Ishbel McFarlane

Ishbel McFarlane

Dear Lyceum,

I hope this letter finds you well in these strange and uncertain times. That is the only sanctioned way to start correspondence at the moment. The health visitor, Sainsbury’s and a vegan shoe company have all hoped that their emails find me well in these strange and uncertain times. And you know, they did! I am well! Most of the time! Or, at least, a lot of the time! Do you have up and down days, as a theatre? It seems to me that a theatre can only have good days with people inside - even if there’s not a show on it must be reeeeeal niiiiiice to get a good clean, right in about your chairs and shiny banisters. That sounds dreamy. But I’m guessing you don’t even have that. Maybe being a theatre without people means you can’t be well, that you’re unwell. I’m sorry if that’s the case. In these strange and uncertain times. 

Writing to you is really nice for me, actually, because I recently lost my beloved main correspondent. Grandma was an Edinburgh lady, like yourself, from the other side of the Meadows on Sciennes House Place, that used to be Braid Place. She loved letters, writing and receiving them. She would start her day with correspondence, redrawing the lines of connections to family and friends across the world - not just for herself but as a sort of emissary for her whole family. Nothing says letters from Grandma more than the phrase ‘Tell your mother I was asking for her’.

I have boxes and boxes of her letters. It’s right to keep them, isn’t it? They tell little bits of the day-to-day, the ups and downs, the dancing and the minister and going to the big Asda. But Grandma’s letters most of all told me about other times, and most of all about the war. 

When I was 18 I went to university in Edinburgh and stayed on Brougham Street, just up the road from you at Tollcross. Do you know it? My room was above the old Spud U Like and the flat smelled of baked potatoes. Growing up in strenuously-not-destitution in the 1920s and 1930s meant university was never an option for Grandma. When she was called up she was assigned to the Women’s Royal Naval Service and trained in London, where there were digs in the houses of famous actors who had evacuated. She served in Liverpool where she worked in a secret bunker dealing with the North Atlantic fleet – and also dealing with rats, the TB that proliferated underground, and bombing. But when she saw me head off to university with my muddy-striped scarves and my corduroy hat (it was 2004) I reminded her of herself at that age, heading off to the services. Isn’t that strange? My life of parties, libraries, and eating hummus for the first time reminded her of orders and double shifts and trying to protect her parents from learning how bad it was, how she would come up from a shift and find a street just gone, rubble, nothing. 

The war has got closer to us recently. The Second World War was a refounding national myth for a United Kingdom losing an empire from its grasping fingers, and very handily we got to be the goodies in this myth. The WW2 echoes created by our current field hospitals, separation from loved ones and mortal fear are in everything. The Queen just managed not to say her speech-writer’s rehetorical flourish of ‘we will meet again’ in full-on Vera Lynn. Let’s also be grateful for the sweet mercy that we haven’t been subjected to a resurgence of the Keep Calm and Carry On binge of the early 2010s. I think a t-shirt bearing the legend Keep Calm and Carry on Watching Tiger King might send me over the edge.

It’s funny to see the myth of our current lives getting created around us. It centres around NHS heroes and rainbows in windows and the greatest hero of all – played by a Hollywood great in the movie – Captain Tom Moore, wearing his Burma Star. And in my home, feeding my baby, on my phone, I fight against that myth. I furiously read editorials about how the UK has the world’s worst per capita death toll. I read Twitter threads from despairing virologists pulling apart government policy. I talk and talk and talk about President Trump, the Keep Calm and Carry on Shopping Exclamation Mark of world leaders. 

And then I think about my grandma, telling stories for the seventy five years she lived after she was demobbed, about girls (her colleagues were always girls) sneaking out to see officers, about walking through the streets of Liverpool in the middle of the night to get fresh air, about her mother sending her half a birthday cake because everyone in Newington who had given rations had to have a slice before it was posted. That, as far as I can tell, WAS the war to her. The cenotaph and the petals in the Royal Albert Hall and 23-year-old dancers in nylon tea-dresses on Strictly Come Dancing – all of that seemed right and good and honourable to her. She lived through it, and lost through it, had people stolen from her and lived in fear, and there she was at 96, in the car on the way to the RSPB tearoom singing We’ll Meet Again.

When me and my cousins were at parties at my Grandma’s we all had to do turns, just like she’d had at parties in Braid Place. You’d like that, Lyceum, seeing as you’re a place for folk to do turns. And so I ask you to take care of the turns people do when we get back. You will hold our myths of this – lies which are safety and danger. Please be careful with the lies we tell. Good or bad, they are very important.

With love in these uncertain times,


Tags: Letters