4 entries (click on the titles to navigate, or scroll down to read all four):
- ‘The healing power of pets’, by Rina Arya
- ‘What happens when the churches close their doors? Virtual cloisters and monastic outreach’, by Richard Irvine
- ‘Savile Row Scrubs’, by Joshua Bluteau
- ‘Going Online: The Pandemic Meetings of a Russophone Book Club’, by Angelos Theocharis
1. The healing power of pets
Author: Rina Arya is Professor of Visual Culture and Theory at the University of Huddersfield.
Field site: Rina Arya’s research takes place from her home in Cheshire and also in interactions with the animal charities she works for and the members of the public who express an interest in adoption.
‘Social distancing’ is the phrase that is used to designate the safe distance that individuals are meant to take with each other to ensure mutual safety. The use of ‘social’ is misleading however, as the phenomenon in question should more accurately be described with the replacement ‘physical’ instead, which means something quite different. The most positive way of responding to social distancing is to acknowledge that, whilst physical presence has a particular irreplaceable value for humans, there are ways to combat social isolation. These require thinking flexibly and creatively.
Online responses (principally on social media) to social isolation report various findings. The initial shock of the regular lives of individuals being subverted in lockdown and the unpredictability that ensued gave way to a move towards self-improvement. Platforms advertising new skills promoted that there was no better time for improving one’s productivity and that one way of achieving this was by gaining a new skill. A new hobby, whether learning a musical instrument or new language, seemed for a short while a helpful way of coping with the upheaval of normal life and the sadness that resulted from the lack of physical contact with friends and family. But this spur soon subsided in recognition that morale was low and that people were under duress and needed to muster the energy to conserve their basic routines.
One interesting finding that has emerged from online platforms and the author’s own voluntary work as an animal fosterer for local charities in the UK was that people were discussing the therapeutic value of their pets. This resulted in a surge of the sharing of pictures and anecdotes about pets on social media platforms. The simple activity of dog walking took on a powerful social charge. Often an activity that was slotted into ordinary life pre-pandemic as something that needed to be gotten out of the way now became a tangible way to maintain health and wellbeing. The tentativeness of people leaving the home-as-refuge was eased by the lack of perturbation that dogs feel when taken for a walk. In the new alien landscape, the natural bounding vivacity of dogs is a reminder of the spontaneous. A friend separated from family meets up with her twin sister, who lives in a neighbouring town, with the purpose of dividing dog walking and joint care of Bonny the labrador. The friend, having felt increasingly isolated, benefited greatly from being able to care for her sister’s dog every other week. This, she told me, has been a practical measure to avoid loneliness and to have a directed purpose every day that took her out of herself.
The benefits of pets to the lives of individuals and families has also been responsible for people thinking about adopting an animal. Just days before lockdown the author was contacted by a member of the public who was interested in an older cat that she had been fostering. The caller explained her concern. Pre-empting her parents’ imminent isolation following the news that vulnerable groups in society were to isolate themselves, the caller decided that the company of a new and friendly cat would help her parents make this adjustment. Ordinary procedures, such as viewing the potential pet and the mandatory home-check, were done virtually instead. The appearance of the cat mattered less than the video evidence that he was indeed friendly, sociable and well-adapted. He was adopted the very next day and swiftly settled into his quiet environment. As an older cat who had to be relinquished by his previous owner, the placement with two adults who wanted nothing more than to fuss him confirmed this perfect match.
Following this episode, rehoming was closed whilst lockdown took hold. But no sooner had the go-ahead been giving for rehoming then interest was shown by a family of six in another foster cat residing with the author. They had wanted to give a home to a pet for a while and decided that now was the optimum time given that the children were off school and the parents working from home. They looked forward to the prospect of showering attention and affection on a pet in need of a forever home. It would serve a number of mutually beneficial purposes and provided a focus for family time. The addition of cat trees and a scratching post, as well as other necessities, conveyed the adaptations carried out to the home environment and a new space for shared interaction. Amidst this environment of change, it’s heartening to appreciate the enduring significance that pets have for British family life. Not only were the pets in each of these cases able to provide solace and joy to their new owners, but these testing times provided the opportunity for people to provide permanent homes for these animals in foster care.
