Wall of love: the incredible story behind the national Covid memorial

On the morning of the day of the Euro 2020 finale, Westminster Bridge is already bustling with football fans and England flags, but down by the riverside hush prevails. On the Albert Embankment, there is a wall, about a third of a mile long and shaded by plane trees, which runs alongside St Thomas’ hospital and looks out over the Thames at the palace of Westminster. Before 29 March this year, it was just a wall; now it is decorated with more than 150,000 red hearts, each one representing a life lost to Covid-19. Even the Sunday runners look a little sheepish about jogging past a memorial to the UK’s largest peacetime mass trauma event in more than a century.

As I walk along what is in effect the national Covid memorial, past occasional photographs, wilting bouquets and painted stones, I read shattering stories told in just a few words. There’s one dedication to a husband and wife who died nine hours apart and another that must have been written by a NHS worker: “TO ALL THOSE I COULD NOT SIT WITH… I’M SORRY.” Sometimes, hearts are tied together by pen like a bunch of balloons, to encompass messages from entire families. Certain phrases recur, like mantras of remembrance. In loving memory. We will always remember you. Gone but not forgotten.

A national memorial to the victims of a catastrophe is usually a delicate and complex negotiation between the authorities and the families of the dead. The process is long and never without controversy. The residents of Hiroshima argued for years about whether to preserve the ruins of the city’s industrial promotion hall as a peace memorial. Maya Lin’s celebrated Vietnam veterans memorial in Washington DC was initially derided by opponents as an “open urinal” and “Orwellian glop”. It took a decade to select and construct Reflecting Absence, il 9/11 memorial in Manhattan. Boris Johnson has promised a commission on Covid commemoration but what form, and how long it will take, is anyone’s guess.

The Covid memorial wall is perhaps unique. Established by the bereaved themselves, without official permission, it has attracted nothing but praise. People outside London can request a dedication but many want to make the journey themselves. On Sunday morning, I talk to two such families. “It’s the first time we’ve felt comfortable coming down here,” says Anna from East Sussex, as she writes a dedication to her father, Jan Szymanski. Stacey and Karen from Essex have come to memorialise their mother, Junie Sheridan, on the six-month anniversary of her death.

In un New Yorker profile of Lin, Louis Menand wrote: “Now we expect a memorial will be interactive and that it will visibly move the viewer. If it doesn’t make you cry, then it isn’t working.” The Covid memorial wall is working.

Finora, it has been solely attributed to Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, but the guerrilla activist group Led By Donkeys – Ben Stewart, Oliver Knowles, James Sadri and Will Rose – have chosen the eve of so-called “freedom day” to reveal their crucial role in the project because they will be launching a digital wall online, featuring audio testimony from the bereaved. Best known for their anti-Brexit campaigning, the four men kept their involvement secret even from the volunteers so as to avoid any impression that the project was politically partisan. But all memorials are political on some level because people died who need not have died and someone was responsible. You cannot remember who without raising the questions of how and why. Infatti, the wall would not exist if not for a sense that the government couldn’t be trusted with the task of memorialisation.

“We wanted to talk about who owns memory and who gets to tell this story,” says Stewart. “There’s that Orwell quote‘Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.’ Are the government going to try to control the memory of this and are they perhaps a singularly inappropriate institution to do that, given the very serious questions about how they’ve conducted it? We need to remember the scale of the loss here. If someone had said 150,000 in December 2019 you would have thought, how could Britain sustain that level of loss? And yet we did.”

last March, Jo Goodman moved from London to her family home in Norwich to stay with her 72-year-old father, Stuart, a retired press photographer who was about to begin cancer treatment. A week before the first lockdown, Jo begged him to miss his latest hospital appointment, but he assured her that he wouldn’t be invited if it wasn’t safe. “He trusted the NHS, but I think really who he was trusting was the government,” Jo says. A week later, he began experiencing symptoms of Covid-19. Di 2 April he was dead. The funeral attendance was limited to 10 persone.

Afterwards, Goodman couldn’t get past her anger at those who had failed to protect people such as Stuart. “I felt it was wrong – almost more strongly than I felt the grief. I was really struggling.” Through a friend, she spoke to a journalist. When the article was posted on Facebook, one reader commented that he, pure, had lost a father and he, pure, blamed the government.

Before he got Covid, Matt Fowler’s father, Ian, a former engineer for Jaguar Land Rover in Nuneaton, was enjoying early retirement. He was admitted to hospital on the first day of the lockdown and died on 13 April at the age of 56. “As far as I was concerned, Dad’s death was preventable,” says Fowler. “If we’d been better prepared for Covid hitting the UK’s shores, a lot of people could have been protected. I felt powerless. I was just one guy on his own. Then I came across the article about Jo’s dad and told her I understood exactly where she was coming from.”

Goodman and Fowler immediately set up a Facebook group. Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK began as a bereavement support group, but soon evolved into a campaign for an immediate public inquiry into the government’s management of the pandemic, with a rapid review phase to avert similar mistakes during the inevitable second wave. They repeatedly sought a meeting with the prime minister. Nothing happened. “We realised that we were a bit out of our depth,” says Goodman. “We needed to do something to be heard.” Last September, they put out a call for experienced campaigners and Led By Donkeys responded.

