Friday, July 10, 2020

the new etiquette is just the ticket

The word etiquette comes from the French royal court, where it referred to small notes offering tips on good manners. Imagine something between a calling card and a speeding ticket.

Recently I've been experimenting with some poem mottos that might help communicate safer behaviour, as part of a research group Paths for All are involved in, devising guidance and advice on how we can adapt to public transport and travel in the midst of a pandemic. 

A poet isn't always good at expressing the clearest meanings, but they can sometimes find a phrase that is nuanced enough to suggest ways of behaving, without seeming judgemental – not that there aren't a lot of judgemental poets about these days! 

Coronavirus has left me unable to walk more than 150m and the nearest bus stop to my house is 250m away, just around the corner from my road. This has meant that the daily world of commutes and trips feels distant, so these poems weren't easy to write from personal experience. Most came from reading articles on changes in behaviour and suggested guidance on how to help people adapt, without adding to the inevitable anxiety we all feel. 

Many disabilities are hidden. And we all know that viruses are. That's why we have to look after one another.

See if you can compose some mottos yourself.



keep a little distance

as a kindness





imagine there’s a walking

stick sized-gap between us

that will help us





a wee bow to say hello

is kinder than sharing germs





etiquette used to 

mean a card 

of reminders

for good manners

now it translates

as shared respect





north or south

cover your nose 

& mouth


east or west

staying at home

is best





we’ve to do our best

it’s not a test





cover your moth

open your ears


cover your nose

smile with your eyes





take a step back

let the problem pass





a tissue for 






kindness given

will come back to us





catch a cough

in the crook

of your elbow –

keep your hands

for other things



Wednesday, July 1, 2020

crossword drawings

While I've been unable to walk, as a result of the impact of coronavirus, one of the ways I have been making art is these crossword drawings. They are available for sale priced £30 each.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

I am protecting myself, but I don't feel protected

No-one knew the communities that coronavirus would affect worst, except that, in a way, we all did. We always do: those in poverty, the chronically ill, those individuals and communities that suffer stress caused by mental violence, anxiety, and trauma. As March passed into April the wartime poster mood of “we’re all in this together” morphed into telling graphs and photos of the deceased, many in blue uniforms. Now anyone who watches the news knows that the worst affected are, in broad brushstrokes: older people, especially men, BAME people, those who work on the frontline of care and provision, and, in terms of lockdown, victims of domestic violence. 

What struck me over recent weeks is the erasure of the experience of those at high risk, including the disabled, most of whom have been sheltering at home for months. The seeming reassurance of the term “high risk”, which was bandied about in the early stages, is, in reality a confused term, interpreted differently by government, health service, and supermarkets. Many people found themselves outwith that circle of care. They have crafted survival plans and depended on the kindness of others. Finding themselves in a corridor of uncertainty, unable to manage as they did, unsafe to go out, finding queues impossible, worried about deliveries, terrified of the risk hospital would expose them to, unrecognised in terms of need. Their experience is summed up in this quote, ‘I am protecting myself, but I don't feel protected’, from a report published by the Chronic Illness Inclusion Project.

I think especially of those with auto-immune system conditions, like a young woman I know, Catherine, who had to turn away her carers in March. She has been managing a severe condition alone. Catherine is a victim of the crisis, but also a resource as, over years of illness, she’s learnt resilience, using poetry and imagination as ways to imagine the ordinary world outside her door, visualising a walk each day.


It is a difficult truth that not every community can overturn statues. The good and bad versions of anger that flooded out onto the streets in recent days should not blind us to those who remain isolated indoors. If we’re serious about making a new world then we need to learn more than one lesson at a time. We need recuperative forms of imagination.


As the first wave of the virus stretched out its long chain, there were a trickle of stories about people who weren’t going to die but weren’t recovering either. Some were ill for weeks, some have now been ill for months, stuck in a limbo of breathlessness, muscle ache, and fatigue. 

A helpful account of long-term coronavirus was published by a professor of infectious diseases and picked up by the national media. At one point the professor sought to distinguish the nature of his own lingering condition from any “kind of post-viral syndrome”. I had to read that phrase over again. Then it sunk in: we’re still playing that game. As if one illness is somehow more real, and therefore more worthy of sympathy, or treatment, or funding, than another? The professor said people ‘need help to understand and cope with the constantly shifting, bizarre symptoms, and their unpredictable course…’ These are experiences that many of his patients with chronic illness could have helped him adjust to, because they’ve lived them for years. I hope the professor recovers and gets back to work, where he may listen to his patients a little differently. What we need now are patient-led models of recovery and resilience, for everyone who experiences long-term impacts.

