In today’s article Christina and John explore our relationships with our memories. The article builds from a recent piece (see link) written by Claudia Hammond (the author of The Art of Rest).
Claudia’s article drew from research by the the Alzheimer’s Society, (see link) on what happens to folks memories when they began living more isolated lives and a study at the University of California Irvine which argued people are finding they are forgetting things. (see link)
Introduction: A Crisis of Memory and Our Memory of The Crisis?
The basic premise of Hammond’s article is that the isolation of lockdown has caused issues for our memories. We have been struggling due to lockdown in various ways. If you have heard yourself saying ‘when a go fir ma messages a cannae count tae save ma life any mare’ (working memory), ‘A cannae mindi whit a hud fae ma breakfast’ (episodic memory), ‘Crivins av gone n’ missed ma GP appointment in aw’ (prospective memory) or ‘whits yon fella’s name again’ (semantic memory), you may be having different types of memory issues (for more on the different types of memory see link).
Research into memory loss has traditionally linked our ability to remember things to having space in hectic daily routines, keeping active/taking part in physical exercise, enjoying a good sleep and feeling connected with other people. Claudia Hammond indicates that being able to take part in repeated story telling with friends and family helps to hone our memories and place them into our ‘episodic memory banks’.
In a similar vein, Mary Oliver’s poem ‘And Bob Dylan Too’ makes the connection between thinking and singing:
‘And Bob Dylan Too’ Mary Oliver:
“Anything worth thinking about is worth singing about.”
Which is why we have songs of praise, songs of love, songs of sorrow.
Songs to the gods, who have so many names.
Songs the shepherds sing, on the lonely mountains, while the sheep are honoring the grass, by eating it.
The dance-songs of the bees, to tell where the flowers, suddenly, in the morning light, have opened.
A chorus of many, shouting to heaven, or at it, or pleading.
Or that greatest of love affairs, a violin and a human body.
And a composer, maybe hundreds of years dead.
I think of Schubert, scribbling on a cafe napkin.
Thank you, thank you.Mary Oliver
Musicians, lyricists and poets often attempt to paint pictures with their memories. Indeed, Christina’s niece Eleanor Reid has two songs on her recent No 1 ‘lockdown’ album ‘The living Room’ which invoked different ideas of memory.
The album, drawn from 3 decades of memories, is a tribute to Eleanor’s mother’s Celtic heritage and the generations of mothers who came before her who passed on that heritage. The album honours the singer’s working class heritage whilst expressing emotions of grief, hope and happiness that relate to different places, homes and spaces. Specifically, the song, “In my mother’s living room” captures the essence of time passing in one room: lip stick, perfume, eye liner, sideboards, cups of tea, shortbread, nicotine, husky voices n’ all:
The song ‘This day’ invokes memories of a special places and a supportive relationship:
In the first song the memory is strong, vibrant, colourful and clear – memorialising time, person and place. The latter song has a more drifting, fleeting, butterfly flickering by feel to it – where unforgettable thoughts of cherished days with a loved one are wished for and held onto as a resources to get through darker times.
In contrast to Eleanor Reid’s clearly captured memories, Hammond suggests that the lack of daily interaction caused by COVID has resulted in cloudy memories. In short: lockdown has become ground hog day, and diminished our ability to differentiate between events, online meetings, telephone calls etc. In particular, Hammond highlights the importance of finding our way to and back from different geographical locations – as a stimulus for memory and suggests that lockdown has had the double whammy of inhibiting our connections with different places as well as different faces.
Hammond advises that we need to ensure we keep active as we age because research suggests that the geographical isolation of elderly people can lead to memory loss. Let us think on that for a minute. The COVID restrictions required the elderly, disabled folk and those with health conditions to be more inactive than other citizens and to stick to that inactivity for a longer period of time. Indeed, the control, isolation and (practical) ‘internment’ of our ‘most at risk’ citizens has meant that those most vulnerable to memory loss have had the least opportunities to stay active and least ability to take steps to support their own memory retention.
