One Year On: The First Ten Thousand Dead

Little did I realise, when I wrote this poem and posted it here twelve months ago, that we’d still be in the same position in 2021.

A second summer of COVID and a third – fourth? – wave rolling towards us over the sea of our school-age children. Not the best look, UK, not the best look at all.

Friends visited, all of us double vaccinated, and while it was a little weird to start with – (“will we still like them?”) – all went well in the end. Over thirty years of friendship will do that.

The world of climate emergencies has the potential to brick us up in pandemic isolation more frequently. Best we get prepared, by accepting that for now this world is what we have, and its rules have changed.

Generation X have already adapted – when I first went to university in the mid-80s, the sparse “Welcome Pack” had one of those tombstone AIDS leaflets (“don’t have sex or you’ll die”). By the early 1990s the welcome pack had expanded with freebies to include a Pot Noodle and a packet of condoms.

More so than last summer, I do wonder at the people who insist that The Youth of Today are somehow missing out. Yes, they are not going to enjoy the same experiences of those of us who matured before COVID arrived. But they are going to make their own experiences.

They are building a new world, and good luck to ’em. I hope to live in it for some years yet.

Last year I posted this as an image. This year, I’m posting it as text, to make it more accessible. I suppose the time is ripe to compose a follow-up although I’m risking this becoming an annual occurrence.


The first ten thousand dead
Did not impress our leaders, did not sway
Them from their path.
Intent on what?
You ask.
Ten thousand dead –
Mere weeks ago,
Statistics that seemed fanciful
– Outrageous and obscene –
Now look like panacea.
Yet no contrition, nor humility,
For any of the first ten thousand dead.
What makes us think the numbers matter now?

Half-hearted lockdown lifted.
Go out! Go out! And make yourselves resist!
The crowds, the happy crowds,
Crammed onto beaches or in public parks
Breathe deep the summer air,
And with it, life.
Small life, a virus; almost without trace
And yet we notice, with a gasp
Where once was song and laughter.
Indoors, survivors seizing hard-won air,
And months of pain
What goodness, now, will come of this?

The longest day – Midsummer – fast upon us
And the nights start drawing in.
All through the summer months
Those dwindling daylight hours will mask
So many sacrifices,
The goodwill of our healthcare workers, spent
As is their strength; resilience
Does not last for ever
Without rest. Applause is not enough.

The first ten thousand dead now seem like martyrs;
The next ten thousand dead, unjust mistakes.
Now forty thousand – forty thousand! – missing, stolen, lost.
A second wave is coming
Closer, every indrawn breath
Daring admission.
Have a heart, and pity us.
How many hundred thousand will it take?

(c) Lee McAulay, June 2020

And now, this week’s links:

One of the many variants of influenza appears to have become extinct – StatNews

“I’m not scared to re-enter society, I’m just not sure I want to” – The Atlantic

And a short piece of electronic music – Nils by Bouvetøya (on SoundCloud)

Published in: on June 6, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  
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What stories are we missing?

In amongst all the written stories of the pandemic so far, tragedy and outrage are dominant.

Rightly so.

The UK government – and others – spectacularly, disastrously failed to address the problem in a suitable manner. Tens of thousands have died, so far.

Stories which grab the headlines are not in short supply.

It’s fitting that we share the stories of those who have suffered, and you don’t have to go far to find them underlying all the grim statistics. Most of those who died, did so needlessly. Most of those who live with long COVID need not have caught the illness in the first place.

All through the pandemic (so far) I’ve watched the stories in the media play out, tugging attention one way or another, broad generalisations which are meant to apply to the population as a whole without dissent. And I’ve yet to see much that reflects my own experience, and perhaps that means my household is an outlier.

I have not partaken of a single Zoom meeting. I didn’t Eat Out To Help Out (madness), didn’t rush to the pub the minute the doors opened, didn’t hasten back to the shops or the gym or the hairdresser.

Much of that lifestyle didn’t apply before the pandemic arrived, and I ain’t changing my habits now just because there’s plague in the air.

But the stories are there, untold.

