Since March 2020, I and many of the other denizens of East Oxford have become intimately acquainted with the trees of Aston’s Eyot, a former rubbish tip on the banks of the Isis on what once used to be the wrong side of Magdalen Bridge. Owned by Christ Church, the Eyot has in recent decades flourished as a woodland and water meadow; now only old shards of broken porcelain and the occasional clay pipe betray its former Victorian indignity.
The trees were just coming into blossom when the prime minister declared the first Covid-19 lockdown. Determined to make the most of my daily exercise allowance, I soon became a committed frequenter of the Eyot, turning off the Iffley Road at Greyfriars, and pacing out my 10,000 steps as the weeks and months passed. Cherries, wild apples and hawthorns all burst into their pinks and whites, to be followed by bright then darker greens as time marched on.
Autumn russets and golds came in turn, then the “bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang”: the Bard’s metaphor in “Sonnet 73”, lamenting the destruction of English monastic life. I have spent five seasons observing those trees, and am on now on my second spring. The storms at the end of April stripped much of the blossom from their branches; the snowdrops and daffodils at their feet have given way to bluebells and lily of the valley.
Pace the writer of the “Song of Songs”; pace Newman, too: “the winter is now past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers have appeared in our land.” With them, and with the lengthening days, has come the hope that the worst of the pandemic is over (at least at home) and that a return to normality may well be imminent. It can hardly come soon enough, but with its approach comes also an inevitable reflection on the trials and tribulations of more than a year under imposed discipline.
In my own little corner of the vineyard it is difficult not to view the ordeal through the lens of my work as honorary secretary of the Catholic Record Society (CRS). Founded in 1904 to promote the study of post-Reformation Catholicism in England and Wales, 12 decades later its trustees have been working doggedly to keep the various works of the CRS going during the pandemic – not least its flagship journal, British Catholic History, published by Cambridge University Press.
This has not been without its challenges, of course. To abandon our physical meetings as the guests of the Jesuits in Mayfair, and the invariably congenial trips to the Punchbowl afterwards, was hard; to have to cancel our annual conference, at which world-renowned scholars rub shoulders and share table fellowship year by year with callow graduate students, was heartbreaking. Nevertheless, we deciphered the intricacies of Zoom, and soon became adept. Such new skills came to the fore at the AGM, which was the shortest in living memory; now we are gearing up for an international conference, all of it online.
The experience of one institution has no doubt been replicated elsewhere; perhaps it has been most obviously evident in the response of the Church. Modern technology, properly harnessed, has turned out to be a friend after all. The CRS has been able to reconnect with members across the world, previously prevented by distance from attending its gatherings; perhaps we have also done our bit, small as it is, to re-engage the housebound with the world beyond the physical limitations of their frailty.
Similar lessons have surely been learned by any organisation that has been forced to reflect on its means of proceeding by the stark reality of a situation that was unthinkable only 18 months ago. To channel John Donne and Thomas Merton: no man is an island, and we all need human company from time to time. Nevertheless, perhaps one of the blessings of the coronavirus exigencies has been the discovery of new ways of living out the Incarnation, which extend the bounds of community and belonging far beyond mere physical proximity.
The CRS’s motto is Colligite fragmenta ne pereant – “gather up the fragments that none be lost”– from the Feeding of the 5,000, in John 6. Its pertinence to a society committed to historical research is obvious, but it might well also serve a broader purpose as different bodies prepare to resume their usual face-to-face activities. As for me: I am once more looking forward to early evenings at the Punchbowl, the company of old friends, and pints of proper ale.