Doing nothing during COVID would appear to have affected our memories but its slightly more complicated than that. Somewhat contradictorily, both: loneliness/inactivity and, hyper-stimulation/over work affect our memories (see Madeleine Buntings book Willing Slaves for more on the dangers to health of overwork.
So, too little getting out doors meeting friends or too much working late attending work meetings (zoom or otherwise) could have affected your memory. As with other aspects of our lives, too much or too little of a good thing impacts on your memory.
This tension between over stimulations and under stimulation suggests that we require balance in our lives if our memories are to work at their most optimum. A lack of balance that, for different yet similar reasons, both of the writers of this article have experienced in their own lives. For example, Christina first noticed the impact of COVID in terms of forgetting key dates.
Shock affects memory and the world was in deep shock at this existential threat to our country and beyond. For both Christina and John, lock down felt like a “war” scenario had been declared.
In contrast to GalGael great dream of a warm welcoming Scotland. We had streets deserted. No traffic sounds. Such a feeling of fear and tension. The invisible enemy virus called COVID was around everywhere. A pandemic! A word we had never had to write or speak in our lives – was upon us. What, at first had felt like a bad sci-fi movie, was now a horror show. The type of scary movie where you shout at the characters run, leave the house, flea for your lives but we could not flee. This was a lock down we could not escape from. If the baddies came for you – there would be no escape.
We needed to stay home but staying home had consequences. In another article Hammond cited research that suggested 80% of people felt that at least one aspect of their memory had deteriorated during lock down (see link).
The Impact of Catastrophic life Events on Memory and Mental Health
For John the Hammond articles touched a raw nerve. John’s previously forensic memory had disappeared during a catastrophic and existential life episode which involved 4 operations to remove sepsis induced gangrene from his body. Hours away from death his life was saved by the speedy work of surgeons at John C. Lincoln Medical Centre Phoenix where he was hospitalised for 5 weeks from April to May 2019
The sorry saga culminated in John being flown back (via learjet) to Scotland with life changing impairments. John’s experiences are depicted in the Don’t Let Me Die in Phoenix series on this blog see link which recounts events from the diary that John kept of his experiences.
In part, John wrote the series of articles about his experience in Phoenix in order to keep a living memory of the things he went through. The articles were his attempt to restore memories clouded by the intensity of the nightmare events that he had experienced . He wrote to construct lost memories and redefine his experience.
The Phoenix that rose from the flames had lost physical and emotional parts of himself during his journey back to life. John’s mind had become a shell of its former self that now struggled with all four types of memory. The writing process involved john capturing and sewing together snippets of information from those who had been around or in contact with him in Phoenix to add to his own sketchy memory of events. The experience was so extreme, that he was concerned that if he did not, as soon as possible, create a living record, he would not in the future be able to remember or recover the story of what had actually happened to him.
During the Don’t Let me Die In Phoenix series John explained the difficulties of searching for key ‘truths’ in what was a traumatic, bloodied, fevered, posit-anaesthetic, pain medicated hell. Indeed, he was aware that searching for truths so soon to catastrophic events can often result in their meaning lacking depth. Hence, the series of posts about his experience in Phoenix sought to employ poetry, music and photographs to convey as many insights and as much feeling as was possible about his experiences. In so doing, he sought to create a story that would help others who, in future, went through similar experiences.
Going through a catastrophic life threatening episode took a major toll on John’s sense of self and his ability to remember things. Since undergoing surgery John has had to come to terms with the loss of memories particularly relating to the two years prior to and two and a half years since his hospitalisation which involved a painful rehabilitation and partial recovery (which is ongoing to this day).
The surgeons explained at the time that his body had shut down in order to put all its energy into fighting the infection. John wondered if this ‘shut down’ had in some way damaged his brain or perhaps compounded underlying issues relating to having had several concussions whilst playing rugby as a front row forward.
