By Paul Readman
It has become a truism to say that for many people, the experience of coronavirus has blurred the boundaries between work and home. My work moved indoors, parking itself on my kitchen table, periodically being driven off on to the sofa (or floor) at mealtimes, at the weekends and at moments of frustration. Stray ‘to-do’ lists are now encountered alongside the plates of pasta, provoking dyspepsia. In the grand scheme of the havoc wrought by COVID-19, it is a minor inconvenience, but still, it makes me uncomfortable.
Perhaps it shouldn’t do. I am an academic, and don’t academics work from home all the time? This is certainly the case with many of my colleagues. And isn’t this as it should be, a reflection of the interblending of our lives and our work? We scholars are always telling people that we never leave our work behind, that it is just something we do, that it is an integral part of who we are… etc., etc. For all that I think such claims are overstated, I suppose all this is true enough for me, too, but the effect of changing the place of my work has nevertheless been dislocating and disorienting.
It has also been disembodying. Or, to put it a different way, my experience of work has become increasingly alienated from my sensory perception of the physical world, and the landscape of that world. In recent months, my daily routine of meetings has not been punctuated by walks from building to building in and around King’s College London’s Strand campus, dodging buses on the Aldwych, occasionally getting drenched in untimely showers of rain. I haven’t been getting lost looking for seminar rooms in underground corridors; I haven’t decamped to a local coffee shop in an attempt to reboot my brain. I haven’t been to libraries to rummage in their stacks; I haven’t browsed on the shelves of Bloomsbury booksellers; indeed, I have scarcely used a physical paper-and-stitches-and-glue book at all, at least not for the purposes of research.
Instead, most of the time I’ve been staring at a screen, my sensory experience of work mediated by my computer, and the digital realm to which it gives access. Perhaps this doesn’t matter all that much, but it has made me think more about the relationship between the writing of history and the physical experience of the material world. In particular, it has made me think about how we know and understand the past through embodied encounters with landscape.
I’m not just thinking of landscape history in the tradition of Maurice Beresford or W.G. Hoskins, though of course it is relevant here. Indeed, I’m not really thinking of how the experience of landscape might help with the writing of landscape history. I have in mind, rather, the role played by the sensory experience of landscape in the writing of history in general—in the writing of any and all forms of history. This is the subject of my next book project, it is the reason for my involvement in this network, and it is a subject I will return in later blog posts.