A last walk around the Stirchley Co-op – a photo essay

On 25th January 2020, the Stirchley Co-op sadly closed forever. The urge to see it one last time was strong. It was a strange feeling, after all it was just a shop. And yet… this was the supermarket I had grown up with in the 1970s-80s and returned to in the 2000s-10s.

Now, as we entered another decade, it was finally disappearing. The Co-op had been in Stirchley since 1875 and on the Umberslade Rd/Hazelwell Lane site since 1914. Its closure was big local news. In the era of late capitalism, it felt as if this was part of a wider crumbling in the way we run our society, the Co-op somehow a victim of a race to the bottom.

But that's a different post… To say goodbye I wanted to take a slow walk around Stirchley’s greatest ever retail character.

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My Co-op memories

It was a supermarket I grew up with from childhood. I remember it when it was a thriving shop with a large dairy and rows of milk carts, where the lower car park is now.

I remember being allowed the treat of licking the Co-op Blue Saver and Green Shield stamps and sticking them in a stamp book so Mum could get some money off the groceries. Someone said on Twitter today that Stirchley was never a working class area – "as working class as Shoreditch". I beg to differ. There wasn't a lot of money around here in the '70s. Any money off was coveted.

It was also our local pop-to shop where our Irish catholic working class parents got their whisky ‘n’ fags before KwikSave moved into the high street and undercut them. I moved to London in the late 1980s but would help Mum shop there. She often bumped into friends and would stop for a catchup chat in the aisles. I have no memory of my Dad ever setting foot in it – feminism came late to our house and arrived courtesy of the women on the belt at Cadbury's somewhere in the 1980s.

Years later, I was back and single and heartbroken – and grieving. I recall many Friday/Saturday nights when popping to the Co-op was the tragic highlight of my evening. A place of comfort and loneliness all in one. Is this what my life had become I wondered as I walked across the two pedestrian crossings, past the brimming Three Horseshoes, tears rolling silently down my face. Still, be positive… I got a good Coop saver deal on my saucepans.

The ‘Society Café’ past the tills was where I went on a date circa 2003 – for dating irony at this point. We had tea and cake on the sofas while a mini brass band ensemble and carol singers played Christmas carols. Then he lent me music and books that I pretended to like, as was the dating tradition.

The café was also a destination for pensioners, local councillors, kids and hipsters alike. These were the days before Stirchley had many daytime cafés to escape to. Where you could get an unbranded cuppa char for £1.50. 

I didn’t realise I was building up such nostalgia for this shop that many other B30 residents lambasted for its high prices and empty shelves, especially in its final years. The arrival of the cut-price German supermarkets, Aldi and Lidl, and food e-tailers were sounding the death knell.

At a corporate level the Co-op Group had been going through some turbulent economic times, with the near collapse of its bank in 2013 (it is now out of the banking business). But I always forgave the Co-op because it had more ethical policies in place than other cheaper supermarkets.

Still I was sad to see it run down over the years. More recently, with nowhere else to go in the rain, it became a place we took my new great-nephew for a pram ride around the aisles (if that isn't an indictment of our capitalist society and leisure offerings, I don't know what is). And when he started toddling, a trip to The Works concession at the back of the store for a book or toy. To him, it was still a world of exciting colour and riding the shopping trolleys. 

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The Co-op walk we had to cancel

The Stirchley Co-op’s last day was a Saturday and there wasn’t much shopping to be done anymore. The shelves had been slowly emptying over the previous weeks and whole sections of the store were now being closed off. The number of open tills shrank and then were removed. The raw infrastructure of the supermarket was being revealed in a slow uncovering of hook-on shelving, wire racks and easy-clean metal racks.

Locals were tweeting about the ‘apocalyptic scenes’ as if the end were nigh. Given what was to come, it was prescient.

Little did we know that a global pandemic was about to hit. That panic buying loo rolls and hand sanitiser was about to become a national sport. Or that we would soon have to travel much further afield to get basic food supplies during lockdown.

Before we knew any of this was coming, fellow Stirchley resident and psychogeographer Andy Howlett and I decided to walk the Co-op.

To: “mournfully walk up and down the empty isles, browsing instead the infrastructure that remains”.

To embrace: “The stark angles of empty metal shelving! The receding vistas of shopper-free aisles! The rhythm of its layout and walkways! The final beeps of the disappearing tills! The barren promotional structures offering no deals!” 

To say a last goodbye.

We decided to put it up as an event on Facebook for friends and residents to join us. But when 120 people expressed an interest, we knew we’d hit a nerve and this walk would either be a great thing – or trouble.

Sadly our funereal store procession was not to be… 

We received a nudge from the councillor and an alarmed email from a respected Neighbourhood Forum member that the walk wouldn’t go down well with staff. Although staff had all been offered new jobs with Morrison’s, who had taken over the site, it was felt a walk by the public would be inappropriate.

And so we cancelled the event. (It still lives on at LiveBrum listings archive – someone added it to the site and it lives on as a memorial marker perhaps.) To be honest we didn’t think so many people would want to come. We probably shouldn’t have formalised it into a group ‘walk’.

I sometimes wonder if the staff would have understood the sense of occasion and the community's wish to mark a historical day. Perhaps even enjoyed the shenanigans like the flash mobs of old. Instead the Co-op slipped quietly away.

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Goodbye Stirchley Co-op

On closing day, just three of us went ahead for a last walk up and down the aisles of this iconic store. We met outside, slightly worried that 100 people might still show up. They didn't.

Keri, Andy and I walked slowly around the store, visiting every area that was still open, talking about the changes and taking photos. Staff were laughing and joking. Maybe they were relieved. A near-empty supermarket, shorn of its shiny goods, has to be demoralising. 

The Stirchley History Group had set up a small exhibition of the history of Co-ops in the area. It showed the incredible Harrods-like original building on the corner of Umberslade Rd. My elderly friend Rita, now 90, fondly recalls a hat concession on the upstairs level. Why it was knocked down and replaced with a box and the upstairs never used, I don't know. Progress, I suppose.

The exhibition also had a supercuts model of a local TASCO (Ten Acres & Stirchley Co-operative Society). More local TASCO historical photos here.

