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‘It has been a devastating year’: an author, a musician and an intrepid student reflect on 2020

Johanna Maria Würtz and her pony Hechizo walked from Spain to study in Dundee.
Johanna Maria Würtz and her pony Hechizo walked from Spain to study in Dundee.

To mark a year of lockdown, we revisit three women who have featured in The Courier during the pandemic.

This time last year, the UK was coming to terms with the shock of lockdown. Since then, the many stories of how people have adapted, coped, loved, lost and hoped have been told by our journalists.

When the pandemic arrived in March 2020, people’s lives changed rapidly – sometimes irrevocably – and, for a long time, the future seemed as bleak as the present.

But slowly came the stories of those battling on against the odds, trying to keep going when everything else around them seemed to be falling apart.

We hear how three women’s lives have been affected and altered since they were last interviewed. A reflection of the many voices that have featured The Courier over the last 365 days.

 

COO CLAYTON, TEACHER AND AUTHOR

Last spring, Caroline Lindsay spoke to children’s author Coo Clayton, who grew up in St Andrews. Coo is the author of Maggie’s Mittens, Maggie’s Monsters and Maggie’s Magical Islands.

She tells of how the last year has affected her and how she has found living through a second lockdown.

“This last year has been strange to say the least, although I’m very aware how fortunate my immediate family are,” says Edinburgh-based Coo.

Author Coo Clayton with the book she published in lockdown.

“As well as being an author I’m a part-time teacher, so I’ve been based in the hub school teaching key workers’ children two days a week.

“Although, at times, this has felt rather worrying, being inside with a large number of children – but I’ve enjoyed getting out the house and feeling needed,” she reveals.

“This has, however, left my husband trying to work at home as well as juggle the joys of homeschooling three children. Our children have generally coped well with lockdown. I’m grateful they’ve had each other to play and talk with, although the morning Joe Wicks sessions have generally resulted in overzealous wrestling matches.”

So has the last year changed the way Coo works?

“Completely! My teaching job couldn’t be more different,” she says.

“I feel lucky that I’m based in the key workers’ hub, as I feel at home in the classroom environment, albeit wearing a mask and standing behind a taped-off area.

Maggie’s Mittens by Coo Clayton and Alison Soye.

“So many of my colleagues have had to turn into technical wizards recording and uploading videos, creating and marking work online and talking to pupils virtually. I take my hat off to them.

“My author job has had to fit in around all of this craziness. It’s been impossible to do any writing during the day and my creativity and energy have been at a real low.

“I had a huge flurry of signed book orders on the run-up to Christmas. My third book, Maggie’s Magical Islands, was launched in October 2020 and there was huge interest from parents and teachers as they were keen to use it alongside Scottish projects at schools or as a gift for their children.”

One of the most enjoyable aspects of being an author is visiting schools and bringing a story workshop to pupils, something she’s missed over the past year.

“I’d usually be travelling to a school, library or book shop at least once a week but this has all been put on hold or cancelled,” she says.

“I’m not a big fan of Zoom story sessions, and with my target audience aged three and seven, it’s not the best age to expect them to be engaged. I can’t wait to visit schools again in real life.”

‘Not quite the same’

Coo is grateful she finished writing Maggie’s Magical Islands just before lockdown in March 2020 was announced.

“I took the first copy of it for a walk up a hill in the Highlands to do an official recorded launch,” she says.

“Not quite the same as a large crowd in a busy bookshop but in a way it felt very appropriate – the book is about Maggie travelling around the Highlands and islands, appreciating our own country and environment and promoting staycations.”

Describing herself as “a big hugger”, Coo reveals: “I really miss squeezing my family and friends. Simple things like going to the cinema or out for pizza and having a friend round for a cup of tea are also very much missed.”

But it’s not all bad news, as she’s enjoyed being able to spend more time outside. “I love walking anyway but it’s really become a daily highlight,” she smiles.

“We have discovered so many wonderful local walks – Edinburgh has lots of hidden treasures.

“Like most families, I’m sure there have been plenty of bad moments too, but nothing devastating or traumatic – unless heated homeschooling moments count.”

 

JOHANNA MARIA WURTZ, STUDENT

German Johanna Maria Wurtz made headlines last year when she and her pony walked the length of the UK to Dundee, where she’s studying at the James Hutton Institute. She featured on the front of our magazine in a story written by Jack McKeown.

