Historians in Lockdown: The Covid Diary of Dr Laura O’Brien

Dr Laura O’Brien is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at Northumbria University

When I sat down to write this, I tried to remember what the last day of ‘normality’ was. I looked at my work diary, like a good historian, to see what clues it might offer. Unlike Louis XVI, whose hunting diary entry for 14 July 1789 famously reads ‘Rien’, I do not have a taste for understatement. For 12 March 2020, I have written: ‘End times. Online delivery now. Everything on hold. Feels dreadful. [Sad face drawing]’

It is a reflection of where our hearts and minds are, I think – as well as a pragmatic, perhaps rebellious streak – that my husband and I took our COVID cues from Ireland, some time before the UK took action. Ireland announced an initial wave of restrictions on the morning of 12 March: school and university closures, working from home, travel restrictions, and a ban on ‘large gatherings’. In calls and messages from home, the carefully-laid plans for the rest of the month (indeed, foreseeable future) fell apart: my sister’s wedding moved (we hope) to much later in the year; a schedule of flights and precious time first nominally, then definitively, cancelled. At lunchtime, as universities around the country began to move to online delivery, we gathered in the staff room to discuss how we would handle such a transition. I went to my third-year class, a bit shaken and anxious. I reassured them that we would make sure they were okay, and told them to keep going. ‘I’ll be in touch immediately if things change,’ I told them, handing out disinfectant wipes for the university-owned iPads they were about to use. By 6pm, I was drafting the email telling them we were moving to online teaching.

***

On 20 March, we have a final, socially-distanced Friday lunch at work. I pack a bag with books, assured I will be able to get into my office at designated times in the following week (the designated times are swiftly cancelled). I leave my Napoleon figurine behind as we enter our own kind of exile.

Napoleon: lockdown office guardian

I order a Swingball set, a board game, and a jigsaw. I send Mother’s Day presents to my mother and grandmother. I tell myself I am going to do lots of reading and writing.

Our spare room becomes my place of work: me, the sofa bed, a ramshackle desktop set up, and my Moon landings calendar. I work very long days as I try to translate my classroom to the screen via Blackboard, Teams, and the unsubtly-named Panopto. My experience running a distance learning MA module proves useful, even if this a very different ball game. On 24 March, the day after lockdown is announced in the UK, my husband tweets a photograph of astronaut Michael Collins, alone in Columbia during the Apollo 11 mission.

Astronaut Michael Collins in the Columbia command module, July 1969

In his memoir, Carrying the Fire, Collins reflects on the periods of lunar orbit when, on the dark side of the Moon, he experienced loss of signal (LOS): cut off from the rest of humankind, or as he put it, ‘three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God only knows what on this side.’ At times, over the first few weeks, I start to crave a bit of LOS: the news is constant, speculation is rife, and one feels compelled to be tuned in all the time, whether to email, live news feeds, or social media. Some static on your headset would be nice.

***

Easter comes and goes. They repeat the television adaptation of Wolf Hall; it is as beautiful and brilliant as I remembered.I start to use pomodoro techniques again, to force myself to focus on the task at hand. I try to keep track of the French museums and archives that are sharing material pendant le confinement: the Cinémathèque française really delivers one low morning, with a two and a half hour recording of a talk given a while back about their Napoléon restoration project. For the first time since this began, I feel excited and enthused by my work. I write out a list of things I’d like to get done in my notebook, pages sectioned out with washi tape and coloured pens. I talk to students on various platforms: essays are planned, feedback is given, encouragement is shared, and contingency measures are put in place as they struggle with the consequences of the present moment. I take pleasure in the little moments of connection: a student working through the growth of consumer culture in France, in real time, on Teams; how unexpectedly nice it is to see the faces of dissertation tutees.

We drink a lot of tea.

At times I am very sad and low, and at other times I have the kind of intense anxiety I haven’t experienced for some time. It becomes impossible to see a future, only a kind of haze. The constant speculation continues. There are significant concerns about the future of higher education. Freelance work shrinks, and people are laid off. We don’t know when we will see our families again. This is what worries me most – and illness, of course. Various voices on social media pronounce solemnly that we must accept that there will be no travel until 2021. People get sick.

I just want to go home, or to know when I can go home. Instead, I do my work, I eat, and then I knit or sew (thus far: one dress and one blouse).

Blouse in progress

***

In all of this, I sometimes wonder what we will come to call it: the now.

What do we call a time, or an epoch? I learned from the French historian Dominique Kalifa that these are chrononyms: names for time, like les trentes glorieuses or la belle époque. The term ‘chrononym’ was created by the Swiss linguist Eva Buchi in the 1990s, and linguists have done a great deal of work on the labels we give to periods of time. From the historian’s perspective, chrononyms come loaded with the spirit of the age – or rather, what subsequent generations understood as the spirit of the age. As Kalifa puts it, ‘naming a time gives it an identity.’

Ireland is not known for extravagance in temporal designations. Russians have the Great Patriotic War; we have the Emergency. Thirty-odd years of conflict are ‘Troubles’. A fellow Irish academic recently referred to the current situation as ‘the badness’.

So what will the chrononym be for this time? In this diary I have referred to it as ‘the present moment’. My emails to students are full of euphemistic allusions: ‘the current crisis’, ‘this difficult situation’, and so on. Theirs are much the same, with hopes expressed that I am well ‘in these difficult circumstances.’ I don’t think we have ever written ‘pandemic’.

I doubt we will see a nationally-specific equivalent of ‘Spanish Flu’ taking hold, despite the best efforts of certain world leaders. ‘COVID’ or ‘coronavirus’, more likely. Calling it ‘the pandemic’ ignores the fact that, almost forty years since the first clinical reports, AIDS remains a global pandemic.

For the moment, though, we can leave the chrononyms to the next generation. See you on the other side of the badness.

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