A Donkey’s Guide to Lockdown: The Covid Diary of Dr Andrew Smith

Dr Andrew Smith is Senior Lecturer in Contemporary History & Politics at the University of Chichester.

EXT – SUNNY CHICHESTER – THE BEFORE TIME

It is term-time, ANDREW is blithely working in his office on campus, surrounded by useful books

ANDREW: Oh jings, I sure am tired performing my job while able to go outside and with some delineation between workplace and homelife!

INT – ANDREW’S LIVING ROOM – THE LONG NOW

It is one month later, we hear constant email notification sounds from a computer as ANDREW is on all fours with his three year old daughter PENNY on his back.

PENNY: You’re a donkey! Go faster, Daddy donkey!

Aaaaaaand… scene!

As it happens, I haven’t been past my own front door since 19th March. In case you’re wondering how many days of confinement it took until I felt guilt enough to finally do some exercise, the answer is 24 days. If you’re wondering how many days of confinement it took until I played Dungeons and Dragons by zoom, the answer is 26 days.

We’re all adjusting to new realities and new challenges. I recognize that I am very privileged in my own situation: healthy, co-habiting in good space, and employed and able to work remotely. With that in mind, however, the shift to remote teaching and working has been an interesting one. I’ve enjoyed the challenge and think I’m producing entertaining recorded lectures followed up with forum engagement and one-to-one remote consultations. I don’t think it is a long-term substitute for face-to-face teaching, as a lot is lost, though needs must.

I posted on twitter about the books I was using to prop up my laptop when recording lectures. Laura Sangha pithily hashtagged it #streamingstations, and as it happens, it’s been quite a funny way of seeing the books currently floating about people’s desks. I wrote elsewhere on a friend’s blog about the arrival of Alain Peyrefitte’s C’Etait De Gaulle, which I was using to finish revisions of an article (if you must know, it was to make a minor point about Fourth Republic Gaullist electoral coalitions in the National Assembly during his absence).

My contribution to #streamingstations – a collection of Petain’s writing and a book on De Gaulle

As it happened, however, it wasn’t that monster tome that cracked the problem for me, though it served its job. It was actually a student query from someone I taught a long time ago and for whom I have subsequently written a fair few references. He talked about a plan to study Franco-German manuels scolaires, and when I asked about access he showed me this site, which features full colour scans of a lot of old French school textbooks. This is a goldmine, especially for me in this article, but also I imagine for others who are looking for representations of specific historical events and figures during the Fourth and early Fifth Republics.

The Peyrefitte book has found yet another use in propping up my laptop on the floor when doing my daughter’s virtual ‘Circle Time’ for Nursery. She’s yet to indulge me by repeating De Gaulle’s name when I point at his photo (though she did recently interrupt a lecture about him). Nevertheless, we have thrice daily Zoom nursery sessions with activities, games, and more. They are a pretty good laugh and the nursery staff are trying their utmost to keep things fun and engaging for the kids. My wife and I have been tag-teaming to try and split concentration between work and childcare, and my wife’s discovery of audiobooks as a distraction technique has been an excellent one.

A tiny visitor during an online lecture recording.

Some of the most heart-breakingly earnest and unintentionally hilarious zoom shenanigans I’ve been part of are those online nursery classes and a similarly online church Easter service, with the hymns led by a parishioner’s piano. Squashing the cynic in me, I find it touching to see people eagerly reaching out to connect despite obstacles and awkwardness.

Easter service by Zoom, with music from a parishioner’s piano.

It’s my Gran’s 98th birthday this week, and I think the closest I‘ve come to full-blown tears has been talking to her on a video call. I desperately want to help, to visit, and more. Talking to my other grandparents on the phone, they’re likewise desperate for variety and something to do. In both cases, trying to coax my daughter to say hello on the phone or the video screen is about all I can feasibly accomplish (along with a photo birthday card my wife organised). My Mum too is in a similar situation, though is doing shopping for both sets of grandparents, and – as an added complication/concern – she has come out of retirement as a nurse to do clinical bank shifts. Keeping the theme of the post going, the emotional strains, lack of agency and dirge of it all put me in mind of the angry/melancholic Manics song ‘Donkeys’.

All the while, the emails keep rolling in (as well as the usual extra-curricular gigs for SSFH & RHS). Students rightly need guidance, and are rightly worried, facing their own issues that mirror and exceed my own. As well as the regular teaching bits, I’ve been chasing my tail trying to find online materials for them to use, checking our library resources (which our subject librarian Gail is heroically updating herself), as well as scouring twitter for leads. One of the best recent ones was helpfully pointed out by Chris Millington and will be useful for other French historians. Manchester University Press has made its books electronically available as part of the wider electronic resources available on Project Muse during the current crisis. That means that French Historians can access the Studies in Modern French and Francophone History series published by the SSFH and FCHS (and, of course, you can always re-read my book I hope).

What more’s to hope for? Well, health and happiness for those around me is important. But, in a professional and personal sense, I can only hope my actions to support students and my family can be as hopefully earnest (and perhaps unintentionally hilarious) as watching a vicar light a paschal candle in their living room. This donkey’s not got it so bad after all.

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