from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Numbering the days

June 8.  Besides his weekly column in the Observer, and sundry research activities at Cambridge, my friend and former colleague John Naughton is maintaining a daily blog, Memex1.1, to which is attached a short oral diary.  Both are well worth attention.  And the oral diary begins with a shock.  Yesterday: ‘Sunday June 7.  Day Seventy-eight.’

Seventy-eight?!  If asked I would say perhaps a month since the lockdown began.  Likewise, with this diary.  About twenty since the site was established.   But I count back and find that this is my fiftieth piece (unlike John I don’t write at weekends).

Time has collapsed.  We have only a distant sense of it passing.  This is the immediate consequence of erasing our diaries when Johnson confined us to our homes.  In my case, out went working trips to Cambridge and London and Ireland, a short holiday on the West Coast of Scotland, and various visits, planned and not-yet planned, to and from family and friends.  Events to embed in the memory the succession of days and weeks.

In response to this common experience, it has been reported that increasing numbers of people have been occupying their spare hours by anchoring their present in the history of their own families.  Some years ago, on behalf of the OU History Department, I manned a stall in the ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ show at London’s Olympia, where tens of thousands of people paid £22 a head to wander past stalls helping them with their genealogies.  Next to my table was ‘Deceased.Com’, a database of tombstones, which remains a favourite electronic address.  My pitch was that if you want to understand what it means to have a family tree, you need to study some history of those times.  I didn’t get as many customers as my neighbour.

Now I too have paid my shilling to Ancestry.co.uk, the largest of many online resources for this activity.  In my filing cabinet are the paper records assembled by my parents at a time when such research meant physically visiting archives and buying copies of birth, death and marriage certificates.  I have long meant to put these in electronic order for the sake of my children and those that come after them.

Besides providing a template to set out the family tree, the value of the resource, I have discovered, is not the now digitised census records, which only provide one line of information and for the most part had already been visited by my parents.  Rather it is the access it provides to the work of other amateur genealogists.  Each of my forebears, going back to the late eighteenth century, also feature in up to a dozen other family trees which have already been industriously assembled.  The past is now a networked world.  All I have to do is call up one of these lists, and most of my work is done.

I have filled out the detail of a story I already knew.  That my parents were the first to break out of the ranks of the labouring classes.  That amongst their forebears were a scattering of skilled workers – a postman, a policeman, an overman miner – but at the beginning of the nineteenth century, most were just farm labourers.  In what way their wives and daughters contributed to their family economies is almost never recorded.

Above all, across the six generations or so that can be traced, my family is utterly English.  There is some movement out of a common point of departure in Sussex to the new employment opportunities in the capital and the north Midlands, but no hint of a connection even with Wales and Scotland, let alone further afield.  Marriages were contracted by people of the same social standing, usually in nearby villages and towns.  Until, that is, my children’s generation.  My brother and I, who went so far as to take wives with a Scottish heritage, have sons and daughters-in-law from Japan, France, Ireland, and Iran by way of the United States.  These alliances are for the most part the consequence of higher education and attendant gap years, experiences wholly denied my forebears. 

Just as my family tree largely conforms to what I know to be the broader demographic transition in Britain, with an evolution from large Victorian families to the tight two and three-child units of the twentieth century, so also this sudden internationalisation of the Vincent tribe may well be the common experience of the generation born in the closing decades of the last century. 

If so, it will do much to explain why the young are so unattracted by the petty nationalism of Brexit, whilst the old cling to the world contained in the carefully-assembled family trees.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Lessons in time

May 20.  Yesterday, the Today programme included a meditation by the novelist Ian McEwan on the coronavirus pandemic as ‘an experiment in subjective time.’  For those not engaged in vital work, or managing the minutely structured task of teaching unschooled children, the experience, he argued, has altered our perception of time: ‘Bleached of events, one day like another, time compresses and collapses in on itself.’  The consequence has been ‘an exponential growth in introspection, day- dreaming, mental drifting, especially about the past.’  We find ourselves ‘tumbling backwards through time’, achieving a new understanding of our selves as we embrace without guilt a stillness in the midst of our days. 