John had another operation this year and he began to wonder about the effect on his memory of 5 general anaesthetics, 2 vaccines for COVID and a host of drugs (including Morphine, Narco, Gabapentin and Duloxetine). NHS Scotland suggest that memory loss is rare from anaesthetics. They inform us that memory loss usually occurs with people who already have an existing issue but when it does occur with those people the memory loss is temporary (see link here). Similarly, research suggest that certain drugs can impair your memory but again this may be recoverable once you stop using them (see link)
Having raised these issues with the plethora of medical experts that he visits on a regular basis, very few have come up with explanations. The only medic that offered something concrete was the excellent plastic surgeon at NHS Tayside who suggested that the ongoing nerve damage pain, constant/daily physio exercises and sheer effort of his rehab meant that the areas of his brain that would usually be used for memory were now occupied with dealing with pain.
John came across an article at austinpaindoctor.com which used data from various research projects to explain this in more detail:
It suggested that, even after factoring for age, sleep or stress, many chronic pain sufferers complained that they experienced at type of brain fog in their short-term memory, issue with spacial memory, difficulties recognising people, lack of attention/concentration and problems with processing. They also connected their memory loss to issues of stress, anxiety, depression or other mental or emotional disorders. Hence, both physical and emotional pain can lead to memory loss (see link here)
John is currently attending the NHS Tayside Pain clinic and future articles will discuss the importance of compassionate pain management and a critique of ‘mindfulness approaches’ that underpin some pain management routines.
The Hammond article and the Austin pain article put forward ‘Key Tips to Compensate for Memory Problems’ these included: reduction of stress, exercise, sleep, a healthy diet, playing games, socialising with other folk and the use of reminders/calendars.
Yet, as Christina’s windaes demonstrate above, Social interaction took on new and creative roles during COVID. Working class values such as sharing ‘soul food’ during traumatic times became difficult and a chat tae a neeboor took the form of a poster or was carried out with a windae in the way. Soul Food involves the idea that we, in our own communities, can provide sustenance to those most in need.
But, the ability to provide support can be inhibited by the uneven playing field that exists in our present inequitable society.
We Do Not All Have The Same Opportunity For Memory Making
It is important when considering the solutions to memory loss to recognise that there is no one version of the truth, nor one way that the world we live in impacts on our lives. And, that not all people have an equal opportunity to live stress reduced life styles.
The Hammond articles claimed that rates of depression have doubled during COVID and that the background anxiety to life caused by COVID was now as important a factor as social isolation as a reason for memory loss.
The general fatigue of having to go to unhealthy work settings and the grind of COVID doesn’t help our memories. We also know, for example, that gender, race inequality and poverty led to disproportionately higher death rates in specific communities across the UK (see Guardian articles here). Austerity had undermined specific communities to make them more at risk to COVID that others.
We previous wrote about the work of GalGael (see our article here) who in response to the recent COP26 invasion announced the establishment of the Govan Free State under the banner living in the early days of a better nation. (see link). They stated:
Our articles on this bog have repeatedly sought to demonstrate the connections, intersections and interdependencies between different social justice issues and different people’s who experience social injustice. People from minority ethnic groups are statistically more likely to live in socially deprived neighbourhoods, and to have less income than their white counterparts. This makes it harder for them to access healthy food, green spaces or gyms to exercise in.
Once you are suffering from a chronic health condition, your ability to access the support services you need to maintain a decent quality of life and stay healthy is also impacted by your ethnicity.
People from some groups – particularly South Asian groups – are more likely to report poor experiences at their GP surgery. They are also more likely to report not getting enough support from other local services to help manage their health condition compared with ‘white’ people.’
Similarly, drawing from the Glasgow effect report (see RECLAIMING OUR STORIES DEPOWERING SHAME May 2017, It is Time To Raise A Statue Up To The Best of Benny Lynch August 2016 and the original ‘Glasgow Effect’ report ‘History, politics and vulnerability: explaining excess mortality in Scotland and Glasgow’ ), we have written in earlier articles about the impact of poverty and discrimination (including sectarianism) on working class lives. Indeed, we have argued that we should avoid Tory blame cultures that pick on such communities and recognise that ill health is caused by political decisions that create inequality.
The graffiti on the wall says it all and we make no apologies for calling out the merchants of shame that, as we explained in our article are the root cause of inequality, disproportionate illness and increased deaths in working class communities.