A few reflections come to mind. In all cases noted above all, the interested adopters were experienced cat owners and sought cats who were well socialised and affectionate. The appearance of the cat mattered less than its perceived behaviour. The family of six had been waiting for some time until they found the right pet for their family but the drastic change of having to socially isolate caused them to reassess their plans, and they believed that now was the right time to introduce a pet into their family. The children had struggled with the disruption of having to be homeschooled and missed socialising with friends. Their parents, no longer having childcare and having to adjust to the challenges of working from home, believed that the cat would provide a focus of attention and a point of bonding for the family. They cited that it would enable children to learn responsibility and the care of animals, practical knowledge that went beyond curricula, and also the physical pleasure of tactility. These gains were regarded as vital in the current climate.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are the author’s own and not those of the charities she works for.
2. What happens when the churches close their doors? Virtual cloisters and monastic outreach
Author: Richard Irvine, Lecturer in the Department of Social Anthropology, University of St Andrews, and Honorary Research Fellow, Department of Religious Studies, Open University. You can contact him at email@example.com.
Fieldsite: While I am on lockdown in Scotland, I took the opportunity to connect online and on the phone with my friends in Downside Abbey, a community of Catholic monks in South West England currently expanding their outreach via social media.
On 20th March, the Catholic church in England and Wales suspended all public church services as part of the effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. While it was hoped at first that churches might remain open for private prayer, by the following week this too was deemed impossible in the wake of the UK lockdown measures.
For the monks of Downside Abbey, an English Benedictine community where I carried out my PhD research, these announcements were uncharted territory. The sense of “weirdness” has been a constant refrain in the monks’ attempts to articulate life since they were required to shut their doors; an “odd feeling” emanating from the intense consciousness of absence due to the emptiness of the church and of the monastery’s guest wing. (Given that Chapter 53 of Rule of St Benedict, which the monks live by, states that a monastery is “never without guests”, and indeed that guests are to be welcomed “as Christ”, such emptiness is indeed a gap in the organisation of Benedictine monastic life.) One of the monks described the new meaning which a particular element within the Liturgy had taken on: most services in the Liturgy of the Hours – the occasions of prayer that structure the monastic day – end with the prayer and response “May God’s help be with us always”; “And with our absent brethren. Amen.” Usually, this is understood as a reference to other monks in the community who are elsewhere for whatever reason; but in the context of lockdown, the reference to ‘absent brethren’ calls to mind all the people who cannot be there, or indeed in any church, and instead must stay at home.
There was also concern for how troubling the closure of the churches must be to Catholic laypeople, and in particular, those in the parishes the monks serve and those who come to the Abbey Church. Given the centrality of weekly Communion in Catholic Life, the inability to attend Mass on Sunday is accompanied by a sense of loss; for this reason, the most immediate public response from the monks to the circumstances aimed to reassure Catholics that they would not be incurring sin through their inability to attend Mass at this time. In addition, the monks provided advice (including links to web resources) on how to keep active in prayer, how to follow the readings of the services, and to participate remotely, for example by watching Mass live-streamed from churches – although the monastery did not itself have the capacity to live stream services itself due to a lack of wifi in the Abbey Church.
Crucially, there was recognition of the painfulness of isolation. Given the role of the church as a point of social connection to others, the loss of this opportunity for people to come together could be a source of loneliness, and indeed a danger to mental health. Indeed, a central lesson that the monks took from their own life as Benedictines was that separation from the world without the structure of community life and social contact was dangerous. For this reason, as one of the monks explained in a youtube video, it is “important first of all to think of social distancing as physical distancing”. Now, more than ever, we shouldn’t be distancing ourselves socially, but finding ways to connect. This is because “we are social creatures” – it’s just that that sociality now needs “a different format”.
The monastery has had a social media presence since 2015, when they joined Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, primarily using these platforms to share a weekly link to the homily from Sunday Mass, as well as occasional news. However, the instruction to close the churches, and the UK-wide lockdown, led to a conscious decision by the community to step up their social media activity and to increase the quantity and range of the material available.
