2020: Still Life

I take a lot of photographs.

Since the dawn of the smartphone I have been filling various clouds with souvenir snapshots from every meal, beach walk, sunset, moment of calm, night out, fireside, and dog-spotting, though not every shot fits so neatly under the typical hashtags. The one thing I don’t take enough photographs of is people. 

In my student days and in the hazy years that followed, my phone was full of people – friends and colleagues and strangers from dance floors and pub toilets and curb sides outside takeaways. I was the designated snapper, or at least, I gave the least credence to the idea of editing a night out, much to everyone’s embarrassment and frustration. But I liked to capture moments, even if they aren’t all fit for Facebook the morning after, I still liked to take them and to keep them. 

The ‘nights out’ montage has changed quite a bit since my heyday and in many of the photos I’ve taken of friends in recent years, we’ve begun to play out some of the ‘Boyfriends of Instagram’ style poses and group shots in a tongue in cheek way I’ve almost become a little too good at capturing. True to my mantra, these usually come from a moment of piss-taking rather than a rehearsed routine rolled out in every Instagram-worthy location. I love taking photos of my friends when we go away together to explore new cities or countryside getaways, but I much prefer the arty profile shots or the actual laughing out loud moments I snatch when they’re not paying attention over the boomerang clinking of Prosecco glasses.

Call it notions if you like, but I think they’re the shots we’ll prefer to look back on when we’re old and sitting by the fire – although yes, I’m sure we’ll also need the picture perfect shots from those special occasions when we celebrated a birthday or got all dressed up for a wedding or just all happened to look the business down the pub on a Friday night. God knows, as someone for whom brushing my hair is a sign of making a real effort, I need those shots more than most. So yes, there are selfies and angled looks to cameras that have been taken a dozen times because someone’s hair wasn’t quite right, or most likely, I had my eyes closed, but those pictures have become more of a rarity in the recent years, certainly over the past year.

You can probably chart the decline of people in my online albums as the production line of poses and pouts sprang up across social media channels. By the time every selfie on Instagram had been face-tuned and full length group shots resembled shop window mannequins, I had very much refocused my lens on still life. 

Over the past few years, in line with my writing habits, my camera roll follows a trend of food, books and spaces (or eats, reads and rambles, if you will) and the pattern prevails on my Instagram account even if the writing itself has dried up.

And here lies the basis for two of my new years’ resolutions – 

  1. To take more photos of my people
  2. To write more, and to put more of it out into the world

These came, in part, from gathering together all my favourite shots from 2020 – a year which encapsulated the idea of ‘still life’ more than most. Nine months of varying degrees of lockdown made my world look very small indeed on reflection but, and I say this with full acknowledgement of privilege and sheer luck, it never necessarily felt small. Looking back over 12 months of photos as I marinated in a bathtub one afternoon earlier this month, I was struck by the shots that stood out to me – they were not landmarks from far flung cities or masterpiece plates in fancy restaurants or even glad rag group shots at weddings, as have marked the last 10 years or so – 2020 was local, it zoomed in on domestic details and close ups from my own neighbourhood – a neighbourhood which was, importantly I think, entirely new to me. 

Looking at the final selection of some 400 shots (like I said, I take a lot of photos), and probably as the New Year was still fresh in my mind, I was reminded of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales, a rambling poetic piece of prose which weaves together snapshots of memories and vivid moments from across the years which flood into one all-encompassing tapestry. That was just the kind of way to describe what 2020 had been – a blur of repetitive views and walks, habitual outings, variations on the same attempts at something new, the trying on of new hobbies or activities to stave off the boredom.

All of this is to say, really, that I felt an urge to flex my writing muscles and, that when it came to pulling together all those favourite shots of 2020 and trying to decide what to do with them – A Facebook album? A Google link to share in group chats? – I realised they did not make up a smiley family album to stack up next to the previous years, they told a story of a very strange, very different, and actually, rather happy year. 

So here they are, here is my small, contented story of 2020.

