Keeping On Keeping On

In the UK, as in many other countries, we have entered another lockdown, mysteriously assigned in some quarters a decimal point, as in lockdown 2.0. It’s a lockdown with a difference, in that the rules are not the same as last time around (and therefore tending to be confusing), and logic in the rules is not always present to my scientist’s eye.  Life in Cambridge is hugely unlike the first lockdown, however, because the colleges remain full of students. They may not be able to live the life that generations of students have been able to before – usually portrayed as consisting of large parties, formal dining and the consumption of large amounts of alcohol in the bar. There will be no struggling out of bed for a 9am lecture. On the contrary their lectures are likely to be constantly on tap, painstakingly recorded by hard-working lecturers who resort to Twitter to rant about the challenges the different (but apparently universally infuriating) software available for the task throws up. (Retirement spares me that, if not filming videos for internal College use.) Online lectures are, I assume, available as much at 9am as midnight. Circadian body clocks may no longer impact quite so strongly on the teenage university learning experience.

However, much of what I wrote in the spring – be kind to others and, equally importantly, be kind to yourself – still applies. I fear that many of us find the latter in particular hard to keep in mind. We may all have acclimatised to Zoom, Teams or other web platforms (there seem to be an almost infinite variety that can be used for webinars), but have we developed new levels of stamina to cope with this endless, uninterrupted screen time, without the advantage of walking – or cycling – from one meeting to another to provide a welcome pause? In my case, I’m sure the answer is no. There are days with no respite, no time mentally to shift gear, or even to find the relevant notebook or ‘paperwork’, let alone a cup of tea or other form of comfort break.

Cambridge lectures traditionally run from five-past-the-hour until five-to, in order to provide time for the mass of students to migrate from one venue to another. Those of you who have lived in Cambridge may recognize that from the stream of first year natural scientist cyclists along Tennis Court Lane rushing from the New Museums Site to the Chemistry Department around 10am three days a week. Unfortunately, convention does not yet seem to have decreed Zoom meetings operate in the same way, although the better organised convenors of longer meetings do seem smart enough to allow for mid-session comfort breaks. We live, in this lockdown age, in ever more pressured ways. The brief aside at the end of a committee meeting with one key person to resolve a niggling concern is impossible; the casual getting to know people in advance of meetings in order to marshal cogent arguments better has gone west. These losses can impact on how committee business gets done and we are the worse for that.

Nevertheless, the pressure doesn’t go away, just because we are all having to find new ways to work, as well as novel routes to unwind. I see the Guardian has produced suggestions from their columnists, with a strong flavour of ‘be kind to yourself’, but also ‘enjoy nature’. I am lucky. My current ‘office’ has enormous windows overlooking the Fellows’ Lawn, with its greenness and majestic Metasequoia, a joy to watch through the changing seasons. Outside at the front this morning there was a flock of long tailed tits in the crab apple (possibly) trees, and squirrels doing their duty of squirreling away acorns. Live in the country I may not, but I can – and do – enjoy the open feel to the College as, I hope, do our students as they go about their lawfully permitted exercise. Nevertheless, the low sun through the large windows is a complete pain for Zoom: my face is always illuminated all wrong (never mind the anxiety about the black circles under my eyes): I’m either blinded by the rare sunshine, or in complete shadow, or so it feels.

I don’t feel I’ve established a new routine to relaxing, though, now almost all the normal evening activities of a Cambridge head of house are banned, by which I mean a regular diet of formal, working dinners, possibly interspersed with hosting lectures or attending concerts. I started off lockdown intending to learn how to use Tableau and watch videos of all the Mozart operas. I started…..but failed to complete either, like so many other good intentions we all set out with. My reading veers from the grim if highly educational (Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II by Madhusree Mukarjee, telling me things I need to know about Churchill not through the lens of a UK-centred view), to the thought-provoking Head, Hand, Heart by David Goodhart, but regularly reverting to much lighter fare (EM Delderfield’s period piece series of The Provincial Lady, for instance) not to mention Twitter. However, in recent weeks, blogging has required more creative energy than I typically have left at the end of a long day of Zooming, as regular readers will have noticed by my comparative silence.

But, here we are again, confined to barracks, metaphorically at least. Still glued to the screen, day upon day, trying to maintain an equilibrium in the face of constant buffeting by external matters over which we have no control (but at least there is good news from the USA).



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