Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

All the News that’s Fit to Print

We’re all glued to the news these days. Image from the State Library of New South Wales, photographer unknown.

We’re all news junkies these days. Not that you learn much from the nightly government press conferences, apart from how many have died and how few respirators are arriving. I’ve actually been trying to avoid the news lately. It’s hard, as my first instinct for years has been to keep up with developing news and it’s one that dies hard. I still hear news of a murder and automatically assess it’s newsworthiness as if I was going to pitch it. At a time like this it’s comforting to fall back on these instincts as they provide a little bit of distance, but following the latest developments is also wearing and at the moment I instinctively want a different kind of distance.

I’ve been trying to get back into thesis work this week as I’ve a chapter due and that’s providing a release that is welcome. I’ve been feeling at the end of my tether for most of the last month (as I explained in my last post) but at the same time, stopping isn’t really an option. The options available for PhDs to take a break don’t really work that well if you’re self-funded and reliant on teaching work. To be honest, working with my students has been one of the best experiences of this dark time. I love teaching and the material I’m covering at the moment is stuff very close to my heart so it’s fun introducing them to subjects I love. If I took a break from my thesis I wouldn’t be able to teach as I am now and the lack of any kind of focus would make a break counter productive. There’s a lot of talk about extensions to the PhD and that too has limited appeal. Apart from the fact that I’ve no funding to be extended I don’t particularly want to be at this any longer than I have to. I’m part time as it is, so a three year PhD is going to take me six. So it’s going to be hard to stop this particular juggernaut and so I carry on working.

Having said that it’s hard to just dive in these days. All I want to do is hibernate, do physical things like painting furniture or sanding down the garden bench. I want to lie on the floor with a book like I did when I was a kid and I want to bake sweet delights so the house smells like somebody else’s home. While I could technically get to work on the bench or the painting I’m not sure I’ve enough supplies and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get what I need in the shops that are open. I would lie on the floor with a book but that’s where the concentration thing is a problem and these days I sit on the floor for more than five minutes and I can’t guarantee I’ll get up again. So I work. I’ve some housekeeping and technical bits to do before I start on the writing proper and there’s a satisfaction in repetitive tasks at the moment. There’s also the possibility of enjoyable rabbit holes and a search for early 19th century punctuation guides this morning proved a perfect diversion. I’m working on a 19th century newspaper and their news is a welcome break from the present.

As I’ve said before there are good days and bad days in this and I know I’m not anything unusual in that. Today was a productive day but I can’t help wishing there was flour enough to bake a cake instead.

How the Light Gets In

Rural cooking pot repaired with Kintsugi technique, Georgia, 19th century. As good a metaphor as any. Image by Gugger on WikiCommons https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a0/Kintsugi.jpg

March has been a mad month for me. It has been for us all. Today though I’m not talking about the universal truths of lockdown; I’m not chronicling this extraordinary pause to life as we know it; today I’m talking personally. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been falling back on lists and well-remembered things. I’ve been trying to put things in perspective, as much as you ever can when global uncertainty and fear hits. But today I needed to mark it’s passing. Before I moved to Ireland I had never heard of a month’s mind, a Catholic ritual to gather the mourners one month after a bereavement. Technically, a month ago I was bereaved. Alongside the eternities that have filled this month, the collective baking and new-found virtual lives, I have trying to settle that loss in my head. To “lay the fetch”. To still the ghosts.

I am the woman I am because of many experiences, many people, but there is one who shaped me in ways I wasn’t meant to be shaped, who left me fundamentally changed. I’ve written about this on here before but I’ve always been circumscribed by the risk of defamation. I’ve never had a doubt I could argue the truth if I had to but I just didn’t want to know he was capable of that level of vindictiveness. I already knew he was, I just never needed the extra proof. All that is no longer a consideration. The dead can’t sue. A fraudulent reputation died with him 31 days ago in a hospice in the west of Ireland. I will never mourn the man, but I mourn the chaos he caused, the relationships he broke, the time he stole, the home and security he stole.

He is the reason I have been oscillating wildly between preternatural calmness and fight or flight reflexes straight out of a zombie apocalypse for most of the last month. Lockdown has added a surreal edge to it all as it feels like everyone has gatecrashed my own private hell. That sounds more dramatic than it actually is though. I’m so used to my reality that it’s normal, even sometimes welcomed. Most of the time it’s not a thing, I move through the world just like everyone else. Then the fucker dies and it all bubbles up and everyone around me is in meltdown too. I’ve been jumping to the end of the world for many years now, it’s a very Covid-19 thing to realise that my private beauty spot is suddenly full of camper vans.