Stewart, Knowles, Sadri and Rose are four friends and seasoned Greenpeace campaigners in their 40s who met in a pub in Stoke Newington, north London one night in December 2018 and conceived a plan to remind the public of old tweets that the architects of Brexit would rather forget. They started by plastering a poster of an infamous David Cameron tweet on to a billboard near the pub. The image went viral on Twitter so they kept going, eventually relinquishing their anonymity in an interview with the Osservatore in May 2019. Funded entirely by public donations, they expanded their anti-Brexit campaign to include videos, projections and interactive art installations, but that mission ended with the Conservatives’ general election victory. Su 31 gennaio 2020, the day the UK left the EU, Led By Donkeys projected a video on to the white cliffs of Dover of war veterans talking about the EU as a peace project and hoping that the UK would one day rejoin it. The group became known for exposing the hypocrisy of those in power, but that film found an elegiac new emotional register that prioritised the voices of ordinary people over the mendacity of politicians.

By chance, that was also the day that the country’s first two cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in York. Led By Donkeys soon put their post-Brexit plans on ice. “We didn’t immediately jump at it because we didn’t want to snipe for the sake of sniping,” says Stewart. “I wanted Boris Johnson to succeed. But what emerged very quickly was that he was approaching the pandemic with his usual boosterism and thermonuclear incompetence. We only do something if we’ve got something to say, which is that the government is fucking this up.”

Last November, Led By Donkeys worked with Goodman and Fowler on a short film of relatives telling personal stories of grief and made it hard to ignore by projecting it on to the palace of Westminster. The two groups then began talking about creating some kind of memorial that would convey both the scale of the death toll and the individuality of the victims. “It felt like people were sick of hearing about the pandemic and wanted to move on,” says Goodman. “There was a sense that our loved ones were becoming a statistic. How do you show that they’re people?"

When the death toll hit 100,000 su 26 gennaio, and Johnson pledged to establish a memorial only “when we have come through this crisis”, the need became more urgent. There were various suggestions – handprints, candles, ranks of shoes – but the concept of a wall of hearts was at once elegantly simple, emotionally immediate and logistically feasible. “Each of those hand-painted hearts being unique and individual represents a unique and individual person who died,” says Fowler. “That is a much more fitting memorial than a plaque or a statue.” Goodman realised that people would want to write inside the hearts. “I’d want to know which heart represented my dad," lei dice. “We knew what people would need from it.” The start date was set for Monday 29 marzo, when groups of six would once again be allowed to meet outdoors.

While Goodman and Fowler consulted other bereavement groups, Knowles cycled around to scout potential locations. As well as having political value, the St Thomas’ wall was large enough and, for central London, relatively serene. The next challenge was finding 10,000 Posca pens, a brand favoured by street artists because of its resilience. With help from the Bristol street art gallery Upfest, the group bought every broad-nibbed red Posca pen in the country. Another task was making sure they painted enough 8cm by 8cm hearts to reflect the latest ONS death toll, which was a little over 150,000. They calculated that it would take two-and-a-half days for someone to count them all manually, so Rose found a scientist in the US who provided some image recognition software that would tally the hearts as they were painted and enable them to hit their target.

led By Donkeys subscribe to the maxim that it is easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission. When they started plastering billboards two years ago, they looked professional by wearing hi-vis jackets and keeping their cool when police cars went past. “Own the space” was Knowles’s motto. “We learned that at Greenpeace when you do direct actions,” says Stewart. “If you look like you’re meant to be there, then it takes a very brave official to tell you you’re not. We thought, what would it look like if it was all officially signed off?"

Led By Donkeys staged a full-scale theatre of legitimacy, dressing the set with official-looking national Covid memorial wall plaques, sandwich boards and bouquets of flowers. The group set up a table to brief volunteers on social distancing and hand out branded tabards and masks. Fowler painted the first heart and dedicated it to his father. “The important thing was to get through the first hour,” says Stewart. “We felt that the idea was so powerful that as soon as it had manifested 200 hearts, it would be unstoppable.” They warned volunteers that they would be technically liable to arrest and prosecution for criminal damage but in the event their only contact with the police was an officer who was getting vaccinated in the grounds of the hospital and leaned over the wall to ask Sadri to add his neighbour’s name to the memorial.

The next obstacle was manpower. They soon realised that with the initial 30 volunteers the painting would take weeks, so they used media appearances by the bereaved to drive registrations on an events website. They ended up with approximately 1,500 volunteers over 10 giorni, working in Covid-safe groups of six in bizarrely variable conditions. “Some days we were dressed like we were in the Arctic and other days we were handing out suncream,” says Knowles. “You could hear people up and down the wall saying, ‘I’ve been at home crying every day but to come here and make this public statement with other bereaved families is a real catharsis.’ It’s a memorial built by the bereaved for the bereaved.”