Those of us who stayed at home, not chafing against the boundaries suggested to us. Those of us who had a safe home to stay in, with people we love and like, and enough put by to tide us over until restrictions were lifted. Those of us who were not furloughed or trying to run a business, nor in dangerous work, or important jobs which kept the NHS and the economy ticking over.

Those of us who were lucky.

A year before COVID appeared, my situation would have been very different. What seemed like catastrophe (health-related) in 2019 forced changes to our lives that resonate with us still.

My household was lucky.

More than a year later, and as long as COVID is around, that luck may change in a moment with an unguarded breath in a busy place, or a visitor to the house unknowingly infectious, or an unforeseen event that takes us unplanned into a crowded location.

Our lives are not spectacular. Our stories are not told, the headlines given over to those who need action or rescue or simple attention. Quiet, ordinary, cautious, we endure.

And yet we fume against the mass injustices performed upon our fellows.

Let not our quiet watchfulness be taken as approval.

In the meantime we stay alert and stay at home and wonder what the world is like outside. Will there be time, one day, to hear the stories of those like us in times of plague?

The Procession by Bertha Lum

This week’s links:

Life Beyond Act One: Why We Need More Stories About Older Women – Why have so many authors, past and present, refused to let their heroines age? (Note that the beloved Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg began as older women, and just improved)

The Charitable Brotherhood of St Eloi – a Grauniad article from 2020, on “the French brotherhood burying the dead – rich or poor – since 1188”.

Workhouses – an incredible website on workhouses and their ilk, including stories of emigration and destitution from centuries of small lives lived in the shadow of misfortune and poverty.

Published in: on May 30, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on What stories are we missing?  
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COVID, One Year On

Today, 24th January 2021, is exactly one year since I started taking notice of COVID-19. Here’s a little history of the past twelve months (as seen from my writing desk).

painting of flooded flat lands in weak sunlight

Floods in the Arun Valley, by William H Clarkson

One of our visitors that New Year lives in Hong Kong. We’d had a long chat about the protests in parts of the Territories which, at that time, was the biggest news from that part of the world. He flew home in early January.

Then news of the new SARS variant appeared on social media. I emailed his partner to ask if he was safe (yes) and continued doom-scrolling as the disease spread across the Chinese mainland.

Twitter showed eerie footage of Wuhan, a city larger than London.

Empty motorways. Giant machines spraying disinfectant along the streets between darkened, shuttered city blocks. And people in high-rise flats calling out to each other, whistling, cheering, shouting Keep-Calm-And-Carry-On-style slogans across thin air twenty storeys up.

A month later, five hundred million people were in lockdown.

China cancelled Chinese New Year.

There may still be a Wuhan diary online – the link is for Day 6 (28th January 2020), the first post in English – but by the end of February those cheers had turned to cries of “I want to go out”, and stories began to circulate of tragedy unfolding in silence. As ever, those most affected were those reliant on others to care for their needs – children, frail elders, or disabled.

By then, hospitals in other parts of the world had begun to see the new infection seize hold of their vulnerable citizens with alarming impact.

Maybe my research for SHADOWBOX had given me some insight into pandemic disease to which we had little resistance.

Maybe it was history telling how Native American populations were devastated by new illnesses brought by Europeans.

I began to feel wary of the UK response. Our new government seemed blithe, nonchalant – oblivious.

Then, in March, Denmark closed its borders.

Ireland cancelled St Patrick’s Day celebrations.

Finally, lockdown – proper, hard, everything-shut lockdown – came to Britain.

In April I walked to the local post office with a parcel. The houses on one residential street were decked with mannequins – on the porch or balcony or front garden – with bunting strewn in the spring sunshine as if there was a royal wedding on the way. NHS rainbows in crayon stuck to front-room windows. Applause, once a week, for care workers, when what they really needed was proper PPE.

Since then, the only reason to go out has been for medical appointments or running the car around the neighbourhood to keep the battery charged.

What was summer like? We stayed at home and kept to ourselves, watching in disbelief as people danced the conga at VE Day celebrations, thronged trains to the coast, jammed themselves into restaurants as if the Masque of the Red Death was a new flavour of sundae.