After visiting it, the three of us went for a ceremonial tea in the Society Café, where we reminisced. Then, as a surprise, Keri pulled out a poem he had written to mark this day.

It was his way of saying goodbye to the Co-op. He read it out for us and I wished the staff could have heard it, too. Reproduced here with permission.

Elegy to a Co-op

In Stirchley, fair Stirchley, a proud beacon burns
To a positive wealth of cooperative firms
There’s Artefact, Loaf and of course the Bike Foundry 
But now we are faced with a very sad quandary
By the gyratory, where the cars stop,
The mum of them all is now shutting up shop.

Over the years, we have given a wave
To Fitness First, Ten Pin and (less missed) KwikSave
The Co-op has fallen foul of a sad plot
So more than a Lidl – we’ll miss you a lot

You’re not just a supermarket. You offered more
As Stirchley’s own miniature department store
With bedding and linens, and cheap deep fat fryers
Tellies and vacuums and big tumble driers.
And there at the back an enormous amount
Of books that you’d not even want at a discount

When needing some supper we’d pop along late
To shuffle through food near its best-before date
Each one yellow-stickered and begging ‘choose me’
Like sad Cinderella, disconsolately

An eclectic selection contained in our hand,
Then we’d be faced with a different demand
The challenge that buying your purchases posed
With nine tills and checkouts – and eight of them closed

And on Sunday mornings, now where will we go for
An eight-item breakfast on black leather sofa?
Though some people avoided you, some people dissed
Please understand that you’ll always be missed

And so what approaches us from the horizon?
The future is brought to us by Mister Morrison
He means well, I’m sure, with his newly found operatives
But sadly for us, they will be un – Cooperative

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A new beginning

And so it ended. We each left and turned in different directions.

The Stirchley Co-op is dead, long live its new cooperatives (Loaf, Bike Foundry and Artefact). And with their Stirchley Co-operative Development plans for the corner of Hunts Rd/Pershore Rd currently going through local planning and endorsed by MP Steve McCabe, perhaps in some way the baton has been passed on.

From upper case Co-op to lower case co-ops, perhaps this shift in in our high street augurs for a better society and a more modern 'Stirchley'.

Next week on 9 July 2020, delayed by the Covid-19 lockdown, a new Morrison’s will open on the site. Anyone fancy a walk?

Further info and walks

This Stirchley walk and photo essay is part my 'Perambulate With Me' series of 12 walks around Stirchley. More about this and other walking projects on the Walking page.

Currently I'm involved in the Mapping Stirchley project through Walkspace, and we will be creating some walks from the community sourced 'map of noticed things' soon. Join the Walkspace Facebook and Twitter, or sign up for the newsletter to find out more.

Pandemic diary 100: Looking back at 100 days of lockdown

Don't doom-scroll the news, says Clem. #toptip

I'm not going to lie, personally I already miss the lockdown.

Despite the ongoing anxiety-inducing circumstances of a global pandemic, the lockdown itself was often a time of peace and quiet and reflection and safety, free of many of the usual obligations of life.

Looking back, I mostly remember it for the May heatwave spent in the garden, for scary trips out to the supermarket, for walks in the middle of local empty streets, for the birdsong and clean air, for allotment visits, for the utter joy of seeing other people in real life when that was allowed, for the weird enforced distance with loved ones, for the escapism of my media diet, for the Thursday community clap, and, of course, for writing this daily (nighttimely?) diary.

Already I'm forgetting what those early days were like. As the rules shifted and changed so did our emotions, responses and reactions to the threat. It's good to have written it all down in real time – and I've already submitted this diary to several archive projects for the record.

The start

I started writing the day full lockdown in the UK started on 24 March, although I'd been writing privately well before that (rounded up in Pandemic diary 3: a brief history of coronavirus in Stirchley, Birmingham).

I was sitting in the garden and heard a row breaking out across the street (Pandemic diary 1: First fracas). I remembering wondering if this was what was going to happen when people were cooped up together and not really allowed out. Domestic violence has been a big issue of this time (Pandemic diary 94: A down day), along with George Floyd and Black Lives Matter (Pandemic diary 69: The murder of George Floyd).

From day one, I decided there needed to be bunny photos in each post to lighten the mood. The template quickly became: BUNNIES, BLOGGING, BLESSINGS!

Back then we had two rabbits, of course. We lost one around four weeks later and didn't get to be with him at the end because of coronavirus (Pandemic diary 23: Goodbye Bunminster).

The diary acted as therapy, social record and a letter to the future. I thought it would last a week, then a month and then 100 seemed the next round number, and here we are.

Make hay while the bun shines – or eat it, recommends Bunminster. RIP.

Writer's cramp brings in new perspectives

I had an RSI flare-up in the middle of the diary when, on top of working and daily blogging, I both went for a job (Pandemic diary 87: Socially distanced job interview) and submitted a long piece of creative writing work to a publisher (neither successful). Writing every day was a pain in the neck at the end of a long day, literally.

Thank goodness then for guest diarists who were kind enough to write a post about their lockdown life.

It was great to get the perspectives of others. There were 12 or 13 in all, I think – from funny entries to angry rants, to the in-depth experiences of friends who were shielding, were inadvertently part of coronavirus transmission due to the government's slow pandemic response or were severely ill with Covid-19. They came from Brum, London and as far away as New Zealand.

Thank you for offering your insights but even more for giving me a night off!

No, seriously, I feel honoured. Ta babs!

What kept me going

Mostly sheer will but also regular readers and feedback. I joke that I work for praise…

The blog stats for the period show 2,300 users and 5,200 unique visits which is incredible. And partly why I added the 'hire/commission me' line at the end of each post – the work of freelance writers is precarious at the best of times.

Unusually for blogs these days, there were lots of comments. Thanks to regular readers and commenters both on Facebook and on the blog, I didn't feel so alone. In truth, they kept me going (Pandemic diary – day 30: Do I keep writing?).

Thanks Chris, Liz, Hazel, Tracey, the Wrinkly Rocker, other Liz, Sheena, Tania, Sue, Kerry, John, Kate, Camilla, Lo, Frank, Julia and others. And, of course, husband Pete who read the blog every night – often voluntarily – and proofread some of the tougher ones.