There are only so many ways in which the human body can be ill and the experience of illness is only new to those who haven’t been seriously ill before. People with the virus talk about an early period of recovery, followed by relapses. Advice seeped out, to lie on your tummy and allow your body to breath and void the toxic phlegm from their lungs. For those caught in a feedback loop beyond the initial virus there has also been a lack of advice. 

Speak confidentially to researchers into ME/CFS and they expect thousands of new cases of the disease to emerge in the wake of the virus. People with ME were mostly triggered by a virus, for instance, glandular fever. In an era of auto-immune system illnesses medical science may devise a new post-covid acronym and thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of lives will be affected. With a grim optimism, researchers hope that this new cohort will finally unlock funding for biomedical research. 


Studies suggest that after SARS 40% of survivors experienced symptoms of chronic fatigue and a quarter of cases developed long-term ME/CFS. British clinicians currently expect a third of people who survive coronavirus will experience some degree of post-viral syndrome. This is rarely mentioned in reporting which divides people deal into the dead and those who recovered. For some people coronavirus isn’t a few days fever, or a couple of weeks with the evil relative of a bad flu. For some the impact will last for months, years, or the rest of their lives. Personally, I know of two first-wavers who caught the virus in that avoidable week before lockdown. They are well into their 3rd month of severe symptoms. 

Viruses affect people differently. Until we evolve a portrait of any illness by listening to patient witness and studying medical fact there will be no shared vision of recuperation. That vision has to include the chronically ill. It isn’t enough to live in a fantasy where the ying of tragic deaths is offset by the yang of people coming off respirators. No-one comes off a respirator and walks happily down the road to Lidl. Again, we need as many models of recuperation as Joe Wicks fitness regimes.


The caricature of coronavirus as an illness in which people fulfil their allotted fate by dying, or pluckily recovering, will gradually dissolve. Blue Nightingales are heroic, and inspiring but, for many, recovery will involve rest at home and a process of imaginative adaptation that needs to be supported. 


It’s been said that we couldn’t have known what this virus would be like. We could have garnered some idea, if we’d asked those who live with chronic illness. Just as there are now neighbourhood networks of care, so there are bodies of knowledge created by those who live with chronic pain and disability, in particular, so-called invisible illnesses. Their insights would have been a helpful prepare for recuperation from this crisis. People can be given advice on how to adapt to lockdown, sustainable ways to live with constraint, how to best manage limited energy, how to make the best of the possibilities their lives offer, and, in practical terms, how to rest, which is a difficult skill. We still find it hard, as a culture, to listen and learn from illness and the ill.


In terms of the arts, there rightly exist campaigns to increase access to performances while venues are closed, but we also need models of creativity that include the housebound and bedbound. Culture is not always an event, a pleasant two hours at the end of the week. Creativity is a life practice. We can use the imagination to enrich a constrained walk or devise imaginative tweaks to how life is lived at home. And, in terms of disability, art need not always be an identity amplified: it has gentler, quieter modes of attention. As well as clapping, demonstrations, and revolts, we need to create images of recuperation, endurance, nurture, and care. We need to respect the measure of time that the chronically ill experience. Those into their 2nd and 3rd months are tired of being asked, are you not better yet?


Statistics prove the inequality of impact on some communities, but the reporting of those who have pre-existing conditions, always known to be high risk, is negligible. Is this because they are at sheltering at home, behind closed doors, in the grey area between the dead and the well? When the government suddenly announced it was safe for high risk groups to leave their homes many felt incredulity and disdain.


I applaud the Jacobin crowds, as long as protestors innovate in such a way as maintains social distancing so as to express solidarity with other communities at risk. After all, sentence can be passed down on a statue for a future date. It’s hard not to feel that, in addition to grief and indignation, there’s an economy of energy at work, as young radicals respond to injustice and fascists jeer at the shackles of lockdown. The energy or radicalism is unanswerable – you don’t make a revolution from tissue paper – but it’s also unavailable to some. (Still, it wasn’t the radical party who first damaged the solidarity of lockdown, it was a government advisor who fancied taking his wife for a birthday picnic). 


