As we ‘celebrate’ the anniversary of the UK’s first national lockdown this week, reflection seems in order. Things that seemed unimaginable last March, we now take in our stride, in the sense that we simply get on with them. Coming to terms with them is a different matter. For all those who’ve lost family and friends, inevitably things will never be the same. Grieving their loss will continue to be a heavy burden to bear. For those who haven’t seen some of their closest relations or pals during the past year, but with that possibility conceivable in the months ahead, circumstances permitting, there will still be much grief at what has been lost. As for those who’ve lost their jobs, for students of whatever age whose education has been disrupted, for the joys of youth (or indeed of any age) that have been upended and left in tatters, there is so much to mourn.
In academic establishments up and down the land, Zoom burnout is pervasive. We’ve sat staring at screens till our eyes and heads hurt, our backs and legs are stiff and our brains frazzled. Zooming friends for a chat no longer seems such an attractive option, when it is just another screen of pixels to stare at, however much the support and gossip received may be welcome. We’ve adapted and committed to trying our outmost in these far-from-ideal circumstances, working long and hard to keep universities functioning as best they can. A College can provide much support, from food to good wifi, even libraries (Churchill’s is open in a restricted way) for those students who are here, with tutorial advice always to hand at the end of a screen.
I’m sure the community is divided into those who believe spring is a positive time of rebirth and those who see this anniversary of lockdown as simply commemorating a year of misery. My mother always used to regard spring as the cruellest time of year, because new beginnings in Nature just reminded her of all that she hadn’t achieved and never could (she did, after all, leave school at 14, and in later years I could never persuade her to embark on an Open University course). For many years she was trapped in London with caring responsibilities, and not able to get out to breathe the country air or hear the cuckoos and chiffchaffs arrive, things that meant so much to her. That sense of being trapped in an urban environment is one that feels all too familiar to me currently: no opportunity to visit the sea, no mountains to relish and – even in the best of times – to my knowledge, no cuckoos within the city, although I’d expect to hear chiffchaffs soon.
But I will try, harder than ever, to believe in the spring-as-rebirth motif this year. Take the bee I saw today in the College grounds as a positive message. The hope that the successful vaccination roll-out and the most recent lockdown really does mean that normality seems more than just a distant dream. Cambridge term has now ended and, although it doesn’t mean the mass exodus of students in the usual way, it does – thankfully – mean fewer committee meetings to pin me to my screen. There are many challenges to keep us all on our toes, but I will try to remember my own advice of last year ‘In time of crisis, be kind.’ For all those who have been struggling with productivity (I’m inclined to think everyone will be nodding at that point), we need to remember that being kind extends to ourselves as well as everyone else.
As the Master of a Cambridge College, this past year has been intense. Decisions have had to be taken on the hoof with incomplete information, particularly in the first few months. I am deeply grateful to the wonderful team and sense of community spirit around me. But just because we’ve all been trying to jump through ever-changing hoops as government directives have come and gone, it doesn’t mean the normal work of the College can stop. I have not had to adjust to on-line teaching, because I’m retired and no longer teach. (Although last summer, I did have to undertake online examining as part of my swansong from the department, and tricky I found that. In those early days we were still getting to grips with on-line marking of scripts, sharing screens and virtual whiteboards, not to mention the incompatibility of Microsoft Teams when wearing different institutional hats, something that is totally frustrating.) But all the usual round of decision-making committees continues, and some particularly challenging and unusual circumstances have made this term more complicated and worrying than most for me. Such occasions, when both ‘sides’ choose to see the one in the middle as an enemy, are part of the uncomfortable reality which can rear up unexpectedly for anyone in a leadership role.
I hope the Easter vacation, such as it is, will give all of us time to pause, to smell the metaphorical roses, to curl up with the novels that we’ve wanted to read for months, even if we still can’t see the grandchildren/grandparents/godchildren/best friend and other much loved but now distant people in our lives. Burnout may be pervasive, but it needs to be factored into the lives we lead. It means we must treat ourselves, and everyone else, with kindness, to escape the burden imposed by incessant emails by venturing out into whatever fresh air is to hand, savouring the warmer weather and lengthening days. Every time I hear a blackbird or dunnock sing, I take heart.