"Last term, during the first pandemic lockdown, when everyone was widely dispersed across the country and internationally, Wadham historians, art historians and artists created an email exchange – to maintain community, to reflect on history, and to exchange thoughts in words and images about the experience we were living through. This conversation began as a response to a sense of loss and disorientation.
"Lockdown meant different things to different people. There were manifold forms of anxiety, as we all moved into unfamiliar territory. But it was clear that what was felt in common was the sudden rupture with college and university life. This meant sadness and regret for everyone – and particularly for those final-year students deprived of the chance to spend a last term with friends, in the place where those friendships had been forged. Yet it was equally clear that guilt and uncertainty were attached to the expression of that emotion, in such a globally catastrophic context of personal loss and bereavement. We all found ourselves lurching from regrets about the ordinary, habitual things which we were prevented from doing - to remorse at letting apparently trivial feelings surface – to struggling to retain a sensibility to the individual human tragedies within the rising tide of statistics - to profound concern about huge existential questions which we found it impossible to get a handle on. We really struggled to keep the microcosmic and the macrocosmic in a productive interrelationship. The development of the online conversation helped that process in permitting – indeed encouraging - different registers of emotional expression. It validated the everydayness of the languages of friendship, at the same time as it offered discursive space within which to test out ways of thinking about the state of the world, for which the language barely yet seemed to exist. Being able to move from one register to the other itself reinforced emotional connection and trust – just as the letters to and from Wells did.
"Wells and his correspondents dwelt on the significance of the college maintaining its framework and its integrity as the world around was exploding in self-destruction. This framework was in part bound up in a continuity of physical place – the garden acting as a microcosm of the college in reviving the spirits of the man on leave in 1916. But, just as gardens are endlessly renewed over time, the college as a whole is a dynamic entity. Its integrity is bound up in the maintenance of that energy. In that respect, whilst sentiment focuses on moments frozen in time, return is never to exactly the same place – but rather to a history held in common. History carries with it a commitment to understanding the past in its own terms, but always in conversation with the present and in recognition of the implications of that conversation for the future. It builds on emotional connection as a driver of change.
"This term has already felt strange, as the place we think of as familiar is in so many respects unfamiliar. And yet an impressive level of solidarity and care have been manifested to maintain what is recognized to be fundamental about community. As we go into a second lockdown, the strains will increase. This crisis is especially emotionally challenging in part as there is no obvious trajectory: nobody knows when it will end, so it is hard to pace ourselves and to envisage how to cope. But, with an eye to our history and in an active and emotionally engaged spirit of remembrance, we can think about our part in the future.
"The Indian writer Arundhati Roy* expressed this beautifully in a powerfully felt piece written this past spring:
'Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality’, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.'
"As we remember those young men from this college who died fighting in two world wars, let us not think of that as a detached past. We need to embed that memory and that emotional connection in our own determination to conceive and fight for a better world."
Jane Garnett, Fellow and Tutor in Modern History