It’s a year as a nation since we officially went into lockdown – and a lot appears to have changed for us all. We are perhaps more reflective about who we are and what matters to us as we start to move out of this period and life starts to resemble a more normal shape. Research will be published, lessons will be learned, stories will be told, narratives will be created and enquiries will happen.
However, one thing I can be sure of, as a sociologist, working-class woman and academic, is that research and those narratives and stories and eventually the official enquiries will be organised, authored, influenced and shaped by the people, institutions and voices that always get to tell the stories and shape the narratives – those who are in positions of power, tow the official line, have access to formal sources of funding and are sanctioned by our middle-class institutions. Marginalised voices, and the experiences of working-class people will be ‘spoken about’ and told through the lens of statisticians, official researchers, journalists within a media bubble and politicians who will use the experiences of working-class people during the pandemic for whatever political gain they can tease out.
As we went into lockdown a year ago, I thought forward to this point and knew that these working-class stories of this unprecedented time needed to be told, and needed to be looked after. So I decided to try and collect them myself. Thinking initially that this might develop into an academic project, I obtained ethical clearance from my institution and wrote a report containing all the usual formalities about where I might publish this research. After all, that’s what really important, isn’t it: to be published in five-star peer-reviewed journals?
I put a call out through social media and among people and communities I had worked with previously, asking for working-class people to send me anything they thought of as a diary of their first 28 days of lockdown. I was sent photographs, traditional diary entries, doodles, rants, screenshots of media articles and more by 37 working-class people who trusted me with their experiences of this strange and frightening time.
As an ethnographer, I am accustomed to the research field and spending time in communities collecting stories and artefacts, but the honesty, the depth and the emotion that came through from those diaries shocked me, hitting me in waves as I started to read them. People who had written to me were speaking to me on a completely different level to previous research I had done. I was unprepared for the emotion I would feel.
Over the year, I have dutifully followed out academic procedures, applying for small pots of money from research institutions to continue the research and have it published. But it seems that these working-class stories have not been of interest to research institutions. In truth, though, I am thankful for this lack of interest, as it has allowed me to think deeply about how I want these experiences and stories to be told. The one-dimensional peer-reviewed academic journal is in fact the wrong place. By the time the emotion and the humour had been stripped out and replaced by dense academic prose, there would be nothing left of those working-class voices.
The lockdown diaries that were so generously shared with me will instead be published as a graphic novel, allowing the richness of those lives to burst out of the pages with the passion and intention with which they were written. Graphic novels, zines, cartoons and doodles have a long history in the working-class struggle. The Black Panther movement used graphic novels to tell their stories as a way of being inclusive to all, regardless of academic ability. The British working class have always used image and humour as ways to resist and to be resilient.
I am working with the one-man band anarchist publisher Itchy Monkey Press and a small team of working-class creatives working with me to make sure these stories are true to those that have written them, and I am funding this through a Kickstarter fundraising campaign. I want to push the boundaries of how research is handled and disseminated. The stories and narratives of working-class people are not treated well by the academic factory. If we ‘do it ourselves’, we can at least have some influence over who tells our stories.
If you’d like to contribute to this project, please donate via the Kickstarter website here: Lockdown Diaries of the Working Class (UK) by Tony Colville
Lisa McKenzie is a research fellow at the University of Durham whose work relates to class inequality, social justice, and British working class culture.
Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain by Lisa Mckenzie is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £13.59.
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Image credit: Social Commontating @commontator, telling part of a woman’s story whose grandaughter cycled past every day during the pandemic shouting ‘don’t die’.