoka. A week or so later he met with her at a death cafe in Tokyo, and generally made introductions and connections. Soon after her return, Emma filmed the opening of an exhibition by the Scottish artist Norman Gilbert, showing drawings he had made of his wife as she lay dying in hospital and which had been organised by Dr Naomi Richards in our group.

In the months that followed, Emma was filming visiting speakers at the Crichton Campus and then covered an extended workshop with Japanese researchers working with us on our Mitori Project. She also had the inspired idea of holding a special lunch and afternoon event at the Allanton Peace Sanctuary, where we were able to build on its Japanese connections and indeed learn about a Maggie’s inspired cancer support centre in Fuji City, which our team went on to visit when we spent time in Japan the following year.

In short, that coffee in Thomas Tosh led to some very worthwhile activities. I found Emma to be generous with her expertise, even taking time to mentor one of our team in film-making practice. Her editing of lengthy filmed discussions and debates was often inspired. I was so impressed with her approach that as our Japanese project concluded, I was able to give her a creative commission to explore some of the dimensions we had studied, comparing end of life experiences in the UK and Japan. Going beyond the classic academic documentary, she could bring her own perspectives and influences in an experimental work shaped by diverse influences. That film is in the final stages of editing and is eagerly awaited.

So when continuing here my series of interviews with inspiring people living and working in Dumfries and Galloway, Emma was a natural choice. Her responses to my questions are eloquent and reflective. They offer a fascinating insight into the working life and collaborations of a young person following her own creative path.

  1. How did your first come to live in Dumfries and Galloway?

My partner Mark and I moved to Dumfries & Galloway from Glasgow in 2014 to work on a six month artist residency with The Stove in Dumfries. The project was very open in scope, the only stipulations being to engage with the community and to make new work that would be part of the opening of The Stove’s premises at 100 High St. We thought the best way to do both would be to move down. We planned for the move to be temporary, but seven years later we’re still here, so I think we’re staying.

2. What education and training have you had to equip you for your work?

I remember when I was in high school I was fascinated by the ‘behind scenes’ of things. My big sister Sarah worked in theatre at the time and I sometimes visited her backstage at Eden Court in Inverness and watched ballet productions from the wings. I loved seeing the workings of it all – the dancers waiting to perform, the backstage staff cueing up each scene. A few years later, an opportunity arose to work on a film project with mentoring from a local production company in Cromarty on The Black Isle, where I grew up. After that, I decided I wanted to work in film production. I went to Stirling University and studied Film & Media, also taking Psychology as an elective – an interest that has endured and that I think is closely and inevitably tied to filmmaking. I spent six months of my third year on exchange at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, where I took an experimental film course. This really made me think about the tropes and conventions of filmic storytelling, and encouraged me to begin exploring more avant-garde ways of working with sound and image. 

3. How would you describe the work you do?

I’m often working on several projects at once, and I also work part-time as Film Programme Coordinator at CAMPLE LINE – an arts organisation just outside Thornhill. 

All of my work tends to involve an element of collaboration or community engagement (although there are certainly days when it feels like all of my work is just one never ending stream of emails). But working with people is very important to me. It’s always such a privilege to work with and learn from others, and it has allowed me to work on certain projects and travel to certain places that I could never have imagined getting to if just working solo. I also find it more rewarding to develop new work with others – there is an intermingling of different skills, ideas and experiences which I generally find always add up to more than the sum of their parts. 

Research is also important – research in quite a fluid, informal sense. In my role at CAMPLE LINE I am often researching films, thinking about film programmes, and contacting filmmakers and distributors in order to arrange screenings and Q&A events. This time last year – in the great ‘pivot’ to online forms of delivery – much of my time was spent researching various online platforms and thinking about ways that we could continue to connect with our local communities whilst unable to meet in person. 

4.  What are the core interests and values that underpin your work?

I often wonder what connects everything I do, and recently realised that at the core of it all is thinking about representation. This might sound obvious, but you can get so tied up in the details of what you do that sometimes it’s hard to see what ties it all together. But really it all goes back to those days watching from the wings, seeing ‘behind the scenes’ and getting my head around the workings of things. It’s about looking and listening and asking questions. 

