Yesterday two books arrived in my letter box. One is titled ‘On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century’, the other is a lovely Green Moleskine academic year diary.
Yes, academics (which I am, in part) have different years and different diaries to everyone else, and we might be the only profession to do so – I haven’t checked all the others? So, our year ends and begins in what most people call summer holiday time.
For much of my life I didn’t own a diary because I didn’t have a profession or even a job, nor any or many social engagements. When I finally found a job I could hold-down, that I liked, that felt like ‘me’ and not like some unbearable, unsustainable and thankless burden, I was forty years old. I started to realise, with some degree of panic that most people my age had started their lives and careers 20 years earlier while I had been drifting, falling, flailing around and failing all that time, and not earning a cent either.
Still, I didn’t own anything and was relatively free compared to those contemporaries who had left school with qualifications, done a degree in their 20s, found a job, a partner, a home etc. etc.
I can recall a strong feeling, a kind of thrill, the first time, in my job as an arts lecturer, that myself and my colleague finished off a long and tiring assessment process and went to the college bar for a drink and a wind-down chat. It might not sound much to others, but it was a hugely symbolic moment to me where and when I suddenly felt part of something and that my contributions were valuable and valued. I felt for the first time like a professional person.
My teaching was immediately popular, and I was full of energy and enthusiasm for this role that I now realised I’d been looking for all my life. I was oozing with ideas to share with students, soo many of which I’d worked through and thought about in my long wilderness years, but had never had anyone to share them with before.
I started being asked to do more teaching, bits here and there and at various colleges. I realised I needed a diary. This was again a symbolic moment and a symbolic object, and ever since then I have made the moment of starting a new diary for a new academic year a special moment of pride and a reminder of all the years when I wasn’t ‘in demand’ and had no structure to my year or to my life – no profession.
At times, I’ve even come to fetishise my diary and for a while owned a fancy, bulky Filofax into which I could just insert and refresh the diary section each year. Then I started just using the cheap basic one that my college admin office handed-out at the end of the summer term. This year, of course, everything is online, virtual and distanced and so I had to buy my own.
So, I went online shopping and got seduced by the Green Moleskine academic diary that arrived yesterday. I’m strangely excited about it and really want to show it off.
Another thing I should say about the diary is that it is full of hope, in that it contains dates going all the way up to December 2021. This implies then that I will be employed and working all that time, when, of course, with the perilous and fragile state of the world, a lot of people, including academics, don’t know for sure if their/our employment will remain intact, remain the same, remain capable of sustaining them/us.
I also know that one day I might not need a diary again. That I will retire and/or be no-longer wanted or required by the colleges and the students. But this year I have a diary and have a role and a job and am as proud and excited about that as the first time it happened.
Of course, before finishing, I should mention the other book that arrived, ‘On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century‘, which you might say is less hopeful than my diary. It’s by Timothy Snyder and I can recommend it.
It’s nicely designed and edited to be read in a few hours. It’s also quite terrifying and makes clear just what a dangerous time this is in the world politically. But it does its best to motivate the reader to behave in the best and most constructive way possible, faced with all the many examples of tyranny and near-tyranny and potential tyranny in our world at this moment.
There’s little in the way of hopes and horizons when I listen to the news. Perhaps it’s always like this, but things do seem particularly bleak at the moment. We can’t understand why, when ‘ordinary people’ can be so beautiful, simple, warm and friendly, and when human beings can achieve such amazing things, why is it that, it seems, the most brutal and stupid aspects of humanity seem to rise to positions of power and rule over us and spoil our world?
Perhaps we all just need to carve out our own hope, to look forwards in our own ways, and to create the future we want, even if it is only in tiny personal ways that each make some tiny personal difference to the whole. It’s worth reading Snyder’s book at the moment. It brings the reality into sharp, frightening focus, and reminds us that we all have to act to change the world and create more hope.