Dr Will Pooley is Lecturer in 19/20C Western European History at the University of Bristol
Apparently, it has been just over three weeks since the UK government announced the lockdown, limiting people to leaving the house for essential purposes, such as food shopping, and exercise once a day. This simple statement of fact provides the evidence that a thousand journal articles cannot: time can move at different speeds. Some periods are thicker in history.
I long for thin times.
During the first week of lockdown, I am sick.
I do not think it is the coronavirus: probably just a mild cold, a headache and sore throat that sets in immediately after I return from distributing flyers offering help from the mutual aid group I have joined. Over the next two days, three people contact me to offer more help, and one person texts to say that they are lonely.
No-one asks for anything from me, which is lucky, as I am in bed, watching terrible films.
In Tales from the Southlands (2007) Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson plays a movie star living in a post-apocalyptic Venice Beach who writes a film script that predicts the future. The film also features doppelgangers, a ‘neo-Marxist’ revolutionary death cult, and Sarah Michelle Gellar as a pornstar turned pop artist with a single called ‘Teen Horniness is not a Crime’.
It’s a clumsy satire of reality television, celebrity culture, and the latent fascism of American politics. A lot of people die, for stupid reasons.
None of the characters can tell what is real.
The show goes on.
During the university strikes in November, February and March, I made so many pickles that we ran out of jars.
We eat them all in the first two weeks of lockdown.
We do not go to the pub. We do not go for coffee. We do not see our friends, or have family round for dinner. We do not see anyone.
And yet we are lucky, and we know it. My partner and I are both working from home, and – as of yet – there is no sign that our jobs are directly threatened. This is one of the longest periods we have spent living together in years, as neither of us is commuting across the country to a job elsewhere. We cook more often. I am the fulfilment of epidemic stereotypes: I make sourdough.
Many friends and colleagues are not so lucky.
I hear from parents with young babies, and severe coronavirus symptoms. The university where I work summarily fires a group of staff on temporary contracts, and sends all staff a message that we are not to hire any new staff. The union swings into action, and the staff on temporary contracts are reinstated. But there is silence from the university about what will happen to colleagues on fixed-term contracts when these come to an end. What will they do if they are let go?
No-one has an answer.
I try to be interested in historical parallels (insert link: https://www.ft.com/content/279dee4a-740b-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca) for what is happening now, and find I cannot.
We go running at 5am, partly to avoid other people, and partly because my partner has to start work before 6:30 every day. We hear a tawny owl in a nearby park. We tell the birdwatcher in the family, and the next day, he goes out at the same time as us to confirm if the owl is really there. As we approach the park, a police car is waiting at the entrance. They ignore us, but there is another police car at the next entrance, and another one follows us around the edge. There is a canine unit, but the dog is nowhere to be seen. Towards the end of our run, we see a lone figure walking through the half-light: it’s the birdwatcher.
We stand a few meters away and have a very strange conversation. Apparently, the police were looking for a burglar. This makes more sense than the theory I have already expressed that today is the day when they will finally be guarding the park and stopping people from going in. A few minutes before, the birdwatcher had emerged from a bush to be confronted by a police woman who asked him what he was doing.
‘Looking for an owl.’
Right on cue, the owl had hooted, and this apparently satisfied the police woman, who probably concluded that the bird watcher does not have the air of someone who has been burgling houses.
Perhaps she knows that tawny owls have rarely been recorded in this park.
I make so many pickles that we run out of jars again.
My days become an unending sameness. I cannot remember which day of the week it is.
Everything feels fragmented.
I block social media and news apps on my phone and in my computer browser, and pin a tweet to my profile saying that I won’t be checking Twitter. I mute message threads on several apps. This works well for a few days. I receive messages from friends saying ‘Oh my god: have you seen this?’ I click the links: ‘This website has been blocked on your device.’
I feel better.
Then someone sends me an article about other recipes using sourdough. I use a different browser to get around the blocker, open it and start planning sour doughnuts and pizzas and pancakes. Within 24 hours, this browser sits open on my screen, showing the Twitter homepage.
I track the latest numbers of deaths and infections from the Financial Times in another tab.
I stop drinking coffee.
Historians hate the idea of the judgement of history. ‘History’ will not judge the failings of our governments, or sing the praises of the sacrifices communities have made in this crisis. ‘History’ has no judgement, only historians do.
And who can write history when the world is burning?
I’m researching witchcraft in France from 1790-1940. I have wondered before about the possibility that – as during early modern epidemics – outbreaks of disease might lead to witchcraft panics.
It does happen. In 1884, a man was murdered in Saint-Romain-des-Atheux after a local healer identified him as responsible for a cattle epidemic. The authorities believed the whole community was involved, but no-one came forward with information. They prosecuted the healer the following year. The murderers never faced justice.
There are other cases where cattle epidemics led to violence. But human diseases? Neither the cholera epidemics of the nineteenth century, or the Spanish flu of 1918 leave a record in the cases of witchcraft I’ve found.
Part of me is glad to be able to stop thinking about how my research could relevant to what is happening now.
I am woken up at 3am by the sound of someone calling my name. There’s no one there. An hour later, my cat wakes me again.
She has learned how to put her paw under the door and rattle the whole door in its frame until someone lets her in. She remains unaware that there is a pandemic. All she knows is that neither of the people she lives with abandon her during the day any more.
She is happy.