What to do then, in a culture filled with a clamour of sectional interests spurred on by anxiety, frustration and inequality, in which the government flounders in armbands? Wonderful local networks that emerged in some communities may adapt into innovative forms of social change. Many people find aspects of lockdown frustrating and upsetting, but also, sometimes, gentle, creative, and inspiring. Who knew this degree of change could happen so quickly and, fragile as it is, with such a sense of consensus? The right to access nature and clean air emerge as basic human rights, which only means that people with asthma were always pointing the way to a better life for everyone, or everything.


It turns out that coronavirus was like any illness, only more so, accentuating weaknesses, revealing latent conditions, respecting strengths, behaving in ways that are sometimes mystifying – happy hypoxia anyone? – at other times cruel. At the start of it all, friends I know with chronic illness, neurological and auto-immune system conditions felt a secret sense of relief, that their experiences may, almost overnight, become validated, better understood, or even researched and treated. Many have felt like bellwethers for years. In terms of prejudice, it wasn’t so long ago that a respected publication like the LRB was peddling myths of post-viral conditions as Yuppie flu. That won’t be possible in the future. In 2010 I had swine flu and its impact for four months which I spent bedbound with symptoms similar to coronavirus. I remember telling my GP about the experience afterwards and him saying to me that isn’t possible. After coronavirus I’m not sure that kind of presumption will wash.


I don’t want to press the case of my own niche identity as someone at risk in a way that competes with any other person’s risk. Vulnerability is not a competition, no matter what the twitterati think. I’m exhausted by the false narratives that sectionalism produces. And yet, in a time when illness itself is the issue, I wonder why, to such an extent, the ill themselves have seemed, well, largely invisible? Distant from the heroism of hospitals there will remain the dailiness of chronic illness and disability, the quiet disasters and noble feats of endurance.


The advice any knowledgeable medical expert would give to help prevent coronavirus descending into ME/CFS is to rest, rest and rest. Do not to push through the fatigue. It is an illness which many people experience as cyclic, with recovery followed by relapse in a pattern familiar to those with invisible illnesses. A culture of recuperation will share the creative aspects of resting, musing and imagining. We need to learn from the experts: the chronically ill. 


One of the first things I did during the crisis was to ask my friend Chris Watson for two audio walks I could share online, as a free resource for those in recovery, so they could access nature.

In my own work as an artist poet, I’m reminded that the image is an act of witness and home for complex truths. Poetry can be a comfort, and, at times, the practice of poetry may seek, and even find, healing. During the crisis phrases have stayed with me as found poems: the nurse and writer who said of one patient, ‘he’s not the battle, he’s the battlefield’; the friend from Hong Kong whose idiomatic English reassured me, ‘every catastrophe carries collateral beauty’; or the Bulgarian friend who wrote that he hopes I am as healthy as a cucumber. That gave me a reason to lie a little longer in the sun.


Last year, working on a new book of poems reflecting on illness, pain and creativity, I tried to imagine the kind of revolutionary spirit we’ve witnessed recently, but as if it were coursing through the ill, in a utopian fantasy. I wonder if gentleness could exert itself as a social force? Today, on day 90 with coronavirus, I see that this could only be a fantasy and that troubles me.


The Revolution


then the ill came

in their blankets

raining pills down


on the truncheons

smothering the windows

of the palaces


with wads of

shapeless duvets

forcing forms


under the noses

of the inspectors

then it finally came


the day of the great 


when every window


was thrown open

and from each one

a blanket was hung



Here is a free online creative tool-kit I gathered together as a response to the crisis. Feel free to share it:


Alec Finlay is a poet and artist, and recipient of a 2020 Cholmondeley Award. He is a member of the new disability arts initiative #WeShallNotBeRemoved.



Thursday, May 7, 2020

David Wheatley: River Don Office

On a back road near my house once stood a hand-written sign for the ‘River Don Office’, pointing to a nearby lane. To my regret I never went to investigate, though I liked to imagine a bucket of water on a desk, processing its paperwork on fishing licenses and mulling cross-community projects with the river Dee. Since the sign’s removal I have reclassified a small portion of my brain as my own River Don Office, throbbing away night and day in sympathetic rhythm with the gurgle and flow on the other side of the park, halfway between where the Don rises in Glen Avon and its appointment with the North Sea.