If I'd kept everything in my own private diary then you bet I'd have skipped a few days or weeks or just flung a few notes down when I was tired. Having an online community was an important part of the process.

To be fair, connecting over tech is how many people have held it together in the face of sudden extreme isolation.

Name check and shout-outs here to The Artefact Quiz and our distributed quiz team (Pandemic diary 67: The Artefact Quiz – pandemic edition), the fellow ukenauts of Moselele (Pandemic diary: Day 10 – Moselele turns 10), drinking pals (Pandemic diary 45: To the pub!) and friends and family for Zoom birthday celebrations, baby gender reveals and online coffee mornings.

Highlights and lowlights

On day 54 I wrote a post about death and getting my affairs in order – just in case (Pandemic diary 54: Confronting death pt 1). But there was never a pt2 philosophical/spiritual followup. Because somewhere along the way, all this became a 'new normal' – as the coronavocab would have it. The immediate oppressive thoughts of death somehow receded, to the point where a lot of us now are pretending like there is no killer virus risk and especially not at the beach (Pandemic diary 93: Lockdown all but lifted).

Posting 'the numbers' on Covid cases and deaths locally, nationally and worldwide did help keep me focused. Pretty sobering. I should add them here but I can't face it. (Update at 12/7/20:289,603 UK cases, 44,819 Covid-associated UK deaths , 21 additional deaths on 11/7/20 and 650 further cases. There were 25,767 cases across the West Midlands. And in Birmingham 4,853 cases and 1,162 deaths with 63 new cases last week. Comparisons are shaky but on deaths per thousand, it looks as if the UK has been the hardest hit of the leading G7 nations. The death rate for this time of year has now returned to normal with no excess deaths. Sources: Gov.uk and BBC.)

My best blog headline was clickbait: Pandemic diary 36: Great tits.

My most read was: Pandemic diary 23: Goodbye Bunminster.

The second most read was: Pandemic diary 81: Lockdown walks lead to a new map – a community project which arose from walking the same streets every day on our state-sanctioned walks.

There were multimedia attempts to address the challenges of mental and physical health, more to entertain myself and fill the days: Pandemic diary 60: Surfing meditation gets bitchin' real and Pandemic diary 8: Exercising with bunnies.

I don't have a favourite post but I did enjoy the journey in this one: Pandemic diary 71: A peripatetic tale of sunscreen.

There were down days: Pandemic diary 82: When melancholia hits…, Pandemic diary 94: A down day.

There were good days: Pandemic diary 90: I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of Stirchley, Pandemic diary 73: Amuselele.

And there were moments of change and big discussion:

There were new common traditions:

There was the very first post: Pandemic diary 1: first fracas

And now the very last: Pandemic diary 100: Looking back at 100 days of lockdown.

'Thanks'

Then there were the thanks at the end of each post – the things and people I was grateful for or brought me joy. I might have to gather them into a whole separate post one day. Yes, the fluffy bunny at the start and the upbeat thanks formed a 'shit sandwich' but there is another reason.

In 2019, I learnt the power of gratitude from going to a dementia therapy group with a newly diagnosed friend. There I learnt that focusing on what you are thankful for can bring joy, especially amid anxiety and the unknown. A gratitude/goal diary can be very helpful as a way to deal with challenging mental health situations. It also helps programme the brain to think more positively and combats that frequent negative internal monologue and other doom-laden thoughts.

Gratitude brings joy into everyday moments. As a certain TED and Netflix vulnerability guru says…

A good life happens when you stop and are grateful for the ordinary moments that so many of us just steamroll over to try to find those extraordinary moments.

Brene Brown

So today I am thankful for so many things despite the ever-present 'situation'. I'm also thankful that things are changing. Life goes on. Thankfully.

What did I learn, what did I gain?

I'm not sure yet. It helped me sleep, for sure! There is nothing like emptying out your brain every evening for a good night's sleep. And I've learnt I can write every day, come what may. There is now no excuse for putting off 'the book'.

'100 days of lockdown' has done its job and fulfilled its purpose – it's here, these things happened and have been recorded. There is a social record from my little corner of the world. We're not through this pandemic yet, so maybe I'll be back – if I need it.

But also I need to stop. I'm looking forward to taking a break and getting back to 'normal'. Whatever that may be.

I hope I've inspired, entertained or connected with people at some point along the way. Maybe someone reading this will start a diary. Now that would make me really happy.

100 days! Can you believe it?

Wash your paws after you touch new doors – says young rescue bun Nathan, who is arriving in a couple of weeks where he will be renamed Dymaxion, the 'son' of Professor Bunminster Fuller.

PS. I'll leave you with our new bun from Fat Fluffs Rescue who will be arriving in a couple of weeks. He'll be bonded with Clementine Bundango once he's recovered from the snip. Say hi to Dymaxion! #allthenames

Commission/hire me: fiona [at] fionacullinan.com

Pandemic diary 99: Collaging lockdown, dreaming of future escapes and the holiday issue

A friend commented on one of my earlier posts that I was "really LIVING each day". Which did make me smile since I have found lockdown life pretty limiting. I'm not sure if she was referring to the daily writing here or the sudden interest in my allotment or my rich inner life where I imagine going surfing, for example. But 'really living' for me usually involves going somewhere with sea and mountains. Preferably a warm country far away but, more often now, Wales and Cornwall.

Since the recent announcements around lifting travel and holiday restrictions, my dreaming of holidays has escalated. Yesterday, I ended up having a collage session in which three 'map women' emerged from my subconscious.

Map women – slowly becoming a collage series.

Prior to that it was walking and surfing that came out of my collage sessions.

The walkers were all alone and distanced. Often they had their hands raised in triumph and joy. They were also torn, which gave them an extra divided, emotional feel. All the cuts and tears were of open countryside because walking mags don't really show urban walking. (Maybe they should since so many of us have rediscovered our local zones and the area within a mile of so of our homes.)

'Left, right, left, right, left, right.'