Firstly, daily recordings of the Mass have been made available on Soundcloud and linked from the various social media accounts, along with more occasional recordings of other services in the monks’ Liturgy of the Hours. The decision to upload only some of the Liturgy of the Hours was made partly for the reason that there is a lot of repetition between services, but also so as not to overimpose the need for technological engagement on the community, and so the monk deploying the Tascam Recorder, editing the recordings on Audacity, etc., didn’t have too much to do in addition to his other jobs and duties. “In the end, it is a judgement call: what can we reasonably do? What will people want to hear?”
Some of the posts linking to these services highlight the benefits of the monks’ chanting for wellbeing (“Feeling a little bit stressed and suffering from cabin fever? Listen to the plainchant from today’s Mass”), and indeed I was told that one listener had thanked the monks and informed them he had made their recording of Compline (the final service of the time) his bedtime listening. Other posts from the monks acknowledge the reality that sometimes the chanting can go a bit awry (“The monks sound a bit ropey in this at times – such is life!”). What’s worth noting here is the way the community offers an opportunity to join with their prayer as though you were there in the Abbey Church – even if that means listening to mistakes occasionally. In this, there’s a sense of being part of the everyday routine of the community, “warts and all”, that accentuates the human connection. And sometimes, of course, the technology fails, as on Easter Morning: “The battery died during the Our Father and, unlike the Lord, would not resurrect, so the recording stops there.”
A key goal of the social media presence has been to find new ways of keeping in touch, giving parishioners and other people who might in different circumstances have come to the monastery a line of communication with the monks. In this, the monks have shifted between different media to find the approach that works; for example, an attempt to live stream a Q&A session failed to broadcast on Facebook, only for the monks to successfully switch it over to Instagram. Subsequently, a live Bible Study and a Healing Service were simultaneously broadcast on Youtube and Instagram (again, technical difficulties with the wifi led to them having to find a desktop computer with connectivity; you can hear the sound of the fan from the computer in the background – a humming, though not a particularly distracting one – suggesting it hasn’t been used in a little while).
The community have also used these platforms to put up resources for virtual visitors; especially ‘thoughts for the day’, explanations of the liturgy, and other videos. In many of these videos, the physical environment of the monastery is deliberately employed (for example using particular artwork from around the Abbey church; or setting up the video in the choir stalls, the sacristy, or the room where the Novices and Junior monks receive their lessons). These uses of the monastery environment serve not only as illustration for the videos, but also perform an important purpose in creating a sense of ‘being there’: involving people in place precisely at the time when they are excluded from it.
A central initiative here has been the idea of a ‘virtual retreat’. The monks usually host a large number of people for a retreat in the days leading up to Easter – the absence of these guests during this time of the liturgical year was particularly keenly felt. Yet the inability of people to travel to the monastery due to lockdown didn’t necessarily mean they couldn’t go on retreat. Indeed, the monks pointed out that they themselves make their annual retreat at home, which is precisely what everybody having to stay at home now has the opportunity to do. “If we can do it, so can you.” This virtual retreat consisted of a number of live streamed and recorded talks, recordings of chant and readings from the services, and an encouragement to share in prayer, treating the time we are forced to be at home as an opportunity to ‘be on retreat’ together.
Creating a connection through prayer
The monks’ key response to isolation has been in creating opportunities to help people pray together. For example, one initiative has been “Stay at Home Lectio”; lectio divina is the slow, prayerful reading of scripture, a form of contemplative practice which is part of the monks’ daily timetable, and “Stay at Home Lectio” encourages people to read the same biblical texts in this way together, potentially joining a Google Meet channel.
However, the primary means by which the community tries to create this sense of connection in prayer has been through the sharing of the liturgy. “It will be a different experience for all of us, but we hope we can feel united in prayer even at a distance.” Since the lockdown began, recordings of Mass from the Abbey Church have been uploaded onto Soundcloud every day. In addition, sharing (even partially) in the prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours, which forms the basis of the monks’ daily timetable, is encouraged as something which gives structure to time – “a way of dividing and consecrating the day” – while also “giving us a real sense of being connected with others because everyone is praying the same thing”.
