IT made me feel like it was almost like a description of a war,” Alec Finlay says in his measured, gentle voice. It’s February 2022 and when, over Zoom, I catch up with the artist and poet for the third time in a year, the first thing we talk about is the audio track actor Robert Carlyle has made of the memories he has collected for Scotland’s Covid Memorial.
“Extraordinarily moving,” he says of the recording session. “Quite upsetting. Robert Carlyle broke down a number of times reading them, and I did too. It really brings over the variety of experiences. There’s humour in there as well. And gentleness and hope.”
Though Finlay had already read this collection of brief pandemic memories, both when they arrived digitally through his website and as he patiently painted each of them on paper, still when he heard them spoken in a Carlyle’s warm, “democratic voice”, they shocked him.
“Seeing Robert break down also affected me,” he says. What got to him most was, he says, “the simple expressions of love for people that are dead”.
That’s what affects me too as I listen to the track. Short lines like, “I remember Hazel. Her infectious laugh and boundless energy.”
Amongst Finlay’s own favourites, he says, is “I remember Big Eileen, she was a pure tonic.”
“It‘s that probably Glasgow demotic,” he says. “Possibly about a health worker. Just beautiful – in the way that art can be.”
One of the reasons, he thinks he is so moved by this audio, is because he didn’t write most of these words himself.
“My approach to this whole project,” he explains, “has been not quite to be an author because it would be too heavy a burden to carry.”
His “gift”, rather, was to create an online form that worked and captured the thoughts, memories and experience of the pandemic. All it did was ask those who read it to complete the line, “I remember”.
The people took it from there. They have created, and are still creating, Scotland’s Covid memorial. Even now, you too can contribute to the collection.
The result is memories that come from the widest breadth of recent experience. A sea of mandatory masks; the rule of six; “an email saying I should prepare for the worst and hope for the best”; a single toilet roll received in the post; a chalk-written message left by kids in the street; “going to church on telly”; noticing the birdsong; a farewell letter written to the family. The devastations of death and illness; reflections on what it has meant to care for the dying.
“Sometimes in art,” he says, “we invite people to participate and invite them to write a poem, and it doesn’t always work well because they have an idea of what a poem should be. But this form is so simple. It didn’t shape what they wrote. And I knew it was doing something special when I got the one that said, ‘I remember Andrea.’ That was it. As a writer I’d never thought of using it like that. And I really felt moved.”
We have been living with the pandemic for almost two years. Next month will see the second anniversary of the first lockdown. It will also see the second anniversary of Finlay himself catching coronavirus, the week before we went into that lockdown, the beginning of his journey in Long Covid.
“I didn’t have time to worry because I caught it straight away,” he recalls. “I remember lying in bed with a fever editing my collected poems. About three months later I became aware it was not getting better.”
Next month will also see the start of the installation of the remarkable I remember: Scotland’s Covid Memorial at Pollok Country Park. It is the result of a campaign initiated and led by The Herald. Trees will be given their “supports”, structures made out of wood and modelled on the positions taken up by people in an attempt to express the idea of support in relation to a tree.
Each will carry the words ‘I remember’, which will be written not just in English, but other languages. They will also carry a QR code that links to the audio track. To mark the beginning of this installation, Finlay will also be speaking in an online event for The Herald on March 8th, along with designer and collaborator Lucy Richards.
Lucy Richards and Alec Finlay
All of us are marked by Covid. But it’s hard to think of a more fitting artist to create this work than Finlay. Not only does he know Long Covid but, at 21 years old, after a bout of glandular fever, he was wiped out for what became decades by myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), at a time when it was dismissed as “yuppie flu”. He never entirely recovered. His mother, too, was laid low by ME when he was just 12.
He knows loss and limitation intimately. Even his father, artist and poet Ian Hamilton-Finlay, lived with the limits of illness – those of the agoraphobia that afflicted him.
These experiences mean that he has a natural alertness to the people that may be left, which is particularly acute now, when, as it seems we are starting to do, we emerge from the pandemic.