In our case, we also discovered 'extreme noticing' by walking the same streets over and over during lockdown, and this led to creating a local map of our findings, which has opened up new ways of thinking about and walking our local area.

The surfing was just expressing a desire to see the sea (or dive into the sky, which some of the waves were made from). Brummies have a thing about the 'seaside' – we need to see the sea once a year in order to live in a landlocked city the rest of the time.

‘You should have been here yesterday.’ I read a 500-page surf biography Barbarian Days during lockdown and stormy big waves were on my mind for about three weeks.

Before the holiday dreaming started, my collages were a bit darker. I wanted to log them here as responses to lockdown life. Every two weeks members of Birmingham Collage Collective were invited to submit a Birmingham-themed collage responding to the lockdown.

My collages were not the best I've done as I felt quite blocked and frustrated at the time, but they did reflect the isolation and social distancing, the work furloughs and the growing death toll.

I did four over the project and I'll post them here for the record.

April 22: 'Distancing'
May 6: 'Furloughed from the Wesleyan, Birmingham'.
May 6: There is a six-week backlog of burials in Birmingham, said my neighbour.
May 22: 'Toxic hands'

After writing about Commitment issues a couple of days ago, I think I will commit to doing a bit more collage practice. And maybe combine it with walking.

Update: these and other Birmingham Collage Collective lockdown collages are now being added to a Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery archive around Birmingham life in lockdown (see Flickr site and project info).

Holiday – yes or no?

I won't be going on holiday for some time yet. At least, not internationally. I'm not ready to get on a plane but, much more than that, I'm not willing to risk getting ill with Covid-19 overseas. Not just for healthcare reasons but because of the potential financial impact.

My friend Jill, who is a travel journalist, said that almost no insurers will cover the cost of Covid-19 now – or if borders closed again, or quarantine was required. And thanks to Brexit, Brits will only have EHIC coverage until the end of this year. So her best advice is stick to the EU in 2020.

As for next year or going long-haul, who can afford a potential hospital stay, possibly in intensive care? Surely this could bankrupt people!? Not worth the risk for a week or two away.

Jill started a discussion on LinkedIn about holidays and airbridges. She said that she would be booking to get away as soon as she possibly could (although not flying… yet).

Others responded to say that potential contagion meant they had "lost their enthusiasm for travel" or that being freelance "I don't want to blow money on a holiday, if I could be out of work in a couple of months" or "I won't be doing any international travel until a vaccine is created for this virus". Basically health, finances and anxieties meant foreign travel is a no-no for many people. My favourite response was from a cyclist: "I have been delightfully surprised at just how much a sense of travel I can experience within a 12 mile radius of home." Preach!

The balancing responses were: "A totally 'risk-free' life frankly isn't much of a life" and "already booked a flight to Italy" and city dwellers may be desperate for "some fresh air and green space" by now. Meanwhile, an independent travel agent seemed relieved their industry was cranking to life: "I have been making sure I keep up to date with hotel, airline and airport regulations so I can advise my clients on how to travel safely."

We've all got different risk profiles. I'm looking at Wales or Devon by car – but as a freelancer I also need to be sure I've got the income first. Warm swimming pool seas may have to remain a dream until 2021 or even 2022.

Roll on the vaccine, so to speak.

Thanks

Today I am thankful for my GP. I've delayed checking out some new moles – a non-essential thing (hopefully). With no face-to-face appointments I took photos, sent them in and booked in for a follow-up chat.

Turns out they are not even moles but th lesions of ageing and, man, they have some fancy names. One of the two suspect items is called a Campbell de Morgan. Also called cherry angioma (another top name). It's so posh, I might start introducing it to friends. Or perhaps name a bunny after it: Lady Bunnella Campbell de Morgan?


Commission/hire me: fiona [at] fionacullinan.com


Pandemic diary 98: 'Covid-19 was a Mother’s Day gift' (guest post)

A little dude at Fat Fluffs to cheer the soul – we did an early morning vet drop of six rabbits today.

Sometimes I feel I’m stuck inside a giant human sand timer waiting to go through the bottleneck and hopefully come out the other side.

Back in March, the wake-up call quote was when Prime Minister Johnson said many of us will “lose loved ones before their time”. I’ve been lucky. I’m still in the top section of the sand timer. And nearly 100 days in, I don’t know anyone personally who has died from Covid-19. I also only know three people for certain who have had it, all dealing with after-effects of recovery.

One is a friend of a friend, from ‘stoic Irish stock’, who I’d heard was knocked out by coronavirus quite early on. Colette is a mother of three grown-up kids, works as a college counsellor and lives in south Birmingham.

I felt this '100 Days' diary needed to record someone who had actually experienced Covid-19 and Colette kindly agreed to write about her time with the 'Rona…

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Transmission

What a surreal experience this lockdown has been. Thinking back to those early days, and what seems like a lifetime ago that my eldest son returned home from a ‘final’ visit with his girlfriend to tell me that she had been unwell over the weekend. Nothing serious, just a high temperature and sickness. 

What a lovely Mother’s Day gift! 

The ‘virus’ was just about to hit our household, but I did not feel particularly worried as I am a 50+ female who is fit and healthy (although I do have mild asthma). 

Days 1-9

By the following weekend I began to feel a ‘bit weird’. Initially I was just out of sorts – headache, slight nausea but I couldn’t face my Friday night curry and G&T, which is unheard of. 

Saturday morning usually means an early rise to do the weekly shop before the rush. I had to drag myself out of bed but only made it to the sofa as the vertigo and nausea were overwhelming. No high temperature or cough, so no virus, right? 

The high temperature hit over Saturday night. Even paracetamol didn’t seem to work and the fever appeared out of control. This lasted for about five days. The nausea and fatigue remained constant and I found this really distressing. 

After the temperature was under control, I then developed a D and V bug for two days – I’ll spare you the detail but it was nasty! 

Then an itchy rash appeared, it looked very much like chickenpox and my torso was covered. 

This was closely followed by some sniffles and a cough that worsened day by day. 

I pretty much stayed in bed for a week and the family would pop their head round the door. We all had to isolate at home. My son was able to go out and get supplies after seven days as he was the first to have symptoms.

