My PhD work is about utopia and its related concepts. One of which, a dystopian time of unknown duration has now begun, and so can’t go without mention here in what might well end up being field notes for an eventual thesis. Written from within what might turn out to be the long now of a pandemic.
Some immediate context then. I began thinking about this contrast between utopian study and dystopian reality while ‘walking to work’ this morning. Now so many of us are working at home this short walking has become part of my new daily rhythm. Very early each day and before returning home to start work, the walk gets me up and going, then gets me to turn up at the page and start working, this page in today’s case.
Up to now on each day of this week I’ve walked round what I call ‘the small block’ from our house. A short half mile or so. But today my feet and instincts took me on the longer block I call ‘Penny Lane and Greenbank.’ Past ‘Bean There’ for a take-away, independent-supporting, morning coffee, up and down the railway hill of Penny Lane, and into Greenbank Park for a sit and a think. Which is when I started to think about dystopia, what’s happening and what’s normal anyway?
So far in my university reading I’ve been finding that dystopian novels can be more interesting and useful than utopian ones. Utopian stories tending to be pleasant travels round ideal places seen through the eyes of an impressed visitor (like ‘News From Nowhere’ and ‘Looking Backward’ if you’ve read them). Whereas dystopian novels are more likely to be seen through the eyes of someone struggling to live in or escape from a place or situation (like ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ or ‘1984’), and so feel more sharply observed, more instructive maybe and, as I said, more interesting. All suggesting that this PhD studying of mine can’t ignore the ‘more interesting’ and ‘sharply observed’ dystopia of our own lives, as they are now.
Now being dominated by the virus without an antidote, that’s caused a pandemic, that’s arrived in our place, in Liverpool. Not with its ‘might not be too bad’ symptoms or expected deaths yet, but bringing us this time of epidemiology as popular culture, of flattening the quantitative curve of infection, as the going-out to meet friends society closes down. And the time may come, as I do fully expect it will, when we’ll have the luxury of analysing all this, its causes and its implications, but it’s not now.
Now is the unknowing.
The time of how dangerous is this and who mostly for? Like who’s got an ‘existing health condition’ as it’s getting called and does my asthma count? Have we got enough food and what’s enough anyway? And is the not knowing why some people are being so greedy? And also, and maybe, mightn’t this be a good opportunity for me to settle down at home and get loads written? Then again the writing’s not come easy these last few days has it, in a completely changed context? Though these worries are flowing freely I notice. But might the worries subside in intensity and be more like normal worries soon? But how can they when so many others are so worried? So many friends in their small businesses? In the gig economy? Pretty much all the people I love? How will we all get through this? Reassuring each other it’ll all be all right and trying, maybe too hard, to carry on as normal? As if we’re still driven by what now feel like other people’s meaningless priorities, and we’re not now, are we? In this new normal where nothing’s normal anyway. In all of this unknowing.
And I could write more. Because even while I’m thinking and writing, and with Radio 3 coming quietly through my headphones on a spring morning, there’s that other symphony rumbling steadily underneath the radio’s beauty. It’s called ‘The Unknown’ and as far as I know all those words above these are only its opening movement.
Anyway, I didn’t write anything down while I was in Greenbank Park, just thought of most of this. Then I sent a few reassuring messages to friends and walked back along Penny Lane to home. Meeting one friend on the way doing the morning mopping outside her café. She’s ok, I’m ok, and we stood well back from each other while saying so. Being physically but not socially isolated from each other, the mantra of the moment.
Arriving home some reading happened, because I like reading, and then I got my morning thoughts written down, which calmed me even more than the morning’s walk. The writing with a pen on paper and the recognising of some of what I’ve written here as work anyway, but of a new kind. Part of the work of now, the new rhythm of now where work’s not the main priority anyway. And recognising that this might be the first of what turns out to be a series of these reflections called ‘Field notes from dystopian moments, thought about while walking to work.’ Who knows?
But I think the walking to work’s a good idea. Even if work’s not the main priority any more.
More university writing at Field Notes for Utopia.