Praying with and for one another is “the reminder that we’re not alone”. In particular, during this time of lockdown, the homilies and bidding prayers repeatedly stressed that we’re not alone even in times of suffering – even, poignantly, remembering in prayer those who may be dying on their own as a way of being alongside them. A central theme in the material shared via social media is the acknowledgement of physical absence, while at the same time recognising that this sense of separation is misleading as long as we remember that we’re united in prayer. This was clearly expressed in the Good Friday homily uploaded onto Soundcloud: “True, our churches are empty, but the Church, the people of God, are with us… They are with us in spirit, and in the bond of prayer, and within the communion of the whole Church.”
Yet, while such resources can help people to have a sense of this connection, it is important to note that they are not accessible to all. One of the monks explained to me that some of his most elderly parishioners do not have social media accounts or in some cases, the technical means to access them, and have difficulties with the interfaces for live streams. Given that these elderly parishioners can be among the most isolated and most reliant on the church for their sense of community, there is a danger not only that they have lost a focal point of real-life interaction, but may also now be feeling left out of the new means of communication; as a result, the monk who highlighted this problem to me is now spending more time than ever on the phone.
Experts in self-isolation?
Of course, the community are aware of the potential of social media to bring the materials they produce to whole new audiences. As one monk remarked, “the world is now our congregation… a somewhat terrifying thought”. In the current circumstances, it might be argued that monks have something particular to offer that a wider public could find valuable. Everyone has had to adapt to lockdown – but for monks, there is a sense that they have the benefit of having been trained for these kinds of circumstances; that they have a certain expertise in ‘social distancing’.
One of the goals of the monastery’s output has been to share some elements of this insight. “When people are at home and unable to leave when they like or to meet people, they start asking themselves, what do you do with all that time?” It is precisely here that the monks argue that the Rule of St Benedict has valuable lessons to teach. “It might be tempting to stay in bed all morning if you have nothing particular to get up for, or so it seems. But actually in the long run you’ll probably find that you feel much worse.” The pattern of monastic living is one of structured time, a structure which emphasises “the right amount of sleep, food, prayer, work” and moderation in all things – “try not to be obsessive, but do a bit of everything that is important”, and have regularity in doing it. (Significantly, one of the ‘thought for the day’ videos stresses the indispensable nature of recreation as part of this routine.)
Yet a key part of the Rule is its emphasis on community; as was explained to me, Benedictines “have a special charism of community living and tending to others”. This is crucial now: some families have to get used to being in close quarters all day when they are not used to it, “wives driven mad by having to be at home with their husbands”. In these contexts, the advice of the Rule in learning to have patience with the rest of your household may have value for all families. Meanwhile, the lockdown leaves many others on their own, and it is more important than ever to emphasise the need to structure our lives in ways that allow for social contact in spite of separation: “now these are times when we can do great things for others: a smile, a telephone call, a message”; keeping to the routine of meeting up for others for a coffee and a chat, even if it’s over zoom. Through this kind of advice, the monks attempt to draw from their own life and Rule lessons in the importance of community for self-isolators.
One talk uploaded onto Youtube, aiming to set out the relevance of the Rule of St Benedict in our current circumstances, highlights the word with which the Rule starts: “Listen.” As the monk recording the video explains, “as we live through these difficult days, we’re all being asked to listen with our hearts and show compassion towards our brothers and sisters in our home, and our neighbour.” As a response to isolation, listening is here presented as an active means of connection; listening to God; listening to those around us even if we are physically distanced from them, and even (as a different video suggests) listening to “the birds that maybe you couldn’t hear before because of all the traffic”.
3. Savile Row Scrubs
Author: Joshua Bluteau was formerly a Lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Manchester. He is currently conducting independent research. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fieldsite: UK – a community of tailors
As a digital anthropologist, I am fortunate in not seeing a great deal of change in terms of access to my fieldsite. However, the content which is being posted in response to the pandemic and the newly normal social isolation is a constantly evolving narrative.