When working on my own film projects, that manifests in thinking about how to represent a person, a place, a project, a community – and being aware of the ways in which my own life experiences, personal tastes and the social norms that surround me play into all of that. Film (and media more widely) is all about representation, and I think it’s one of the fundamental ways that our understandings of the world and of one another are communicated and absorbed. The esteemed cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall wrote the “encoding/decoding theory of communication” in 1973, which draws attention to the ways in which media is produced (encoded) and how it is interpreted (decoded). Hall’s theory is all about the ways in which intended meanings and values that are ‘fed in’ by the producer aren’t necessarily the same meanings and values that are ‘taken out’ by the viewer. In short, a film will mean different things to different people depending on their own life experiences, personal politics, ideologies, etc. We each extract meaning in ways that make sense to us.

With my work coordinating film screenings, I spend a lot of time thinking about representations of people, places, and communities which are often not familiar to me personally. In this sense, I’m somewhere in the middle of that encoding/decoding process. I sit between producer and audience. I’m part of the dissemination, and the programming choices that myself and my colleagues make have a bearing on the experiences of our audiences. In this role, it’s important to think about both the encoding and the decoding. What’s being represented here? Whose perspectives are we fore-fronting? Who will it speak to, and in what ways? Are there any barriers to access? Do we need to include any safeguarding measures? Amidst all of this, I suppose a key goal of mine is to share ‘good cinema’ (obviously subjective!) which gives platform to lesser or under-represented people, places, communities, experiences and perspectives. 

5. Which experiences or phenomena have you found particularly inspiring and relevant to your work in recent times?

Over the past few months through my role at CAMPLE LINE we’ve undertaken some mentoring with artist Juliana Capes around audio description for blind and partially sighted audiences. Juliana is very experienced in this field, and takes a personal and creative approach to audio description. She has mentored (via Zoom) three of our Assistants to develop descriptions of their own favourite artworks in our current exhibition, undo the knot by Sara Barker. The process is really about active and attentive looking, and finding language which communicates not just size, shape, form and materials, but also something of the feeling and the essence of a ‘thing’ (in this case an artwork hanging in a gallery). Again, this is very much about communication and personal interpretation. The process is essentially decoding and encoding simultaneously, recreating said ‘thing’ in a new form, using language to draw a map and then fill in the details. I have been blown away by the descriptions that our Assistants have each developed – the whole series is available here.

The process has triggered a lot of thinking around the many ways that we access and participate in the arts, including where there may be barriers, but also the ways in which looking/listening/watching/moving with a different perspective offers up entirely new and rich ways to experience and understand something – be it an artwork, a film, or something else. 

6. You have developed a particular interest in Japan, how did that come about and how has it developed?

This and the following question very much link back to the opportunities that have arisen from working with others! With Japan, in 2017 my partner Mark Lyken (also an artist and filmmaker) was working on a project in Taiwan. As he was already on that side of the world (!), and Japan was a place we had both always wanted to visit, I flew out to Tokyo when his project finished and met him there. It so happened that a curator from the Highlands, Susan Christie, whom both Mark and I had previously worked with on several projects, was also in Japan at the same time, as part of a curatorial research trip with the British Council. We managed to meet up with Susan one afternoon, all a bit incredulous that we’d managed to find ourselves in the same place at the same time on the opposite side of the world than our usual. 

In 2018 and 2019 – knowing I had some prior experience of the country, culture, and navigating my way through Tokyo – Susan invited me to return to Japan with her on two follow up research trips, acting as filmmaker and sound recordist. In particular, we recorded paired conversations between a number of women in Japan, around the themes of motherhood, birth and death, creativity, tradition, feminism and patriarchy. We also recorded paired conversations between women in Scotland, and are currently editing the full set of recordings into a series of short films with accompanying publications. 

7. Likewise Svalbard?

Visiting Svalbard in 2019 was an incredible privilege, which came about through a project developed by Stuart Macpherson, a musician based in Dumfries and Galloway, working with sound recordist Pete Smith and myself. The project is a creative response to the spring migration of the Barnacle geese from the wetlands of the Solway Firth in South West Scotland to the Islands of Svalbard in the Arctic Circle. 