I can list the ways I am changed because of him. As a child, before he was on the scene, I was a quiet, bookish child but born of actor parents so always ready to perform – but I didn’t have this anger burning in my heart. It’s a cold fire but fierce and it never goes out. We’ve come to an accommodation over the years though, my anger and I – I don’t trouble it and it doesn’t trouble me. Sometimes though I let it peep out and it keeps me as warm as it’s cold flames can. I came from a close if messy, family who were always there to help. Now I keep things to myself or I overshare (exhibit one you are currently reading). It’s true what they say, and I don’t, in this case, know who they are (but will use an unattributable quote anyway) that those who have been abused can spot one another. It’s as if we transmit on a slightly different wavelength. To people without this experience, this fracture and refracture, we can crackle with uncomfortable loudness. But to those emitting the same frequency, there’s an ease, a recognition, a mountain of stuff that never has to be explained. On the day of his funeral, I ended up watching series two of the ITV series Unforgotten on Netflix. The plot centres on the damage abuse does. It’s one of the best portrayals of it I’ve seen. An oddly serendipitous Netflix suggestion. So I watched and recognised the ways that I had been changed knowing that he was being eulogised in another country, that he had never changed, always been hail fellow well met.

A lot goes on behind the doors of seemingly happy families, as this lockdown is, unfortunately, going to demonstrate for some oblivious communities. I know a lot of people will be dealing with a pandemic on top of whatever other stuff they are dealing with so all I do is share something that was bursting to come out anyway. Because this stuff never fully goes away. It’s just there. Always. A pandemic really stirs things up and for me, it was just the tin lid on a terrible month. If you are reading this and feeling a jolt of recognition I found this post useful for naming what I was feeling.

Despite what I’ve written here I did not mourn the man. I didn’t even think much of him. I disentangled myself from him many years ago. I know the truth of it. I saw the rages, received the threats, seen the mask slip more times than I could count. I have a letter that he wrote my mother many years ago, the draft of a love letter with an asterisked reminder to show genuine remorse that my father, his rival, had died. I keep it because to me it is truth, a documentary truth I trust. If I was writing a fully referenced account of him, his life, his truth, I would piece together the evidence and I would point out the gaps in knowledge, the gaps in the evidence. I do not have evidence of what he did to me but then I don’t need it. I lived it and survived it. The fact that I do not have photographs or a detailed diary of his or mine or the GPS coordinates of the point around the Northern Ireland border where he tried to throw me out of a moving car, none of this matters any more. There is only one truth left and it is mine. So today I am writing in memory of what happened, the damage caused, the cracks that still intrude into my daily life at times like these.

I haven’t named him yet. I haven’t forgotten to. I have always believed that it is the voice of the victim we should listen to instead of glorifying the killer or the abuser. I always tried to tell their stories when I was writing in the courts and I will give myself the same respect – but it is important to name him all the same, even to speak ill of the dead, the truth is important. Des Braiden was his name. He was an actor. You may know him from such luminary parts as the B&B owner in that Kerrygold butter ad, the judge in both the Ireland and Northern Ireland road safety ads. He was a monk who died in the first episode of Vikings (I never have been able to watch that show). He was a bit part actor but a tremendous spoofer. He was a legend in his own lunchtime. I will not link to his IMDB listing, I will not post his picture. But I write this post because the truth should out, he doesn’t deserve the reputation of a decent man, even in death. He was a bully and an abuser, as simple as that – and it wasn’t just me.

This has coloured my March and it was something that got louder in the silence of the lockdown so I’m sharing it. While it’s as personal a post as you could get, I hope it’s also a reminder that some of us carried a lot of extra baggage into this lockdown and things seem louder in the quiet of solitude and stress. I’ve named my demon but there are many who won’t be able to or don’t want to. That is totally fine. But be gentle with each other and be mindful of the cracks that everything has, repaired over and over again. Let’s hope April is slightly less eventful.

A Matter of Communication

When you’re on lockdown you just want to keep in touch with the outside world. Image from the Nova Scotia Archives on Flickr Commons

When I started blogging again the intention was to write a post a day. Especially now we’re in lockdown as the pandemic rages around us the idea was to give structure to the endless indoor days, to provide a record for myself and maybe others, to fall back on the comfortable stretching of well-worn technique. I’ve had this blog for 12 years now, I had been blogging anonymously before that. As a journalist, there’s an enjoyable discipline in writing seemingly unstructured musings to a pretty strict length. While I’m honest about what I say on the blog and would never lie, I don’t share every piece of myself. There is always a line. I’ve noticed that a lot of friends who’ve also earned their living from writing have also turned back to blogging or podcasting. Apart from the fact there is an undeniable urge to reach out for human contact right now, it is also intensely comforting to fall back into a familiar way of writing. It’s like flexing a muscle for familiar exercise, there’s even a similar endorphin rush when the words begin to flow. I’m not yet at that point with academic writing so the chapter I’m working on is going much slower these days.