In the past few weeks, amid the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak, there has been a huge response to the social isolation being experienced by the tailors, shirt makers and other members of London’s artisanal clothes-making community who feature prominently on my feed. My work with Instagram began a number of years ago as I embarked upon my PhD research and Instagram became my fieldsite. During the intervening years, I have continued to follow, interact with and live amongst a network of tailors and their clients who post frequent sartorially-related content to Instagram. Covid-19 has meant a disruption in working practices for many in the clothing industry. This has ranged from high street chains such as Oasis and Warehouse going into administration to the knock-on effect of lockdown and quarantine measures affecting not only retailers but their supply chains and workers in factories all over the world. The potential fallout from the cessation of purchasing fast fashion is therefore not only a substantial financial loss but also a huge human tragedy.
Savile Row in London however, is at the other end of this clothes-based spectrum. A stone’s throw from Oxford Street, but a million miles away in terms of their working practices. For many of the tailors who work for the houses on Savile Row, they have been able to take their work home with them, and pictures have been posted by both the tailors themselves, and the houses they work for, of their home setups, with kitchens, living rooms, attics and garages transformed into miniature cutting rooms and workshops to sew in.
Initially, these images appeared as responses to working from home, demonstrating to customers that their artisanally crafted garments were still being produced to the high standard which they demand, but these images soon began to show other responses to social Isolation such as more detailed posts about their current work, unrelated posts about their home life and the sewing of scrubs that they are volunteering their own time to create.
Beyond the personal images from specific tailor’s daily lives, pictures have also been posted of cloth donations arriving by the roll to Savile Row tailors including Cad & The Dandy, with the clothmakers responsible for the donations tagged and messages of support from clients being posted in response below. Numerous customers of these tailors have commented on how proud they are to be associated with the tailor.
Individual tailors’ thoughts about construction have also been a feature of posts. Conversations regarding how to stitch the labels into the scrubs are an example of this, with one tailor wanting to cross-stitch the label by hand as they would in a bespoke suit, but deciding to machine stitch it so it would better stand up to repeated washing. There is a real sense of an earnest desire to do what they can fuelling these conversations, with the intricacies of such decisions torn between practicality and a demonstration of their level of care and investment in the scrubs that are being made.
Other issues abound too, with messages such as “NHS HERO” and “You’ve got this” being embroidered into scrubs sewn by the tailors Montague Ede, and the simple message “Thank You NHS” printed on the labels of Huntsman’s scrubs.
While many tailors are contributing to the ongoing battle to get new scrubs produced and sent to the NHS, it is the Savile Row tailor Huntsman who are most digitally active in showing their followers the progress they are making. Having forged a collaboration with their neighbours Cad & The Dandy, and set up a crowdfunding platform on justgiving.com (which has so far raised in excess of £10,000), Huntman’s tailors can make 50 sets of scrubs in the time usually taken to make one bespoke suit. This is not all, as the tailors have developed a new way to cut and construct the scrubs making them more durable. This is not an isolated set of actions at the heart of the most exclusive street to shop at in the world but is part of a much wider set of digitally mediated interactions between, workers, customers, contributors and the NHS, which forges reciprocal ties through digital and literal gift giving.
The quality and production values of these scrubs are carefully detailed in the images posted charting their production, and such a level of care is part of this gifting, but is also tied to the more abstract notion of the made in England caché which features on the Huntsman labels, contributing to a patriotic endorsement of the NHS brand and perhaps raising a wry smile from workers that they are being attired in Savile Row Scrubs.
For a garment made by some of the most skilled tailors in the world, many of these sets of scrubs will not be laundered as hoped but will be seen as disposable and discarded accordingly. This then highlights the amorphous nature of the gift-giving in times of uncertainty and disempowerment, with control over a small aspect of one’s day to day life serving to invest in an imagined better future, or a future which has been shaped in some way by one’s actions. There are many examples of this occurring throughout the clothing industry as Covid-19 continues to advance, serving to highlight what a valuable creative and manufacturing industry the world of clothing production in the UK really is.
4. Going Online: The Pandemic Meetings of a Russophone Book Club
Author: Angelos Theocharis, PhD (cand) Russian Cultural Studies, The University of Edinburgh. You can contact Angelos at email@example.com.
