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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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. 

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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.

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