Sharing things

Sharing things from 2020: Stuff that helped us through part 2

December 24, 2020 The University of Edinburgh Season 3 Episode 11
Sharing things
Sharing things from 2020: Stuff that helped us through part 2
Show Notes Transcript

Welcome to a very special edition of Sharing things. Rather than our usual conversation, we decided to ask past guests about their most memorable objects of 2020. What helped? What will they remember? What made a difference? What did they hold on to as other things fell away? Part two features Christine De Luca, David Gray, Richenda Rae, Rachel Weiss, Jenny Culbertson, Anne Miller, Prince Chakanyuka and Ellen Blunsdon.

There will be more past guests and more 2020 objects in part two. Join us then, or check out the Sharing things back catalogue and get to know our community through objects that were important before this year.

Each episode of Sharing things is a conversation between two members of our university community. It could be a student, a member of staff or a graduate, the only thing they have in common at the beginning is Edinburgh. We start with an object. A special, treasured or significant item that we have asked each guest to bring to the conversation. What happens next is sometimes funny, sometimes moving and always unexpected.

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[Theme music]

Kate  0:05  
Welcome to a very special edition of Sharing things. I'm Kate, a 2018 graduate and your brand new host for 2021 - but before we welcome the new year, we have to say goodbye to the old one - and it's complicated. So rather than our usual conversation, we decided to ask past guests about their most memorable objects of 2020. What helped? What will they remember? What made a difference? What did they hold on to as other things fell away?

[Theme music] 

Christine  0:42  
My meaningful object of 2020 would have to be not a photograph of family reunions, or the technology that I have ceaselessly used to keep in touch, but my unremarkable, comfortable trainers. 

Kate  0:55  
This is Christine De Luca, poet and writer from Shetland.

Christine  1:00  
I've always enjoyed walking, but somehow during lockdown, that one allowed daily exercise slot became almost sacramental. I don't have a dog that demands exercise, nor is my husband interested in a walk. But my trusty trainers beckoned me daily during all the versions and levels of lockdown. They didn't say now, they said when you're ready, or when you've had enough of inside, or how about when that shower passes? They were the perfect companion, willing to walk further, happy to stop and stare, quiet and companionable. I just had to slip into them and suddenly I felt energised, encouraged to savour local walks that I had always taken for granted. Sitting near the door, they became a symbol of relative freedom in what sometimes could feel like incarceration. Having been given the dispensation for limited exercise, I found my appetite for a local walk heightened. The various walks I took in and around the Newington area where I live, were all enjoyable, but my favourite one was in the grounds of the University of Edinburgh's Pollock Halls. For one thing, it was all but deserted. I would often have it almost to myself. I gradually came to the conclusion that it was compact enough to develop familiarity, but big enough to allow for various permutations of a satisfying walk. I also concluded that the planting was a perfect balance of the formal and the informal. Early on during lockdown, the spring weather was more often than not sunny and dry. The gardens were still in immaculate condition. I'd be stopped in my tracks around Salisbury green by the smell of narcissi, or light falling on a patch of almost hidden forget-me-nots. Or by the shy droop of the snakes head fritillaries, mauve and white jokers hiding among the grass and fading daffodils. Walking down from the main entrance, left of the reception centre was a glorious mauve planting dominated by the architectural heads of giant allium, monstrous pom-poms on sticks. And then my eye would stray to a rather exotic looking bush laden with yellow bells, masquerading as blossom. Not being particularly knowledgeable about plants, I often had to look them up when I got home. And there were plenty of alcoves and quiet corners for contemplation. One I visited daily was a delicate cherry tree planted in memory of a young student. It seemed a perfect memorial, a beautiful young life, but sadly brief. And a sign of hope when daily news bulletins were necessarily grim. As spring opened out, the magnolia started to dominate. Dense foliage, white with licks of pink, it's difficult to compete with magnolias for sheer blowsiness. Walking on by Holland House, there was a spectacular colonnade of white bark trees, possibly Himalayan Birch. I loved them particularly in their stark leaflessness, casting equally arresting shadows on the lawns. But then I'd see a small patch of scarlet tulips against the spreading tree with a bright tan-coloured bark and would want to linger. Birds too were nesting, chinking in and out of hedging. I liked to wait to see when they would reappear. My trainers never objected to any of these interruptions. As the season progressed, nature started to take over the grounds. And though in some places it started to look a bit overgrown, there was still spectacular summer plantings to enjoy near Ewing and Baird. Red hot pokers and tiger lilies determined to outstrip the hedges. Sunny sways of lavender, absolutely covered in bumblebees. I'm glad the grounds are now full of students, well, trying their best to abide by the rules of social distancing and bubbles. But during a large part of the year, I spent many happy hours there, appreciating all the work which the groundsman and gardeners do. What a huge privilege it must be to live among its understated beauty and grace. Solace, I found a-plenty and inspiration for living, even for writing. I would often leave the house with an unresolved piece of narrative or line of a poem I was working on, only to find that after my walk, the solution was staring me in the face. And when I took off my trainers, they never said, now get on with the work. Another thing which made them the ideal companion for a difficult year. Here's one such poem. Just a sketch of the empty car parks of the Commonwealth Pool, en route of course, to Pollock Halls. The Daily Ration. In the bare car park, a father is teaching his son to unicycle. The little boy is all aflap, trying his balance on the air. Soon he is winging it, engrossed and delighted, pedalling, then catching the ball, throwing it back. The father can speed up, slow down, backpedal, scoop up the ball, like a polo player. Tomorrow, the child will do likewise. Meanwhile, his sister is perfecting her keepie-uppies, counting into herself, enthralled. Happy to tolerate a younger brother, unfazed by a father in shorts without his usual tie. They teeter, but do not fall, time to pedal forwards, wordless back into their world.