In 2017, Stuart, Pete and I spent time recording the many thousands of Barnacle geese that overwinter at Caerlavarock Wetlands Centre, often filming around dawn when the skies fill up with geese flying inland for the day to feed. In 2018, Stuart spent time himself on the islands of Træna on the northwest coast of Norway, an important stop for the geese as they follow the ‘green wave’ of energy rich spring shoots northwards. Then in July 2019, we all travelled to Svalbard together for a month to record the geese in their summer habitat. 

There’s so much to say about Svalbard. It is at once otherworldly, and also strangely not. We spent much of our time in and around Longyearbyen, the largest settlement on Svalbard (and the world’s northernmost settlement of any kind) – originally a company town built around coal mining, but now mainly driven by tourism and research. As such, there’s a university, hotels, cafes, trendy shops and a swimming pool. There’s even a Thai supermarket. Pair this with 24 hour light and being constantly alert to the possibility of meeting a polar bear, and it makes for quite an eclectic experience. Whist in Svalbard, the geese are mainly land-bound due to their summer moult and raising chicks, so their behaviour is completely different to when they are in Scotland. Much of our recording was done from – or very close to – our hire car, which acted both as polar bear protection and mobile bird hide. We also gradually became nocturnal (albeit in broad daylight), usually working between 10pm and 4am when noise from the town was generally less.

8. Is living in Dumfries and Galloway important to how your work is developing over time?

I suppose place in generally is important to me. I’m interested in how people connect with place. My upbringing on the Black Isle is still significant in that regard too. But something I really value about Dumfries and Galloway is the vibrant creative community that exists here. It’s a network that I feel a part of, and that sense of connectedness is something that I don’t feel I’ve really had on the same level anywhere else. I also very much value the rurality of Dumfries & Galloway. Again, that harks back to my upbringing! But I enjoy being able to live in a wee cottage in the woods but also be in the centre of Glasgow in just over an hour. It’s the best of both worlds. 

9. Could you pick out some examples of your work that you consider especially important to you, and tell us why?

A moving image work that stands out for me is The Terrestrial Sea which I made with my partner Mark in 2014. The film was a companion piece to a suite of sound works that Mark had made in 2012 whilst Artist in Residence at The Lighthouse Field Station in Cromarty. Run by Aberdeen University’s School of Biological Sciences, Ecologists at the field station study the behaviour of marine mammals and seabirds in relation to natural and man-made environmental change. Making The Terrestrial Sea was significant in two ways. Firstly, we were editing moving image to pre-existing sound – the opposite approach to usual film production where sound follows image. And secondly, it created an opportunity to look at the juxtaposition of industry, rural life and nature in the Cromarty Firth – the firth I grew up around – in a completely new way. To really focus on the colours, shapes, textures and movements that were so normal during my upbringing that they had become invisible.

The film gradually layers and blends multiple shots to create a sort of palette of different elements of the environment, slowly but constantly evolving. The work is in some ways also a companion film to an earlier film made my Mark and I called Mirror Lands, which focuses more on local people’s relationships to place. 

Another work that’s been significant more recently in an ongoing photography series, Tending Towards a State of Chemical Equilibrium. In 2015, I lost my sister Katy to cancer. Katy was also an artist, and was a mentor to me in many ways. Around that time, I found I had many questions around the way we handle death in the present day, and spent time researching death customs and rituals across different cultures. When Katy died, I inherited her stills camera and so began to take more still images. I was thinking a lot about transience and change, and wondering how I could capture a sense of this within a single, static image. Experiments using a slow shutter and different techniques around movement led to the development of the photography series, which I continue to add to over time. I find the process mesmerising. It is an interplay between myself, the camera and the environment and I love that I never quite know what image I will capture. It gives me permission to be playful and let go of some control, and is in many ways quite therapeutic. 

10. How might your work develop from here, do you have any particular goals and ambitions you want to pursue, and how might you be able to approach them?

This is a bit of a ‘wood for the trees’ question for me at the moment as I am in the middle of quite a few longer term freelance projects, along with my programming role. For a while I was keen to develop the photography side of my work more, perhaps through some further education. But since working at CAMPLE LINE, I’ve realised how much I love working in the production and dissemination of the arts – supporting other artists to make work, screening films, hosting workshops, developing mentorship opportunities, and working to broaden access to the arts. Working as part of a small team is also really significant for me. I think I will always maintain my own creative projects in one way or another, but perhaps I now see more of a career future in programming and or/working as part of an arts organisation … We shall see!