Day 10

This was the day to worry, so the media told me, and there were some scary moments, prompting my husband to call the doctor and the Covid-19 helpline. “Stay at home and only go to the hospital if you can’t breathe,” was the advice. 

This was a difficult time and seemed to go on forever. 

When my chest hurt and my breathing worsened, I didn’t know if it was the time to call an ambulance or I was having a panic attack. It was a bewildering time and I didn’t want to overreact, but I also didn’t want to miss something or wait until it was too late.

The toughest part of this whole thing was not being able to get any reassurance from a medical professional.

Day 14

It wasn’t until day 14 that I noticed my sense of smell and taste had disappeared – probably because this was the first time I had eaten for a week. 

Recovery

I was ill for over 20 days, but Covid-19 isn’t a ‘usual’ illness. I’d wake up one morning thinking I was getting better. I would try and do something ‘normal’, like potter in the garden but would need to lie down part way through any physical exertion. 

I was the only member of my family of five to develop these symptoms – apart of my eldest son, or ‘super spreader’ as we fondly refer to him. His symptoms were mild, mainly consisting of loss of smell and taste. 

Three months later

I am still recovering three months after first contracting the virus. 

I feel tired, even after a good night sleep, I am still breathless and eagerly await the full return of smell and taste, which still haven’t properly recovered. 

I am also overly anxious, particularly about leaving the house. The first time I went into the supermarket alone – about six weeks after first developing symptoms – I panicked and forgot what I needed to buy. I purchased a bottle of shampoo for £15.95 because I had picked it up by mistake!

Covid-19 is the Mother’s Day gift that keeps on giving taking!

What’s your view of the wider situation now?

I don’t want to become ill again, but I have been conscious of spreading something to others. I am careful about handwashing and using sanitiser, but I was like that before if I am honest!

I try not to judge what others are doing – most people are just absentminded about ‘new rules’, I think. We all have to be more patient and take things more slowly. 

I am frustrated when I see packed beaches, etc, but I understand that people just want some normality in their lives. I’m not sure what we can do to change this aspect. I think the Dominic Cummings situation was a turning point for many people and was handled badly by the government.

Any advice?

Just make sure you follow precautions. Don’t take risks and be mindful that others may not have the same immunity as you. Respect each other. 

Thanks

Thanks again to Colette for writing for the 'pandiary'. Hope the recovery continues and life gets back to normal asap.

I had a nice day, which started early, doing a pickup of six rabbits from Fat Fluffs who needed to be picked up and transported to the vets for 9am. I am thankful that Fat Fluffs exists – rabbits are a neglected pet and they are a dedicated rabbit rescue, specialising in bunnycare. Plus they do boarding, adoption, bonding and also look after a permanent floof of older, health-challenged rabbits who can't be adopted out.

Finally I'm thankful that my garden roses bring joy to others. A lady spent a good five minutes walking up and down our front garden wall, smelling every rose, twice, and the look on her face was uplifted and uplifting. What's the Covid isolation time on rose petals? 😉

I'll leave you with a collage I did for Birmingham Collage Collective's callout for lockdown/coronavirus responses last month. The endless hands reaching up towards what looks like infected hands seemed a good illustration for today's guest post. Remember when the government message was just to 'Wash your hands'?

Simpler times!

An analogue collage I did back in early May in response to the issue of hand sanitisers, hand washing and general spread of germs.

Commission/hire me: fiona [at] fionacullinan.com


Pandemic diary 97: Commitment issues

I gave someone their first guitar lesson last week – we achieved playing a single line from Fat Bottomed Girls by Queen (easy chords). He's 52 and bought an electric guitar – now all he needs is daily commitment. I took up the guitar aged 28 and ended up with a degree in pop music at 38. It's doable!

The thing about doing 97 posts for 97 days straight is that I have noticed an improvement in my writing. (Have you? I hope so.) It flows better, stays more on topic and is, judging by the stats, visited by higher numbers of readers over the quarter it has been running.

I seem to remember someone at pop music college (yes, it's true; that's how I spent the Noughties; blame Fame) saying that that you need to spend the first three months of any creative endeavour getting all the crap out of your system. Often, those few months bring forth things you think are pretty great but are really just hackneyed ideas with beginner's level execution – it's just new and great to you. To 'get good' the journey is long and takes commitment.

As a proud generalist, I rarely get to the three-month stage. Boredom and alternative interests kick in long before I actually have to show any level of proficiency.

But the things I have stuck to over the years – diaries, editing, gardening, walking, photography – well, they have each improved to the level where I get genuine satisfaction out of them. It sounds cheesy, but I get off on a job well done.

So the thing I've been thinking about today is: What next?

Yes, I am embracing the luxury of thinking about the future. After 100 days of lockdown diary writing, what next? What do I want to stick with, work on daily and dig deeper into?

Ha! As a generalist, where do I begin?

Ballet, art, walking, art walking!, creative writing, video essays, bushcraft, ebook publishing, drawing rabbits, collage, feminist activism, horticulture, surfing, fitness, a tree futures project.

I'm pondering. But if I can do X daily then in three months, I'll be through the crapola and hopefully out the other side and on to the good stuff.

If there's anything I've done more of in lockdown, it's been the allotment and collage. Collage is the probably thing that fits the SMART goal and would benefit the most from some dedicated effort. That or some kind of durational walking art – 100 days of walking and video reporting maybe?

Ideas on a postcard, as per yesterday's post.

Quick numbers check

The number of Covid-19 infections has topped 10 million worldwide with nearly half a million deaths. In South Asia and Africa, it is not expected to peak until the end of July.

Meanwhile, the first local lockdown – in Leicester – is potentially on the cards as the city experience a flare-up in number of cases (nearly 3,000 in the past two weeks).

My Zoe Covid app is showing the Midlands R rate as 1.1 – above the target of 1, which is above the UK average and one of the markers for tightening restrictions again.

Thanks

Today I am thankful for antihistamines. The wind has been blowing that pollen all over the place.

I'm grateful for a long-time friend phoning me and the good craic we always have when she does. She is much better at keeping in touch than I. Thanks T.