Clambering into bed beside my son one night (we co-sleep) I am transported more dramatically to the river when I notice I’ve left the extractor fan on in the bathroom. Rather than get up to correct this mistake, I allow it to mutate into the outboard motor of a small boat, in which we set off, he and I, for a night cruise up and down the fast-moving river’s tricky waters. We chug downstream in the direction of Aberdeen, shadowing then losing then shadowing the railway line again. Out to sea we spot the moonlit outlines of the tankers, which often rest at anchor for weeks on end, waiting for the price of their oily cargo to rise before they come into harbour. Fearing a jaunt to Norway may be beyond us we turn back, passing the village and heading west again. 

In the mountains, there you feel free, even as they close benevolently round you, the high-sided pinewoods of Pitfichie and Clova Hill looming up in the moonlight as though about to pitch headlong into the current. Feet tucked under him where he kneels on the bow, my son stares into the silvery tide, with occasional glances over his shoulder to where I navigate. Soon we are closing in on the head of the Don, zig-zagging crazily in waters so shallow I feel us bumping along the bottom. What is this, I ask myself, a fantastical children’s book? – turning over where I lie in bed and brushing against the children’s books piled high in the cot beside the bed. A thin stream of drool has dampened my pillow, and by morning my carefully-drafted report for the River Don Office (in fact, these words) has been lost overboard.

David Wheatley



Thursday, April 9, 2020

for now

for now is an ongoing series of reflections on walking during the lockdown period, by Nicole Bell of Paths for All.


for now
a walk
is a kind of medicine

along with other essentials
nature is in very
limited supply

take today’s solitary walk
breathe, inhale,
look around you

bring it home
and treasure it
in safety


for now
a walk
is a reminder

of all we took 
for granted
forced apart

exchanging smiles 
from either side
of the path 

chats about the weather,
who’d have thought
we’d miss them?


for now
our evening walk
is a strange walk

jamais vu
the same steps
taken one

hundred times over
as if walked
for the first time

things will look 
after the storm

or perhaps
we will
with fresh eyes

Nicole Bell

Saturday, April 4, 2020

walking during co19

This blog is by the artist Gill Russell. 

She's been recording walks around her home for a new project, covidly walking, which, thus far, records 15 walks for 15 days, all departing from her house in Strathdon.

its peaceful making these lines
skylarks and snowshowers 
on the moor yesterday

Tuesday, March 24, 2020



the odd walker
on the path

with an aura
of danger


Scottish Poetry Library: Poem of the Week

Tom Leonard: June the Second

it is dawn and my wife is coming to bed
and she has been watching a film about the life of charlie parker

and the air in the bedroom is silent while she undresses
and the light is there at the side of the curtain beyond her head

and she tells me his body gave up of drink and drugs when he was 34
and I decide I am awake and go to the kitchen for a drink of water

and the sky in the north is translucent like a lake
translucent like a lake though it is only 3 am

and when I go back we lightly hold hands as we sometimes do
until the first to be falling asleep begins to twitch and tonight it’s Sonya

and I withdraw my hand and lie back looking at the ceiling
I am aged 51 years and nine months and nine to ten days

This is a short essay I wrote for the Scottish Poetry Library, Poem for the Week.

The tenderness and sincerity of this poem, a remembrance of a moment of love within a lifetime of love, always touched me. Though the details of the interiors are sparse – no Proustian brocade for Tom – it conveys an Objectivist sense of common belonging. The wee journeys from room to room, and sense of a world beyond the curtains, resonates when so many people are cooped up in their homes. For me coronavirus is an illness that torques inside my body at night, exerting a force on the lungs, making my head feel dark with pain, so the dawn is a relief. It will be different for others. 

Tom offers love – his for Sonya – a specific setting we can enter – some of us recalling the address the poet lived at and imagining the very window – just as there is a real window which Sorley MacLean looked to the west from, in ‘Hallaig’. Acts of witness matter in times of crisis. 