Enraged, I wrote “The First Ten Thousand Dead” and hoped I was over-reacting.

Autumn came and went. Christmas, New Year, not going out, cautious of strangers and careful to disinfect deliveries.

Now the dreich days of January are back again, floods obscuring the riverbanks like December 2019. A whole year has passed by, time stood still for those of us lucky enough to be safe at home.

Seems like Plague Island is the New Normal, adrift off Europe.

buddha head statue with sage bush backgroundGrim though it feels right now, summer’s coming. We are being vaccinated at pace.

It’s a long way off, but the bright days of sunshine will come again. The wasps in my woodpile will let me know when.

While I have writing goals for this year, I also want to keep up the habit of posting on here at least once a week. Some posts will be long and rambling (like this one), some poems (mine and others), hopefully some updates on progress against the writing goals I set in January.

I will try to be positive and truthful, and endeavour to bring some light in otherwise dark days.

With that in mind, this week’s Three Bright Spots:

  1. The USA Presidential handover. Oh, I know there’s only so much one man (and woman) can do to change the world. But there are challenges right now that need attention, globally, and the focus has been on the wrong subjects for a long time, so any change that might address those challenges in some positive way is welcome. So much to hope for.
  2. Look out of someone else’s windows on Window-Swap
  3. Travel back in time, across (part of) the USA, without leaving your chair: Nomadic Research Labs

Summer’s coming. I promise.


Published in: on January 24, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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January 2021 – Look back

Last year, I wrote about fifty thousand words. Apart from the posts on my blog, none of those words were published. Most of them weren’t publishable – weren’t connected to a novel, or story, or anything else creative. Much of them were journal entries.

There was a lot to muse over. Coronavirus, having appeared, proceeded to sweep across the world and curled itself into a cosy corner of northwestern Europe called the UK, and has been hogging the duvet here ever since. In my household, this is a cause for concern. Hey, if it isn’t a cause for concern in your household, 1. where have you been and 2. don’t bother coming round to explain.

We’ve been shielding since before lockdown in March 2019. We expect to remain shielding until everyone is vaccinated and the virus has gone.

We realise this may be… some time. We are prepared for this.

In terms of creativity, I spent a lot of words noodling over what to write. And why to write. Does my voice matter? (of course it does).text says Write because your voice matters

Of the many stories I have waiting for me to give them form, which of them call me right now? If none, why not? And also, I told myself, why not just come up with some new ideas (e.g. Project NEVADA).

As I wrote here last time, January 2021 – Setting my intentions, nobody wants more junk.

So part of my new writing year’s resolutions is to write with more focus on work which can be published, to finish that work, and submit more poetry to online journals.

There’s scope, room, for learning more skills. For reading widely, online and on paper, to research and build the worlds my stories will occupy.

Scope, too, for reading the guidance and wisdom shared so freely online by other writers – Joanne Harris, Kris Rusch, Terri Windling. And scope for humility too, accepting that my work isn’t ready, that I need more practise, that I need to take my time to make stories that enhance my body of work, not blight it.

Saying that, even with a whole fresh year ahead of us, how many of us believe time isn’t precious?

One breath in the wrong place and you’re infected with COVID. And right now, the UK is near the top of the list of the wrong places. With six weeks of lockdown now in place over England, the old rules apply – stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives. (Might be longer than six weeks, but hey; six weeks is an old-skool beach-body diet plan…)

There are tales to be told of life on Plague Island, to be sure. Many will be horror stories, others tragedy. We Brits have a streak of black comedy a mile wide. What tends not to be noticed are the humdrum, daily dull, background stories of ordinary people who are managing, just fine or just coping.

Some of us aren’t struggling, although we’d like to get out more (but daren’t risk the plague).

Some of us can’t get out even if we’d love to (and to Hell with the virus), even in the Old Normal Age when disability kept us enclosed like rare, exotic pets.

Some of us are skating a thin line down the middle of Okay and Not-Okay, wobbling one way or the other from day to day, hour to hour, like a violin saw screeching not wrong but not-quite-right.