Unknown Speaker  7:35  
[The click of a Zippo lighter]

David  7:44  
To anyone of a certain age, that sound is likely instantly familiar.

Kate  7:49  
This is David Gray, Knowledge and Learning Coordinator at the World Bank and President of the Edinburgh University Alumni Club of Washington DC.

David  7:57  
It is of course the sound of a Zippo lighter, being flipped open and lit. The strangely satisfying heft of the metal, the click of the lid, the lazy rasp of the wheel being spun with the thumb, always the thumb, and the appearance of the lazy blue-yellow flame. And of course, the warm sweet smell of burning lighter fluid wafting up. To many of us, it is a sound associated with simpler times. To that blissful stretch of life between say 17 and 27, when everything seemed possible. It's a sound of freedom, at least it was in the days when we equated smoking cigarettes, or having campfires with being cool and independent from our parents, from institutions and for the most part, from worry. For me, the Zippo has special significance as it binds me in a very real way to my grandfather. Walter Thompson was a gentle man with a past. He'd run away to sea in his teens, escaping an abusive home and the poverty of Buckhaven and Fife. He saw the world during the war years, Dunkirk, torpedoes and a lot of death as he served as part of the Merchant Marine. It amazed me that he came home so mellow, so seemingly untroubled and so loving, and caring of his young grandchild and we bonded from the day I was born. From that time on I remember his Zippo, how he would pass it to me when it wasn't being used to light an unbroken chain of unfiltered Navy-cut cigarettes. I would open the worn brown leather pouch, and flip open the lid, turn the wheel and watch the blue flame. It was very much like him, well travelled, dependable, confident, knowing its history, but not being held back by it. Why do I come to this now during pandemic lockdown? Well, like many people with an unexpected windfall of time on my hands, I've been revisiting the family tree, scanning in old photographs before they're lost to time. Maybe it's the greater sense of mortality that comes with a virus. Or maybe it's just the thoughts that come to you when you take an enforced year to catch your breath. Anyway, there have been many pictures of Walter, or Wat as everyone called him and I've been taken back to those early years. In August, my wife and I took a camping trip to upstate Pennsylvania, just south of the New York border, a closed border as it happened. On heading into the nearest town, Bradford, for milk and bread, what did we see? You guessed it. The Zippo factory, the only one in the world. You can only imagine the amount of time and money I spent in the gift shop and the joy it was to light the campfire that night. So I find myself carrying my Zippo lighter around these days. Not because I smoke or stand on the windswept deck of a ship or drive a Harley or a Chevy convertible round route 66, but because it reminds me to stop, take a breath, and to take in my surroundings, to remember where and who I come from.

Richenda  10:43  
So when I was looking, I think my eye was instantly drawn to the one thing that was really getting me out of my flat, which is-- it's my road bike.

Kate  10:51  
This is Richenda Rae, final year medical student and 2020 Sharing things host.