Connections:

You can contact Emma though her website at: https://www.emmadove.net/ 

A good lunch

The meal had undoubtedly been a pleasure. Five friends gathered together in late Winter for a traditional Sunday meal, accompanied by a first rate Rioja and rounded out by dessert and good coffee. Emerging from the hotel, and with the exception of the driver, they each had the recognizable glow that results when wine and hot food come together in the middle of a cold day.

They were an unlikely quintet, the physician, sociologist, philosopher, anthropologist and surgeon who were now strolling from the hostelry and into the nearby side-streets of a picturesque Scottish fishing town.

‘This place has become such an enclave for well-off retirees from the city’, said the sociologist. ‘They’ve bought up all the period houses, formed their own clubs and societies, grabbed the best moorings in the harbour, and generally made the place their own’.

‘Sounds idyllic’ said the philosopher, who was counting the years to his well-funded retirement from a Norwegian university.

‘But aren’t they eroding the indigenous culture and economy of the place?’ The anthropologist was making a plea to the conscience of the group.

‘Well they do mean work for the likes of us’ said the physician. ‘Plenty of diseases of old age, frailty, and dementia of course’.

‘Yes for me too’ said the surgeon, ‘no shortage of dodgy knees and hip replacements here, to be sure’.

They continued their stroll. The medics a little ahead, deep in conspiratorial shop talk. Those from the pondering sciences bringing up the rear.

Then he appeared, walking towards them on the narrow pavement. Late-sixties, tall and with a bulk that spoke of comfortable means, his longish yellow-grey hair swept back from a prominent forehead. He wore thick corduroys in a faded shade of russet. His brown leather brogues had seen their best days, cracked and worn, but were completely right with the trousers. His old tweed jacket was topped off with a bright silk scarf wrapped several times round his ample neck.

‘You look like you’ve had a good lunch!’ he exclaimed by way of greeting to the sociologist, who it must be said, did look the most post-prandial of the five.

‘We have indeed’, came the reply, ‘and we are now musing on this lovely town and what goes on in it’.

‘Best thing we ever did, moving here’, said the man. ‘Unbelievably favourable property prices. This is my house right here’. He pointed to an exquisitely restored Georgian front door, painted a subtle sage green with cream surrounds. Its shining brass handles and letter box were the epitome of good taste, so too the adjacent fisherman’s lamp.

‘I was glad to get out of the television business and slow down my pace of life. Phoebe feels the same. She was being driven mad running her marketing company, with never a moment to call her own. Now we live differently. Feel part of a community. We all know each other here and the locals couldn’t be nicer’.

‘Where have you been’? asked the philosopher, pointing at the two large hessian bags the man was carrying, one in each hand.

‘Well, we’ve just had a sort of Antiques Roadshow in the village hall. Bring along a few special pieces and see if Prof Millar can tell you their provenance. Not much gets past her. She taught Art History for years at St Andrews’.

‘Sounds like fun’ said the anthropologist. ‘A bit like a Kula ring of ownership that marks out status in the community’.

‘I don’t suppose I’d thought of it that way’ hesitated the man, somewhat puzzled. ‘But I must say, it was great fun’.

‘Do you have other hobbies?’ probed the sociologist?

‘Well yes I do’ came the reply. If you look down this passage here to the harbour, you can see my clinker built Cornish yawl. Twenty seven feet, red sails, and just perfect for conditions in the estuary. I’ve been cleaning her up all Winter and she’ll be back in action within a couple of weeks’.

‘Speaking of action’, said the philosopher, sensing the onset of a long maritime discourse, ‘we’d best be getting on our way. It was really good to meet you’.

‘As it was with you’ said the man, turning back towards his front door, from the road where he stood.

Then came the fateful moment.

Unbalanced by his load, he tripped on the granite edge of the pavement, fell forwards with rapidly increasing velocity, landing literally on his knees, corduroys ripping on impact.

The bags hit the ground just before him.

From the left side came the tinkling of broken glass as it fell from the shattered frame of a painting by one of the lesser known Scottish Colourists, now lying forlorn on the paving stones. On the right, a split second later, came the clunking and cracking of pieces from a nineteenth century Chinese opium jar, as it broke apart inside the bag and fell onto the doorstep.