All of which is both eloquent and true.  Those who have erased their diaries for months ahead have to learn for the first time in their long lives new ways of justifying the use of time.  There are different kinds of choices in its management, and, above all, the choice of not managing it all.  As anxiety about the unfilled hour recedes, so we can, as McEwan argues, form a calmer sense of who we have become and what matters to us.

And yet.  There are contradictions lurking in McEwan’s eloquent prose.

In the first case, the form contradicts the content.  This was an exactly timed slot in the country’s premier current affairs radio programme.  It lasted precisely five minutes, sandwiched between an item on Brexit and another on government financing of industry.  The studio manager will have controlled the event with a stopwatch as the programme headed towards its nine a.m. conclusion.  McEwan will have been given the task of turning his prose into time – 150 words a minute is the BBC norm –  and by pre-recording the talk, the programme presenter was relieved of the task of disciplining the speaker.  Nothing can have been more time-infused than this disquisition on its absence.

And then there is McEwan himself.  His experience of time may have changed with the lockdown, but he remains a professional writer.  Unlike those who earn their living in more structured contexts, he has a lifetime’s experience of controlling the use of the unforgiving hour.  Finishing novel after novel requires, in P. G. Wodehouse’s famous dictum, ‘the application of seat of pants to seat of chair.’  You do not wander through the day, jotting down the odd sentence, waiting for inspiration to strike.  You devise a timetable that suits your temperament and circumstances, and stick to it all the more rigidly in the absence of external compulsion.  I don’t suppose for a moment that McEwan has stopped doing this, just because he can’t see people at present.  He will still be setting his clock, starting at his desk, just as he has always done. 

I am myself a writer, of stories with footnotes.  Three books published in the last five years.  I start relatively early in the morning, and work in 75 minute-blocks, stopping for a coffee and then starting again.  I did this before the pandemic and I am doing it now.  So, four minutes before the next break, this entry ends.

from Steph in London, UK: a shrinking world …

April 24 I haven’t worn a watch since we went into splendid isolation. I’m not sure why I decided not to wear one but I suppose as I don’t have to be anywhere it doesn’t really matter what time it is.

I am reminded of a book – Station 11 by Emily St John Mendel. A fictional account of a world pandemic – will re-read it to see if it’s still as good and what with Bill Gates Ted talk in 2015, we may have an insight into our future …

 Everybody’s world is shrinking so much and that’s the thing that is so frustrating. So the irritation stakes are getting higher … immediately the thought of home schooling my boys whilst holding down a job kicks me out of it. I’m reminded of when I was doing an MA. I worked full time, had 3 teenagers and was a single mother. Assignment time was a nightmare and often I’d work til 4 or 5 in the morning trying to get it all done.

I must remind son number 2 of his comments then—- “Mum, you’re a lousy role model working all night to get your essays done” wonder what he thinks now as he juggles his job and 2 teenagers , who would be quite happy being glued to their devices til the end of lockdown…

Rumours abound about the over 70 being kept in lockdown for the foreseeable future– that’s the end of the House of Lords then- in one swoop …the House of Commons being left for the boys (and too few girls)

Getting exercised about being locked down, semi-locked down or isolated for the foreseeable future. Does it come from an underlying cynicism about the government’s ability to sensibly sort this out, get testing both before and after the norm or just being news weary?

 The complexities of getting the economy up and running must have a quid pro quo element – will Boris be his usual gung-ho self or be more circumspect when deciding what to do when? Will the economists and scientists be able to reach a compromise?

In our new reality world, we took delivery of 3 tons of top soil for the garden, which caused so much excitement … I’d better go and put it into the raised beds.

And my daughter-in-law hits 50 this week. A House Party instead of a real party and real celebrations when we can. We sent a video of us washing our hands to Happy Birthday to you!