Book review: Scotland After the Virus, edited by Gerry Hassan and Simon Barrow

This new collection of essays, poetry and fiction asks whether Scotland can turn the threats and shock of the Covid-19 pandemic into opportunities for positive change. Review by Joyce McMillan

A quiet Parliament Square. PIC Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
A quiet Parliament Square. PIC Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

During the first Covid-19 lockdown, last spring, the Edinburgh-based artist and weaver James Donald began to take photographs of details which attracted his attention during his daily walks. The grain of an old wooden door, textures of stone and brick, swirls of paint from urban graffiti; he photographed them all, giving a colour to each walk, and eventually making them into postcard images which he sold online for the benefit of NHS charities.

It’s James Donald’s blue series of pictures that Gerry Hassan and Simon Barrow have chosen as the cover image for their new anthology Scotland After The Virus; and there’s something about its combination of intense observation, clear-eyed modernity and sheer beauty, expressed in a colour so closely associated with Scotland, that seems like a perfect fit for this ground-breaking collection of essays, poetry and fiction about where Scotland finds itself now, during the Covid pandemic, and whether we – along with other countries across the globe – can turn the multiple shocks and threats of the past year into opportunities for positive and life-giving change.

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Across 40 essays and 300 pages, the book – a speedy crisis follow-up to Hassan and Barrow’s previous anthologies A Nation Changed? (2017) and Scotland The Brave? (2019) – surveys the potential for transformative change in areas of Scottish life ranging from the justice system, football, mental health, and racial inequality, to the urgent need to abandon perpetual economic growth as a marker of national success, and to nurture new kinds of grassroots democracy.

Scotland After the Virus, edited by Gerry Hassan and Simon Barrow

Beyond that, though, it also seeks to tap into the creative inner life of the country, weaving a rich pattern of stories and poems through the chapters, in which writers including Kirstin Innes, Kapka Kassabova, Alan Bissett, and Anne C Frater delve into the deep experience of the pandemic, from Cheryl Follon’s wild and gorgeous dream of a hairdresser deprived of clients, to Christie Williamson’s Shetland vision of a world turned upside down, and “severed for ay fae the past’s teddir”.

And just occasionally, there are powerful pieces – including Pat Kane’s eloquent essay on Scotland as potential ark and laboratory in an age of global meltdown, and Simon Barrow’s conversation about the spiritual impact of the pandemic with Alison Phipps and Alastair Mcintosh – that succeed both as political essays and as creative visions of a different future; all of them informed by a profound understanding that to return the old normal, after this profound disruption to economic and psychological patterns that were proving so destructive to our humanity and our planet, would be a missed opportunity on a catastrophic scale.

The question of Scottish independence is present in the book, of course; not least in brief and thoughtful essays by former SNP MSP Marco Biagi and former Labour First Minister Henry McLeish about the current perceived balance of risks around independence, and about the historic failure of the parties of the Union fully to engage with the new reality of UK politics since the devolution settlements of 1997-99. At the end of his essay, Pat Kane even refers to the famous title page quote in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, published 40 years ago this year. “To permanently imagine yourself ‘in the early years of a better nation’ was never more relevant and helpful a mindset than now,” says Kane.

Yet this anthology – vibrant, poignant, full of unexpected angles, acquainted with despair, yet often charged with hope – offers a living example of how little those visions of a future Scotland now have to do with separation; and how much, at least in the language, concerns, fears and insights captured here, with the task of finding that deeper sense of connection with humanity and nature, across all boundaries, that is fast becoming an essential tool of survival in our time.

Scotland After The Virus, edited by Gerry Hassan and Simon Barrow, Luath Press, £14.99

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Joy Yates, Editorial Director