The 22-year-old managed to thread the needle of various European lockdowns. “Looking back, I was very lucky,” she says. “I had my last exam in Germany on February 27 and the next day I set off to Spain to work on a farm.

“The first restrictions started after I’d been there a week and after two weeks we were in full lockdown. I didn’t really feel it though because I was outdoors all day looking after the horses and staying on the farm, so it wasn’t much different. There were four of us German girls working on the farm and there was a lady who lived near to a local village and she brought as all food.”

Johanna left Spain in June and set off through France and to the UK with her Shetland pony Hechizo. She spent the summer walking up the UK during a time when Covid restrictions were at their most open.

“When we reached Dundee, it was just a few weeks before things started to tighten up again, so I was lucky not to have got stuck somewhere before I got here,” she continues.

“Looking back, it really feels like there was a bit of magic.”

Johanna has spent the winter staying in a farmhouse outside Longforgan.

“Hechizo has his stable here and we have lots of fields and trails for walking and running,” she says.

“I’ve been mostly studying from home and going into the glass house and the institute now and then to do some lab work.

Johanna Maria Würtz and Hechizo.

“The snow was a bit challenging because I ran out of oil and had to try to keep the house warm with its two wood burners. I only had a kettle and a microwave for cooking. I still got out running in the snow, though.

“The only thing I’m sad about is I wanted to improve my English but I haven’t mixed with as many other people as I would have if the pandemic wasn’t happening.

“I’ve really enjoyed my time here, though. I’m trying to extend my Erasmus placement until the end of April and then I’ll go back to Germany to start my masters.

“I spent the first lockdown on a farm in Spain and I spent this lockdown on a farm in Scotland. I really am very lucky.”

 

CHRISTINA LAWRIE, PIANIST

On Mother’s Day 2020, Christina Lawrie’s violinist husband Marcus Barcham Stevens was due to play a concert with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Inverness. The performance never went ahead.

Classical pianist Christina, who is originally from Broughty Ferry, told Jennifer McLaren why she decided to hold an alternative concert on March 22 – from the living room of the London home she shares with Marcus and their daughter Mairi-Anna.

And so the Concert From Our Living Room series was born, beaming live via Christina’s YouTube channel. Back then, she had a steep learning curve when it came to video and streaming technology – now it’s become a regular event.

Christina Lawrie and Marcus Barcham Stevens recording at the Caird Hall in Dundee.

Christina explains: “When we set up #ConcertFromOurLivingRoom, one of our goals was to reach out and recreate the camaraderie and friendliness of a music society.

“We knew there was going to be a dreadful loss of community and we were all going to be going off into our isolation.”

Christina and Marcus have also started asking their listeners for programme suggestions: “We have had a wonderful group of supporters who have kept us going through all of this,” she says. “It has been a delight for us to get to know our listeners through regular emails. We’re looking forward to the day when we can meet them in person.”

She says they are grateful to have had the chance to perform all of these concerts: “A lot of musicians I know of have talked about not having a focus in their lives – they are losing incentive and motivation to practise.

“For us, we are very privileged because we are two professional musicians together – and violin and piano fit together really well. My heart goes out to so many of my colleagues. It has been a devastating year. I have heard terrible stories of people having to sell their instruments just to cover their expenses.”

As well as running their online concert series, the couple have been asked to perform concerts for broadcast.

Christina and Marcus perform together.

“We recorded a Valentine’s Day concert for Music in New Malden,” Christina says. “Another highlight was our pre-Christmas Caird Hall concert. The hall has a magnificent acoustic and a glorious new Steinway piano.

“We were so grateful for the opportunity to play in the Caird Hall – a venue that I remember well from my childhood.”

The concerts were broadcast in the run-up to Christmas and it was unforgettable for Christina: “It was really quite emotional and it was beautiful weather that weekend – brilliant blue skies and sunshine.

“Although we didn’t actually go into my parents’ garden, we walked along the pavement and they stood at their front door. It meant such a lot to see my parents in person, albeit at a distance.

“That weekend remains the only time I have seen them since late February a year ago. That was really special.”

Christina and Marcus are preparing for a livestream concert over Zoom for Home Concert Club on April 7 at 8pm.

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