In a sealed room, somewhere within the bowels of the earth, a woman named Vashti is lecturing to her unseen listeners.
She’s been lecturing from underground most of her life – ‘the clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms…’
While lecturing, she turns on her isolation switch; when she finishes she turns it off again, and immediately all the accumulations of the last three minutes burst upon her … what was the new food like? Could she recommend it … etc.’
She speaks to her son, Kuno, via The Machine, temporarily emerging from isolation; to her dismay, he has a request: “I want to see you not through The Machine … I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine …” Vashti cannot contemplate a journey through the surface of the earth, which she describes as “only dust and mud”. She emphasises the dangers of such an expedition; “you would need a respirator … or the air will kill you …”
Although, I hasten to add, I haven’t been sealed in an underground chamber here at Fell Towers, there’s something uncannily resonant about this description of virtual teaching in lockdown. Vashti and Kuno and their disturbing world were magicked into being by the great E. M. Forster as long ago as 1909. In that faraway Edwardian world, the novelist more famous for his precisely satirical portrayals of the hypocrisies and emotional paralysis of the English upper middle classes, somehow appeared to foretell not only lockdown, but also computers, Facebook and Instagram. If anything could increase my admiration for this wonderful writer, this can.
Since the college campus closed to students for the second time in mid-December, my days have followed a pattern familiar from the long months of the long lockdown of 2020. I wake up later than usual, head downstairs to my grandfather’s old desk, turn on the laptop, open up Microsoft teams, and prepare to spend a day talking to a blank screen. The lively, animated young people with whom I’m fortunate to spend my working life have temporarily disappeared, sentenced to listen to me chuntering on at them from a screen. I have to admit that the very fact that I’m doing it at all is miraculous; on our first lockdown, nearly a year ago, my classes were clearly sceptical that I’d have the ability to operate Microsoft Teams and grasp its mysteries. Somehow, despite my Luddite tendencies, I have. I have an additional advantage over Vashti, as despite the limitations of our Machine, the young minds of west Cornwall remain communicative, reflective, challenging; they are indomitable, and they will return. Although I cannot see them, I know they’re there – they’ll take the mic, and they’ll contribute their insights via chat, effortlessly adapting to a technology which I suppose has come of age as they have. And I’m so impressed by their engagement and understanding, perhaps even more so than usual. In a creative writing session this morning I was honoured with such original and thoughtful phrasing in a description of a cold day, the sun is described as ‘pushing its way through … like tin trickling out of ore.’ More lyrically, ‘Birds sing the melody of winter’. Alert to changing moods, another wrote of a girl ‘Using her finger, she slowly traces the shape of a face into the condensation forming on the glass, two eyes and an exaggerated frown. As if the universe could hear her inner misery …’
Perhaps typing encourages a greater freedom of self-expression than trying to articulate it orally in public? Never in my experience has literature become more immediately alive, and reflective of the young people engaging with it. Holding familiar texts up to unfamiliar lights enables the refraction of new, poignant colours. Coleridge’s poem This Lime Tree Bower My Prison explores the frustration of the poet, grumpily confined by an injured leg to his Exmoor garden, imagining the epiphanic vistas opening up to his friends as they ramble over familiar paths without him, and we have all to some extent been him, immured within our homes, left to imagine another freer, external world. The Ancient Mariner, adrift upon his penitential oceans, has rarely enjoyed so much company – like him, we have all felt ‘Alone, alone, all, all alone, Alone on a wide wide sea!’ At times the need for each other’s company has trumped all other requirements; students turn on their cameras, chat, introduce beloved pets and family members. ‘I’d forgotten how good it was just to talk’ is a not unusual response, and it’s impossible not to feel their pain. The two years of college, in England the bridge between school and university, is a time of discovery; of one’s friends, one’s voice, one’s nascent adult identity. But for much of the last year, young people have been confined within the family, unable to have new experiences, to make new friends. And yet while one clock is frozen, apparently interminably, another advances inexorably; university applications have been made and offers received; and yet this moment of transition has never felt more fraught with the difficulties of the unknown. ‘How will I feel about living away from home?’ is a perennial question for 18-year-olds, but which has now acquired a new piquancy, and to its siren voice has been added the counterpoints of ‘Will I get any teaching? Is it going to be worth the money? Should I bother with university at all?’ I can only begin to imagine the countless pedagogic research projects which, over the next few years, will dissect this strange period of our lives.
Back to Forster. Vashti completes her lecture, and sits back, awaiting audience reaction. There is none. There is only silence, and Vashti knows that is it; the machine is stopping, and it is the end of the world. Unable to face the horrors of direct experience, she dies. As we emerge blinking into our own countryside, our towns and our cities, we can relish our own direct experience. Never again will we take for granted the mundane pleasures of expressing ourselves through the thousands of social interactions of which a day is composed. Except perhaps on a rainy Thursday morning in February. Forster’s famous phrase in Howards End is ‘Only Connect’, and thankfully, and thanks to the machine, and however imperfectly, we do.
Volume 35 no 4 March – April 2021