So I blog partly to communicate, partly to keep in shape as I get stir crazy. As we move inexorably towards the peak of this virus communication is absolutely vital. Not just how we reach out to each other, but more official communication as well. Now is not a time for corporations or governments to be tone-deaf on anything. People are on edge, worried and scared. Anyone with pre-existing anxiety or depression have it particularly tough. We are living through a time that looks horribly like the end of world scenarios we catastrophise to. Now is a time for comfort, for the familiar, for reassurance. We know there’s a big bad world out there, there’s no escaping it at the moment. If ever there was a time to live by the mantra “don’t be a dick”, that time is now.

Which brings me to the reason why I haven’t been blogging for the last few days. Last Wednesday, an email was sent to budget holders at the University of Sussex advising a series of cost-cutting measures in the face of the financial uncertainty sparked by the current situation. So far, so pragmatic. Unfortunately, at least for management and the subsequently very overworked comms department, the document found it’s way out of its initial limited distribution and ended up being read by the people it was writing about. The problem was that, as well as calling for people to think before ordering expensive catering for meetings and to keep an eye on the stationery budget, the document also called for all casual, non-permanent and part-time staff roles to be evaluated and if possible, if they were not business-critical, to be terminated as soon as possible.

Even though the university issued a statement the following day, announcing to the world that it wasn’t as bad as it seemed because no-one was going to be sacked summarily, the rest of the week degenerated into a storm of stress and anxiety. This is my first example of poor communication. At no point did the statement say that casual staff, precarious staff, many of whom were working extremely hard delivering hastily prepared online teaching and supporting students, were valued members of the Sussex family. At no point did they offer reassurance or acknowledge that the past term had been difficult, not least because of four weeks of strike action partly about the working conditions of precarious and casual staff. At no point did they actually apologise for causing additional stress to vulnerable staff. This was a corporate statement from an institution whose most recent financial statement shows to be in the black and whose latest strategic policy framework puts kindness front and centre of the university’s corporate identity. I am doing this PhD without funding. I rely on teaching to support myself through this. Last week I was preparing for three days of teaching remotely as well as dealing with the emotional ups and downs of being in the middle of a lockdown caused by a global pandemic. The news about the financial planning document broke two days after the lockdown was announced. Nothing about this was good communication. But that’s the thing, surely right now, with everything that’s going on, it would be easy to be magnanimous? Surely there was some sweeping statement that wouldn’t actually cost anything but would win a lot of goodwill? Surely it’s not rocket science? I should add that the support from academic colleagues was the opposite, collegiate and supportive. That is what the university response should have been, but it wasn’t.

Which brings me neatly to the government response to the current pandemic. This is a government made up of people who were all over Facebook ads and punchy slogans when it came to Brexit. When it comes to saving peoples lives in the face of a predictable threat  (this is not the first global pandemic humanity has faced after all) they all seem to be learning on the job. Once again it’s the communication that’s been off. I’m not even talking about the daily press conferences here, but the public messaging. This is the country, after all, that has produced such gems as “dig for victory“, “careless talk costs lives” and “make do and mend“.  Even outside wartime, public information films like “Never talk to strangers” and “The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water” were the first introduction of horror for many of my generation. But now, when Britain is facing a genuine health crisis, the public information has been confusing and rather lacklustre. Maybe I’m just more used to the way the Irish government talks to the people. The corresponding government advice page in Ireland preempts questions and answers them. Reading both lots of information the British advice gives the rules but very little detail while the Irish advice gives much of the same advice but has considered what further questions people might have. There’s a curious gap between the two. This public messaging and the reaction of the University of Sussex to the fallout from the financial planning document speak to the same failure and I wonder is it a particularly British one. A fixed mindset, that does not see the value of addressing the audience as human beings in all their messy and vulnerable reality. It’s a failure to connect, a failure to understand. At the moment in particular, surely that failure is a critical one?

Lockdown!

The UK is now closed. Photo by Yogesh Pedamkar on Unsplash

What a difference 24 hours makes. Three days ago people were still going for a grand day out at the beach, queuing for the chipper and enjoying the sun. As if to rebuke the Guardian report this morning that the government had passed on advice to set up an emergency alert system, a text message was sent to phones around the country today, telling everyone to stay at home. As if things couldn’t get more end-of-days-ish.