Also, I'm thankful for the allotment – the flowers and food crops are all in abundance right now, and it is inspiring. And it looks as if I will shortly be drowning in courgettes…

Courgette flower salad ahoy.

Commission/hire me: fiona [at] fionacullinan.com


Pandemic diary 96: Is it time to temporarily pedestrianise the high street?

METAPHOR ALERT! A white rose climber looking for help and support to climb higher.

Local lockdown survey results

My local MP for Birmingham Selly Oak, Steve McCabe, did a survey about what people felt about relaxing the lockdown. I'm sure he won't mind if I republish some of the findings here for posterity. Sadly he doesn't say how many people responded but it was a free survey so I'm guessing it was a fair few. The e-newsletter was sent out 23/6/20.

  • Relaxation of rules: 65% felt concerned that the rules were changing too quickly; 23% were not too sure and only 12% were feeling really positive
  • Trust in the PM/government decisions following Dominic Cummings saga – 78% said they had less trust; only 1% had more trust, with 21% saying it made no difference
  • Work – just under 70% had kept working throughout the crisis; a further 19% were furloughed; 12% shielding and just under 1% have been made redundant
  • Furlough – in Selly Oak constituency 10,300 jobs have been furloughed through the Job Retention Scheme ( 14% of the population)
  • Still shielding – for those not returning to work straightaway, the greatest concern was around those who are shielding and anxiety they might feel under pressure to take greater risks
  • Unemployment – figures for May 2020 unemployment in Birmingham is now 14.5%, the highest level since 1987. Youth Unemployment is at 18%.

Of course, things are moving so fast that this already feels like last month's news. Lockdown is as good as lifted with people going back to work, shops reopening and the wider movement of people starting up again.

For example, I'm just now reading about the holiday booking "explosion" following the UK gov announcing that the English can go on holiday to some European countries and not have to quarantine on their return. Which is nice for them but, ahem, isn't international travel how we all got into this global pandemic mess?

But back to local issues…

Stirchley's situation

My neighbourhood shops have mostly closed during lockdown, except for the likes of food shops – Dave's convenience store, Ward's greengrocer and Loaf bakery – and, of course, the pharmacy.

Many local businesses in Stirchley have been adapting to new trading conditions by pivoting their business models to:

  • food and drink takeaways (Attic, Birmingham Brewing Company, Couch, Alicia's, Can-Eat, Eat Vietnam, Anjuna Lounge, Balti Bazaar, Akrams and others)
  • areas where they can maintain customer safety (eg, Loaf community bakery dropping classes for bread baking)
  • running online events and happenings (Artefact's online quiz and big community art project).

There have also been casualties. Mirror Image, a longtime hairdresser on Stirchley High Street, announced it was closing permanently as "with the extended lockdown and escalation of Coronavirus we feel we can no longer ensure your safety". It was sad to see the shop emptied out when we walked past today.

As from next week (4 July), the micropubs and breweries of the Stirchley Beer Mile can open once again as drinking venues – though they will surely take a hit with all the restrictions that need to be put in place.

How else can we help our high streets?

Pedestrianising Stirchley high street, which has mostly become a place to go out rather than shop now, would be the change I would like to see – if only for certain days or evenings in the week. After all, outdoor activities carry the least risk. Plus, lockdown showed us how much better life was without vehicles clogging up the roads, and we already know we need to clean up pollution hotspots and reduce carbon emissions.

The council is supposed to be making more emergency space for distancing to happen by using parking bays as pavements, but wouldn't it be great to be able to spill out across the whole main street area, to run outdoor classes, night markets, set up stalls? Allow for safe socialising and a more outdoor economy, even if only for the summer months?

We could alternate closures with other local high streets so that we swap traffic for those times. It wouldn't suit every high street, but why not use this time to experiment and test all the options? Yes, it's radical but no more so than lockdown.

A lot of businesses in Stirchley are independent and new, and this has knocked them for six. Most are just trying to survive. And although the community wants to help and support them by buying their products and services, it's not going to be enough.

I'd like to see more creative solutions tested out now, ones that allow our high streets to pivot to the new normal that was always coming with the changing nature of retail and leisure, and bigger issues around clean air and climate change. I would like to see more options that enable small businesses to make it through to the post-Covid-19 world.

Basically, help us to help them.

Thanks

Today I am thankful for the simple things, such as, sun-warmed bricks for my coffee-drinking, biscuit-dunking arse; a dousing of rain to water all the flowers and allotment crops and save me a job; and a garden full of roses and scents – I'll leave you with our wedding rose (anniversary due in two weeks).

MARRIAGE METAPHOR ALERT – happy to report the wedding rose is thriving with barely any greenfly.

Commission/hire me: fiona [at] fionacullinan.com


Pandemic diary 95: Postcards from the edge… of Essex

My top five of 35.

For a bit of light relief after recent posts I thought I'd write about a lovely thing that has been happening once a week every week since last October.

Every Thursday/Friday a postcard pops through my door.

The picture on the front might be of a bronze sculpture, a Renaissance painting, an architectural icon, art by a well-known artist (O'Keefe, Van Gogh, Picasso), a cigar box label, a safe sex ad campaign, an 'F', religious iconography, cowgirls, Kabuki, vintage luggage label… Anything goes. I never know – and that is the beauty of it.

The postal postcards so far – although a baby's Octobering invite has also crept in there (black and gold)

The postcards are from one of the most interesting ladies you could ever hope to meet. Let's call her A. I stayed with her and Pete's uncle while visiting coastal Essex for GILF Island last September. We hit it off – I am in awe of her full life and stories to rival even John Mostyn's (another friend who's led a life worthy of an autobiography).

While there I discovered we had many things in common and one in particular: a postcard collection. Mine are all travel-themed but hers reflect a lifetime of eclectic mementos, going back 50 years. It's a life in postcards.

Rather than keep them unadmired in a box, she's sending them out to (I think) three friends weekly over the year until they run out. When I expressed an interest, I got added to the list.

Each week has a different theme, eg, animals, nude ladies, the American Southwest, family/friends, textiles, portraits, statues, Mexican California, calligraphy, church interiors, winged creatures.