“There are people,” he observes, “whose lives have changed forever, who have received no help. I’m on one of the main Long Covid platforms and I see people going through what I went through when I got ME. Grief, shock, loss, rage, tensions with partners, loss of partners, loss of homes, loss of income, loss of work, loss of the ability to walk, loss of the ability to cook, and to do the things they love.
“I never forget the left behind and there is something ridiculous about the government’s attempts to do that. I try to let all those experiences resonate in the work. The bereaved, I think still feel like it’s not a normal bereavement. So I want them to hear Robert Carlyle read their loss because I think it will be part of their healing.”
AUGUST 2021, six months ago. We meet at the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop. The bright sun dazzles, but Covid still hangs like a heavy cloud across the country.
I leaf through a file of text and imagery. There are sketches for supports for trees, some of them based on photographs taken of people occupying the positions, taken by collaborator Hannah Laycock. They look like runes or symbols from the ogham tree alphabet. These are painted, rather than written, onto the page.
Finlay describes to me the process: “I paint every ‘I remember’ that comes in, so they become uniform. There’s something in them about human witness, human memory. They bring over the details of the pandemic. ”
Page after page, we go through these. I remember my experiences and, as I tear up, he observes, “All my projects involve a little bit of crying now and then.”
I ask him if it has been tough working on such a difficult and emotional subject. “In a funny way,” he says, “the work’s taking care of it. My job is just to paint them. Other people are sending them. It’s really the most participative thing I’ve ever done.”
Finlay has track record with memorials and has already explored what those who have lost need to mark their grief, what provides solace. Eight years ago, he created Taigh, the National Memorial for Organ and Tissue Donors in Scotland in The Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh.
I remember once stumbling across this small dry-stane house unexpectedly in a quiet, hidden patch of the gardens, and being moved by its surprise and modesty.
Though the Covid memorial is a much larger project, there are similarities. For the donor memorial too, he made a book: one containing the first name of every person who had died and given an organ, which was then buried in a wooden kist. “Five years later they wrote to me with more people,” he said. “I made a second book. I said, I’ll keep going while I’m alive and then someone else can do it. And organ donation will change. It’s bound to.”
When he started work on the organ donor memorial, an area of the gardens had already been chosen, a green lawn, surrounded by azaleas and rhododendrons. But that didn’t feel right to him. It didn’t, he says, feel like the space that people “who are grieving needed”.
“So I walked round and round the garden and I found that hidden space…. People who are really grieving often want privacy and intimacy. To feel safe and quiet.”
From the start he wasn’t convinced by the idea of the Covid Memorial simply being a memorial garden.
“I didn’t think a garden,” he says, “would have the scale that the event of the pandemic has. They chose Pollok Park and I thought Pollok Park isn’t really a garden, it’s an estate – so why don’t we work with that? I don’t want to make an enclosed thing. I want to use the whole park. And also in a funny way when I‘m honest about my work, it’s very ambitious and very modest.
“So it will be everywhere and also really secluded. Some of it will be a trees support in the middle of a wood that not everyone finds.”
This approach is one that he describes as microtonal, “a lot of little notes within a big landscape”.
Artist’s impresion of the Covid Memorial
His work as poet and artist is very different from that of his father, Ian Hamilton-Finlay. Growing up at Stonypath in the Pentland hills, where his father and mother, Sue Finlay, created the astonishing garden Little Sparta, he was surrounded by both art and nature.
“I was really aware,” he recalls, “of the way that my mum would make the garden and my dad would compose these little centrepieces. With him, they were hierarchical. You go into the area and you look at the poem.”
Finlay would observe the people that came and went, how they moved through the garden. He would watch them interact. “Some people would just be ticking it off, as if they were thinking, ‘I’ve seen that work. I’ve seen that work.’ But there was a photographer who came when I was about 14, and he photographed the whole garden without including a single, what my dad would call, ‘poem-object’. That taught me something. It taught me art is not always so direct.”
While his father, he says, had “more of a sense of the classical significance of the object”, he had “always had more of a feeling for the lyrical quality of nature. I took from the mother and the father, but I also took from that photographer and from watching people.”
For him it’s not just about the single object, it’s about “moments of focus”, things that are hidden.