One must just hope they didn’t have to pay for every text message. It is already surreal sharing this experience with friends on the other side of the planet. Universal text messages telling us to save lives take us into a weird Black Mirror world. It might be one we’ve been sliding into for a few weeks now but we have finally well and truly arrived.

Mind you, it really doesn’t seem like a brave new world out there. My desk is beside a window and I can see people passing by at both ends of the day. I can hear the main road from here too and the traffic has not stopped. Considering this is an unprecedented lockdown I had rather expected it to sound as quiet as it does on Christmas Day. We must have a lot of workers living locally – or possibly the new rules are taking a while to sink in. One can’t help wondering if a strict lockdown is possible in a country which has championed individualism for decades, with an I’m-all-right-Jack, attitude that leads us to obsess about sovereignty and independence. It was rather shocking last night to hear Boris Johnson actually sound like a credible leader, albeit a tightly scripted and pre-recorded one.

But then these are strange days indeed. When a Tory government effectively re-nationalises the railways and considers a universal basic income (link behind a paywall and the universal basic income is still just an idea, for the moment). Workers who were deemed low skilled and therefore low-value mere weeks ago are now key workers who are keeping society going. This virus is turning the world as we know it on its head. It might be temporary, it might be a lasting change. This really is the kind of event that defines decades, even centuries.

I haven’t blogged on a daily basis for years but now it seems a natural thing to do. I know I’m adding to the chatter, the cacophony of analysis and navel-gazing but I can’t look away. We are living through history. I want to record this time so that I remember it. Keep a record of the things I notice, things I feel. This is important.

After weeks of rain, the sun came out just as the country started to really take note of the virus. Today, the first day of lockdown the weather is absolutely gorgeous. I’m used to watching the sun through the window while I work though. I wrote both my books during summer recesses from the courts to tight deadlines. But the sky seems higher in Sussex than it was in Dublin. This is going to be a long and very quiet spring.

Head to the Hills – or rather do not head to the hills

We all know the scene, the deserted cottage on the Moors/up the mountain. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

We’re all familiar with the scenario. When pestilence sweeps through the land or the zombie apocalypse hits, our heroes head out of town and try to find somewhere to batten down the hatches. In John Wyndham’s classic The Kraken Wakes husband and wife reporter Mike and Phyllis Watson try to make it to their remote cottage in Cornwall as all other hope fails. Similarly in Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids sanctuary is found and hope of a normal life are found in a rural location.  In Terry Nation’s 1975 series Survivors, sanctuary is found outside the cities away from infection. The first series shows the main characters searching for somewhere remote to hole up and subsequent series see them forming a community and getting back to nature. This is what one is supposed to do in a pandemic. I’ve had many a conversation with friends about the perfect blot hole for when society finally came crashing down (what can I say – I belong to Generation X), what it would look like, where would it be. But that was all fantasy, the reality is very different.

This weekend scenic spots all over the British Isles saw heavy traffic as people ignored the warnings about gatherings. The government has issued specific guidance for the owners of holiday homes and second homes that heading for the hills does not count as essential travel. The problem is that, while this might be the course of action that characters take in fiction, in reality, going to that isolated cottage is going to put extra strain on communities that really don’t have the resources to cope. All over the weekend community leaders and police forces have been warning out-of-towners away. It turns out that, in reality, if you are going from an area with a high rate of infection, to somewhere isolated with less infection, all you’re doing is potentially bringing infection with you. Actually, this salient fact is in the fiction. In Survivors, for example, there are numerous storylines where infection is brought into isolated communities. But those stories are talking about a truly cataclysmic pandemic. While Covid19 is bad and we need to do all we can to flatten the curve and make sure the NHS can cope with what’s to come, this is not the end of society as we know it. Yes, this is a once in a century event and it will shape the rest of our lives in ways we don’t yet know, but this is something we will get through – as long as we look out for each other and don’t act like assholes.

Personally I’ve been too busy getting ready for teaching to resume this week to go gadding about the countryside – oh, and I don’t have a holiday home. I had my first online seminar today. It’s going to be a huge adjustment for all of us but I’m just hoping my students feel supported enough to get through this disruption to their education. Starting university this year has been a roller coaster for any first-year students and my heart goes out to final years. It had already been a turbulent year before we had heard of coronavirus and social distancing. It’s hard not to feel helpless as this thing keeps smashing through our daily lives. All we can do is get through day by day. There’s very little that I can say that won’t sound trite because this is simply too big.

