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‘Stand back and the hearts form constellations of sorrow’ – at the Covid memorial wall in London

28 February 2022

From the March 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

In March 2021, I stood, Posca pen in hand, before a stretch of wall that girds the south bank of the Thames between Westminster and Lambeth bridges. This would be an act of love and, potentially, criminal damage. No matter that tears blurred my vision: the heart I drew must be flawless, for it would commemorate my late husband, the musician Andy Gill.

The drive for perfection had defined his entire creative output – and by turns entertained and exasperated me during our years together. Andy’s formula for making tea ran to 67 words, four different types of loose-leaf tea and 11 separate steps. He applied this uncompromising sensibility to steering his band Gang of Four for more than four decades, writing or co-writing every track, designing or co-designing all the album artwork, and directing the look and performance of a line-up that, like his music, continued to evolve. He also contributed to many other projects, composing for film and television, and writing and producing records with artists as diverse as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Stranglers, the Futureheads and Michael Hutchence. As a guitarist, he was much admired and often copied. ‘He created [a sound] that hadn’t existed before,’ said his lifelong friend, the film-maker Adam Curtis, at Andy’s memorial, ‘and I think there are very few people in the world who ever do that.’

These were reasons enough to try to perfect Andy’s heart, but I also wanted to honour its context. All along the wall, volunteers, the majority like me grieving unconscionable losses, were adding hearts too, 150,000 in that first phase, mirroring the toll to that date of Covid victims in the UK. In 18 days, our collective efforts transformed the wall into an extraordinary piece of public art, a place of remembrance and a political statement.

Each heart asserts the value of every life lost. Up close, they tell individual stories, however incomplete. ‘ANDY MY LOVE,’ I wrote. Stand back and the hearts form constellations of sorrow. Cross the river to the Houses of Parliament directly opposite and they merge, turning the wall blood-red, an unblinking reminder to the lawmakers within that their actions, and inactions, carry consequences.

Oliver Knowles of Led By Donkeys and Matt Fowler of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice among those carrying materials to set up the Covid memorial wall in March 2021.

Oliver Knowles of Led By Donkeys and Matt Fowler of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice among those carrying materials to set up the Covid memorial wall in March 2021. Photo: © Led By Donkeys

The National Covid Memorial Wall is the brainchild of two organisations that emerged from the turbulences of the recent years. Matt Fowler and Jo Goodman, strangers who connected online after losing their fathers to the virus, founded Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice as a support community on Facebook. Stories shared to the page confirmed the perception of members that many covid deaths had been unnecessary, defining a new and core aim for the group: to ensure that lessons are learned from the tragedy. Led By Donkeys – a pseudonym adopted by friends Oliver Knowles, James Sadri, Ben Stewart and Will Rose – originally gained prominence for ingenious interventions in the public debate around Brexit, plastering billboards with politicians’ lies and broken promises. In November 2020, the quartet responded to a call from Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice for help in pushing for a public inquiry into the government’s pandemic response. A first joint action saw films of the family members of Covid victims projected on to Parliament. Then, James Sadri says, ‘a story came out about Boris Johnson wanting to establish a memorial to the Covid dead. No person was worse placed to found a memorial than the man responsible for the mishandling of the crisis.’

Soon the organisations were brainstorming an alternative way to commemorate the dead and just as swiftly agreeing the notion of the wall. They considered and dismissed the idea that the hearts should be stencilled (‘it wouldn’t have tapped into the uniqueness of each life,’ Sadri says), choosing red for visual impact and to avoid overlap with a separate initiative, the Yellow Hearts movement.

Led By Donkeys handled scoping and key logistics. Covid Bereaved Families for Justice’s Matt Fowler, who inscribed the wall’s first heart, remembers how an act that might be classed as vandalism ‘hid in plain sight’. Organisers deployed high-vis jackets and sandwich boards and immediately erected formal plaques announcing not merely a covid memorial wall but a ‘National Covid Memorial Wall’, lending the works an air of unimpeachable officialdom.

Anger certainly helped to animate the concept, but this was by no means the predominant driver. Fowler chokes up when he talks about the meaning of the wall. ‘It’s not just that you and I and the other bereaved have lost these people; it’s that the world has.’

The volunteer who allocated me the spot for Andy’s heart could not know the significance of its particular vantage point, below St Thomas’s Hospital, the owner of the wall. I cried that day and have done so on many successive pilgrimages to the site because if I look up, I see the very place my love died. Tough though this is, it speaks to one respect in which I am profoundly lucky by comparison to most of the now 6,000-plus members of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group. Andy’s death came at the start of the pandemic, before measures to contain the virus barred families from bedsides and from holding funerals. Mourning and memorialising are essential to grieving. War dead, their bodies often unrecovered, are commemorated with cenotaphs – the word means ‘empty tomb’. The wall is best understood as an elongated cenotaph.

Catherine Mayer at the memorial wall, March 2021.

Catherine Mayer at the memorial wall, March 2021. Photo: courtesy the author

Unlike other public monuments, the wall lacks the planning permissions to guarantee its survival. It depends on a group of volunteers who carry out maintenance every Friday and on the generosity of donors to a crowdfunder to cover costs. Its precarity carries echoes of the experiences it documents. Never assume that the things that matter most will endure. Sometimes you must fight for them.

From the March 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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