Read Alison Williams’ Hubert Butler Essay Prize 2021 winning entry on Covid-19

‘During the plague I came into my own’ (Anthony Hecht). Who or what benefited from Covid-19?

Alison Williams: for so very many of us Covid-19 has brought the paradox of connection through isolation

Alison Williams: for so very many of us Covid-19 has brought the paradox of connection through isolation

 

The Hubert Butler Essay Prize 2021, which encourages the art of essay-writing across Europe, has been awarded to visual artist Alison Williams for her essay “Who or what benefited from Covid-19?”

“Alison Williams addresses the question of who profited from Covid 19 with insight, wit and compassion,” Roy Foster, chair of the judges, said. “ She connects the pandemic’s effects to universal issues of communication, privilege and vulnerability, demonstrating the accomplished essayist’s ability to illuminate large themes by scaling up the everyday – very much in the tradition of Hubert Butler, whom this prize commemorates.”

John Banville, patron of the prize, said: “Alison Williams’s marvellous essay is a worthy winner, one that surely Hubert Butler would have approved. It is warm, witty, unapologetic and – for once the cliche is entirely apposite – life-affirming.”

Sebastian Barry, who will speak at the prizegiving ceremony in Kilkenny today, said: “This essay is moving, deeply engaged, fundamentally heroic, and unashamedly positive. In a time seared by negative and negating information, it lights up some nearly derelict synaptic circuits.”

Williams said: “Winning the Hubert Butler Essay Prize means so much to me on so many different levels, but two in particular: As a self-defined European Scot, it is a joyful experience to be joined once again with the honourable and ancient lineage of European-ness and European values that Hubert Butler espoused and promoted. Then, to have my writing recognised publicly, in such a prestigious setting, is to know beyond doubt that the work is worth the doing. Words cast spells, and I hope that the words of this essay reach out to others and cast good spells.

“And it is a joyful experience indeed to find myself in such excellent good company. My heartfelt thanks for their imagination and energy in creating and supporting this prize go to the Kilkenny Arts Festival, HEART, and the Essay Prize itself, for giving me the meaty subject matter to work with.”

This is the second year that the prize is being held in Kilkenny and supported by Kilkenny Arts Festival. Festival director Olga Barry said: “Kilkenny Arts Festival is honoured to continue its support of the Hubert Butler Essay Prize. We’re grateful to Jeremy O’Sullivan for his stellar work in establishing this important recognition of essay-writing in Butler’s name. We’re particularly grateful to the judging panel for their time and energy and to Julia and Dick Crampton and their family for their ongoing encouragement and support. We heartily congratulate Alison and the runners up for their fine work. Butler’s legacy is alive throughout the civic and cultural life of Kilkenny and indeed the nation – this prize in his name is an important part of this legacy.”

Williams is a visual artist and ‘late-onset academic’, whose 2013 PhD thesis proposed a visuo-spatial grammar of creative workplaces. Co-editor of BITE: Recipes for remarkable research (2014) and EqualBITE: Gender equality in higher education (2017), she has written and presented extensively on the creative process, and has published in journals as diverse as Regenerative Medicine and Business Innovation and Disruption by Design. She is currently working on Between the mountain and the tree: A journey of wilding women, and growing an international community of wilding women.

In a former life she designed glasswork for Freddie Mercury and Dustin Hoffman, ran an arts centre for amateur painters, and was a consultant in creativity to multinationals.

Hubert Butler was born in Kilkenny in 1900, and he travelled extensively throughout Europe during his life. With his wife, Peggy, he founded the Kilkenny Lectures to encourage dialogue between the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic, and he found international recognition in his eighties for his essay collections Escape from the Anthill, The Children of Drancy and Grandmother and Wolfe Tone.

‘During the plague I came into my own’ (Anthony Hecht). Who or what benefited from Covid-19?
During the pandemic I came into my own.

Pace Dickens, for me it was the best of times; for millions of others it was the worst of times. For hundreds of thousands of others it was the last of times.

It took a long time, and much inner talking-to, to get over the guilt. People would ask “How is lockdown going for you?” with that particular inflection that anticipates, almost requires, the worst. It has taken me over a year to be able to say, being a truthful sort of person, “Thank you, I’ve been having a wonderful lockdown – pretty terrific, actually.” Even so, I still preface it with “I know that it has been horrendous for so very many people….”

