Writings from the plague, by Ann Copestake


The shutdown - 20 March 2020

At about half-past five this evening, I stood for five minutes on the ground floor of the department, listening to the building. Usually, at that time of the week, the building’s own sounds would be drowned out by the noise of its occupants - especially when Happy Hour is in the Street, and people come together, have a drink, and perhaps play board games. Tonight, all I could hear was a little creaking, lights buzzing and the murmur of distant equipment. I was startled for a moment by a sudden sound, almost like a cry, but realized it was a collared dove, calling somewhere in the courtyard.

I had just walked along each corridor, peered into every office, glanced into the meeting rooms and lecture theatres. I was alone in a building normally occupied by over 300 people. I had ordered the place to be shut for an indefinite period.

Much of what goes on in my department is unknown to me. There are many groups of researchers whose work I only understand in the broadest of terms and I don’t know the interlocking complexities of what they do - the interplay of collaborations, conferences, reviewing, funding, industry and so on that drives their activities. I know these things for my own research, of course - or at least, I used to know them, but after a week like this, all that feels as though it is behind a thick veil. Nor do I know all the people in the department - I have never chatted to many of the PhD students and postdocs, and I don’t even know most of the permanent staff well. Yet I feel I know the department - I wouldn’t say I understand it, but sometimes I have a feeling for it. I have an instinct for its elements and the way they intertwine. Teaching, research, administration - all subcategorized into many parts, but all combining. Perhaps like a garden - I often cannot name individual plants, but I can see it as a whole, feel what needs more light or more shelter, where the spaces could be made in which new plants will thrive. And I understand some details - pruning, hedge trimming and planting trees. But the analogy fails - I have grown in the Computer Lab and I belong here, as a part of it, not as a gardener.

Of course, I have not shut down the department, just the building. It is not even as though the garden is closed for visitors - we can still be seen by the world. But we have, for now, lost the physical structure that shelters us, and the most visible support that makes us a whole.

When I stood, alone in a huge building that was (I hoped!) otherwise empty of people, I felt the space as a gap and started to recognise the unknowability of what is happening in the world. When I walked out of the main door, I had the melodramatic thought that this might be the last time. At a literal level, that is very unlikely, but in another way, I think it may be true. This changes us, and I really do not know how.

Things are not going to return to `normal’, and nor should we wish this to happen, since ‘normal’ has become an every increasingly breathless treadmill of pressure and anxiety for many of us and many of our students, reflecting what has been happening in the world.

This is a time of dislocation. For the department, many things must continue - we must keep our research going as well as we can, teach with as much passion and enthusiasm as we can muster, and help our students and our colleagues. And we must also spend time with our friends and families, virtually if necessary. But we should also try and allow ourselves the space to reflect, now many old traditions and habits have been forcibly broken.

Working from home - 9 April 2020

In a way, the strangest thing is that life is not more strange. Working from home is working from home - the chair, the laptop, the screen are grindingly familiar. The oak desk - bought second-hand forty years ago, in this room for twenty years - perhaps this is the year I finally sand the top to remove the flaky varnish. Through the bay window, the type and exhaust place across the road still operates with a reassuring background clatter and the occasional irritating whine. The supermarket is busy and brightly lit at night. The buses rumble by regularly.

The strangeness mostly shows in frequencies - there is almost never anybody at the bus stop now. No traffic jams, no rush of kids after school. Lots more bird song. And I am here all the time, with just a weekly scurry to the shop.

Except I am not really here. I am in a very unromantic part of cyberspace - the adminosphere - meeting colleagues using a bewildering mixture of online tools, trying to remember whether the camera and the mike are on, giving me a slight semblance of physicality. And the email and the email and the email, flowing in tidally, and out, more or less haltingly. Weeks of work to scaffold up our little piece of new reality, while desperately trying to nurture some of the old connections and plans in the gaps between tasks, and hope that those neglected are managing without me for now.

Take a break, make a cup of tea, and check today’s numbers. An abstract flicker of the starkness of the hospital wards and intensive care units, illness and death, with friends and family at best a virtual presence. There’s clapping outside and fireworks - go to the window and realize that yet again I have neglected the time and missed the chance to physically applaud those risking their lives for their work.

But there is a strange flowering. Working out how to work has its own fascination in a darkly intricate way, like jewellry carved from jet. Among my friends and colleagues there is real creativity, huge energy and extraordinary adaptability shown by people just making things work. And in bringing new ideas to life, as we begin to figure out what all this could mean.

There is a release too. Our world of work has been changed as though a giant hand has prodded our dolls house. We are shaken and the furniture has shifted but perhaps we see new ways of looking at the rooms we’re in, and some doors are opening that had been blocked by too many filing cabinets. When the shaking stops, the furniture may go back, but we’ll still know that we can do new things. And maybe we can start to do them, not because we are forced, but because we want to.