Fieldsite: UK – Waterstones Russian Book Club (central London)
The Waterstones Russian Book Club (WRBC) is a Russophone book club, which meets on the first Monday of each month at the Waterstones Piccadilly in central London and reads exclusively contemporary Russian literature. The book club was founded in March 2017 as a community initiative, when the bookstore chain was still owned by the Russian oligarch Alexander Mamut. A year later, I started attending as an observant researcher its literary meetings as part of my ethnographic fieldwork for my thesis. Although there is a significant number of in-house or private Russian-speaking book clubs in Britain, the WRBC quickly rose to prominence as the largest club of its kind with over 1000 members today. The book club preserved an online presence mainly through its Facebook page, where the voting for next month’s book takes place and material from the gatherings is regularly posted.
Following the announcement of the lockdown in Britain on March 23, 2020, as a measure to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, the WRBC considered moving its meetings temporarily to the software platform Zoom and going online for the first time. Although I had already completed my fieldwork in London, I decided to resume it and explore the WRBC virtual meetings as supportive and affective spaces for migrants during a crisis. In a conversation I had with the book club moderator, she revealed to me her intention behind the ‘pandemic meetings’: “Well, many people go into depression, which is why I’m activating them through distraction”. In this short report, I aim to present my preliminary observations from five Zoom book club meetings that took place in April and May 2020.
The first meeting took place on Monday the 6th of April and it was attended by 23 members, all of them female. Usually, the book club attracts 22 to 30 members with males constituting 20% of the participants. The meeting kicked off with a relaxed introduction of the participants and an open invitation to pour a glass of wine and sit comfortably. The majority of the participants were the regular members of the book club, but I noticed that there were also attendees who joined the WRBC meeting for the first time. The moderator announced the rules of the meeting, most of which related to the functions and etiquette of Zoom (i.e. raise a hand, mute the microphone, and unmute only when someone is about to speak). As part of the introductory comments, a member expressed her deep satisfaction with the transition to online meetings since she lives in the outskirts of London and she would be unable to join the face to face gatherings. The book discussion followed the typical structure of the WRBC meetings with the moderator addressing a question inspired by the books and the members taking rounds answering them. Half an hour in the discussion, the writer of the meeting’s book, Sergei Lukyanenko joined them, surprising the WRBC members, who were unaware of the moderator’s communication with him. The discussion with the writer lasted almost 40 minutes and after his departure, the participants continued with the analysis of his book. The presence of a writer is always a highlight for book clubs, and, on this occasion, resembled a ‘treat’, a gift to the WRBC members. At the end of the meeting, a book club member showed a flower bouquet to the camera and said that she was offering it to the moderator as gratitude for all her work. The moderator thanked her and responded that she had bought some chocolate treats for the meeting, but being unable to offer them, allowed her children to consume them. The virtual gestures that mimicked those usually performed during the pre-pandemic gatherings enhanced the sense of familiarity and acted as expressions of attention and attentiveness in a reciprocal way between the moderator and the members.
The book club had planned to meet again two weeks later but the moderator collaborated with the Facebook group Мамы Лондона UK, a diasporic group for Russophone mothers in London, and organized a special meet-the-author event with the Russian writer Marina Stepnova on Friday the 17th of April. The event was the first case of a joint meeting with another Russophone community group and was attended by 47 participants. Due to the number of attendees, the moderator skipped the introductions and moved to the discussion with the writer. Stepnova was often interrupted by her little daughter and had to turn off the camera a few times when her daughter needed her outside the room. Although the writer apologized for her absences, the all-female audience seemed to be very understanding and it was even suggested to end the event earlier, recognizing that they were constantly facing the same issues themselves. The discussion had a more personal character than previous events with the writer talking about how death and family issues have influenced her writing and her career. I speculate that the condition of the gendered audience contributed to the creation of a safe space that allowed Stepnova to share personal information and connect with her readers on a more intimate level.