But…..

In these 18 months I have been more productive and more creative than at any time in my 70-plus years. I have produced artwork that I know to be outstanding; I have brought together circles of remarkable women from across the world – the Wilding Women journey – and am collaborating with them to collect and share their wilding stories; and am writing a book about it.

I have indeed come into my own during the pandemic.

The indispensable ingredient is, of course, privilege. The privilege inherent in being a white, middle-class, highly educated woman; and because of my age and an underlying health condition, in the vulnerable bracket. As a vulnerable older person I unexpectedly became visible – someone to be protected, cared for, no longer overlooked and ignored as was so often the case pre-Covid when a cloak of social invisibility descends on post-menopausal women. It has been an instructive experience being visible, if only for a few months, and if only with the express aim of making sure that I don’t over-burden the health service and create extra pressure on those remarkable people who are holding it together.

Privilege has taken the edge off any negative impact that I might otherwise have experienced from Covid-19. I have the elements prescribed by Virginia Woolf for a woman’s creative life – a room of my own and £500 a year (that is, a laptop and easy chair in a south-facing bay window; and a modest and reliable pension). I share my space with a loving man and am not short of hugs. Although living with an underlying and progressive neurological condition, I am healthy. I have easy access to 11 acres of inner-city private wooded garden. My children and grandchildren are self-sufficient and living too far way to visit regularly so physically I haven’t missed them; emotionally we are entwined and connected by good internet.

My privilege has protected me from the virus itself; I did not have to put myself in places where I might be exposed to it – working or shopping or living in overcrowded housing. My privilege has given me the means of staying emotionally, mentally and physically healthy – I had no worries about my family, about money, or shelter, or a food supply. I had no concerns about my own state of mind.

The pandemic has protected me from everything that has, in the past, detracted from my work – interruptions, distractions, noise, irrelevancies; lockdown has given me space and a blessed silence.

I have indeed come into my own.

At this point I have to say that my partner, reading an early draft of this essay, said how smug I sounded. How do I – how does anyone – relate good fortune without smugness, without apology? As Tolstoy observed: “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Perhaps it is less that all happy families are alike, more that in their happiness they lack the drama to make a novel that keeps the reader gripped for the 864 pages of Anna Karenina’s life and death. Is it that the good fortune that I have experienced in lockdown, the excitement of creativity and making, the bliss of silence and bird song, bores other people?

Perhaps – I make no apology.

I have Parkinson’s disease, often described as an uninvited visitor that turns up and won’t go away, bringing progressive physical and – often – mental disability. In his poem The Dance of Death Anthony Hecht’s Tarantula is a sinister, unexpected and unwanted visitor that arrives with the plague and won’t leave. It (he?) brings death in its more appalling forms, and takes a macabre and unspeakable pleasure in describing them. Covid-19 too is an unwanted visitor that has appeared, settled in to the community and is going – if at all – only with the greatest reluctance. It too brings death, and leaves behind a legacy of ill-health and trauma. But for some, unwanted visitors can also bring gifts.

The gifts it has brought me have been many. The gift of time to explore ideas, to read voraciously, to draw and sew and write. The gift of online skills workshops to develop story-telling talents and writing abilities. The gift of connection: for Covid-19 has brought with it a paradox – the greater the isolation, the greater the potential for connection. Unforeseen, totally unexpected, the pandemic has brought with it the gift of new friendship, of women’s friendships.

Being isolated and locked down physically has, it seems, brought out the imaginative determination of women who refused to be cabined, cribbed, confined and who looked for ways not only of continuing their work but seizing the chance to innovate, to expand, to live dangerously at the edge of their skills, making it up as they went, building the airplane when flying it, as the trope goes. As one woman friend put it: “When you’re backed into a corner, you innovate your way out of it.”

And through those innovations I came into my own with new and exciting connections.

The extraordinary thing, for me, was the depth of those connections. For three minutes I looked quietly and gently into the eyes of a woman a thousand miles away – establishing a level of trust and connection almost impossible to do face to face without embarrassment. We were part of 1:59, an online dance and performance project. Previously run face-to-face alternately in Paris and Seoul by the Korean dancer and performance artist Eun Me Ahn (one minute, fifty-nine seconds is the average length of time that people view something on YouTube before flicking to the next thing) we – all amateurs, and mostly women – were each invited to create and video a dance performance one minute fifty-nine seconds long, to be live-streamed from Seoul. Over three months of workshops in dance, theatre and filming, in “breaking the edge of the frame”, in using sound, in constructing narrative and in simply hanging out and conversation, I met women from across Europe (as well as the world) and established friendships that continue to grow and develop. Laughing with someone on screen deepens the connection.

