Clach air a' chàirn

Isolation. Self-isolation. The latter suggests that the former can be with others. Monks in a monastery may be said to be in isolation. Prisoners in a prison may be said to be in isolation. But self-isolation is a more solitary confinement. In my confinement — self-isolating during Lockdown, due to being in the “shielding” category — I find myself getting emotional but with no way of manifesting that emotion: it is, after all, only for myself and I already know that I am alone here. To escape the isolation, I go for socially distanced walks which take me to Airthrey Avenue where I can look, in one direction, towards the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, though I don’t often look that way, or in another direction towards Dungoyne, where I ought to be walking with my friend Alan. In the evening I see the occasional fox; in the daytime, the chalk archaeology of the street gives instructions on how to keep moving forwards: dino-steps; jump like a kangaroo; if you hate Lockdown, place a stone here; take a selfie! If I think no-one is watching, I jump like a kangaroo. Once, a ginger cat caught me and looked at me in disgust. I walked off, head bowed, ashamed, watched by bears in upstairs windows. At moments like this, shame is appropriate; since it is the failure to transcend the human, to be caught in our animal state (in this case, jumping like a kangaroo). Our physicality, some believe, is something to be ashamed of; it being the very thing that results in weakness and death. Had I transformed into a non-corporeal spirit all would be well. But I and the cat know the truth.

While I have a body, it seems sensible to keep it in some kind of order. To keep it ticking over. So I walk. And I wonder how long it will be until I can walk in the hills again; how long will it be until distant Dungoyne is beside me, just off the track to my right as I walk towards Killearn or Drymen. Ian and I walked here once and visited the stone circle and Ian lost his new jumper amongst the birch saplings. Alan and I have passed this way often and when you come off of the Bearsden Road and walk up to the iron gate and the line of trees and look down to Dungoyach and the hills around Loch Lomond: it’s one of my favourite spots in the whole world! Nostalgia. A colleague wrote on social media: “Why do you think we are all becoming so nostalgic lately?” To which I replied (in a paraphrase of Fred Davis’s summation): when we feel our lives are in danger of discontinuation, we take flight into the past. Continuity. Discontinuity. Unable to plan ahead with any certainty, we plan ahead with uncertainty; we dwell upon how things were, in the hope that they may be so again. And from Airthrey Avenue, I lift my head from shame and look out to Dungoyne — my talisman (from Arabic tilsam, pl. tilsaman, reminding me of Swedish tillsammans, together). But when? How long will I have to nourish myself on the past?

There are those — the elderly, for example — who have only the past to nourish themselves, since they can no longer plan physical activities of this sort, can no longer plan for new excursions that will provide fresh food for the mind. I met my partner’s grandmother once, some years ago now, in the little village in Germany where she lived (not a stone’s throw from the Messel shale). She talked of Frankfurt am Main before the war — before it was Mainhattan — of riding the trams, the numbers of which she could recall still, as well as the exact route, obliterated under 12, 197 tons of explosives, between October 1943 and March 1944. In her memories she could ride the tram through a city that no longer existed as it once had when she was young: the 12 or the 34 would take you along Bockenheimer Landstrasse, if you wanted to stop at Café Laumer, but you’d have to change at Alte Oper if you were going to the Hauptbahnhof. Not so long ago, I used to meet my father in the Ingram Bar in Glasgow every Friday night, where we would talk about the past: his past. He told me of the Dorcasia, the ship he served on in the 1950s, travelling up the Hooghly to Budge Budge. He talked of buying Nehru’s The Discovery of India from a book vendor in Bombay Central Station. He told me of a warm night in Venezuela watching butterflies flicker across a projection of Lita Milan in The Left Handed Gun, cast on the Dorcasia’s hull. Nostalgia brings us together.

Nostalgia can be a kind of story-telling: the tale retold can be remade, over and over, so long as it holds onto something of its original shape. I wrote poems for a while, based on these stories, until I started to wonder whether I had a right to them, whether they were true or not; the truth seems to matter more in poetry than it does in other forms of creative writing (though a poet friend recently confessed to me that he’d had two sons who died in verse only — for me, that’s bending the truth too far). Some stories are hand-me-downs; they come down to us like a used coat that we can put on and pretend is our own. You can be ashamed of an old coat. And one of the consequences of shame is a desire to hide from the gaze of others. Who owns our stories? If we tell them publicly are they public property? Certainly, once public, they become contested. "That’s not how I remember it! No, no — it wasn’t like that at all. Here’s what really happened." And on and on it goes. And all the while, I walk up to Airthrey Avenue and look over to Dungoyne and hope that I’ll have something new to pad out the present. Until then, I’ll put a little stone on the Lockdown cairn; not a rememberance, as implied in the Gaelic “clach air a’ chàirn” (an idiom literally translating as a stone on the cairn but meaning to add your story to someone’s memory), but in compliance with the instructions: “If you hate Lockdown, place a stone here.”

Written by Gregor Addison