Summer breaks

It’s nineteen weeks into remote working, and now it’s also summertime. Two weeks ago – while the last blog was being published – I took ten day’s leave. At short notice, my wife had booked us a rental cottage on the edge of Exmoor, which turned out to have no Wi-Fi and no phone signal, so my break from the routine of emails, zoom meetings and screens was necessarily complete for a week. Away from the technology I realised just how intense these long screen days are. Everyone needs a break. Whether you choose to spend it at home or to travel, everyone needs to switch off and to recharge batteries – isn’t the technology-inflected language we use there quite revealing?

Going on holiday in these unusual times turns out to have been a more curious experience than we might have expected. English Heritage and National Trust properties require an advance-booked fixed time slot for a visit – difficult with no Wi-Fi or phone signal, but even so, getting away from a regimented diary was one of the reasons for the break. Popping in to cafes, restaurants or pubs is not enormously tempting, and many were still closed. So our week was one of walking, cycling – we’d taken our bikes with us – and lots of reading. That turned out to be just what was needed: a slower pace, lots of looking around us and hours of reading.

There’s something almost decadent about being able to finish one book and then to start another immediately. My holiday reading included fiction and non-fiction, and I’ll list it all here in case you are looking for your own summer reading.   The novels I read were Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage, which is a powerful study of the consequences of an appalling miscarriage of justice for a young black couple in the United States, Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, a modern take on the story of a wicked step-mother, Matthew Kneale’s Pilgrims, a beautifully imagined modern account of a diverse group of thirteenth century pilgrims on their way to Rome – with a thoroughly contemporary take on bigotry, and Andrew Taylor’s The Fire Court, a twist-and-turn whodunnit set in post-Great Fire 1660s London. I took a pile of non-fiction too, and read Zachary Carter’s The Price of Peace, a biography of the economist J M Keynes and, more of the post-war and 1980s fate of Keynesianism, Jan Morris’s Sultan in Oman, about the first land crossing of the Arabian peninsula, and – perhaps the most telling and memorable of all – Philippe Sands recent book The Ratline, an engrossing account, essentially, of a modern German family’s attempt (or not) to come to terms with the actions of a Nazi father and his attempts to flee after 1945.

We cycled Devon lanes under – to be honest – mostly cloudy skies and were able to walk what were still largely empty footpaths. I came back relaxed and refreshed – which is not to say that getting back into the zoom routine hasn’t been a challenge in itself. I needed the break – over a hundred days of working from dawn to beyond dusk in one room is pretty draining, and I know that we all face a demanding few months ahead: we have a busy Clearing and Adjustment process to navigate which will be perhaps the most competitive we’ve ever seen. We have work to do to make sure that we are ready for Autumn delivery of our courses, including the challenge of settling thousands of new students into a quite different way of working and using the campus. There are still questions to be settled about our next academic year budget. There remain uncertainties about the way the city and nation will navigate our emergence from lockdown into a new normal. There’s still work to do to reshape our procedures and practices to accommodate different ways of working and to build on the things we have learnt in lockdown. And there is an increasingly turbulent policy and funding landscape to navigate. I know this is demanding for me, and it will be for everyone else too.

We all relax in different ways; my way of spending a week may not be to your taste – we are all different. But getting away from work is an important ingredient in everyone’s well-being. However you are planning to spend your break this summer, make sure that you rest, relax and recuperate.

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