While the Westminster location is an implicit rebuke to politicians, the memorial itself was designed to be universal. “This is primarily a site of mourning,” says Sadri. “We shared so many intimate emotional moments with so many people. Politics felt so distant.” While the security guards who protected the wall during the installation are long gone, people seem to instinctively understand what is appropriate. There is some damning graffiti on an adjacent wall (“THE GOVT HAS FAILED”, “Sunak=Fascist”) but I spotted only one such message on the memorial itself.

On day one, Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK emailed every MP with an invitation to come and witness the installation and talk to volunteers. Local MP Florence Eshalomi came that morning, as did the head of Lambeth council. Keir Starmer showed up in the afternoon. According to the families, no Conservative MPs materialised during the 10 giorni, although several did so subsequently, especially after the archbishop of Canterbury walked the wall with a rabbi and an imam on 20 April and spoke of “a tidal wave of grief that has not been released”.

Johnson finally appeared on 27 aprile, but he came after dark and without speaking to the families. It was the day after it was alleged that he had said that he would rather let “bodies pile high in their thousands” than impose a third national lockdown, which raised suspicions of an attempt at reputational rehab.

“I am cautiously happy that he visited the wall and took it in,” says Fowler, who finally has a meeting scheduled with Johnson in September. “But the way he went about it was very cynical and underhand. It felt insincere, like he’d done it just to say that he’d been. The reason we had invited him to come down when we were there and listen to our stories and concerns is because that’s what it’s all about: the people.”

When I revisit the wall on a glum, rainy Monday evening to meet Fran Hall, she is already there with her pens, touching up hearts and messages that have been faded by the elements.

Hall recently set up Friends of the Covid Memorial Wall to remove graffiti, fix weather damage and maintain the visual integrity of the project as best she can. Ideally, everybody would write only inside the hearts, lei dice, “but you can’t control it and that’s part of the beauty of it. We’re a messy species, aren’t we? We don’t just do what we’re told.”

Hall is a funeral director from Buckinghamshire. Last September, she got married to Steve, her partner of 11 anni. A couple of days before the wedding, Steve had a hospital appointment regarding his prostate cancer. Hall only later realised that that was when he most likely to have contracted Covid-19 and that he had been asymptomatic when they tied the knot. He was admitted to hospital, but Hall wasn’t allowed to visit him because he was immunocompromised and she had now tested positive. Three weeks after their wedding day, and one day before his 66th birthday, Steve died.

Her grief was a kind of madness, lei dice, until she came across the bereavement group. “I found my tribe. I know about grief and this is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It’s the isolation – not being able to spend time with people – and it’s the horrendous way that people die. This group represented how I felt.”

As soon as she heard about the wall, she signed up for three hours on the Monday but ended up staying the whole day and then coming back every day until it was finished. “I didn’t know that I needed it as much as I did. I couldn’t not come back. I’d found a community and a purpose. It’s helped to channel my grief.”

When Goodman arrives, Hall is delighted. They have seen each other on TV but haven’t actually met before. As we walk down the South Bank to get a cup of tea, Goodman talks about the importance of Hall’s preservation work. “I think because people feel our loved ones were neglected; when there’s a heart there that represents them, you want to take good care of it.” Goodman has seen pilgrimages made, memorial services held and friendships forged here. It has already inspired similar walls in Texas and Georgia. “It has taken on a life of its own. Now it would be very hard to see it go.”

On 12 giugno, Labour MP Dawn Butler raised the future of the wall in the Commons. Butler, who had dedicated a heart to her uncle, called it “an iconic, organic work of art created by bereaved families, and it should not be removed or painted over”. Her Labour colleague Afzal Khan wrote a letter, signed by a cross-party alliance including Sadiq Khan, Ed Davey and Peter Bottomley, which called on the government to “make this wall of hearts a, if not the, permanent memorial to the victims of the pandemic”. Stewart finds it hard to imagine that it will not remain. “It seems inconceivable to me that someone will come along one day with a sandblaster or some white paint. For some people, that heart on the wall is as important as a gravestone.”

Legally, the fate of the wall rests in the hands of St Thomas’ hospital and Lambeth council. There is talk of protecting it with plexiglass or lacquer but that would prevent new inscriptions and mean that it ceased to be a living memorial. For now, Hall is happy to keep it alive and growing. “At what point does something become an official memorial?” asks Sadri. “Who gets to decide that? The source of legitimacy is the families.”

The pandemic is something that many of us would like to forget, not least the government. The obsession with “freedom day” reveals a somewhat manic desire to rush to the end of this dreadful episode in our history and move on. For the bereaved, tuttavia, any return to normality will be incomplete and any talk of forgetting might feel like a betrayal. To remember who died, and why they died, is both emotionally and politically essential.

Everyone who painted the memorial wall, or has inscribed a name on it, belongs to a community united by a determination to remember. To walk along it is to be reminded not only of the devastation of loss but also of the extraordinary magnitude of love. “They say grief is love with nowhere to go,” says Goodman. “The wall is where it goes.”

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