The planned meeting for Monday the 20th of April focused on Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Manaraga (2017) and was joined by 29 members, both regular and new. Among the pandemic meetings, it has been the only one not attended by the writer, which allowed the book discussion to unfold naturally. As expected, the participation in the book talk of new members influenced the group dynamics and in one case challenged the authority of the moderator. A participant from a peripheral diasporic book club asked repeatedly the moderator “What is your relationship with Sorokin and who chose the book of the month?”. The moderator responded “I did. We didn’t have the time to vote and I chose a book that would appeal to everyone, old and new members”. The new member didn’t engage further in this conversation and the moderator asked the book club “What will your memories be like in a year?”. One of the core members answered, “We have to survive first in order to remember”, and many participants seemed to empathize with her.
Having established the new norm of the weekly meetings, the WRBC gathered on the last Monday of April for an event with the London-based Russian writer Boris Akunin. Akunin, one of the most famous Russophone writers today, first conversed with the director Konstantin Kamenski about theatre and then received questions from the audience. The meet-the-author event joined 100 Russian speakers from Britain and other countries, such as Russia, Italy, Israel, and the U.S.A., an unprecedented number for the WRBC. Many more tried to log in, but Zoom had limited the participants to a hundred. In any case, the event was a highlight for the book club as a transnational community of readers for bringing together a tenth of its members with most of them participating actively for the first time. For this meeting a special ground rule was introduced by the moderator in order to coordinate the discussion with Akunin: every participant who wants to ask a question should either use the Zoom equivalent of ‘raise your hand’ or write their question on the chat. When someone’s turn comes, they should be able to ask it themselves turning on their webcams, otherwise, the moderator would move to the next one. In my view, this rule tackled the issue of participants raising a question and then disappearing. At the same time, it is often a commonplace in large online events that the audience remains inactive over-relying on the coordinator and the main presenters to lead the discussion.
The most recent pandemic meeting took place on Monday the 4th of May and it was dedicated to Marina Arzhilovskaya’s novel Bliki (2020). Arzhilovskaya, a young Russian journalist that recently started writing, joined the meeting but received very few questions from the 22 participants. When she left, the book discussion started. The majority of the WRBC members viewed the novel as lowbrow and therefore, rejected it. The moderator supported that the disruption caused by the pandemic offered a unique opportunity for experimentation with genres and formats of discussion. She asked the members “What kind of literature and which writers should a book club read?” initiating a discussion about the identity of the WRBC. Two members revealed that they are published writers, which allowed them to reintroduce themselves to the group and draw interest in their work. In the last part of the meeting, the members moved away from book talk and share their feelings about the lockdown. One member admitted that “We are all very tired by now. Restriction of freedom is very difficult”. Before leaving, the moderator collected the members’ suggestions for future meetings based on which authors could be available to participate in their events.
I will now summarise my preliminary observations about the pandemic WRBC meetings. First, the pandemic appears as an opportunity for the WRBC to activate its online members, to recruit new and to reconfigure its identity as a transnational reading community. The invitation of writers acts as a significant incentive for the participants to attend the meetings and to engage with the contemporary Russophone literary production. Zooming in on the club’s demographics, the Zoom meetings attract mostly the female members enhancing the gendered character of the book club. The WRBC women are loyal members even though the lockdown has limited significantly their personal time having to care for their children. They regard the meetings as supportive and affective spaces, where they can express in Russian their emotions and thoughts about the pandemic on a weekly basis, as well as distract themselves by reading and discussing novels.
Moreover, from the first meeting, I started observing how participants approached the ‘intrusion’ into their private lives caused by the use of webcams during the Zoom events. In the offline, face-to-face meetings, the WRBC members can control their public image by choosing how they perform their transnational identities verbally and non-verbally. The platform offers the choice to hide your background using some default wallpaper or creating your own. I noticed that an average 10% does not turn on their camera at all or only when they speak, while 20% of those who keep their webcams on, opts for wallpapers. Being able to look for the first time at the interior of the WRBC members’ households gives an insight into their transnational lives and identities. For example, some members choose to show their bookshelves as the background complementing visually their reading identity.
The book club members view the format of the pandemic meetings as a response and a temporary solution to the current disruption expecting to meet in person again in the coming months. In my opinion, the possibly impermanent transition to online meetings significantly enriches the diasporic community experience of the participants who are invited to engage intellectually with their fellow Russian speakers residing not only in London but in numerous places around the world.