Sleep, exercise and a healthy diet are not politically neutral subjects. For example, 6 decades of Labour, Liberal, and Conservative political mismanagement of health, housing and recreational facilities in Glasgow, Dundee and the central belt led to disproportionately higher rates of cancer, heart disease and strokes in Scotland in working class and migrant communities (including Irish migrants) when compared to Manchester or Liverpool.
COVID, like the Glasgow Effect, had a disproportionate impact and higher death rate amongst working class men. Yet, COVID also had a higher impact on women’s sense of wellbeing (see link). For example women were more likely to be furloughed, spend significantly less time working from home, and spend more time on unpaid household work/childcare. Domestic abuse cases rose 7% in England and Wales and 3.3% in Scotland during the first lockdown. The gendered nature of violence inflicted by men on women meant that though the there was an overall fall in sexual assault cases recorded at A and E, there was an 16.90% increase in cases involving psychological abuse and 17.60% where the assault occurred outdoors. Hence, during COVID women were more at risk at home and also more at risk when venturing outdoors (see link).
Our recent article The Glasgow Effect, Irish Diaspora and Sporting Cultures of Conflict, Stability and Unity: Analysing the Power Politics of Community Development, Resistance and Disempowerment through A Case Study of Benny Lynch: in the book Culture Community and Development connects and compares the socio-political context of black community activists in the USA (see pages 133 through to page 143).
Drawing on writing and research that considers philosophically astute, intellectually radical and culturally nuanced approaches to community development in Scotland and the USA. This chapter considers the power politics of community work in Glasgow; highlights the importance of culture, sport, arts, traditions, indigenous knowledge, and culturally significant activities (e.g. The Benny Lynch Statue Campaign) as a basis for community based action; explores how culturally important activities and local history can serve as the basis for personal development, social change, and community unification; and explores how placing research (in particular the Glasgow Effect report) within the historical context of community development in Scotland and The USA (e.g. in relation to the limitations of assets based approaches) can enable us to understand the fluid and essential role that culture plays in local community development. In particular this chapter considers tensions between stability and conflict in community work and highlights that radical community self-empowerment that seeks to confront decades of oppression will also bring with it processes of stigmatisation that seek to shame and control populations. The chapter concludes that whilst culture as an essential component in local capacity building, by taking an international perspective and comparing Scotland to the USA, we can demonstrate that culture is always political and that cultures of community development can never be separated from local and national power politics.
It is not an accident that poverty locks out healthy choices and that people die because politicians lack the nouce, ability, care and/or foresight to make the necessary decisions to protect the most vulnerable in our communities. It is not an accident that community activists who seek to ensure their is enough SOUL Food for all are often side-lined, stigmatised and undermined by local and national politicians. ‘ Don’t rock the boat’ and ‘play the game’ are phrases that brought us to our current social and environmental crisis.
We now know that at the start of this crisis our politicians were caught asleep at the wheel. In part because the financial safety net, which was mainly controlled by the inadequate and totally inexperienced Westminster chancellor, was slow in being put together and the Westminster government ignored the advice to take early decisions and failed to put in place the necessary support for an early lock down.
Nicola Sturgeon made some slightly different calls e.g. regarding gatherings of over 500 folk but in the main followed the Westminster approach because Scotland is economically at the mercy of our southern ‘masters’ who control the economic/political leavers that could have ensured less deaths e.g. an earlier furlough scheme and tearlier control of flights/land borders . Hence, analysis of deaths per 100,000 during 2020 (see link here) indicates that Scotland faired better than England and was in the mid range of countries in terms of COVID deaths but, and it’s a big but, was much worse than all Scandinavian countries.
A simple conclusion is that if we had the powers of a full Nordic nation our death rates would have been much lower. The death rate in Scotland not only relates to poor UK decision making in recent years but also to the legacy of years of social and economic mismanagement of Scotland. One of the key reasons that we faired worse than Scandinavian countries is that decades of Westminster mismanagement prior to devolution meant that our older generation are less healthy and much more susceptible to early death than older people in Scandinavian countries, and for that matter, the rest of the UK (as demonstrated by the Glasgow effect report).