I've received 35 so far – and my favourite one is a Mexican Day of the Dead skeleton couple by celebrated folk artist Javier Ramos Lucano, followed by Albrecht Durer's beautiful Field Hare (pictured top).

It's a little bit of loveliness in the post when these days it's all junkmail and bank statements on the mat.

Maybe I'll do the same one day. Maybe this collection will inspire someone else to start their own collection of random items. Maybe postcards will make a comeback. Maybe I'll send out some more diary snippets into the world one day after this 'pandiary' ends. Maybe maybe maybe.

I'm sure collecting and diary writing go hand in hand – it's all about the collecting of memories, after all. But how lovely to set them free and gift them to others.

Thanks

Today I am thankful for The Artefact Quiz. Fun times once again. What other quiz makes you post photos of your fridge and scores you on out-of-date items, mustard, fake milk, medicine and more?

Also, we won. Team 'Living La Vida Lockdown' (or Living La Visa Lockdown as my autocorrect said) came first with 96 points, probs because we had all the mustards in our fridges. There's no prize but no one cares.

Have a good weekend, everyone.


Commission/hire me: fiona [at] fionacullinan.com


Pandemic diary 94: A down day

Someone else's roses on the allotment at sunset

I’ve had a down day today. I’ve had some feedback that has knocked my confidence. And I’ve seen a lot of crap news about crowds flocking to the beaches like there is no killer virus on the loose, plus plenty of other doomscroll downers. And I’ve eaten a whole big bag of cheese and chilli crisps for comfort.

Then there was this…

Two days ago, I started a new book: ‘When Bad Things Happen in Good Bikinis: Life After Death and a Dog Called Boris’. It is about how UK author Helen Bailey coped with grief after her husband drowned in front of her while they were on holiday in Barbados in 2011. (The book is adapted from her excellent Planet Grief blog which has provided comfort to others who have lost partners and loved ones.) 

After a few chapters, I started to care about Helen and wondered how she was getting on now. Did she find love again? I typed in my search query like Google looking for happier news.

That’s when I found out that, in 2016, she had been murdered by her partner, along with her beloved dog, both of them stuffed into a cesspit deep below her home. Poor Helen had been targeted by a predator who spotted her widow’s vulnerability and proceeded to smother her in a ‘love bomb’ to  manipulate her out of her money. He killed her once she had changed her will so that he would inherit. He is currently serving a life sentence.

I mean… where do you even begin? 

Of course, we all know how the lockdown has been a different kind of nightmare for some, forced into isolation with their abusers. The increase in domestic abuse all over the world has been described by the UN as a "shadow pandemic" alongside coronavirus. 

Here in the UK, domestic abuse killings have more than doubled during lockdown, with at least 16 suspected domestic abuse killings in the UK between 23 March and 12 April alone. That there is a project called ‘Counting Dead Women’, who researched the figures, is also heartbreaking.

What can I do but post a helpline and hope that it reaches someone who reads this and needs access to support and a way out.

In the UK, the national domestic abuse helpline number is 0808 2000 247. As well as shelters and refuges, Boots the Chemist has also opened its doors as safe spaces for victims of domestic abuse.

I've had to stop reading Helen's book – it's just too hard knowing what happened to read things like her advice to 'stay safe'. She even meets her killer in the book, write about how great he is and dedicates the book to him, to her 'happy ending'. It's too awful.

Thanks

Today I am thankful for someone to tell my small-fry woes to. 

I feel better as a result and I'm now heading out to meet a friend for an allotment sunset, together with a frozen margarita from Anjuna Lounge (please support them if you're local – they opened just before lockdown so have been hit hard – and they make a great coconut daal. Order pickups via Facebook or Instagram.)

Yes, ok, I might have had a bit of a sip earlier during the crispfest.

Commission/hire me: fiona [at] fionacullinan.com


Pandemic diary 93: Lockdown all but lifted

Lockdown has lifted? Are you insane?

Yesterday I missed all the announcements from Downing Street because I was busy dealing with disappointment and banging on about books. The headlines – and there are a lot of them – from yesterday are that from 4 July in England:

  • where the 2m gap isn't possible, we should keep a distance of 1m+ and take precautions (presumably masks, not speaking directly at each other, etc)
  • restaurants, pubs and cafes in England can reopen if they follow safety guidelines
  • hospitality indoors will be table service only with limited staff/customer contact
  • we will have to give contact details if we enter a pub or restaurant
  • businesses will have to monitor crowd density, also at pinch points
  • holiday accommodation, museums and galleries, cinemas, hairdressers and children's playgrounds can also reopen
  • people in England can stay away from home overnight
  • shared facilities must be cleaned properly
  • in England, two households will be able to meet indoors or outside with distancing (unless in a bubble)
  • outdoors, people from multiple households can meet in groups of up to six.
  • libraries, community centres, funfairs, theme parks, amusement arcades, outdoor skating rinks, social clubs and model villages can reopen
  • places of worship can reopen for prayers and services
  • church weddings can be held with up to 30 guests – no singing, though
  • no live performances so theatres and concert halls are being reviewed
  • no opening for nightclubs, casinos, bowling alleys, spas, swimming pools, indoor gyms and soft play centres
  • the rest of the UK has different rules and timings (and less appetite for risk it seems).

++

So…. basically this is the point where the rules are going to get really confusing.

The 2m rule will undoubtedly revert to 1m (people are already breaching 2m everywhere you look so what will 1m+ look like?).

Businesses will try to adapt and keep everyone safe but really there is only so much they can do and enforce. They have an equal pressure to survive themselves.

I'm pretty amazed there haven't been further rules on mask wearing. As someone said at some point somewhere on their efficacy, surgical teams have been wearing them to reduce the chances of infection pretty much since the dawn of surgery.

Ultimately I think it will be every person for themselves, depending on risk attitude. It doesn't feel, to me, as if we are in it together so much anymore. I miss the Thursday community claps.

Personally, I've talked to three people who've had Covid-19 and they all have a hangover of fatigue and shortness of breath weeks or months later. This is not just like the common cold.

