“You know that when I was thirteen years old, I broke my leg. It was actually the lion’s share of the leg – the thighbone. I had to spend ten weeks in traction, with my leg suspended in the air in front of me. A metal pin had been drilled through the knee to prop the severed bone in place whilst it was busy growing back.
“For ten weeks this leg had withered in front of me. The one beside it had done little better. The muscles in these legs had become as lifeless as refrigerated hams. No doubt the section of the brain that usually dealt with these legs’ reflexes had rediverted the freed-up processing capacity into… I don’t know… fluttering my eyelashes.
“Anyway, after the surgeon had extracted the pin and the bone was back in one piece, I had needed to learn how to walk again. I have learned to walk twice during my life, once when I was emerging from babyhood and once when I was thirteen. The second time around it was dizzy and nauseating and it taught me how powerless the mind always really is over the body. I was wobbling about on this slippery rubber thing that was nominally shaped like a leg but that refused to behave like one. It was a leg that had forgotten how to be a leg.
“I had virtually no schooling during my ten weeks in traction. This gap in my education was comparable to that which many of Scotland’s state-educated teenagers are presently experiencing. Maybe, as a writer, I would be now like Leo Tolstoy if I had not suffered this gap. Who knows? Maybe my own bedraggled circumstances portend what the future of many of Scotland’s poor teenagers is going to look like.
“Being in traction for ten weeks should have left me more mentally equipped to cope with the lockdown than the average citizen. In truth, it makes my despair seem only more realistic and three-dimensional. Edinburgh is today exactly like an atrophied leg that will need to learn how to walk again. The muscles of its economy have been frozen for a long time and it is not clear that they will be ever able to bear the weight that is placed on them.”
This was James talking on Skype over breakfast. I remembered his words when I ventured out for my afternoon walk. In the midsummer sunshine, there were hundreds of young people gathering on the Meadows and laying out blankets. I drifted further into the centre and onto the Royal Mile, where the city dropped suddenly into a weird aquarium-like silence.
At this time of year, the Royal Mile is meant to resemble an international, multi-activity holiday camp and theme park. Now there were only a couple of people to be seen, here and there. They looked as perky as sparrows that have come out when the rain is drying up. They were pouring over the desolate shops with gleaming, satisfied eyes and privately admiring the eeriness, much as I dare say I was doing. This street now appeared stiffly unreal, as though it was a replica model of the Royal Mile in which none of the doors or windows could open. Or, as James would have it, a leg whose muscles had wasted away from underuse.
Take the Royal Mile’s pubs. During the lockdown, their regular customers will have fallen into new routines and devised makeshift alternatives. These pubs might struggle to retrieve their errant customers, especially if they are allowed only to reopen as unpleasantly controlled environments. The customers could be required to adhere to as many rules as they do in the workplaces that they are supposed to be fleeing from. Moreover, these pubs will have no data in their archives to inform them about consumer demand in a post-lockdown economy. They will not know how much stock to buy and how many staff to put on the floor. Some pubs will be unable to bear this complicated weight that is being placed on them.
Where the leg analogy is at fault is perhaps in the widespread lack of any impatience to begin walking again. When it comes to my own job, I am unsettled to find myself both hating the meaninglessness of life without work and feeling curiously devoid of any genuine desire to go back. The thing is that I will be proceeding straight from no work to huge quantities of unnecessary or worthless work.
Half of our customers will not take the “social-distancing” regulations seriously and so they will need to be sternly henpecked. I hate henpecking. The remaining half will be neurotically obsessed about obeying the regulations. This half will comprise those people who had previously made an endless, narcissistic fuss about imaginary food allergies and who had used the term “my mental health” to describe whatever listless mood they happened to be in. And when I look at any customer I will need to be able to tell, at a glance, which half they should be categorised in. If I get this wrong, I will either offend their neurotic sensibility or come across as a humourless bureaucrat.