A Girl’s Lockdown in Dublin

In January, I unpacked books and bags in my new room on Mountpleasant Avenue and settled into a new neighbourhood with a new view, and set out to rediscover the city I’d known as a child. I spent Sundays in museums and galleries and pub snugs with the latest book browsed from Hodges Figgis and long, open-skied walks to revisit childhood haunts and tramp canals and coastlines. Little did I realise how well worn those paths would become before too long. 

February brought a general election, the Six Nations, a flurry of sessions and bookish events. I started Irish lessons, I got a haircut, I went home for Valentine’s weekend to meet Rosie, a rescue pup brought home from Derry. We went out in Letterkenny and danced to Bruce Springsteen covers and Cranberries covers in over-lit bars and sang Hamilton in the over-priced taxi home. We walked from Greystones to Bray and I raised my Wicklow pint to the 32 County Stout Challenge as an old man in the bar donned a facemask as a joke. I went for dinner with my cousins and we talked about the world beginning to close down. I had one last night in the pub, the day they told us to work from home, when we marvelled over a group of Asian students practising traditional Irish instruments in a booth only for them to get up and play a session, and we closed the bar that night and then everything closed. The world slowed down and got a little smaller…

I read books and took to weeding the garden on the strangest Paddy’s Day. We walked the canal and looked at the swans and wondered what was going to happen. I bought flowers and baked and got to know the housemates I was now living and working alongside 24 hours a day. We picked up hobbies and habits with good intentions to keep us occupied and regularly poured a glass of something as soon as the laptops closed for the evening and sometimes before. We turned the shed into a pub to create some sense of otherness from the desks we now lived at, donning jumpers and coats to crack cans al fresco and escaped to walk or do keepy uppies or just soak up the sun whatever moment of the day it might appear. I did a jigsaw. My mum sent me a care package of cheese in lieu of a traditional Easter Egg. We made an Easter roast dinner and when the spring sprang we cleaned the BBQ, drawing a dividing line of real and fake meat down the middle of the grill. We lit candles and sat out under the stars, playing the same tunes loudly from an upstairs window, having the same good natured rows just for the sake of it. We played board games and cards and feasted on lockdown banana breads and baking escapades. I bought more flowers and marvelled at the slow unfurling of a new leaf which eked itself out day by day. We hung out front windows and cheered for those on the frontline, we lit candles in the window for those who’d been lost. We tried to hold these moments alongside the rest of life in a balancing act that did not overwhelm or undermine. We did yoga with Adrienne and invested in supplies for cocktails, we did zoom calls and ran 5Ks and baked bread and drank cocktails, and locked ourselves out one sunny evening. I bought more supplies from a local bookshop and the owner dropped them off on her bike. We had socially distanced drinks in front gardens and made the Saturday night takeaway and a movie the absolute highlight of the week. I made cards and sent messages to far flung family and friends isolating in various corners of the country. I introduced my housemates to Eurovision and had my first outrageous hangover in MountPAU. I watched online events with writers and much-missed friends playing at-home gigs, and watched sunsets from my bedroom window until they seeped away into the night sky as if I might never see one again. 

I got bad news and went in search of salt water and sea air and burst into tears listening to Bruce Springsteen as I tramped past the hospital where someone I loved was laid up, trying not to die before the restrictions might allow at least one person to come and hold her hand. I splashed out on fancy fish and chips and sat in the park, a little terrified by how busy it was, a little unnerved by this new fear of crowds and how quickly it had settled in. The summer slipped in and we BBQ’ed and made cocktails and walked the canal and coastline. In June I hovered on the edge of the Black Lives Matters march, choking up behind my mask at the sheer power of hearing so many voices in unison, seeing a whole body of people take the knee in one fell swoop, torn between this new fear of crowds and the sheer want to throw myself in among them and trust that everything would be OK. I bought flowers and basked in rare moments when I had the house to myself. I ran 10k and put on lipstick to talk nonsense on a screen for hours, soaking up friends I longed to lean against as we laughed in some pub snug. Ice lollies took on the same momentous thrill they’d had when I was a child. Sometimes I had a Loop the Loop for breakfast just because I could. I fell in love with the way the light moves through the house from morning peering in through the back windows, to golden hour basking on the mantelpiece, to dusk settling down on my bedroom wall. We got to celebrate something almost like real life, toasting to an award-winning campaign in a backyard rather that a function room and making the absolute most of it all. I became OBSESSED with Juanitos popcorn chicken and welcomed the full regression to childhood watching The Den special on TV. 