As well as teaching I’m also helping to organise our first online PhD game night on Wednesday. As I wrote yesterday, Twitter has been brilliant with help on that. But there is something about this time that almost feels like the early days of social media all over again. We’re looking at how to connect, how to stay together, in more meaningful ways I think. This isn’t about social media as a utility, it’s about social media as a lifeline. That’s what it was for introverts or scattered families and friends when it was new and shiny. Then, as it became ubiquitous, we began to shun the alwaysonness of it all. I even want to talk on the phone these days. Times really have changed.

Mothers in a time of distance

Me and my mum, back in the days when we hadn’t heard of social distancing.

For weeks now businesses have been gearing up for the Mothers’ Day blitz. Well, there’s always some excuse to sell but Mothers’ Day sends them into overdrive. I’ve had exhortations to buy my dear old mum mugs, teatowel, perfume and speciality teas and those are just the ones that are relatively bespoke. I’m increasingly relieved when a company asks if I want to opt-out of the barrage of Mothers’ Day marketing. I always say yes. I know there are plenty who think these opt-outs are just another example of the delicacy of modern life but I’m always relieved when a marketing department actually realises that the day isn’t an uncomplicated love-fest for all of us.

I had a complicated relationship with my mum. When I was a kid she was wonderful. I was an only child and my dad had died when I was a baby so my childhood was solitary but happy. I know my mum found it hard – she was an actress and loved being the centre of attention, something that’s rather difficult to maintain on your own with a toddler. She never really recovered from my dad’s death. While as an adult I understand the decisions she made after that, there are some I will never quite forgive. I’ve written about my mum before here. Let’s just say she was a complicated woman and sometimes a hard mother to love.

I’m also not a mother myself. This is something that has loomed bigger in my life at some times than others. I’ve written about it here and elsewhere. While it’s not something I lose sleep over I would rather it wasn’t shoved in my face on a regular basis. It sometimes feels as if you aren’t quite counted as a woman if you’re not the custodian of small humans. Not all the time, but sometimes. Mothers’ Day is complicated and a little sad and a little bleak and usually I will go out of my way to avoid it.

This year, of course, Mothers’ Day is problematic for everyone. There will be guilt, far more than usual. People will be wondering if they should visit elderly relatives, younger mothers will be worried about their health and the health of their children. Family visits will be missed, Skype calls will be plentiful. It’s another thing that has changed in this strange new world of ours. In the last week we’ve begun to get used to change but today is a reminder of how many things will not happen this year because of the pandemic. The rhythm of our lives will be different this year. The next weeks and months will be filled with other things that have stopped, that are missed. If people don’t stop treating the general stoppage as some extended bank holiday we will find ourselves under much stricter constraints than today. That too will change quickly. That is the way we live now.

Today I have spent time planning new ways to socialise. I help to organise a games night for fellow PhDs at my university and this month we’re moving our gathering online. One thing has become apparent this week as the general sense of weirdness grew. Social media is suddenly feeling as helpful as it was almost a decade ago. These are times when social media comes into its own, where people can come together and reach out. We’ll see a lot more of that as the weeks draw on I hope. For the moment I’ve gone from knowing very little about online gaming to actually knowing how to get set up. For years I’ve promised to keep better touch with far-flung friends but never quite got round to it. Too easy to use the excuse of the pace of modern life. Let’s hope this is at least an opportunity to reset our relationship with each other, to perhaps finally step out from our bubbles, even in the face of global isolation, and reconnect with each other. This is the first global pandemic in such a connected world. It is in a sense, new territory.

So this is the fourth day of the revived blog. Goodness knows how long I’ll keep up these daily posts. At the moment it’s helping to get things straight in my mind as the world spins around me, although that could just be the vertigo. We’ll see as the days progress.

 

The Way We Live Now Part 2

I seem to be more stressed than I had thought

Last night I slept fitfully and the dreams when they came were freaky. I dreamed of invasion, of violation and contagion. This pandemic has got under my skin. When my husband took the cat to the vet this morning I was convinced bad news was coming. I watch something on Netflix, hoping to lose myself for a while, I find myself wondering why they’re not observing social distancing. All those people rubbing shoulders with each other, dancing with each other, sleeping with each other.

That’s not the way we live now.

I catch the comings and goings from next door from the window behind my desk and wonder are they panic buying. Do the people walking past know that they should be 3 metres away from the nearest person. Probably not, government information about social distancing has been decidedly lacklustre, with little specific detail and the only recommended distance for how socially distant we’re all supposed to be being found in a note on a table. This is leading to confusion and disregard. Former Financial Times journalist turned teacher Lucy Kellaway tweeted a picture to her almost 60 thousand followers with the caption “Social Distancing Teacher Style”.