Every shop that I passed on the Royal Mile was shut. With its atmosphere of cacophonously multiplying public holidays, the lockdown has lately become like some world in a children’s book where it is permanently Christmas. It is additionally like Christmas in that a tiny number of people still remember and observe the original reason for the festivities. We have reached a stage in the lockdown where mentioning the coronavirus is now as much of a faux pas as referring joyously to the birth of Jesus at a drunken Christmas party.
I was back on the Meadows. Hundreds of people were drinking and partying and taking off their t-shirts and going barefoot. There were enough people here to build a pyramid. Enough people to chisel the stone blocks, to stack them on to rollers, to drag them out to Portobello, and to erect the monumental, sublimely pointless pointed structure. Yet through some unaccountable senility in the economic system all of this massive labour was going spare. Everybody was sitting about having fun and relaxing and looking bored from the bottom of their souls.
If James was here he would joke that he was going to drive around in a van and shriek at the sunbathers through a megaphone. “All of you, get indoors! – Stop sitting here doing nothing! – You should be inside, reading our website!”
I do not wish to be misinterpreted. I am not one of these people on Twitter who is demanding that the police drive everyone off the Meadows. It is increasingly alarming how these comments have come to echo the calls from regime loyalists for Tiananmen Square to be cleared. A great many of these comments could be cut from 1989 and pasted on to 2020 without any alteration in meaning. Both 1989 and 2020 entail escalating complaints about the “chaos” and “litter.”
The Edinburgh Evening News’ review of the litter crisis saw it triumphantly brandishing some “soiled toilet paper,” as though in the great crime that had been perpetrated by the working class, this was the smoking gun. Finally, in order to bring closure, some community activists and litter-pickers had collected the rubbish and used it to vastly spell out the number of Scotland’s dead from COVID-19. As per the cliché, this was majestically filmed from above by a drone. If one says to these people, “you and whose army?,” their army is apparently the dead. Scotland’s corpses have been trundled out to shame Edinburgh’s partygoers, in the crassest and most warped of moralistic stunts.
This demonstrates once again that “the community” often never quite turns out to include most people. The Pavilion Café, a community hub for organic produce and yoga workshops, fell foul of the people at the very moment when it had at last encountered popular culture. Men and even women were tiptoeing away theatrically from the Meadows to urinate against the café’s walls en masse. Idly, I wondered which was worse, the disrespect of urinating against the Pavilion Café or the foolishness of having to take a forty-minute round trip back home to use the bathroom responsibly.
It was actually Tori rather than James who had bent my thoughts to rightness on this. Or rather, this had occurred whilst she had been relaying some complaints that her younger cousin, Pippa, had made to her. There are currently thousands of young people in the city who have no school or college or work to go to. For months, there have been no pubs or nightclubs available to them. The government, and its cheerleaders, expect these young people to sit passively in their houses and there are immediate cries of “selfishness” whenever any signs of normal human behaviour begin to resume. But these young people want to get drunk and to hook up and to have fun. For many of them, the Meadows is all that they have left. In effect, it is either the Meadows or a nervous breakdown.
So these commentators who are condemning the partygoers on the Meadows for their selfishness, their drunkenness and their litter-throwing might be guilty of a basic lack of empathy. But you cannot afford to succumb to empathy if you are going to condemn the partygoers on the Meadows for their selfishness, their drunkenness and their litter-throwing.
Even so, I think that to agree with Pippa incurs some risk of becoming dopey and sentimental. The furlough scheme has transformed all of these young people who are partying on the Meadows into the aristocracy of the lockdown. The proletariat, meanwhile, are the nurses who are doing long shifts at the hospitals and the shop owners who are up all night trying to salvage the wreckage of their businesses and, yes, even potentially the council workers who are clearing away the litter. The taxes that these workers are paying will be naturally allocated to the partygoers on the Meadows. If we have created a brand new aristocracy out of nothing, we can hardly avoid basking in the resulting decadence.