“Pollok Park,” he says, “is full of glades and groves, really intimate spaces, that are partly planted and partly how nature grows. You often get the best trees in those aristocratic landscapes. They have at least 20 notable trees. They have this famous tree called the Pollok beech which has fallen apart. That was part of the influence. I thought, ‘That looks like it needs support. It’s broken.’”
These observations resonate with me because I’ve written a book on trees, including a chapter on how we memorialise those we love through them and how, in times of grief, people often turn to trees, these organisms with a far longer lifespan than ourselves, connected to the earth, and something bigger than ourselves.
Does he have his own places that resonate for him with remembrance? Stonypath, perhaps? “Stonypath,” he says, “is both a gift and a block.”
“My dad,” he says, “had a very overdetermined sense of place, which came from illness. He was agoraphobic. He never left Stonypath. If you think about Stonypath, it’s actually one of the great acts of disability art. He just would never see it as that. He had such an odd relationship to time and history and space.
“But what I took from it was this balancing with my mum and this sense of what you might call the lyrical. I liked it when he would appreciate the way rowan leaves made shadows. That was something I could take with me. So I learned always to negotiate from this very enclosed, odd, Tardis-like space, the places that mean a lot to me in that valley.” These included, he notes, the burn and the moor outside the garden.
Among the other places that have resonance for him, is, he says, is a walk by the Allan Water in Stirling.
“That was very important to me, a very poetic walk, and it’s the last place I walked before I got ill.”
There are, in fact, only three lines, he says, in I Remember, which are created by him, and notably, one of them relates back to that time when, at age 21, ME stole his health and strength. It says, “I remember when I could walk for miles and didn’t, and now I wish that I had.”
“I never went up a mountain until I was driven up one in a Land Rover three years ago,” he says.
“I’ve made a hell of a lot of work about wilderness, but always within this limit. So oddly, like my father, my life has been about limit, but I have always negotiated it by being in the world. Whereas he did it by making a world.”
His mother, too, was made very ill by ME when Finlay was just 12 years old.
“Illness dominated life. It was quite a difficult world. She was one of the early people to fight for recognition of the disease. I was 12 and it changed my life. It was very hard and she couldn’t do the gardening in the same way.
“Then my dad was having all these battles with everyone in the world. My teens were pretty terrifying and then she left my dad when I was in fourth year at uni. It was never quite the same after she got ill.”
“The thing you learn is adaptation,” he adds. “And creativity is our greatest tool for adaptation.”
Finlay speaks particularly powerfully about living with limits. What’s interesting is that he clearly feels that one of the lessons we need to learn as a society, and which the pandemic has brought us lessons about, is how to live within limits.
“A lot of good came out in that spring,” he says. “It was a good dummy-run for living with limit. A lot of us had to adapt. Some of us realised, I can adapt. So maybe we could save the planet.”
Alongside the Covid memorial, Finlay is also working on another project, essentially a poem about ME. “I’ve wanted to make a project about it because it’s so still contested.
“The project is called Descriptions and it’s a booklet that’s a found-poem describing ME by people with ME. I made it by doing a questionnaire that over 200 people responded to. It’s profoundly upsetting and moving. To be honest it was even more upsetting than the Covid work because these were people who had struggled for 30 years…. The two works are in parallel. They’re both about truth and just describing an actual lived experience.”
As well as tree supports in Pollok Park, he hopes there will be others in locations across Scotland, and that they will become a recognisable motif in the landscape.
“The support is very simple, so you can have one on its own, outside, for instance, care homes or hospitals.”
One of the things that is clear about Scotland’s Covid Memorial, is that it is, as he says, “very democratic.” It’s not about Finlay himself. It’s about all these other people. It’s about us.
“What I’m loving about the work,” he says, “is that I’m not feeling a heavy burden. My gift was to come up with a form [I remember…] that literally anyone could use. The form becomes a machine for making meaning. It fulfils itself in ways you hadn’t foreseen. That feels right for this political moment.
“The pandemic is bigger than anything. It had to be something that would include everybody. Every mind has limits and it had to not be stuck with mine.”
Alec Finlay and Lucy Richards will be talking about the Covid Memorial in a Herald In Conversation on March 8.