sociological habit of thinking comparatively across time and space proves
particularly useful at times when the familiar world is turned upside down and
we are forced to reflect on what is ‘normal’. To-day my principal role was to
act as internal examiner for a PhD viva in the changed circumstances of
COVID-19 ‘lockdown’. The ‘new normal’ is the viva conducted virtually (in our
case via Skype), and the whole thing passed off successfully aside from a delay
to our schedule related to connection issues. Certainly academic standards were
not allowed to slip.
In the run up to the viva I had remembered a passage from Harrison E. Salisbury’s book about the siege of Leningrad during the Second World War when the city was surrounded and Hitler’s troops and their allies sought over a period of nearly three years to starve the population into submission. Defiance by the city’s occupants was famously crystallised by Shostakovich’s Symphony number 7 and its remarkable performance in the city (as well as elsewhere). But Salisbury’s book recounts many other acts of resistance, including the example of which I was reminded this week: ‘The presentation and defense of doctoral dissertations had gone on without pause in Leningrad, all through the terrible winter [of 1941-2], in air-raid shelters, in cellars. There had been 847 defences of dissertations in the first months of the war. In December  the Leningrad Party Committee warned the academic community “not to permit any liberalization in evaluating the work of students” just because of the war and its hardships. So the intellectual life of Leningrad went on….’ .
Estimates of the people who died during the 900 days vary
but at well over a million dwarf those for the current pandemic. Moreover, the
conditions in which those who survived had to exist – not only starvation but
also shelling and bombing, intense cold, and the risk of falling victim to
cannibals – in no sense provide a direct comparison to our current travails.
But such episodes can still reveal much about human behaviour and resilience
from which we can learn, as well as about the appropriateness or otherwise of
likening the fight against the coronavirus to a war.
And one comparison can lead to another. Within a decade of the siege of Leningrad being lifted the Soviet leader Stalin was dead, and the search for a new normal for the country was being sought. His eventual successor, Nikita Khrushchev, wanted to ease the restrictiveness of the Stalinist regime but feared the consequences of relaxing restrictions too quickly and too much. As he put it, he was ‘afraid the thaw might unleash a flood, which we wouldn’t be able to control and which could drown us’ . Once again, the land of Stalin’s secret police and Gulag camps and our own more limited restrictions on movement and association are not directly comparable, but there may nevertheless be some food for thought in considering the challenges faced not only in maintaining restrictions but also in managing their relaxation. Khrushchev was indeed ousted from power in 1964, but survived long enough to write his memoirs. He is also remembered for his unconventional means of gaining people’s attention . But that is another story.
Harrison E. Salisbury, The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad, London: Pan Books, 2000, p.496.
Quoted in Stephen Cohen, Rethinking the Soviet Experience, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, p.111
Roy Underhill, Khrushchev’s Shoe and other ways to captivate audiences from one to one thousand, Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 2000.
What has happened to us all? Coronavirus is a health issue, yes, but there’s something about such a crisis that brings out the pessimist, the optimist, the conspiracy theorist, the journalist, the judge, the social media influencer, the feminist, the radical revolutionary – even the yoga pro, pastry chef and the wannabe broadcaster in us. It can also bring out the resentful, the angry, the fearful and the blamer in us. It brings out the doomsday in us. Can we break free from ‘it’s the Chinese trying to take over the world’ / plague sent by God / the end is nigh? Yes, I believe we can, and as social scientists, I think sometimes we are sometimes well-positioned to help cut through looming, dark dystopia. Such sentiments are also telling us something – people have a lot to say right now, and we perhaps have a responsibility to hear and record it.
In March, I recorded a podcast with my colleague and friend, PhD
researcher on digital intimacy and sex work, Eva Duncanson, because we were due
to deliver two lectures together. These were cancelled due to the sudden
outbreak and then came a lightbulb moment (that I wish had occurred much
earlier on in my PhD so I could spend less time stressing and more time writing
the damn thing): in a crisis, I don’t have to produce things that are perfect.
Wow – who knew? It took a pandemic for me to realise that under stress and
change, something is better than nothing. So in 48 hours, we mashed the
lectures together into a podcast, decided to put it up on Youtube, spent a
couple of hours swearing and then it was uploaded.