As lockdown began to lift we celebrated with a birthday and ordered delivery pints, creamy stouts poured from the back of a four-by-four. I faced the second great hangover of MountPAU, this time with double McDonalds and I felt no shame. The moment the travel ban lifted I went north, lip syncing Hamilton behind my mask for the entire duration of the bus journey. That night we watched the stage show on Disney and basked in its brilliance as if we’d been front row on Broadway. I thoroughly made the most of having my mum and sister cook for me and cuddled every four-legged creature in the house, even the cats. I had my Derry pint with a much-missed friend and marvelled at just how joyous it was to be sitting in a pub in the middle of the afternoon with someone you love. We went to Donegal and I buzzed off every crashing wave and far-as-the-eye-can-see horizon, we played scrabble and went swimming and tried to convince Rosie she would not drown. I drank Football Special and saw little everyday things from home in a softer light before going back to Dublin sunsets and walks along the Dodder. I ventured further to Marley Park and MOLI and sat in hallowed awe at the full two hours of the Nuala O’Faolain film because here was something in real life in real time and I could just enjoy it. It made me want to write. We went to pub quizzes and ate substantials and drank lovely, lovely pints. I went to Dalky and bought books and treated myself to a fancy lunch and a brisk walk to look out at the Irish Sea and thought how, just a year before, I’d been standing on the other side of it, looking out towards home. I did an online writing workshop and remembered what I wanted to be. I ate A LOT of spaghetti bolognese.

One weekend we went to Wicklow and climbed into the clouds. Another weekend I went to Alan Hanna’s bookshop and bought a newly released book by my favourite author and went and sat in my local pub for the afternoon and it was GLORIOUS. My hair got more and more ridiculous as the weeks went on. Eventually I got it done and was convinced I’d willingly accepted a mullet for weeks. We went up Killiney Hill and watched the sun go down on Dublin as the city lights sprang to life, picking out landmarks and fireworks before looking out the other direction to watch an enormous blood orange moon rise up out of the Irish Sea.

In September we made a break for it and got on a boat to inis Mór. We slept in a pod and queued for an hour in the rain to get into the only pub for dinner. We swam in the sea and cycled the island, climbing up onto the highest point where the crossroads cut off in every direction down to the Atlantic. We bought arran jumpers to support the local economy and were sorry to come home so soon. There were almost real life work things like photocalls and family things like my mum and sister popping round for lunch in the garden. I walked out into dusky evenings to stretch my legs and see dogs and listened to Michelle Obama and then Barack Obama tell their stories as the election approached. I read books and soaked up bookshops and chased Autumn colours across South Dublin. We lit the fire and indulged in homemade treats as Bake Off brought some weekly sense of occasion back into our lives. 

In October I made a break from Howth, settling into a quiet cottage on the hill for a few days to read and write and not look at my emails. I tramped the coastline and swam in the sea and ate chowder before they closed the pubs again. Returning home I baked and we order delivery pints and takeaway pints and settled back into the smallness of it all again. I bought flowers and we lit candles and sat outside on the strangest Halloween night. I watched sunsets and started an online writing course. I bought mince pies in November and checked my phone on the way home from Supervalu in Ranelagh one night to see that they’d called the election. I doubled back into the shop and bought a bottle of fizz. I baked and we ordered delivery pints and watched The Den on TV. The days dwindled and I got up early to do yoga before work and walked the dusk along the canal. We put the tree up in time for the Toy Show and bulk bought Baileys. They opened the pubs and we lashed a couple of days together before hunkering down again to prepare for the going home at Christmas. I went to visit my Granny and passed my childhood home, it seemed smaller and someone had cut down the trees we’d planted.