Note to self

Collage, 30 May

I’ve been writing diaries on and off since I was about seven years old. Lately, it’s been more ‘on’ than ever. 

Not just because, under lockdown, there’s fewer distractions of people to meet or places to be, but also because recording stuff feels important right now.

Countless photographers, writers, artists agree – and so do social historians. I feel somehow happier knowing that they’re gathering people’s experiences of living through Covid-19 – for example in this project from the Young Foundation, or this one from London’s Museum of the Home. Universities, archives and historical societies around the world are doing the same, inviting details of the “deeply personal, political, or mundane“, as the US-based ‘Journal of the Plague Year’ project puts it. Ordinary lives in extraordinary times.

Because, for all that one’s individual experience may feel no more remarkable than the next person’s, this really is big. One day soon, it will either seem incredible that people wore gloves and masks to go grocery shopping – or it will seem incredible that there was once a time with no precautions at all. What was it like for the generation that knew a Before and After? What did our political leaders tell us back then? What was it like for those who lived day after day through that rollercoaster of fear and uncertainty? What can our experience – what we longed for, what kept us going, what we learned about injustice and inequality – tell future generations?

India says keep a diary bw
Don’t just take my word for it; Sunday Times columnist India Knight said it first (26 April)

For some, capturing these answers is important because it helps inform policies in the short term. Women’s equality charity Fawcett Society, for instance, has been gathering input from its ‘Coronavirus Diarists’ on their experience of lockdown and isolation, to inform its campaigning (if you weren’t yet aware, the virus is a disaster for feminism). In other cases, pandemic journal entries will find their place within a much longer-term narrative: like at the Mass Observation Project at the University of Sussex, which has been running since 1981, and for ten years has collected citizens’ diary entries every 12 May, for “research, teaching and learning”. This year’s edition will surely stand out.

Diaries may be just as valuable for their own authors. We so easily forget the details; just think how two people’s recollections of a mutual experience years ago can be so different. Much sooner than you’d imagine, you forget how you felt, what preoccupied you, what worried you most – as I’ve found whenever rereading my own scrawled notebooks from younger years. Keeping a diary, as New Humanist puts it, is a simple “insurance policy against the failure of memory“.

There’s another good reason to record these times. Days and weeks start to feel the same (if you’re lucky enough, that is, to be having an uneventful time). But things are changing, bit by bit. Each day the way we feel about and react to the danger and the unknowns evolves, shaped by every snippet of news, every conversation with friends, every passing of time. When, in future, the months have melted together, pinpointing those many small shifts might help us mark time. 

200504_09.09 park bench
Off limits. Or is it? (4 May)

The artist and author Austin Kleon says he keeps a diary because it helps him “pay attention” to his life. “I can then go back and pay attention to what I pay attention to”, he writes, “discover my own patterns, and know myself better”.

These days I try to pay more attention to the outside world, through an archive of unremarkable photos I’ve taken of the changing cityscape – things like the newly-worded warning signs on park benches. Or of formerly small things that these days are very large, like a new walking route discovered or a freezer filled with freshly-delivered bread. I record these, I think, in the hope of feeling less powerless and passive: as new, confusing rules and extreme lifestyle changes are foisted upon us, I will at least notice them, and remember them. I will, at least, not drift into a new way of living without marking its arrival.

There will be an enormous archive of news headlines to chronicle this era, from the ridiculous or surreal, to the mind-blowingly tragic. But our own, personal telling – whatever form it takes – matters just as much.