It all seemed so straightforward. The invite came from my old friend Michael Fraser-Milne to do a talk at his whisky show, DramFest, which is held every two years in Christchurch, New Zealand.
I immediately said yes. It would be a great excuse to catch up with friends and see how the burgeoning Kiwi whisky industry is getting on. March is also a great time to visit the country, since it’s the end of summer, most tourists are gone and the skies are clear—and it’s still cold and grey in Scotland where I live. For the first time in a long while, my family was also free to come with me. I’d do a weekend of work, then we’d take a three-week holiday exploring the country. Vacation of a lifetime. The tickets were booked last fall and the days counted off until we left.
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Then COVID-19 emerged from the shadows and seemed to be chasing me around the globe. I’d got out of China before it appeared and had left Seattle just before the first outbreak there. Its presence was growing at the back of everyone’s minds, but maybe a few months ago we’d all felt impervious. After all, there were no cases in New Zealand. There was a window. We’d go, but if things started going bad we’d cut the trip short.
Four days in Melbourne were scheduled to partly break up the long journey. I’d give some whisky classes and host a screening of my documentary, The Amber Light, about Scotch’s relationship with Scottish culture. Then off to Christchurch for DramFest, for me the most warm-hearted whisky event in the world. There, in between classes and talks, I raced around trying as much Kiwi whisky as possible—watch out for bottles from Cardrona, Thomson and Lammermoor. These are all sweet, elegant and superbly balanced whiskies, boding well for the future.
Once the gig was over, I went back to the house I was put up in, poured myself a dram and exhaled. On holiday at last. The next day I drove to the seaside town of Akaroa with my wife and daughter. The phone had been pinging during the drive but messages could wait, the journey was so spectacular.
After we’d arrived and unpacked I had a look at my phone. The message was from the Australian Health Authority. “Someone at the screening of The Amber Light has been diagnosed with Covid-19. You must self-isolate for 14 days.”
I thought back to the film. How friends from Melbourne’s best bars had turned up. The hugs, the back slaps, clinked glasses. The contact. All of them now in isolation, losing money. Then the realization that I’d been on a plane, then at an event with a couple thousand people. More handshakes and hugs. What had I done? Ruined a business. My family… I’d put them in danger, ruined their holiday. Then paranoia. Is my throat sore, am I getting hot, is my chest tight?
We were allowed to move to a friend’s farm where I could self-isolate in an outside hut. The corona tide was heading our way, but we couldn’t leave until isolation was over. There was no option but to wait. Fortunately, none of us at the screening developed any symptoms and thankfully neither did my family. The fortnight almost over, it was time to cut our losses and head back to the UK. Then the day before we were due to fly to Melbourne to catch our flight home, Australia closed its borders. If we went we’d be in isolation for another 14 days there.
The airlines weren’t answering their phones. The British embassy in New Zealand had closed down. So we phoned a travel agent in the UK and booked the first flight out of Auckland via Hong Kong. But as soon as we got to Auckland, Hong Kong closed its borders. The day after, New Zealand was about to impose a tough lockdown.
Family meeting. We decided to head back to Christchurch while we still could, since we at least have friends there—and it has an international airport, which will come in handy when things finally returned to normal.
We rented a house from a friend of a friend, our ninth in the past two weeks. And now we sit and wait. There are currently no flights from Christchurch. The ones from Auckland are either delayed or being cancelled at short notice. Qatar Airways is charging more than £18,000 for seats. The UK government doesn’t seem concerned. At least the situation has put an end to the anxiety over whether to make a dash for another plane that won’t leave.
We’ve settled into lockdown mode. Films, Skype and Zoom. My daughter, who is on a gap year before university, has started to take online ballet classes.
We’re the fortunate ones. Millions are worse off.
We’re 11 hours ahead of the UK and even more of the US, but, sadly, I’m no more prescient about the future than when I was back in Scotland. The question is, can I work? I blithely say, ‘I’m used to this. I work on my own anyway,’ but this is different. Ideas drain away as priorities shift and insomnia takes hold.
With business stopped, liquor launches gone, events cancelled, no gossip to pick over and comment on, what is to be done? What does a drinks writer write about when there are no bars open? Move to Instagram live? Zoom tastings? Can they pay the bills?
I’m not moaning. As writers we are spoiled. People send us booze, invite us to events and shows, and fly us round the world. We can become deluded as to our own importance, because people actually don’t need this. We’re the fluff.
I’m not a bartender looking at dwindling savings, or a bar owner looking at a business on the verge. I’m a drinks writer with a room full of booze. Sure, I’m 11,000 miles away from that haven, but I’m safe.
But this is also the life I’ve made. It’s what pays the mounting bills. Writing is what I do. Talking is what I do as well. My life for the past 30 odd years has been travelling the world doing both for a thirsty audience. Now all future projects are all on ice. The diary empty. I’m not looking for sympathy. I feel lucky.
Distilleries will switch back from making hand sanitizers to alcohol once more, but will communication change back as well, or should it be done remotely for the sake of our health and the health of the environment?
But how do you find out what is happening unless you travel? That’s been the model for decades. Yes, you can get samples, but there’s something about being in a distillery, the smell, the sound, the flow of conversation over glasses, and more importantly often the drinks after, and the building of relationships and friendships.
I think of my recent chats with the whisky makers here and how those minutes looking into their eyes and hearing their voices told me more than the liquid in the glass ever could. This booze world is one of personal relationships. It is a community based global industry where human contact is prized. Will that change? Will it have to?
What will happen to Scotch, an industry based on export? And to Scotland, a country whose most important industry is tourism?
Maybe it’s the time to change the writing model. To move away from scores and competitions and writing by rote and look at the wider questions that this virus has forced us to consider: sustainability, the climate crisis, language, being local in a global world, re-reading the past, telling stories, connecting with people…
Being here has helped. The manner in which the lockdown has been accepted is the complete opposite of what seems to be happening in the UK. Maybe folks here are used to earthquakes and slip into disaster mode more easily, maybe they are more law abiding, maybe they see the issues clearly, or it could lie deeper.
In the UK, the government is preaching, “stay home, protect the NHS,” which is ironic given it is coming from the people who have done their utmost to dismantle our country’s safety nets. Meanwhile in New Zealand, we’re told to “be kind.”
“Kia kaha” (be strong) say people as they part; looking after and out for each other, knowing we’re in this together. It brings tears to the eyes.
It also makes me think deeper about how we are all connected and this strange paradox that we are closer now than ever before, but also further apart. We wave to parents and friends from our rooms, crack jokes, then click off and return to our doubts. We need a drink, but don’t dare drink too much.
Look at that Quarantini and leave it standing.
Will we emerge from this kinder? Continue to support the poor and needy? Pay more attention to our community? Will China notice how many people’s lives were saved by the lockdown and the subsequent drop in air pollution? Will we notice how a month of isolation allows nature to breathe? These are the glimmerings of hope we need.
I’m looking at tonight’s dram. I’m going to finish it. I might even have another.
Be safe folks. Be kind.
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