From Samuel Pepys to Anne Frank, diaries have long offered unique perspectives into unprecedented times. So, what insight will the efforts of video diarists and vloggers of today offer to future historians of the COVID-19 pandemic?
The BFI National Archive’s #BritainOnLockdown project is building a map of how online video has reflected and at times influenced the UK’s COVID-19 experience. Working through submissions to the project has already offered us plenty of glimpses of how valuable these precious perspectives might be.
By the time of the prime minister’s “You Must Stay At Home” announcement, the steady ramping up of uncertainty and stress caused by the insidious creep of COVID-19 had left most us a jumble of nerves. The indefinite closure of schools hammered home the reality of the situation for those with children. The disappearance of any alternative childcare and the requirement to set up home-schooling routines, while all confined together within four walls, built on our already fragile states to create a heady brew of lockdown fractiousness.
Few films capture the strains of such times with as much honesty and humour as The Pandemic Diaries: Week 2 of Self Isolation, which was released on 5 April by Angharad Paull, the blogger behind This Bristol Brood. The adoption of her child’s tired and stroppy outburst as her own primal scream is both hilarious and therapeutic.
The unprecedented nature of the lockdown announcement was not just a moment of national significance but clearly also something that affected all of us personally. An opportunity for self-reflection and change. Influencer Cassandra Lokko’s video What Should I Be Doing During Lockdown?, from 6 April, is a beautifully considered and thoughtful expression of these feelings. In its honesty and integrity, Lokko’s stripped back piece of Monday motivation, delivered to camera during that precious daily outdoor exercise allocation, is evidence that the influence that people really crave, particularly in these times, is reassurance and good advice.
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James Corbin’s ‘Corbin Captures’ online profile has been built around his voluble and engaging presence, as he discusses celebrities, acts as an agony uncle, adjusts to student life, and interacts with a supporting cast of friends. His video of 25 March, Issa Lockdown UK, Let’s Get Essentials ASAP!, is quite different than his usual postings and has been far less seen. But his comfort with addressing the camera, and his openness with the vlogging form, make his personal account of preparing for lockdown while living alone such a valuable record. It’s also a very enjoyable watch.
Through her channel and podcast Little Drops of Wonderful, Ali in Kent is a vlogger who’s built an audience through a shared love of yarn, crochet and crafting. Yet her series of lockdown video diaries has revealed that there is so much more to her material that keeps her followers coming back. The everyday rituals of her family life in lockdown – fitting Joe Wicks workouts and home-schooling around the day job and crafting have become a vital slice of normality under extraordinary circumstances for her audience. Like binge-watching a favourite series for the umpteenth time or slow TV, this is meditative comfort viewing.
The strength of the connection has led to Ali being nominated for our Britain on Lockdown project more than anybody else. While most online video viewing is marked by the peaks and troughs of viral trends, a remarkably consist viewership of some 3000 returned daily for their dose of Little Drops.
Fantastically, Ali has donated all her ad revenue for the lockdown series to charity. Though the regularity of her diary series has been phased down through lockdown easing, her 17/18 June episode perfectly captures the bizarre nervousness of undertaking such a seemingly everyday experience as a visit to the post office after months of seclusion.
When the historians and sociologists of the future do come to evaluate the experience of lockdown life, social media will offer clear evidence of the best and worst of our times. But in the online video that survives they will hopefully appreciate the eruptions of resilience, creativity and humour that have been a frequent blessing while viewing material for our Britain in Lockdown project. Even in the bleakest of times, barriers to the freedoms that were once taken for granted have become bridges to new forms of creativity and new voices within them.
Take Nia, a Brit aboard in her Paris flat. Her lockdown video diaries have proved quite unlike anything else submitted, mixing high-concept ideas with lo-fi charm in a continuing series of ridiculousness and resilience. I leave you with Day 36 of her Paris lockdown vlog, which involves time travel, alternate realities and a gun that looks suspiciously like a hoover attachment.
With thanks to Angharad, Cassandra, James, Ali and Nia.