The picture Lucy Kellaway tweeted showing a closely packed crowd of colleagues

Some of those followers were quick to point out that this was not what was meant by the term. The tweet has now been deleted. Now in fairness, none of us had heard of the term social distancing a month ago. It is part of our new lexicon. When you consider that its purpose, and the reason we know the phrase now, is the urgent imperative to slow the spread of this pandemic so that national health services are not overwhelmed, it’s not hard to work out. We should all have an inkling of how not to catch a bug – but if the sudden rush on hand soap has been anything to go by our personal sanitation has got complacent, to say the least. Last night the pubs were full, acting as if there was no risk of contagion. These stories continue even as the situation gets more serious.

That’s the thing with this virus, with being in the middle of a global pandemic. We know what it looks like because we’ve read about them in the history books, watched the horror unfold in sci-fi and speculative fiction. We have all seen the images of mask-wearing nurses, of hundreds of beds stretching the length of huge wards. We know surely that a pandemic is to be feared, that viruses spread through crowds, but as news of the coronavirus spread through the first days of spring did we get distracted by the word “novel” in the virus’ description? Did we assume this one was different? It really doesn’t matter if other pandemics have been worse, it doesn’t matter that in entirely different circumstances we behaved differently. What matters is that there is a pandemic here and now, that is a threat to life and to the integrity of our health system. It really does seem at the moment that common sense has been a victim of our indulgence of lies and falsehoods. Conspiracy theories have gone mainstream and the stories we’ve all grown up with are no longer trusted.

As I wrote yesterday, the stress has been growing over the past few weeks. Today I got up and discovered I had vertigo. It’s fine, it happens sometimes when I get particularly stressed, but it does mean that the world feels even more unreal today. It’s very gently swaying. It’s only to be expected in days like these but it is a warning to take care. Outside of my window, I can see the garden starting to sprout again, I can see birds soaring in an almost cloudless sky. Spring is coming despite the pandemic, despite the increasing restrictions on our lives. The months will pass despite the sickness, despite the fear and panic. Yesterday was the spring equinox. From now on the days will get longer and before long the clocks will go forward. This year for those home working the missed hour will be perhaps a little less irksome. We will get through this.

The Way We Live Now

Do we all have stashes of toilet roll now?

We live in a strange new world. A world where a delivery of toilet paper is anticipated almost as much as the new Hilary Mantel, where a silence has fallen on sports grounds and cinemas and more people are tuning into the nightly news than Strictly Come Dancing. We have all learned how to wash our hands all over again and now lots of us sing while we do so. We are learning new uses and combinations of words – social distancing, cocooning. It is like living in a sci-fi film.

The university made the decision to move all teaching online on Monday. I’ve spent most of this week working out how on earth I’m going to deliver teaching without actually being in the same room as my students. I worked remotely for two years for a company where my teammates were sometimes in three different countries, before that I was freelance for a decade. Working from home doesn’t bother me and technology doesn’t phase me but there is something exquisitely infuriating about realising that even though it’s a while since I’ve done either, the technological solutions are no less annoying and just as apt to wig out when they are actually put to the use they were supposedly designed for.  In case any of those students are reading this, don’t worry I’m not talking about the stuff I’m going to be teaching you. The first few days passed in a flurry of panic, trying to assess the new reality. After weeks of being told the coronavirus was a concern but under control and nothing to worry about suddenly we’re all at DEFCON 1 and life as we know it has come to an abrupt pause. Nothing is as it was but for those of us that worry every flu season because the wrong dose could potentially mean months of incapacitation, there’s a strange sense of vindication. I’ve been paranoid about touching door handles, cash machines and public transport for months now, it’s kind of nice to know that most people are now on the same page – even if it does mean you can’t get toilet roll for love nor money.

If you are someone who has spent most of their lives waiting for the end of the world – and that does tend to be the scenario I catastrophise to, then there is a sense of familiarity with all of this. I grew up in a time when the threat of nuclear war seemed very real indeed. The early 80s was a period of intense sabre-rattling between the US and what was then the USSR. In 1982, the Home Office was running practise scenarios for a nuclear strike on Britain. Between 1984 and 1986, TV programmes like Threads, Z for Zachariah and When the Wind Blows shaped the cultural imagination. Being a kid at that time you knew something was up. Even the children’s programmes showed death and disaster – I particularly remember Dramarama Spooky, which ran in 1982 and featured an episode where a schoolkid is haunted by the girl who died when his school was hit by a doodle-bug bomb during WW2. There were the outlines of a family on the pavement outside the town hall, which I stepped over every morning. I knew they were just paint but I’d seen enough and heard enough to know that they represented all that would be left if a nuclear bomb hit. As if to reinforce the sense of impending panic, the fire station that stood beside my school had a habit of testing its old air raid siren every time we had a class with the windows open. I grew familiar with a noise that my mum and my grandmother had left me in no doubt meant death. It was around that time that BBC radio did an adaptation of the War of the Worlds and I discovered John Wyndham. These stories shaped my imagination, they became a genre I have sought out ever since. I’ve always loved a good dystopia.