Robin McAlpine and his colleagues have come into their own during the crisis. Robin wrote a series of columns arguing that Common Weal policy was the best way to survive this virus and should be central to any rebuilding process when its over. One of his key arguments (that has also been central to the Don’t Let me Die In Phoenix series) is that if we are to build a fairer society Scots need to visualise themselves as truly a nation and part of the world in their own right (see link here):
So lets get this straight – our conclusion is that had we voted for independence in 2014 – enabled our selves as a Nation State – so many more of your loved ones would still be with us.
Whilst recognising that every death recorded involves the loss and heart ache of a real person we must also recognise that The COVID death rate in Scotland is not politically neutral and COVID induced memory loss is not a politically neutral topic either.
Working class areas were much more likely to suffer longer periods of lockdown and tighter restrictions than wealthier settings. Middle class folk were much more likely to have access to the internet, continue to work more safely (e.g. from home) and to be able to exercise in their leafy suburb gardens.
There are a lot of people out there enduring a different type of loss (the loss of loved ones) and we need to recognise the connection between both types of loss (loss of memory and loss of a loved one). In that sense, some of the articles on memory loss come across with more than a hint of ignorant flippantness. What we do not need just now is ‘Oh how silly me’ type writing that fails to point out the connection between inequality, illness and memory loss.
Some folk will have experienced memory loss because of the emotional pain that COVID has caused them. Disproportionate losses in working class communities mean that as well as being more restricted during COVID, such communities were more likely to endure the experience of not being able to properly mark the passing of their loved opens.
The GOOD GREIF website gives advice on COVID related loss of loved ones. Key advice includes you are not alone, your way of grieving is ‘normal’, there is no one way to grieve, grief is intensely personal, loss is unpredictable, can often involve guilt and shame and can lead to self isolation. They suggest that the key to living with grief is being able to have your story and feelings acknowledge and receiving support from friends and other community members that helps you express your experience.
The lyrics to BREATHS BY SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK give a sense of our own approaches to grief
The absence of rights of passage when people die can impact very seriously on future mental health and this can be exacerbated when the state or actors for the state seeks to cover up deaths caused by the state or their local officers. See our article Liverpool Supporters Unlawfully Killed: Hillsborough Justice Delayed Is Justice Demeaned, April 2016. Many families in places of struggle, have to fight to get answers or justice and this can impacts on their ability to grieve.
We do not want this article to add to the pressures such families feel. However, it is clear to us that we as a society (and individual families) will require a lot more information if we are to understand what we have been through. We need to understand the whole picture and the wider picture and we must listen to the families who lost their loved ones at Hillsborough and ensure the families who lost loved ones to COVID do not have to go to law to get answers on what actually happened to their loved ones. The state needs to be honest about decision making, treatments, with drawl of life support, resuscitation, etc. Only through honesty, will we learn, cope, endure and be able to accept the full reality of what we went through and what happened during COVID.
We Must Avoids Shame It Acts As An Agent of Control and Memory Suppression
One of the key reasons John wrote about his catastrophic life experiences in Phoenix was to seek to engender a sense of pride (rather than shame) in what he went through and the subsequent impairments he will carry for the rest of his life. He knew from his work in the field of Disability Studies and from his LGBT+ friends that pride was a great preventer of shame.
The loss of a loved one to COVID and the loss of your memory can result in a sense of shame. As mentioned above, in previous articles we have challenged the way that shame regarding health is used by the main stream media to put down working class communities and to allow politicians to get off the hook from designing a system that reduces inequality.
We challenged characterisations of Benny Lynch’s life that blamed his ‘early death’ on simplistic issues when his death was not that far off from the average life expectancy in Glasgow at the time. Lynch had lived in an area of Glasgow that local politicians and private landlords had exploited for years for cheap labour but had never bothered to provide adequate housing.