The three academics shrieked in unison. The man, now in prayer-like posture and facing the portal of his own home, moaned in despair: ‘Pheobe will kill me!’

The medics came charging back, slipping effortlessly into emergency mode. The physician checking for vital signs, uttering reassuring words and looking for a possible medical cause to the fall. Then the surgeon, firmly helping the man to his feet, making sure no bones had been broken.

They had not.

But spewing from each of the two bags was an unlucky dip of shards. Art in pieces. Damage probably irretrievable.

The high spirits of the assembled group were likewise shattered. Making a departure was not going to be easy.

Then a cultural moment occurred to astonish and delight the anthropologist.

Suddenly brightening, raising himself to his full stature, dignity restored, the man put on the bravest of faces. Turning to the quintet, and perhaps sensing the imminent return of Phoebe, he said with a smile: ‘I say, why don’t you all come in for a nice cup of tea?’

I guess you couldn’t make it up. In fact I didn’t.

Caring for children – Lynne Murdoch

Our daughter started sessions in nursery pre-school some years ago. We were lucky at the time to also find a place for her at the childcare service provided by Lynne Murdoch, from her Nithsdale home, in the village of Thornhill. Over the years Lynne’s team has been a great resource for our family – providing support when needed either before or after school, during the school holidays, and even occasionally at weekends.

In all this time I have found Lynne to be consistently cheerful, welcoming with a ready smile, and always with a kind word at the end of the day. Her approach is flexible and she is endlessly inventive in finding ways to accommodate special requests, changes to plans, or a sudden need for her help that may crop up unexpectedly. She has succeeded in creating a safe and loving environment where over the years, so many children have spent some part of their formative young lives. She also has the uncanny knack of making every parent feel their child is special to her. Lynne’s is a vital service to parents and an important contribution to a local community, one that she knows and understands so well.

For all these reasons, I wanted to include Lynne Murdoch in this series about inspiring people in Dumfries and Galloway who make a difference to our daily lives. I do hope you enjoy reading her interview.

1. Where did you grow up and go to school and when did you start to think of childcare as a career?

I was born and grew up in the countryside of Upper Nithsdale and lived there for the first twelve years of my life, before we moved closer to the village of Sanquhar, where my parents bought the local filling station and decided to convert the workshop into a tearoom. I attended Sanquhar Primary then went on to the Academy. It was at the Academy that I decided I wanted to work with children.

When we moved closer to the village, there were families nearby who were looking for a parent’s helper. I started working for them in the school holidays and at weekends. By the age of 14, I was cycling three miles in the mornings along the back roads, heading off to entertain children, go out for walks, and help out whilst their mums did the food shopping. I would take children to the cinema and go on picnics. The list goes on.

2. What attracted you to the care of children as a career? 

My love of childcare grew from these experiences and when I was old enough, I started babysitting for the local doctor and a few farmers’ families too. On leaving school, I went to College to do my National Certificate in Childcare and Education, before becoming a nanny to gain experience and to further my childcare career. The demand was high in my area and as it’s a small community the parents knew each other so we could work out together what days I worked for which families, sometimes looking after more than one family at once.

Continuing with my childcare education, I went on to complete my Higher National Certificate in Childcare and Education, by attending evening classes. 

In 2003 I decided to travel to Australia and find work there, but city life wasn’t for me, so I returned a short time later and became a supply Nursery Nurse for both Ayrshire and Dumfriesshire councils. I gained great experience by doing this, but as there were no permanent jobs, I decided I could try to do something similar on my own.

3. When did you start up your own business, what was the set up to begin with and how did it change over time?

In 2005 I decided to take the plunge and start up my own business. Doing a lot of research, I realised Sanquhar wasn’t in the right place to do this, so I decided to move down to Thornhill and start childminding there. What would I call my business? As I have always had a love for Winnie the Pooh, what better name but ‘Tiggerific Childcare’? In April 2006 I opened the doors to six children, and I have never looked back. I rented a house for the first year to see how things would go, then I bought my own house, and my business has grown and grown.

In 2009 I married my husband Ross and I also took on an assistant and increased my numbers. In 2010 Ross and I had our first child, Mia, so in 2011 we moved to a bigger house and took on another assistant. In 2013 we completed our family by having Jack.