But there’s also a risk that, as ever, being bogged down in the stories that fill the news and the airwaves and online media will be detrimental to creativity.

Those fifty thousand words I wrote last year were mostly random musings. Life planning. Thoughts that wouldn’t stop bugging me until I wrote them down, let them flood out of my head through my hands and onto the screen, where I could pin them down like beetles in a Victorian collector’s case.

There’s a risk that this year’s writing might follow a similar path, if I don’t focus on specific goals.

I already have the skills to make this happen. I’ve written before about how I manage writing projects – spanners and screwdrivers at the ready – so I need to take my own advice as well as that of experts. I have to make a start on writing the works I want to see on my own private bookshelf by the end of the year.

More on that next time.

In the meantime, please enjoy the Yorkshire Musical Saw Players performing Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy”. Yes, indeedy.

Other links I found while researching this post:

The Yorkshire Musical Saw Man(Charles Hindmarsh)

Saw Lady (Natalia Paruz)

Thomas Flynn & Co, the UK’s only musical saw manufacturer

Christmas is coming, somewhere else.

Christmas is coming, somewhere else.

Usually the shops are full of lights and dazzle. The pavements may be slick with rain, the skies grey with more, but windows bright and sparkling.

Even when it isn’t stuff you want to buy, the appeal is infectious.

Winter in the UK is generally a miserable thing. Evenings close in early. Mornings start sluggish, and often don’t fulfil their promise. Days pass without sunshine.

Painting - "On the river" by Bertha Lum (Brooklyn Museum) - watercolour of japanese women on a boat, with yellow lanterns
“On the river” by Bertha Lum (Brooklyn Museum)

Bright shop windows and Christmas lights are the sparkly antidote we’ve invented.

Stories familiar from childhood, such as A Christmas Carol or pantomime, dust us with imaginary snow. Many of the stories come from places – or moments in history – where winter is more defined.

Painting - "The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch" by Henry Raeburn, man in black clothing skating on an icy pond
Not your usual Scottish winter. Not any more.

Snow on fir trees.

Icicles hanging from rooftops and eaves.

The Reverend Robert Walker skating on Duddingston Loch.

For those of us brought up on such tales, Christmas celebrations from Australia and other parts of the Southern Hemisphere can be awkwardly enticing. Santa hat and Speedos for a festive beachside barbie?


Spain’s festive celebrations are generally short-lived, beginning at Advent, and prominently Roman Catholic. Perhaps being on the Mediterranean, albeit the opposite side to the Roman province of Palestine, helps interpret a winter story from a warmer climate.

Sweden celebrates the Feast of St Lucia, when young girls in candle headdresses parade through crisp deep snow at the start of December. Perhaps some remnant of a pre-Calvinist celebration, you really need a lot of snow to make it look impressive.

The UK’s Christmas preparations start after Bonfire Night and last all the way through to Hogmanay.

We need it.

Temperatures rarely fall below freezing for long enough to make a snowy difference. I’m sure this is an advantage in agricultural terms, but it makes a White Christmas unlikely most years.

The standard UK definition of a White Christmas is a single snowflake observed falling to the ground on the roof of the BBC’s Broadcasting House in the centre of London; while I’ve stood on the South Bank in the depths of December watching sleet obscure the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, our cities are heat islands. That single snowflake has to have a lot of luck.

Scotland’s daylight hours in winter are the same as those in Moscow, but the hours of sunshine are markedly lower. Grey over Riddrie the clouds piled up, indeed.

Festive lights are the antidote, with baubles and tinsel and crisp panes of crumpled cellophane tied with colourful ribbons. Candles, real or fake, flickering with the promise of warmth and cosiness. Log fires. Yule log cakes.

We even set fire to our desserts; what else is Christmas pudding but a bonfire of the calories?

This year will probably be different. Already, supermarket adverts – a Christmas mainstay in the UK entertainment calendar – have shown how quickly we adapt. From Aldi’s Kevin the Carrot struggling to get home in time for a family dinner, to the John Lewis Partnership’s multiple format campaign spreading the funds (and love) amongst struggling creative studios.