When the Edinburgh Decameron website was about to be published, I was
asked: ‘How did you come to have the idea for the podcasts and how did you make
the podcast happen?’ Well, with my newfound attitude of ‘imperfection is always
better than nothing’ (I am hellbent on making this last) the Difficult
Conversations podcast was born following on from my podcast with Eva. Firstly,
I enjoyed it so much that I thought ‘why end it here?’. Secondly, when the
pandemic broke out, I had moments where I felt like nothing else really
mattered in social science research except crisis: climate change, why Trump is
Trump, and COVID-19. I pondered about submitting an ethics application to do
some formal research on sociological approaches to COVID-19 but I knew there would
be others better resourced than a self-funded PhD student like me working two
to three jobs at any one time. Plus, with such a workload, I didn’t want to
chain myself to writing a coronavirus thesis on top of my PhD and the other
research work I do. I didn’t want the isolation of writing, the head-spinning
document corrections, the slowness of writing a paper. I craved for something
that brought people together, got us talking, let off steam from the crisis,
allowed for both laughing and seriousness, and got content out fast.
This approach was hugely complemented by the ‘it’s either imperfect and
finished or perfect and unfinished’ attitude I learnt early on in the pandemic
when I just couldn’t find the right online birthday gifts for friends and
family and I never got further than item one on my to-do list because my
workload increased so much from the pandemic (teaching, working in gender-based
violence, looking after people). At first, I was worried that I couldn’t
release anything until I had a professional microphone, 25 audio editing
tutorials under my belt, and a graphics qualification. I then remembered that
we were in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic, with limited stocks, slow
deliveries, fast-moving policy, people at risk and people literally dying. I
put the perfectionism down and decided that a rough-around-the-edges approach
was exactly what I needed to re-learn and what the world needed to expect at
It’s punk rock academia, that’s what I’m convincing myself: me, three
days in the same leggings, my dipping Wifi connection, my cereal-bowl covered
desk and my laptop. We’re going to create a podcast series together. That’s
right. In the words of my next door neighbour “Well, pirate radio changed the
world”. Yes, I thought. Pirate radio station operators weren’t concerned with
capitalist productivity and shiny studios.
Completing this picture is an Argos microphone – which, by the way, was one of the few brands not out of stock. I am currently imagining how many Dads have bagged such microphones and are currently in their garages living their dreams and ticking through the pandemic by DJ-ing their favourite 60’s playlist to three listeners. It fills my heart with joy.
I kept my philosophy in sight: forget perfection, just produce content
that matters. Record what’s going on, and get people talking. During this
pandemic, I learnt that I’ve had a gendered and subconscious belief for years
that I just cannot understand technology. I don’t like it and it doesn’t like
me. It was a load of rubbish – everyone, absolutely everyone, is always in
Since it began the podcast series has covered sex work, feminist
approaches to COVID-19, single mums, the higher education strikes, supermarket
workers, and pandemic financial difficulty. I recruit guests through
colleagues, friends, social media. It has amazed me how people are feeling such
immense pressure and stress but are still willing to share, connect and donate
their time. Some people I’ve found, have felt desperate to be heard during the
silences of the lockdown.
This week, I’m releasing one on gender-based violence and coronavirus,
and one with newly qualified nurses. Coming up, we have episodes on whether
there will be a financial crash after the pandemic, the psychology of lockdown,
and on death and grief with some ‘death positivity’ activists. I am also hoping
to do an episode looking at sociological approaches to conspiracy theories. It
is a time for us to listen as well as talk, to understand rather than laugh or
judge, to observe rather than over-analyse. This is what the podcast is aiming
to do and what I think our wider role as sociologists needs to return to more
often. It aims to find a balanced, calm, serious – but at the same time,
informal and light-hearted – approach to the crisis. I want it to contribute to
academic material that isn’t just focused on the production of knowledge. I
want to help, in my own, tiny way, to cut through some of the panic and
hyper-anxiety and help bring shreds of reflection and clarity whilst also
lifting the voices of those that need to be heard right now. It is a panicked
time, yes, but where we can find our own small corners to do so, we can find
ways to connect with ourselves and others and choose not to live in constant
It goes without saying that COVID-19 is only partially a health crisis.
In my recent article on
women and the virus, I talk in-depth about how it is a political, economic, social,
institutional and gendered crisis. The podcast wants to cover the
less-represented angles of all this. What is happening to sex workers right
now? What do supermarket workers think when they’re off shift? How does
lockdown shine a light on patriarchy? How can we bear the grief this time
brings? I want it to bring something a bit more human than a paper would have
allowed me to do. I’m also recording short readings from some of my favourite
books on the podcast – it’s cheesy, but what better time to go on a personal
journey? I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow to me or anyone I know or
love, so I want to share some of the writers and subject matters that have
shaped who I am.