4. Tell me how you came up with the idea of expanding your service to include before and after school care? What was involved in setting it up and who chose the name?

Due to the ongoing demand for before and after school care, I looked into premises to cater for this whilst I grew my childminding business for pre-school.

In 2015 I secured premises at the local school, sent out leaflets to the parents and got the children involved by running a competition on what to call the before and after school club and what logo to have. 

The winner was WHASCALS – Wallace Hall After School Club Active Loving Service. It is a Community Interest Company (CIC). A pupil at the Academy designed a logo for us too.

5. How did things develop from there?

I now had two childcare businesses. To keep in line with the Care Inspectorate, I had to go to University to do my BA Childhood Practice. For WHASCALS I took on four members of staff, two covering the morning shift and two, sometimes three, covering the evenings.

6. How have the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 affected your work? Have you been able to adapt to the changed situation?

The first lockdown affected WHASCALS really badly as we had to close completely. Unfortunately as some parents were still working, they had to look elsewhere for childcare, By August 2020, when WHASCALS could re-open, the demand wasn’t there for us and I lost some staff too. So rather than shut down the service completely I have at present become inactive, so if the demand rises and appropriate premises are found, I can reopen.

Tiggerific was allowed to remain open for the children of key workers. I managed to keep busy, but have had to spend a lot of money to cover extra  restrictions and requirements that have been put in place. I also lost a few families earlier than planned, when the nursery reopened and a few children moved to funded sessions, During the second lockdown WHASCALS remained closed, but Tiggerific was open as normal.

7. What are the most satisfying aspects of providing a childcare service?

My most satisfying experience has to be seeing each child grow as an individual into their own little person. I also like being seen as part of the family and not just a childcare provider. Looking after children for 26+ years I have became part of the lives of some of the families. At my wedding I had two of the girls I used to nanny as my bridesmaids, Judi and Kathryn, and also one of the boys, Callum, played the pipes at my wedding,  After Mia and Jack were born, Judi started babysitting for them, so the roles were reversed, Judi then came to work for me and start her qualification in childcare, before moving on to Germany to further her career there.

8. How would you like your work and the service you provide to develop in the future? 

My dream in the future would be to have my own business in its own premises, providing childcare from birth upwards. I can but dream!

Contact: If you wish to get in touch with Lynne Murdoch about the childcare services she provides, feel free to call: 07740 359038.

The Transporter

Sean was always caught on the ebb tide. Here he was now, barrelling across the grammar school quadrangle with his characteristic rolling but sad gait. A shock of red hair falling down in a long spiky fringe concealing his sorrowful brown eyes and pale, pensive face. 

I caught up with him just as we entered the physics lab. We sat together on tall stools along the fourth bench from the front. The seating arrangement made it easy to leave a sizable gap without being unkind. This was 1965, long before social distancing, but it was prudent, nonetheless. 

Sean smelled. Today his once white shirt looked particularly unwholesome, the collar blackened and greasy. Seen from the side, his ‘tide mark’ was clearly visible – that margin where the damp flannel had reached its limited extent, leaving the ears and neck untouched and uniformly grey. His teeth were strangers to a brush. The ensuing odour was both sharp and leaden. Acidic top notes above a basso profundo of staleness exuding from a body uncared for, even at the age of twelve.

Sean played rugby a bit. Not much speed, but the barrelling gait made him hard to tackle. As did his appearance. After the match and however muddy the conditions, he was the only one of us not to shower, dressing quickly over his sports kit, shuffling out of the changing room as soon as he could, and leaving with no goodbyes. He seemed indifferent to victory or defeat. 

I hardly knew him. Nor did I have the vocabulary then to even speculate on the circumstances of his life. Now, waiting for the physics teacher to arrive, Sean pushed a grubby newspaper-cutting over to me. Just a few column inches. What’s this Sean, I asked? Loves and Hates of Sonny and Cher, he replied.

Four years later he left school to find a job. His appearance was no barrier to work as an apprentice mechanic in a back street garage. He was quiet in the break times, never rising to his workmates’ banter, shielded by the art of distance he’d developed at school. But then he began to arrive late in the mornings or didn’t turn up at all. Soon he found himself out of the door. 

The pattern was quickly established. A self-perpetuating back and forth between the dole office and some dead-end job or other. By the time I was preparing for university, Sean was on his umpteenth work ‘trial’. He rarely made it through to Friday. 