So some of this feels familiar. The idea of having stores of food is one I’ve had all my life. My mum was a war baby and always had her tin cupboard well-stocked. I’ve spent too much of my life in in not particularly well-paid jobs not to know a thing or two about buying in bulk and making things last. That doesn’t make any of this less scary. I’m worried for elderly and vulnerable friends and relatives. I’m worried for myself but there’s always a little voice in the back of my head telling me “it’s ok, we know how this goes”. It’s an annoying little voice because yes, we know how things go and that why I’ve been avoiding door handles and obsessively washing up after using public transport for weeks!

As I said yesterday, this is a personal blog. It’s my way of getting this all straight in my head. This seems like a time to shout into the void so I’ll be doing it as often as possible,

 

 

Diary of a Plague Year – with apologies to Defoe

Picture may not be an accurate representation of current working conditions

I’ve been meaning to start blogging again on a regular basis since February 2017, when I started working on my PhD. The realities of unfunded PhD life have meant that many excellent intentions have stayed sitting in a nice little list in my bullet journal (yes, I have one) and every week when I cross out the things I’ve done and copy the things I haven’t to the next page, it’s pretty much at the top of the list. It’s been on the list for so long that the shape of the words are almost ghosting through the pages as each week’s entry sits above the last. But maybe that emphasis is in my head. It’s between me and the bullet journal anyway.

So what’s changed you might ask? Or maybe not, because these days we’re all working from home, wondering what to do with all the hours we’re not spending on the commute, as a virus sweeps the globe and the supermarket shelves are empty. These are not normal days.

These are days that feel like episode one of the end of the world, That episode where you see people’s lives slowly change, the gradual realisation that this is a set up for our main characters trying to survive against zombies/despots/gangs who commandeer all the food/rapey guy the main female character meets on her travels – delete as appropriate. We’re so familiar with these narratives that they have seeped into our bones, part of our collective imagination. It is downright eerie to see images online of army trucks full over bodies being taken to crematoriums or fistfights in supermarkets over supplies.  Still worse when you start hearing stories of general weirdness in your own social networks, when everyone you know, regardless of the country or time zone they are in, are working from home to hide from the virus. As the realisation sinks in that this is serious, that this is one of those events that you will remember for the rest of your life, that generations will be defined by, that time will be measured by, then thoughts turn to marking it.

We save momentos of significant days – weddings, birthdays, first dates. We also save records of events we instinctively know are historic. I have a file of newspaper front pages from days like that at this stage in my life. I started this blog, back in 2008, to write about the court cases I was covering on a daily basis. After a while, I realised that sometimes, if the copy I filed for the agency I was working for at the time wasn’t picked up, this blog was the only place those cases were written about. I always believed in the principle of open justice, in keeping a record of things and this blog was part of that. It’s also been a record of my life, my changing careers, changing focus over the past decade. I had wanted to write about my PhD because I knew that would be a significant period in my life but I never found the time to start. This time is bigger than my life or an individual trial. This is a collective experience. No matter what happens over the next week or months, we are part of a collective experience.

I remember covering the Columbia disaster as it unfolded one Saturday in February 2003. It was so unexpected, all hands to the pump, a journalistic rush. This is not like that. This will be a long-drawn-out slog, a collective experience of small realities, everyday annoyances and reaction to this strange new world. The journalist in me and the future historian both want to create a record of this as it unfolds. This will be a personal account as everything on this blog has always been. It is time to resurrect it. I cannot promise however that I will be sitting in my underwear on a bed with a frothy coffee and a Mac. My days rarely turn out like that, but it’s a pleasing picture to start off with. We’ll see how we go from here.

On Strikes, Teaching and Times Past.