I remain cautious and unlikely to go and sit in a pub or restaurant or cinema at this point. I also have two wedding invitations that are making me feel on edge. Which is not a nice way to feel about a wedding.

All these rule relaxations are a judgment call that the government is making on our behalf – and we have to dearly hope they have got it right.

++

But this was all yesterday's news.

Today the presidents of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons, Nursing, Physicians, and GPs all signed an open letter in the BMJ warning of the real risk of a second wave and asked how prepared the UK was for this. (But, you know, we've had enough of experts according to Michael Gove.)

The other big headline was that a human trial of a UK coronavirus vaccine has begun with 300 volunteers.

As for me, I worked indoors to escape the 30-degree heat, ate, visited family bubblemates for a quick hello, napped, ordered some takeout for tomorrow from a local cafe that opened just before lockdown, watered the allotment, watered the garden, and watched Floor is Lava on Netflix. It's no Total Wipeout but it filled a tea break.

Thanks

Today I am thankful for ice cream, cold drinks, a fan and Pete laundering the kingsize cotton throw so we can sleep in this heat.


Commission/hire me: fiona [at] fionacullinan.com


Pandemic diary 92: Rejection and escape into lockdown books

Dinner alfresco in the garden – making the most of the midsummer heatwave and last night's supermarket shop for freshies.

Rejection

I didn't get the job – a freelance project manager for a local tree charity – despite doing loads of preparation and (I think) doing well at interview. I just didn't have enough experience and, like a teenager looking for their first job, I can't get that experience without getting the job. Career transitions are hard.

I also didn't get a place on a well-known UK publisher's workshop despite working evenings and weekends to get my submission of travel micro-memoirs ready. There's only general feedback for this one, though. Either my application pitch wasn't strong enough, or it was the extract, or perhaps both.

Reflection

There is disappointment and feelings of crapness and failure, of course. But I'm ok. For the job, I've taken it as fate; a sign to focus my efforts elsewhere. And for the book, I only started writing it after I decided I wanted to it to exist regardless of whether it was published. I'm on a journey with it. The real failure is not to have tried at all.

There is also now freedom to follow my own creative path rather than be beholden to others. My book is much further along than before as a result of trying to jump through set-deadline publishing hoops (three of them so far). As the old proverb goes: "Fall down seven times, stand up eight." I still have a few more falls to go.

What has been a comfort each day has been my reading book and that is what I was going to write about.

Submerged

Two nights ago I finished a 500-page Pulitzer-prize-winning memoir by William Finnegan called Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, which I got for my birthday. Now I feel bereft. A bit like when my Mad Men bingewatch came to an end back on Day 61.

Every night, no matter what the stresses and strains of the day, I knew I could slip into a hot bath and be transported out of Birmingham coronavirus lockdown to the Hawaii of the late 60s, the California of the 70s, Fiji, Indonesia, South Africa, Madeira and even coastal New York for some exhilarating waves, each described in surprisingly different detail.

The irony of lying in a contained few inches of hot soap-sudded water while reading about double-overhead barrels at high speed did occur to me.

Now it's over. And I want to escape again.

Resurfacing

I asked for book recos on social media but book tastes are so peculiarly personal that this rarely works. But still it's always a good discussion and I did get Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman out of a past thread. The friend suggestions are ones for when the library reopens, which I think has been pushed back to September.

Very late last night I ended up spending the last of my Glass Room Foyles gift voucher on 'Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People about Race' by Reni Eddo-Lodge and 'Men Without Women' by Haruki Murakami.

While I wait for them to arrive, I thought I'd list the books I've read so far this year… and my 'best of 2019' book recommendations. And if any surf memoir chums want to borrow 'Barbarian Days', it's waiting here for you.

Reading

This year I've read the following. Five were gifts or bought new, and 10 were borrowed from the Birmingham library system:

  • Fleishman is in Trouble – Taffy Brodesser-Akner (brilliant)
  • The Rhyming Rabbit – Julia Donaldson and Lydia Monks (witty kids book)
  • Dementia: Support for Family and Friends – Dave Pulsford and Rachel Thompson (insight for a friend)
  • In Praise of Walking – Shane O'Mara (interesting as it is from a neuroscientist's perspective)
  • Over The Top: My Story – Jonathan Van Ness (Queer Eye guy memoir)
  • Lowborn – Kerry Hudson (memoir of being working class)
  • Ways to Wander – Clare Qualman, Claire Hind (women art-walking)
  • A Spy Among Friends – Ben Macintyre (about double agent Kim Philby)
  • Why Are Leaves Green? A Tree Miscellany –  J Stokes, J White
  • I'm Just A Person – Tig Notaro (a comedian's cancer memoir)
  • Ghost in the Wires – Kevin Mitnick (hacker memoir)
  • How To Write A Children's Picture Book – Andrea Shavick
  • Dark Matters –Nick Dunn (on walking at night)
  • The Life You Want – Emily Barr (backpacking fiction)
  • Barbarian Days – William Finnegan

I highly recommend rejoining and supporting your local library. I've been surprised how I can get hold of new releases if I'm prepared to wait a few weeks. I also tend to donate my new books to them once I've read them. I did panic borrow 14 books on the day the library closed for lockdown but now I can't wait for Stirchley Library to reopen.

Recommending

I tried to read more books last year and I read 37, so not bad. Having a regular bath book habit has helped. My standout, top picks from last year are:

  • Educated – Tara Westover (astonishing memoir)
  • True Stories – Sophie Calle (art, photography and stories combined)
  • The Salt Path – Raynor Wynn (life crises – simultaneous homelessness and terminal illness – that led to a middle-aged couple walking the 630-mile SW Coast Path)
  • Three Women – Lisa Taddeo (a journalistically reported story of three women's experience of their desire)
  • The Walker's Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs – Tristan Gooley (the kind of book that wakes you up to a new layer of seeing the world)

I have no idea if you would enjoy these as much as I have but they are each fascinating stories well told in their own way.

Thanks

Today I am thankful for the ability to escape – into books, into music, into nature. A rich inner life is probably own my personal version of God.

A perfect red rose backlit by the sunset tonight – I can't be mad at the world when I see this.

Commission/hire me: fiona [at] fionacullinan.com