But he had his regular drinking haunts, pubs at the edge of the town centre, or on the corners of streets that sloped towards the river. Here no one showed much interest in the obviously underage lad sitting alone in a quiet corner, leafing through that week’s Melody Maker, or the Evening Gazette left behind by some other regular. Occasionally I joined him there and we talked about local bands that were teetering on the edge of success.

The pubs had exotic names: the Baltic Tavern, the Lord Raglan, the Fleece. Here he took to swallowing draughts of black porter, chased down when he could afford it with doubles of Johnny Walker red label. Combined with intermittent and then regular smoking, his appetite diminished. 

When his parents turned him out, he found a room to let in a boarding house mainly occupied by workers from Ireland and groups of Bengalis seeking work. Everyone had some kind of story to tell, but Sean was mostly silent. 

There he was, slipping between the cracks in the flagstones of his own home town. If they hadn’t left for elsewhere, his old classmates looked on in dismay. By the age of twenty-one he was a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

One time he caught the bus to what in our town passed for the leafy suburbs, near the old school. Spent the evening drinking in the public bar where’d he consumed his first pint. When the landlord called closing time, Sean remembered the nearby chip shop and decided on a ten penny bag with scraps. He’d eaten nothing all day. 

By the time the last bus for town arrived he was feeling muzzy. Lurching to the rear seat, he slumped in the corner, just by the heater. The warmth and the motion promptly sent him to sleep. 

Next the driver was waking him. You’re at the terminus son, you’ll have to get out here. Without protest Sean stepped down onto the cinder path and the bus pulled away.

Turning, he saw the Transporter Bridge, lit up by the riverboat lights. That complex piece of engineering, high enough to let ships pass beneath a massive beam, which also supported a gondola carrying cars and lorries across the Tees, just above water level. It was closed for the night.

But he remembered from a school trip, the service walkway for maintenance. You could climb to the upper level, cross the river on the left gangway, reach the north bank, and return on the right, back to the south bank. Crossing and re-crossing county lines in the process. 

Sean fetched up at the pedestrian gate. God knows why, but it was open. Then the perilous climb up towards the walkway, feet slipping on the metal steps. At the top, his rolling gait was exaggerated by alcohol and the stiff breeze. But the handrails on each side were keeping him enclosed. In the distance the chemical works belched out malodorous, multi-coloured fumes. The river, some 200 feet below, a diurnal, stomach-heaving sewer. 

He crossed over to the opposite walkway, facing the town he’d lived in all his short life. What have you bloody well given me he murmured? Sean – the grammar school boy – already washed up and wasted. Abandoned by family, connected to a few friends by a fraying thread. Each clouded morning, calculating the time to his first drink. Unemployable. 

At this moment he felt an invisible hand pressing the small of his back. He looked downstream. The tide was ebbing fast. So was he. If he leaned over now he’d be dead and half-way to Holland by morning. The hand relaxed its pressure. Other fingers seemed to grip his right shoulder, turning him towards the town. The moment dissolved like an Alka-Seltzer, suddenly clearing his head.

Now he clenched both handrails and resolutely pulled himself forward with a new strength. Despite it all, Sean was high on The Transporter – and heading for home.

How do I know all this? You may well ask. Well, it’s because I made it up. In fact the truth is much worse than my story.


Author’s note: I’m grateful to two friends (SS and MB) for their encouragement with this piece, and for their perceptive comments.

Introducing a journal of April 2020

An intermittent diarist throughout most of my life, I began keeping a journal from the start of the March 2020 Coronavirus lockdown. Like many others, I sensed the important intersection that was about to take place between what the American sociologist C Wright Mills called ‘private troubles and public issues’. I maintained my journal until mid-August. Then, as on past occasions, it gradually petered out, perhaps this time due to the (false) sense of relief that was by then beginning to wash over us.

The month of April was perhaps the most intensive writing period for the journal. As the pandemic unfolded, I found myself grappling to keep up with developments in my professional field of end of life care and in my wider understanding of the forces at work in the spread of COVID-19.

I was also trying to make sense of the significant changes taking place in our quotidian lives, interested in the commentaries that were starting to emerge on these, and intrigued by all the talk of the ‘new normal’.