I have learnt a lot about myself whilst being in four walls for a few
weeks. One of the biggest learnings is that life can whizz by me when I’m
working multiple jobs and unfortunately I don’t get much time and space to go
‘yeah. That thing you did – that was great’. The most surprising thing is the
self-realisation that has come from the project. I have learnt I am
resourceful, resilient, compassionate, forgiving, and could be way less hard on
myself. I hope I can continue on that upwards trajectory of not shedding my self-doubt.
I wish that for you, too.
It is the late 1340s and a pandemic – the Black Death, the bubonic
plague – is raging. Increased numbers of people are dying day on day, no one
knows how to stop it, friends and family shun each other, the ordinary sense of
time and space and social connectedness is dislocated. A group of acquaintances,
seven women and three men, come together, deciding to isolate themselves from
the city for a two-week quarantine period and to do so in a thoughtful and
mindful way. They gather together for the lockdown period. And they tell each
other stories, the stories of their times – 10 days, 10 people, 100 stories.
This is the setting for Boccaccio’s The
Even people who don’t know anything much about The Decameron [the hundred stories] beyond
its title have often heard of ‘patient Griselda’, a folklore figure, as well as
appearing in this book. Griselda is a woman who bears no anger or resentment,
no matter how ill-treated she is by the pig of a man she is married to; and she
appears in the last of its stories, the tenth story told on the tenth day. However,
from the (symbolic) names of its ten storytelling characters, through to the
time and place of the stories they tell, there is little about the contents of The Decameron that can be taken
straightforwardly at face value.
The final story is that of patient Griselda, but it is impossible
to think that the book’s seven feisty women storytellers would have been
anything other than impatient and annoyed with such a misogynistic idea of what
a perfect woman would be like – thought of on the surface Griselda is a bully’s
wet dream, and in her case the bully-husband is the Marquis of Saluzzo while
she was a peasant by birth. In our present pandemic times, the figural ‘she’ here
has a particular resonance, given the vast increase in domestic violence that
is being recorded in current lockdown circumstances in many different parts of
the world. So why does the book close with this, at the point where the
assembled ten storytellers are about to return to Florence and the plague? What
point are readers are expected to take from it?
All the ten last stories in The
Decameron are about good and bad behaviour in sexual, marital and other relationships,
so it is possible to read it as the swinish husband being a way of heaping praise
on the more than perfect conduct of Griselda, a goody two-shoes if ever there
was one, indeed so perfectly forgiving as to be quite impossible. But while it
is preceded by nine other good conduct stories, it is immediately followed by an
epilogue which provides another way of understanding it. In the ‘Author’s
conclusion’, Boccaccio steps forth and directly addresses the reader, which the
authorial ‘he’ does earlier in the book too. He says that these are stories of
the times, they deal with things that happen although they may infringe how
things are spoken and written about in more ordinary circumstances (with this
directed most to the bawdy sexual content of a number of them), that ‘the
ladies’ who he is addressing should take from them the lessons they want, and
that his intentions as an author are signalled in the ‘sign on its brow’ over
each of the stories. This is the summary or abstract that proceeds each of the
hundred stories. In the case of patient Griselda, the ‘sign on its brow’ is in
effect entirely about the husband and his ill-conduct. His misogyny is defeated
in the end by her perfections, she is celebrated as the heroine of hour, she
enters glory in the city of Saluzzo.
But what of now? A Griselda for our time is not a textual device for pointing up and ‘rescuing’ the ill-behaviour of men. A Griselda for our time is a very, very impatient woman. She views the upturn in domestic violence towards women as appalling. She notes that the vast majority of frontline care work in the present pandemic is being done by badly paid women. For impatient Griselda there is no return to the city, she probably heads for a domestic violence refuge somewhere – or perhaps she becomes a care worker.
As in many places, the small village of Warton turns out on Thursday nights at 8 PM, to clap the NHS and care workers. I recorded the 23 April great clap – it’s a two minute MP3 recording of a quite extraordinary thing, because almost everybody in the village turns out and the sound echoes all round. It’s the only time we see anyone not from our own households now, the only time we talk. And the age range is phenomenal, from three months old to a month short of 90. Two minutes of togetherness apart.