For many of us, this festive period will indeed be about the struggle.

Christmas markets have been cancelled in many places, or have moved online.

Cut-me-own-throat-Dibbler selling German sausage from a stand slung over his shoulders isn’t coming anywhere near you, nor a row of repurposed sheds garlanded with fake pine branches flogging overpriced wooden spoons, glühwein, or chocolate hammers.

No elegant stalls with hand-poured candles, hand-knitted woollens from homegrown sheep, microbrewery beers, one of a kind jewellery, or framed Japanese silks – you’ll have to go to Etsy for those.

Pantomime, that traditional excuse to exercise your inner child in a warm dark safe space, doesn’t look likely either. No Babes in the Wood or Peter Pan. No work for dressmakers, scriptwriters, lighting technicians; panto is often the only show making money for theatres – and actors – which funds the rest of the year’s performances.

Panto stories tell us how children survive hardship and overcome challenges – stories even more relevant for many of us this year.

I’m sure we’re all longing for the chance to stand up and shout at 2020 and the pandemic, “It’s behind you!”.

I have a horrible suspicion that the response will be “Oh no it isn’t!”.

For more on the festive traditions surrounding Christmas and the Winter Solstice, try Terri Windling’s A Winter’s Tale – not least for the gorgeous illustrations.

Published in: on November 29, 2020 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Christmas is coming, somewhere else.  
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Companions in our solitude, and travels in lockdown

What makes us add a book to our favourites?

Those books we return to time after time, even though we know the story and the characters, how it progresses and how it ends.

Frodo and Sam on their way to Mordor, setting off from the Shire with barely half an idea of what might lie ahead; or the young Edmond Dantès in the sunlight of Marseilles, surrounded by friends as he celebrates his engagement.

Unaware of the challenges lurking in the next few hundred pages.

Following them further into the story, knowing there’s hardship ahead, without any sign of good news, when the shit hits the fan and our favourite characters are pitched into struggles we hope we’ll never have to face ourselves.

We know there’s a Lion as well as a Witch in the wardrobe. We know there’s an end to the war, a cure for the sick, and justice for the wronged.

So often in life, when we need those most, we are disappointed.

We can’t know, ahead of events, whether COVID will be cured or will turn into something more deadly.

We can’t know how much of our lifestyles will be altered by climate change.

We don’t have much idea of the future, personal or global, when an illness can take away our loved ones in the space of a few days or a river rises to sweep away our homes.

Our favourite stories are familiar, comforting, predictable.

As writers, don’t we all want to create new favourites?

Characters we want to spend time with, like old friends.

Places we want to revisit, again and again, walking their streets and alleys, or climbing the rigging, or driving their fantastic machines, as we read.

Crimes we want to solve, mischief we want to share, love without disruption.

Our favourite stories give us hope in defiance of despair, companions in our solitude.

Travel in our lockdowns.

Sunlit stone staircase rising through trees into the distance
“There’s magic everywhere, if you look.”
― Terri Windling

[Edit, later: I also found this – Difficult Times – by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Enjoy.]

Published in: on November 22, 2020 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Companions in our solitude, and travels in lockdown  
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Hobbiton awaits, at the end of Mordor

Lockdown, this Autumn, will be harder to endure than the one in Spring.

For many of us the bright days earlier in the year and the prospect of Summer were a gift that helped us cope with Not Going Out. Alas, those days are gone for this year, and the standard British winter is approaching, eight hours of daylight chock-full of grey skies and drizzle.


We need plans to get through this. Books can help.

Non-fiction, to show us how the future can be changed, to remind us that nothing lasts forever, to give us ideas on how to build a new way of life, and to inspire us with the lives of people who have shifted gravity.

Maps and gazeteers and natural history, showing us where to find places for wild swimming or birding or just sitting with a Thermos of tea and a packet of sandwiches watching waves on a beach.

Self-help manuals to guide us if we decide that this time round we will take up yoga, or sourdough, or just focus on our mental health and wellbeing.

