Historians in Lockdown: The Covid Diary of Dr. Rob Priest

Dr Rob Priest is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at Royal Holloway.

First off, I want to acknowledge how lucky I am even to be asked to blog about this. Watching family and friends be furloughed or laid off, I have never felt more fortunate to have the job I do. Things have not been plain sailing – my partner came to the end of a fixed-term contract at the beginning of the lockdown, and job openings are not exactly falling like manna from heaven right now – but we do not face the risks and struggles that some people are confronting at this moment in history.

Thinking back, my last day on campus already feels like it took place in an ancient civilisation, but I guess it was only a few weeks ago. The atmosphere was eerie. Some of my students were already self-isolating for medical reasons or had returned to their home countries for fear of being trapped. Campus was pervaded by the sense that things were about to change dramatically, and they did: on the train home, commuters were watching the news on their phones as Boris Johnson called for the end of ‘unnecessary’ travel.

Last day in the office.

Like everyone, I am sure, the last couple of weeks of term were uniquely stressful. Taking teaching online at short notice, trying to manage a lot of inevitable uncertainty about what would happen with upcoming assessments and exams, and of course worrying about the impact on students – all while washing your hands more often for twenty seconds, bumping elbows and fighting for the last packet of plain flour (I still haven’t managed to get one). I lead on undergraduate admissions for my department, so a fair amount of my time has also been spent trying to get my head quickly around the implications for universities of school closures, the end of exams and the upheaval in international movement. We are thinking about how we can encourage and keep in touch with applicants whom we can only contact virtually. We have a good and creative team in my School, and we are all in the same boat, but it is obviously hard for anyone in the sector right now to plan ahead when so much is unclear.

When I last spoke to my students in person, one of the things we all had in common was difficulty focusing because it is so hard to turn away from the news, the WhatsApp groups, the hot takes and rumours. As we adapt to this new situation, perhaps things are getting easier. I think it would be a bit strange to pretend that there is not a situation going out of the window that we need to be aware of, or that this is not a time when we are longing to stay connected with people, but when you are trying to concentrate, the effect can be pretty fatal. I have never been much good at willpower so always made a lot of use of blocker apps: Offtime for my phone (you can still make sure essential family calls get through) and StayFocusd for my browser (please be reassured I am not totally in the wilderness: my list of exempted sites includes Wikipedia). They are coming into their own right now, although of course you still need the willpower to turn them on. I find using them for 2 hours at a time is the sweet spot. As any of my friends will tell you, the prospect of me staying away from current affairs for much longer than that is even more unprecedented than the pandemic crisis, and now would not be a good time to disrupt the order of the universe much further.

Back home, which is where I now spend basically all of my time, we live in a 60m2 flat in South London with a small balcony, which is… cosy. When I was asked to write this post we were encouraged to share tips on how we are carrying on. Well, we have learned important lessons such as: ‘do not run the microwave while somebody is teaching, it frazzles the wifi router’. I would be lying if I didn’t say I was getting a little stir crazy. I think we knew things had reached a point of no return when we heated up the last of the bread we had stockpiled in the freezer the last time we came back from France.

The last pain de tradition française. Aïe !

Even as a man who owns all four volumes of Edmund Bird’s architectural history of the borough of Lambeth, I have to admit that there is only so much new to discover walking or running around the same area you have already lived in for four years every single day. Still, there is the odd surprise: who knew we lived around the corner to a gin distillery?! Alas, I don’t drink gin.

Making a contribution to Modern Lasagne Studies.
Walking in the neighbourhood.

Now the teaching term has come to an end, supervising my dissertation students continues, albeit online. With every day the same, I actually lost track of the calendar so badly that I accidentally offered my students a load of meetings on Good Friday and Easter Monday. I also had the privilege of observing my PhD student’s viva by videoconference. He handled the strangeness of the situation well, as did the examiners, but it was not the first moment I have felt sad for students who are missing these crucial face-to-face moments and milestones. With something so ceremonial and sui generis as a viva, which is the culmination of years of hard work, it was a shame not even to be able to take him to the pub afterwards. We will get there one day, I hope; he has certainly earned a pint!

Preparing to observe a viva.

Having struggled to find time for the research side of my job in the last few months, I had great plans to reboot my work on that over Easter. This has obviously proved more difficult than expected since all the libraries and archives shut down. Ultimately I have decided that this can only have been the universe’s way of telling me I really need to go through those several thousand archival photos we all have on our computers. (Well, all historians…)

I am currently working on a book about the history of the Oberammergau passion play. One of the world’s longest running plays, this year’s performances have also been delayed by the pandemic. I opened the first letter in my archival file, which implored its recipient: ‘First of all, don’t go!!’ An inauspicious restart to my research.

‘First of all, don’t go!!’

The photos have already thrown up some useful leads, and as almost always with archival boxes, also some enjoyable dead-ends. This is my favourite debate from a stage magazine: ‘Was Hamlet Fat?’ A surprisingly divisive issue, and it comes with a French twist:

‘Was Hamlet Fat?’ (The Sketch, 1889)

The irony is that this collection of archive photos was taken for me by a researcher in New York, long before there was a pandemic, because it was quite significantly cheaper than me flying there. Turns out we were already practising social distancing, we just didn’t know it…

Now wash your hands.

Practising social distancing.

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