As I write, I am sitting outside a cafe, on a chair two metres away from the nearest chair. I’m not allowed to sit inside the cafe yet, no one is. In a few weeks, that will be allowed, but not yet. Now, I can sit out on the pavement, with a bottle of Raspberry juice and a croissant. It’s not cold outside, but it’s not warm either; and there’s no table to lean a book on or put my notebook on to write. It’s therefore not where I would choose to sit, if I had a choice. I’d sit indoors at a table, within the special kind of murmuring and chattering which characterises cafes the world over. Have you ever seen a murmuration of starlings? That’s when a great cloud of birds flows and twists like a swarm of bees. The murmuring of cafes is like that – individual words and phrases moving this way and that in the air but somehow all of them moving together, in a shared space.
In Scotland, it’s not yet clear what cafes and pubs will look like when they open up again to sit in. Or how long will it last before there’s another outbreak and another lockdown; or the new normal morphs back into the old normal, and people can be squashed back together again – in pubs, cafes, clubs, gyms, trains, buses, shops, football stadiums, concerts, swimming pools, the waiting rooms of doctors and dentists and A&E, and UFO abduction therapy clinics. (Okay, I included that last one to test if you were still awake. To all who passed the test – well done. To all who failed – take a rest from Twitter, you have the attention span of a gnat.)
The two kinds of indoor places I miss the most are bookshops (although, I have a room that looks like one) and cafes. I think bookshops will not be hugely different than before. Less cluttered with people, but that’s fine. Across from where I sit on the pavement, there is a bookshop getting ready to reopen. I can only hope that they sell enough books to stay open.
Then there are cafes. Like I said, no one knows exactly what they’ll be like in Scotland yet. For me, going back into a café where I can sit will be a ‘somewhere over the rainbow’ moment. My actual chalk rainbow has been washed off our garden wall. That place had become like a cafe for me, with the bonus of a crazy cat. Yet, I sometimes craved an old-style café, where I could sit and read and scribble ideas. And in the background, I’d hear the babbling, chattering, murmuring, chuckling multitudes. And, by the way- here’s a thought sparked by the word ‘multitude’. Have you listened to Rough and Rowdy Waves, Bob Dylans’ new album? If not, you should. It’s great. Me and Isobel first listened to it on a park bench in Magdalen Green, near the bandstand, where we once listened to brass bands in the summertime. What’s the link with ‘multitudes’? Bob Dylan sings a song called ‘I Contain Multitudes’, of course. Try to keep up. Have you been on Twitter again?
Will it be harder to find a free seat in a cafe when there are fewer seats? Maybe, or maybe there will be less people wanting to sit in a cafe or be able to pay the price of a doughnut or a coffee. So, the misfortune of someone else may get me a seat, unless I am the someone else who runs out of money. Or, maybe it’s madness for me to think that my old dreaming, reading and writing in cafes can return. Maybe, it will be too strange.
Long before the pandemic, in Dundee – one in three children were living in poverty. A lot of frontline workers were doing too much work but were constantly expected to work harder. Nurses were struggling, and cleaners, and hospital porters too. Yet, they fought the virus to protect us all. Before the pandemic, people were visiting food banks in their thousands, and having their benefits cut every single day. But that didn’t stop us donating food to try to feed all the people who could so easily be us, and sometimes were. Solidarity with other people did not begin and will not end with the pandemic lockdown. Every day, we see human solidarity here and around the world surviving and growing stronger and bolder.
There will be voices saying we must be ‘realistic’ in these new times – that we must accept whatever the coming storm brings. Those voices may say ‘we’ we cannot afford safe schools, libraries, jobs with decent wages. ‘We’ cannot afford shelter from the coming storm. Yet, who decides what ‘we’ can do or afford; and who decides who ‘we’ are? All of us do! Not just the politicians who have nearly destroyed our planet. We are the descendants of all of the people who built our world, we are the descendants of workers, slaves, and rebels; the descendants of the multitudes who never promoted greed or lies. Our ancestors faced terrible storms too. They always fought through to better days -for us. Great struggles have always tested humanity. It seems that it is time again to prepare for one of those tests.
In 2010, I began that decade as we all did not knowing what the future held, but we read the signs. One clear sign said that the government was planning to cut public spending by such a vast amount that, in places like the housing estates of Dundee, many people would struggle to stay alive. So, I and others tried to set up a sanctuary, where those struggling could go to get help and organise their own defence. We fought hard to try to create such a place. I remember standing outside Parliament in London, with a TV news camera in front of me, and I was challenging the government’s main axeman to come out and face us. But he never did. And back in Dundee, our centre was never won, but we never lost the dream of it. And in Dundee, as in many other cities, those of us who could fight walked towards the frontlines where many innocent people fell but many more survived, and we learned hard lessons. I watched as food banks became the old ‘new normal’. As a Welfare Rights Officer – the only job title I’ve ever worn with pride, I tried to patch up the scarred and traumatised victims of a war they did not start and did not deserve. Sometimes, it was me who needed patching up.
For the last few months, I’ve woken up and stretched as if my life depended on it. I have run and read and looked after a cat and slowly healed. I felt the shocks and tension from a decade of difficulties slowly lessen. I still twitch sometimes, as if hit by an electric shock, when I think of people begging me to help them. I hope that I always tried to help as much as I could. Now, my frontline has shrunk to a desk at home, a laptop, a notebook, thousands of words – some of them- turned into a book. I’m waiting to hear its fate from strangers in London. And every day I sit down to write a second book. And, I’ll keep writing whatever happens in the coming storm. Trying to tell the truth about what people have gone through, and are going through, and how we keep fighting and dreaming and sometimes becoming bolder.
In our kitchen, there is a large plant growing at the window. It’s a cucumber plant, and it has thin vines which stretch out and spiral up, seeking anything they can curl around for support. Support to grow and stay alive. Hanging from the roof at the same window is one of the things the plant seems to be reaching out towards. It is a small, brightly coloured rainbow. Isobel made it.