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Corona Diaries: the secret of lockdown – balance input with output

April 16, 2020

One or two people have asked me why I’ve dramatically jacked up the frequency of posts over the past couple of corona-afflicted months. Am I writing about the pandemic as a form of self-administered therapy? Do I imagine that churning out a post a day, as opposed to once or twice a week, will be any less boring to the people who encounter this blog?

The answer is simple. It’s a matter of balancing input with output. At a time like this, locked at home with no children to educate and no work to perform, it’s easy to sink into input only – TV, books, social media, games, videos, sudoku or whatever else takes your fancy.

We have plenty to do. All those home projects that normally get put off. And they’re great. Very satisfying in fact. But many of them are fairly mechanical. Sorting out books, cleaning patios, painting woodwork. They don’t exactly tax the mind.

Writing about all the strange things that are happening at the moment is my way of making sense – to my own satisfaction at least – of the experience.

I’ve never written a diary before, and I’m not sure that what I’m writing under the heading of Corona Diaries actually is a diary. Be that as it may, I’m making sure that I’m capturing my thoughts at an interesting time. I wish I’d done so at other moments of crisis. Cuba in 1963; the 3-day week in 1973; various wars and financial crashes. During good times as well. The 1966 World Cup, the moon landings, the fall of the Berlin Wall. And personal landmarks – getting married, the arrival of children and so forth.

Seventeen years ago, just before he died, I spent three hours recording on video a conversation with my father. My mother was there too, but he did most of the talking. I asked him a hundred questions about his life. One of them was about how he felt about the threat that Hitler posed in the late 1930s. His answer was that he would have done anything to stop a war, which he freely admitted put him in the appeasement camp.

How much better if he’d been able to point me towards a diary of the time. Not that his thoughts expressed in 1939 would have been a substitute for a video that showed much more than a narrative. But diaries, if they’re honestly written, can give a much more accurate view than 60-year-old recollections.

My memories of events such as Cuba, Berlin and the Gulf Wars consist of fragments, not consistent thought. Wondering whether I’d wake up the next morning in October 1962. Looking at a newspaper headline on Kennedy’s assassination in wonderment at the size of the typeface. As time went on, I can recall more coherent thoughts – on Vietnam, Nixon, Saddam Hussein, Khomeini and Brezhnev. But how much of what I think I remember reflects who I am today as opposed to the person witnessing the events at the time?

I suspect that for most of us diaries are unimportant. We’re at an interesting transition point where, even if we don’t leave a formal written account, the evidence of what we think, feel and do is quite abundant, but only if we use the social media. Assuming the data doesn’t disappear into a virtual crematorium at some stage, if in fifty years’ time you wanted to know how your parents reacted to some event in their lives, you would probably have to assemble the evidence from a digital patchwork of photos, likes and fragmentary comments on the back of other people’s input.

Going back to my father, would he have “liked” a contemporary Facebook clip of the General Strike, or Chamberlain’s “Peace in Our Time” speech at Croydon Airport? How would he have reacted to propaganda videos from Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts?

As it is, all that remains of most ordinary people like him is photos, letters and diaries, whose survival will be largely a matter of luck. Otherwise we have to rely on a dwindling number of living eye-witnesses, whose memories will mostly be fragmentary.

There is, of course, a big difference between a public diary like mine, which is intended to provoke, inform and entertain (even if it doesn’t succeed on any of those counts) and a private diary never intended for publication. Those are far more interesting, though I’m not talking about the majority of political diaries, which are written with one eye on the posthumous reputation of the writer. As pure entertainment, I doubt if many can beat Alan Clark’s journal of political life during the Thatcher years.

The best example of the private diary has to be that of Samuel Pepys. Did he expect it to be published? I doubt it, though he must have figured that his family would read it, which probably explains why some of the cruder expressions he uses are in code.

I doubt if I’d ever have written the classic diary, noting in exhaustive detail one’s activities on a daily basis. My life has been interesting enough to me, but probably not to others. I would have got bored very quickly. And as for pouring out innermost  feelings – love and hate, fears and hope – no way. Nobody’s business except my own. Some things are best forgotten.

Anyway, writing about the pandemic on almost a daily basis has been enormous fun, even if the subject isn’t. Hopefully it will continue to be so until I get hauled off to hospital. And should my descendants be interested, they won’t have to scrape up likes on Twitter and Facebook to figure out what their ancestor thought about Donald Trump, Brexit, Boris Johnson and other subjects of historical interest. It’s all here, my dears.

From → Books, History, Social, UK, USA

  1. I am reading a part of Samuel Pepys diary the one for 1634. It is fascinating.
    I’ll write more tomorrow.

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