In that article we described how shame was and is used as an agent of control and linked our ideas to the work of John Maclean’s that demonstrated that politicians were warned decades before of the consequences of their actions on housing, poverty and health but chose to make terrible decision after terrible decision, decade after decade that disempowered working communities, placed too much power in the hands of a group of local managers, broke up families and placed people in housing that had little or no local amenities.
Matt Mcginn’s Ballad of John MacLean leaves no uncertainty as to who profits whilst working folk suffer:
‘The leaders o the nation. Made money hand ower fist. By grindin doun the people. By the fiddle an the twist, Aided an abetted By the preacher an the Press.’
The fact that some politicians (e.,g. the Tories) then blamed those communities for their lack of cohesion beggars belief. But we have also argued in previous article’s that Tory blame games occur for a reason. The Tories seek to point the finger of blame at everyday people in order that we should not see the blood on their hands. A big laddie done it and run away they shout, as 142000 people die. Each a cherished loved one.
Shame games are used by politicians to shut down our memories. Shame is often used as a tool of silence by those who seek to exploit us, divide us and keep us down. Emily Mark-Fitzgerald wrote about silence, heritage, memory, shame and culture in an RTE piece in March 2021 about the Famine. She argued that there will be no single memory of an historical event:
Hence we need to ensure that we recognise the diverse voices (explain the benny campaign).In AUGUST 2016 our article TIME TO RAISE A STATUE TO THE BEST OF BENNY LYNCH (see link) advocated changing the narrative within families and communities from shame to pride and remembrance. And it may be through remembrance, support and pride for those we loved, that we can help our current citizens to endure and make sense of what COVID has visited upon them.
Emily Mark-Fitzgerald (see link) when connecting heritage, cultural silence, shame and stigma has argued that countries like Canada were quicker to memorialised deaths due to the exodus caused by the famine (e.g. at the notorious quarantine islands) than was the case in Ireland where mass graves were located in unconsecrated sites that were later also used for the burials of those who had taken their own lives and the unbaptised . Only in recent years has the omission in Ireland and other contrives been rectified and their are now numerous cites that have erected memorials. So the question for our present age is how we should memorialise, recognise and take responsibility for the loved ones that were lost to COVID
Pain, Creativity and Remembrance – Honouring Our Loved Ones Past and Present
Though we are advocating in this piece that as we come out of lockdown we should spend less time online and more time going to place and meeting old faces, creative social media may have a role to play in generating memories of COVID.
In some ways social media gives us all our Andy Warhal 15 minutes of fame. But, again, we have to recognise that only certain folk have access to computers. Only some people have the knowledge base to write and publish articles and only some people have the confidence to put it out there on social media.
Creativity is an important source of togetherness that can create links between generations whether through music and dance in later life or through play in early childhood (see this CREANOVA project article for the need for a socially just approach to play and creativity which highlights the liberation and inclusive nature of creativity and innovation).
We can memorialise our lost loved ones visually through diaries, drawings, pictures, poems or by designing gardens, sculptures or outdoor structures etc. Deliberate reflection, picturing and visualisation can help shift our emotions from a sense of grief to a sense of remembrance and pride. Local memorialisation offers comfort to those that grieve, recognises a life well lived and acts as a sign-post for those to come of how they might live their lives.
The importance of reconnecting with family was brought home to Christina
In July 2020
Whilst we would agree with Emily Mark-Fitzgerald that there will be no single memory of the crisis that is COVID, we would also add that as we progress out of lockdown it will be important to ensure that we generate a collective and non-selective memory about COVID. That we remember in a way that does not stigmatise and that we remember in a way that does not reproduce our current social inequalities, the consequences of which became so glaringly obvious during the crisis.
Categories: A Socially Just Economy, Benny Lynch, Black Lives Matter, Cherry Blossom, Christina Milarvie Quarrell, Common Weal, Corona Virus, Creativity and Innovation, Death, Disability, Empathy, Grief and Loss, Hillsborough, Independence, John Maclean, LGBT, Memory Loss, music, NHS, Phoenix, Police Scotland, Politics, Rememberance, Scotland, Social Justice, The Glasgow Effect, Uncategorized