At the same time I was working at home, doing my best with home-schooling and trying to support my wife, who was going to work as a doctor in the local NHS every day, and unequivocally ‘on the front line’.

Re-reading my journal, some of it already feels like a glimpse into another world, one where we grappled to come to grips with the virus and its deadly and multifarious consequences.

In reproducing some of my journal writings for a wider audience, I have decided to focus just on the 30 days of April, famously described by TS Eliot in The Waste Land as ‘the cruellest month’. April 2020 remains the only calendar month in which the whole of the (dis)United Kingdom was under an otherwise uniform set of restrictions. It was also the month in which the COVID-19 figures ‘peaked’ in what we later called the ‘first wave’. It was spring time, beautiful weather and yet a dark and frightening time.

In recent days there has been much reflection on the start of the lockdown, our experiences then and how we filter, make sense of and interpret things now. I think my journal offers something different. It is a contemporaneous account, untinged by hindsight.

But let me be clear on my method. Each day I wrote, sometimes at length, on things I had observed that day. Later, I confess, I did elaborate these entries, but in every case this was only with sources and information that were available on the day in question (though at the time I may have been unaware of them). I hope the result makes for interesting reading. It shows something of my own rural living in a single month, observations of my garden and the nature around me, combined with a measure of wider analysis and in some instances with personal memoir concerning earlier periods in my life.

The diary is in effect a short book and as such I must record some thanks to others who supported its compilation. To my immediate family, who lived through and indulged my diarising preoccupations. To Erin Craighead and Anthony Bell, who helped to collect and collate additional source material. To my (now former) colleagues at the University of Glasgow, who encouraged the idea. To Atlas Pandemica, for allowing my boat to draw alongside their ship.

Starting on 1st April 2021, I will publish each day my diary entry for that day in 2020. I invite people to read these entries and in doing so to reflect on their own lives on the corresponding day, one year before. In this manner I hope that an invisible thread of reflection and collective memory may be created by the inter-twining of our diverse experience. I recognise that such an exercise may bring pain to some people who re-visit illness, loss and bereavement. I hope it may also bring joy and insight, born from something gained in those extraordinary days when, as Zadie Smith observed ‘an unprecedented April arrives and makes a nonsense every line’.*

You can find the journal on one single page of this site Because of this there will be no notifications about it for existing followers, but I will issue a daily tweet as a nudge.

* Zadie Smith  (2020) ‘Peonies’, in Intimations. Penguin Random House UK, p8

The unfolding story of Thomas Tosh

For over a decade the village of Thornhill in Nithsdale has been blessed with one of the best attractions in south west Scotland. Cafe, gallery, bookstore and purveyor of all manner of household and personal indulgences, Thomas Tosh has become an institution – in the very best sense. It is the inspiration of David Cripps and Paul O’Keeffe, who have kindly agreed to tell their story here.

Thomas Tosh has been woven into the fabric of my own life over the last dozen years. Enigmatically named and hidden up a side street, for me and my family, as these pictures show, it has been all of the following things, and much more.

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Down where the drumlins roll

In the early summer of 1969 and as soon as the dust had settled on my O level exams, I hitch-hiked out from my home in North Yorkshire and headed for Galloway. Unlike Richard Hannay,  the fugitive hero of John Buchan’s Thirty-Nine Steps, I was not using this corner of south west Scotland to hide from pursuers, but instead going there to observe at first hand its distinctive topography.

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Perception’s gaze- Dr David Borthwick

I know Dave Borthwick almost entirely in a professional capacity. I have never shared a meal with him or even a coffee, other than in a meeting of some kind. Most of our conversations, warm and mutually respectful in character, have been rather brief, scattered among the ‘quotidian duties’ of the workplace.

We first met in the autumn of 2009, when I moved from Lancaster to the University of Glasgow, Dumfries Campus. Over the intervening years, albeit in episodic fragments, I have learned a great deal from him about the field in which he specialises: the intersections of literary writing, landscape, observations of nature, and connections to place.

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The potter’s realm – Clare Dawdry

I first got to know Clare and Simon Dawdry when as a family we attended a pottery workshop for children they organised in the Gracefield Arts Centre in Dumfries. I think it must have been around 2007. Their friendliness and enthusiasms were palpable, as was their love of clay.

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Aspects of daily life


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. 

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