Striking Victorian belles. Image by Dr Bob Nicholson @DigiVictorian

Image by Dr Bob Nicholson @DIgiVIctorian on Twitter

It’s been a year since I’ve posted here and a very busy year at that. I’ve had a little more time lately – although that is a relative term when there’s a thesis brewing – so here I am again. As the nights draw in it becomes a time for reflection and getting nostalgic. We’re almost at the end of the second universities strike in two years. Tomorrow is the last of 8 strike days in the UCU strike and I’ll be heading to the picket line again. I was brought up to respect unions and the power of collective action and bargaining. My mum was an actress.  Joining the union, Equity, meant that you could work. Getting your Equity card was your badge of professionalism, it meant you’d had at least five paying jobs. As a journalist, I applied for my NUJ card as soon as I started studying. It meant that I could blag my way into nightclubs but over the years I’ve been glad of my union membership. As a freelance journalist knowing that you have the support of a union behind you when you’re otherwise out on your own is a huge thing. There was a strike in the first journalism job I ever had, at BBC Northern Ireland in Belfast. I was freelancing but I wouldn’t cross the picket line. Solidarity is an important thing  – though on that occasion I did go into Broadcasting House when the picket went for lunch. I was too precarious not to.

Well, I’m still precarious. I love teaching but it does feel like being back in those early journalism days. My first cheque was for £30 if I remember rightly. I was dead chuffed (that was my rent back then). That’s the thing with now and gets down to why I’m striking. It might feel the same as those days hustling for a story but it’s not the same. Now I teach both history and journalism as a doctoral tutor and this is necessary because I’m doing my doctorate unfunded. It’s not how I planned it but funding is hard to get. That’s a subject for another day though. I rely on teaching around campus because fitting a doctorate around any other type of work is next to impossible.

I’m striking because I’m paid hourly and those hours aren’t the hours that I invoice for, those are the hours allotted. For each hour I teach I get paid three more. That sounds like a good deal but in those three extra hours, I’m supposed to give feedback to students, mark their work and, most importantly of all, prepare for my teaching. I am given one hour to prepare for teaching. This is actually a pretty good deal by academic standards. But I’m a latecomer to academia. I’ve worked in the private sector and the public sector. I’ve even designed material for the purposes of teaching others in those environments. I would have got balled out of it if I’d taken an hour to prep. If you don’t believe me take a look at the rates recommended here. Now OK, that’s corporate tech training but still, for Instructor-Led Training – which includes design, lesson plans, handouts and Powerpoint slides – the recommended rate is 34:1. That’s 34 hours to every one taught.  I’d love to know if anyone outside very, very high-end corporate actually manages to get that ratio but even in the basic stuff I used to do the rule of thumb was 7 hours prep for one presenting. That’s not the reality in academia.

I’m also striking because this term by term merry-go-round is probably it for the foreseeable future. Fixed-term, fractional contracts are the norm for post-doctorate jobs and quite a bit post-doc at that. I’m also striking because this situation is absolutely head wrecking for those of us reliant on it. It’s also not fair on the students who are paying over £9,000 a year for their education. I’m striking because something has to change, for everyone’s sake.

I’ve had cause to think about my own time at college over the past week as well. Last week I learned that one of my old lecturers had died. I have fond memories of Muiris Mac Ghongail. He taught me when I was doing my degree at the Dublin Institute of Journalism in the late 1990s. Muiris was never boring, always inspiring. His classes were always well attended. We’ve got a Whatsapp group at the moment because it’s 20 years since we graduated next year. The news was shared on there and all day my phone was beeping with memories of Muiris. I was heading to the picket line that day, listening to stories of teaching now, of workloads, of lack of contact with students. Every now and then I checked the Whatsapp messages. The same memories kept coming up – that he was a great dissertation mentor and also that he used to take us down to the pub on occasion and hold forth. Now I don’t oversee dissertations at the moment but I know that my students complain about contact hours with teaching staff. They want more than drop-in office hours and I sympathise. I’ve seen student suggestions on our uni student app that they would like to spend more time with teaching staff. The pub has been suggested. I remember going to the pub with Muiris. He was always entertaining and those were definitely memorable evenings but I’m not sure I would be happy to see a revival of what was fairly normal in the mid-90s. Muiris was very generous with his time but other teachers would only ask certain students. There was a lot of resentment about a certain boys club we female members of the class could see back then. It’s all water under the bridge now but it’s another reason I’m not sure I’d be in favour of a return to that kind of completely relaxed interaction. It’s too easy for lines to blur, for favouritism, for things to get messy. But looking back on those days, on days when I didn’t graduate with a debt, when we only had 30 to a class when we could just drop in on teachers. Something has definitely been lost with student numbers climbing and we can feel its loss and so can our students.

So we strike and try to slay the neoliberal beast. It’s only taken 10 years to get to this, the removal of the cap on student numbers and the speeding up of the marketisation of education under Cameron and Gove. People have a choice in this election for change or more of the same with bells on.

 

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