The poem recalls Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, which elegises Charlie Parker as a bodhisattava. Here, in a tenement in Glasgow, grace lies in the quotidian modesty which, in turn, comes to rest within elements that change eternally – light, air, water, love – as the poet wanders through to the sink. Isn’t that true of life now: I see the sun on the frosty roofs from my flat in Hawthornvale, same as it ever was, and yet.

That last line, fixing himself and us in time, could easily be the prelude to one of Tom’s poems about the Gulf War. He felt such passionate anger at those mass bombings, the history of suffering. Tom had a democratic sense that the events visited on one body could be the suffering, or love, visited on any. As Elaine Scarry says, if there is pain in the room then that pain is in someone. It is the same with love and those hands touching, which remind me of the hypnic jerks that would pass through my wife’s body as I held her at night. 

The poet sometimes writes their own grave poem without knowing. I don’t read Tom’s poetry often – it’s like holding a pebble freezing cold from the burn – but I depend on it to scour my thoughts from time to time. I read the struggle for clarity and truth as relating, intimately, to the striggle for breath, in Tom’s poems as informed by his asthma. To risk the imitation: prose uses a lot of air, poems get by on a few breaths. My breathing is laboured tonight, as the virus slowly heals. I am 54 years and nine days old.

We will need a poetry that has this kind of sincerity, to witness and navigate this crisis, as it forces itself into our lives, alters everyday behaviour, changes the way we stand in relation to one another, how or whether we hold hands. There are far, far, worse days to come. The anguish of harsh choices, the folly of steps not taken. There will be new heroes, but war imagery is inadequate to this kind of crisis, as anyone with an illness knows. Only the most radical kindness will suffice. And Tom would want it said: the truth is, society already decides who doesn’t get necessary care and protection and it has done so for years – whether and how that changes from now on is something we can all decide.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Mother’s Day

As one in a series of posts by people reflecting on walking, healing and the Coronavirus, this is Natalie's. She has written more here.

One day past Spring Equinox, it’s hard to know where to begin. I’m so far behind. With excruciating guilt, I stopped composting veg peelings last month for the first time in decades. Both of the one cubic tonne size composters in the garden were over-spilling. They would have been turned and turned into crumbly compost and spread as a mulch across all the veg beds. A thin blanket of fresh nutrients, weed barrier, and warmth after the cold of winter. I’d neglected them, and still I just can’t face the task.

I know where to start, be present. Stand silently and barefoot on the earth and breathe. Lie on the grass and feel my body supported by the earth, look up at the blue sky and breathe. Ground myself and listen to what the ancient voice at the back of my mind is saying, with constancy.

I don’t have the energy. The thought of moving a few tonnes exhausts me. And there is another tonne of topsoil in a bag from last year. It’s been squatting a bed since it was delivered, hyab-ed over the garden fence. Another project left undone. It needs barrowed around the garden.  I’m not sure how much is a mental block, how much physical. When did I lose my energy? I need it back. Undone projects are symptoms of feeling overwhelmed: I was living too fast. So much mess to clear up. No-one but me to do it.

Back to basics. Just observe. Observe the life around me. Tread carefully, be gentle. Except maybe with the bind-weed. Surely it must have some use other than infuriation and strangulation? The nettles will soon be big enough to make spring tonic soup. The comfrey leaves will soon be big enough to cushion the seed potatoes.

For months I have found such solace in Being Inside and Being (relatively) Alone. After years rushing around multiple therapy gardens, juggling multiple tabs open in my mind, worrying, worrying, worrying about people and plants, hearing my voice speak too much, becoming glib, parroting information, I had to crash into stillness. I started calling the fragmented parts of me back home again. My motivation to ‘do something, do more’ left me. I didn’t go outside. I didn’t go into my garden. I decided to retrain as another kind of therapist. I saved money. An escape route was planned. That’s postponed now. 

Yesterday I saw the first bumblebee flying drunkenly around the garden, fat bottom in the air, deep into the daffodils. The day before my nephews and myself listened to a robin singing for a lover, singing the perimeter of his territory, prospecting for a nest.

Thirteen years ago my name rose up the list and finally, after a decade waiting, I was allocated an over-run allotment plot in a rundown allotment site in a low income area of Glasgow’s Southside. I started to tend a garden.

Today I will go back to my garden. I will spend some time just being and observing. Full circle. I started to garden because I knew I needed to be intimately connected to Mother Earth every day. I will make a new start.