I have come into my own.

I have come into my own through connections. Through connections that weave me into imperceptible tapestries of gifts and support. And through the invisible, or barely visible, connections that I have with hundreds, if not thousands, of other people, other gift-givers; the hitherto taken-for-granted gifts given to me by the drivers and logistics people who keep the food coming into the shops; by the pickers and packers and posties and delivery people who keep essentials and non-essentials arriving at my door; the dustbin men who empty the rubbish regularly and tidily; the people who keep the clean water flowing from my taps, and the power flowing into my household appliances, and my precious, treasured internet connection.

I have come into my own, too, through the impossible choices that so many have made, weighing up whether to isolate and lose their source of income and maybe their home, or work and keep food on the table and a roof over their heads, and risk infecting – possibly killing – themselves and the people they love. And the dark thread that runs throughout all this pandemic time of the women living with an increase of abuse, and fear for themselves and for their children.

Minna Salami says: “There are realisations from which you can never return; lightbulb moments that shape your destiny by revealing the constellations of your behaviour”.

In writing this essay I have had such a realisation: I have become acutely conscious that the gifts of connection, friendship, creative making, are dependent on the gifts from previously unseen, unacknowledged people who together hold up my happiness, my privilege, my smugness. As EM Forster said: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

How do I hold them in my gratitude? Clapping for the NHS fades before what Virginia Woolf called the unnarrated lives of ordinary women.

I too have had my time here, working for a contract cleaning company when the bank no longer believed my over-optimistic client spreadsheets and was handing me over to “the hard guys at Head Office”. Then in my late fifties, I was one of the invisible supporters, walking the almost deserted early-morning streets of the small rural town where I lived, wearing the polo shirt with the logo of the cleaning company stitched onto the pocket (left breast), smiling and nodding a good morning to others doing the same, all of us en route to visitor centres, hotels, bars, yacht clubs, to clean toilets, iron table cloths, change beds, mop floors. The time when – miraculously – I found money lying in the grass where it had fallen out of someone’s pocket, a few pounds, enough to feed me and the children over the weekend. My imagination fails me when I think what it would have been like to live through this period of my life, locked down, no cleaning job, no money, no hope for the future. Shame on me to have forgotten those two years, forgotten what it feels like, forgotten the connections, the interweaving.

In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about how the indigenous Americans – she is of Potawatomi heritage – plant corn, beans and squash together. Called the Three Sisters, the corn grows up tall and provides support for the beans. The beans trap nitrogen to enrich the soil for all, and the squash spreads around the base of the others, keeping out the weeds and insects. Together they flourish. Kimmerer says: “The way of the Three Sisters reminds me of one of the basic teachings of our people. The most important thing each of us can know is our unique gift and how to use it in the world. Individuality is cherished and nurtured, because, in order for the whole to flourish, each of us has to be strong in who we are and carry our gifts with conviction so they can be shared with others. Being among the sisters provides a visible manifestation of what a community can become when its members understand and share their gifts. In reciprocity, we fill our spirits as well as our bellies.”

I have benefited from Covid-19.

Beyond the creating, the making, the learning, I have benefited from Covid-19 in discovering and knowing my own unique gifts and sharing them with others freely and generously. I have benefited from Covid-19 in becoming more acutely aware of my privilege and starting to learn how to go beyond it. I have benefited from Covid-19 in recognising and starting to understand the supportive connections I have with other people, and – above all – in making new and unexpected friendships in far-flung places from Seattle to Prague.

It was, for me, the best of times – I can say this now without guilt or apology; my world has expanded, my experiences have multiplied, my existing friendships have deepened and new friendships have formed, my inner self has distilled.

It was, for so very many, the worst of times – I can say this now with empathy, acknowledgement and appreciation.

And for many more, and still for many, the last of times – I can say this now with sadness for lives cut short and compassion for those who mourn.

And for so very many of us Covid-19 has brought the paradox of connection through isolation: in reciprocity we fill our spirits.
hubertbutleressayprize.com

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