Painting by Norman Rockwell, "The Bookworm" - man in a raincoat nose-deep in a book
The bookworm in his natural habitat

Photography, puzzle books, colouring books; blank stamp albums for gradual filling; text books for home schooling; reference books for when you need more information than the internet can provide; music books for when you finally get round to pick up that instrument you’ve been meaning to practise for years.

And, of course, fiction.

Fiction, where marvellous worlds await within the pages, with new cities and familiar places seen through the eyes of heroes and villains; adventures in time and space, on air-balloons or rockets or sailing ships; experiences we will never have – or can remember, or empathise with, or wish on our bitter enemies.

Fiction: journeys, alone or otherwise, to show us how many have travelled such a path as this before us, and how many are with us right now, sharing the light of their lanterns through the darkness ahead.

To remind us that Hobbiton awaits, at the end of Mordor.

This lockdown, please consider buying books from independent bookshops.

The best way to do this is to buy online from the bookshop’s website, if they have one.

Otherwise, you can buy books online from Hive, and choose which bookshop you want to benefit from your transaction. The Hive website will suggest bookshops near your postcode, but you can pick another if it’s special to you.

Published in: on November 2, 2020 at 9:00 am  Comments Off on Hobbiton awaits, at the end of Mordor  
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At night, where I live now, I can hear church bells from town a mile away. In another direction, over a wooded hill – another church, still a mile distant. I hear my neighbours through the walls, and over garden fences, sitting on their back step smoking.

During the day, however: lots and lots of traffic noise. School run traffic, delivery vehicles from the freight distribution yards dotted around town, large lorries into and out of the supermarkets and factories and railyards.

Birdsong has to compete with this traffic noise, so birds sing extra loud to make themselves heard.

Under lockdown, with that traffic gone, that extra-loud birdsong soared over the gardens and woodlands, all the way down to the river. Birds who were used to challenging their near neighbours to a duel, or inviting the bird-next-door for a bit of hankypanky, yelling over now-vanished traffic noise.

Our local birds can hear birds from the other side of the valley now. More threats, more challenges, more invitations.

Those first two weeks of lockdown were more silent than I’ve heard this town since we moved here.

Late at night, even the distance was silent – the distance where the major A-road hums at all hours. Just a hiss, a breeze in the trees, and a gentle rumble of a taxi taking key workers to their shift. A zip-shriek of motorbike taking the chance to ride faster than light, maybe two miles off; heavy thunderous whine of aircraft engines dwindling to a whisper as it drops to land at the airport, fifteen miles north.

This is what life sounds like on the Scottish islands. This quiet – not silence – of the natural world, of which we are a part. On the mainland of the UK, in the heart of our cities and towns, we often don’t hear the world this quiet. Even behind woodland walks which seem peaceful I’ve noticed the hum of distant traffic, like a constant threat of rain.

This is the sound of modern urban life, the constant disturbance. A time-traveller from a hundred years ago would find our lives unbearably noisy.

Now the traffic’s back and it seems louder than ever. We kept track of how much was moving on the road outside the house, and noticed as it crept up week by week, and pedestrians fewer now than during that first month.

The birds are mostly quiet too, the songs and sounds to feed fledglings in summer much less intense than the proud boasts of early spring.

But at dusk the blackbirds call across the hedges. Near midnight, two types of owl pass by, muted by the woodland on the hill behind the house. At sunrise, and all day, sparrows chatter in the ivy on the wall between our house and its neighbour.

The birds are still singing. How many of us have stopped listening?

Everyone suddenly burst out singing; And I was filled with such delight As prisoned birds must find in freedom, Winging wildly across the white Orchards and dark-green fields; on - on - and out of sight. Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted; And beauty came like the setting sun: My heart was shaken like tears; and horror Drifted away… O, but Everyone Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done. (Everyone Sang, by Siegfried Sassoon)

I’m not an expert on birds, so what I say should be tempered with the understanding that I’m just pontificating here. The notion that under lockdown the birds were singing louder – was it just that we could hear them, for once?

Published in: on June 30, 2020 at 12:01 am  Comments Off on Birdsong  
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