from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: England expects …

April 15.  England expects every driveller to do his Memorabilia.

The ordinary people began to write and publish accounts of their daily lives at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  The innovation was not universally welcomed.  The editor of the Tory Quarterly Review denounced the new voice: “The classics of the papier mâché age of our drama have taken up the salutary belief that England expects every driveller to do his Memorabilia.  Modern primer-makers must needs leave confessions behind them, as if they were so many Rousseaus.  Our weakest mob-orators think it a hard case if they cannot spout to posterity.  Cabin-boys and drummers are busy with their commentaries de bello Gallico; the John Gilpins of ‘the nineteenth century’ are historians of their own anabaseis; and, thanks to ‘the march of intellect’, we are already rich in the autobiography of pickpockets ([Lockhart] 1827, 149).”

Since then the literary marketplace has become accustomed to the diaries and memoirs of the common people.  Their popularity has surged at moments of public crisis.  Lockhart was protesting at accounts that were appearing of the Napoleonic Wars, the first conflict to foreground the role of ordinary soldiers and sailors.  Subsequently the First and Second World Wars, and the Slump of the 1930s, stimulated the keeping of private accounts and the publication of more structured literary narratives.

There is ample evidence that the Coronavirus crisis is another such moment.  The Covid2020 project is only one amongst a multitude of personal or collective ventures.  It differs from others in its immensely valuable international perspective.  Diary-keeping is driven by three obvious conditions.  Firstly, it is evident that we are living through a global crisis on a scale that historians will be writing about for the rest of the twenty-first century.  Secondly everyone has a role in the drama.  Whilst scientists, medical professionals and politicians have their particular responsibilities, the behavior and experience of every citizen of almost every country will be critical to the outcome.  Thirdly, those with something to say, now have the time to say it, in the old way in private diaries, or in the new media of semi-public blogs, which surely would have horrified Lockhart.

The problem for historians will be that of engaging with this mass of material in any kind of systematic form.  In the Second World War, the pioneering social research body, Mass Observation, which had been founded in 1936, was used by the government to investigate the morale of the Home Front.  It both undertook its own surveys and commissioned the keeping of 480 diaries.  Its material, which has been digitised and archived by the University of Sussex, is an immensely useful resource for historians, including myself.  In 2020 there are a host of opinion-poll organizations, campaigning organisations for at-risk groups, hurriedly commissioned academic inquiries, such as the project at Oxford looking at children’s mental health in the crisis, together with all the memoirs which are more or less available. 

I am tempted to see whether I can write a rapid sequel to my History of Solitude to which Brenda kindly drew attention yesterday.  A project which began as something of a niche subject three years ago is by complete accident appearing at a moment of maximum relevance.  The advantage is that many of the categories of inquiry in my book could be taken forward into the present crisis.  I would have both the historical context necessary to measure change, and an outline structure of analysis.  Isolation. A Social History might well find a market.  The challenge, which I am still contemplating, is whether, even as an interim report, it would be possible to marshal the cornucopia of evidence into a coherent and representative narrative.

from Steph in London: the world has turned upside down.

April 3. Lying in bed reading in the morning – can’t remember when I last did that. The world has turned upside down yet I hope beyond hope that this could be the start of a more healthy, compassionate society that we had sadly lost. In the meantime, my partner, Anne, and I start again with living in the new world, worrying if what we are being told is the truth. My daughter-in-law, a consultant paediatrician in the north tells us tales of no equipment, planning for the as and when and the constant threat of actually getting sick too and infecting others …

Being under house arrest Is simple in comparison – all we have to do is stay away from everyone and not get sick … we veer between being gung ho and we’ll be ok, to wiping every surface with bleach, diluted so as not to run out … and worrying that we get sick and become a burden … would prefer to stay gung ho please …

Our Ladies-who-Lunch group met yesterday on ‘Houseparty’. It was a hysterical half hour- 7 of us aged between 70 and 80 comparing notes. After everybody’s health the one recurring theme was hair- how will we get it cut ( do we trust our husbands and partners to do it? ) and even more importantly for those who are dependant on the bottle to ensure everlasting youth- how long will it take to grow our and what colour is it really? I have visions of our next trip out being a revelation. I bet hairdressers all over the country are quaking at the thought of no more colourings …

Domesticity was not far behind hair – ironing and cleaning … a long-forgotten pastime for some … I have decided to do what I did when the children were small – hope that by the time I got to the bottom of the basket we will have grown out of the clothes so will negate any need to iron! Problem solved unless, of course we are so large we need new clothes. Why is it that when we are home we have elevensies with cake or a biscuit? We don’t when life is normal. Bet the psychologists will have something to say.

There is an eerie calmness along the street and our new communication channels via most things electronic has taken over. Somehow, it’s more exhausting than just sitting chatting but exciting nevertheless. The world happenings seem so huge and out of control the only thing we can do is look local and hope the internet bandwidth holds its nerve …

My thinking is gradually changing and instead of thinking (and hoping) this is just a short interlude I am beginning to re-order my habits of a lifetime. So far, the changes …

  1. Having to think what we really need to buy instead of wandering round the aisles choosing stuff.
  2. Then wondering how we actually get things. Fortunately, my son is close and is shopping between work sessions. But not sure ginger, avocados and Garam masala are essential.
  3. Preparing meals from scratch instead of looking in fridge and winging it …
  4. Really appreciating friends and family and telling them so too …
  5. Being eternally grateful my children are grown up and they are the ones dealing with home schooling, maybe for months and months …

I need to get involved in something other than garden planning and perhaps now is the time to learn another language, or, or!