Richenda  10:57  
I call it Claud because it's an old Claud Butler road bike from I think maybe the 90s or the noughties, you can definitely tell it's that old, just with the amount of times it's broken down or needed fixes throughout this year just to keep it going. And I think yeah, it was the thing that really I relied on in 2020. From the start of the year, when everything was normal and you couldn't have expected the world to look like this, to the depths of lockdown where you could only really do one food shop a week. So how was I meant to realistically do a food shop without having to go out to the sort of outskirts of the city to the supermarkets, because it's really hard to shop in the small supermarkets that are quite close to the student bits if you're wanting to do a full week shop. And I think I took joy in that, I really liked going out. I think that was kind of the cornerstone of my week at certain points, suddenly the bit that was sort of keeping me in check about knowing what week it was and what day it was. But also like when restrictions were lifted, I think I still relied on it, like that was my way to commute to and from uni to get back from strange A&E shift finish times when I didn't know how else to get back if the buses weren't really going as often as I'd have liked. And then I think beyond that, beyond being something to rely on, it was definitely something that I found exciting, that expanded my horizons in a year where they could definitely have been diminished. It was the way that I could go out to the beach for a swim, to go to the hills that I can see from the window at my desk and just explore the world and have joy in the fact that you could plan a route on a map and then see it come to life in 3D around you and get to explore the world at a different pace, faster than walking. And really get to just feel excited about exploring again, and getting confident and seeing what everything could be when there's not as many barriers around you. And I think it's definitely the object that I'm going to take with me year on year, I'm going to keep cycling as much as I have and just go on sort of longer adventures and see where further years will take me.

Rachel  13:05  
So here's where I work and spend a lot of my time, so my little elephants there. There's a computer screen with my day job and voluntary work.

Kate  13:17  
This is Rachel Weiss, partner at Rowan Consultancy and the founder of Menopause Cafe. Her object is a wall plaque that hangs next to her desk.

Rachel  13:25  
A few other things that keep me going, coffee, water, essential. But what I wanted to show you is over here so it's tucked away behind the computer screen. It's this thing hanging on the wall there. First of all it makes me smile because my lovely sister gave it to me, so you know, when you look at a gift, I don't know about you, I remember the person who gave it to me and that is my little sister who I love. And she got it from the Iona Abbey shop and I'm a member of the Iona community, so-- and I love going to spend time on Iona. So I feel a bit wistful because I don't know when I'll get there again. But that's another reason that I like this, whatever you call it, hanging thing. But let's look at what's actually on it. So to me that looks like a tree and like a cross. And a tree for me is a great symbol of hope. You know, every autumn it loses its leaves, it looks like it's dead over winter and then wow, in spring, new life every year. And that for me is a symbol of resilience and hope and boy am I looking forward to spring this year. Once we get through this long, hard winter. So I like that It reminds me that life is full of pain and pleasure. You know, there are seasons to life and this might be a tough season but there will be better seasons to come. The other thing, some of the symbolism is that it's kind of rooted in the mundane earth but reaches up to the heavens, that's a bit more spiritual. So it reminds me kind of that even the most mundane stuff like the washing up or some aspects of work, even they can be significant or spiritual, that might sound a bit over the top. But it was Thích Nhất Hạnh, the Buddhist, said that someone offered to wash up and he said-- when they visited him, he said you can do the washing up, but only if you promise to do it mindfully. So I try and remember that even the most mundane tasks, if we do them in a good frame of mind can be good. And trees were worshipped in the Bronze Age apparently lots, from I think Palestine to Ireland and associated with worship of the Triple Moon Goddess, the Maiden, Mother, Crone. And my work for Menopause Cafe, I end up talking quite a bit and I've been thinking about how women are represented. And that stage of Crone, that older, wiser woman, not really valued much in the West, I must say we don't tend to celebrate the older wiser woman. So tree worship is linked to the Triple Moon Goddess. The tree signifies hope for me, reminds me of my sister, reminds me of Iona. And clearly it's a cross as well. And for me, since my Christian faith is important to me, that's good. And that also reminds me of how suffering can be transformed into hope, and redemption. So hidden away, on the side, out of my vision most of the time or peripheral vision, while I'm focused on the blooming screen, has been a real solace through lockdown.

Jenny  16:39  
Well, they're not objects, but things that are really important to me in 2020.

Kate  16:43  
This is Jenny Culbertson, Director of the Centre for Language Evolution at the University of Edinburgh.

Jenny  16:50  
They're not objects and that's maybe not that surprising, because I think if, if this strange year has taught us anything, it's that life's not really about objects, per se. It's, it's really about people and experiences. So I'm going to sneak in two for, for you today. So the first and I'll represent her by an object is a little tiny baby ankle tag. So in August this year, I had a baby. And it was an amazing experience, a crazy experience. And my life is obviously totally different from what it was when you last heard from me. But it's made it a really, really incredibly special year. So it's also been tough. I'm away from my family, they're in the US. They haven't met her yet, Ada is her name, Ada. And that's, that's been really hard, but we want to keep everybody safe so that's what we have to do. But yeah, like I said, it's, it's really made this year something, something incredibly special, even though it's a strange one. And the second thing I want to tell you about is just a little bit of an update. So if you listened to my episode of Sharing things, you will have heard about Patrick, who is a student looking to come and do his PhD in Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. Patrick is coming from Tharaka, an area that's close to Nairobi and Kenya. He comes from a totally different background than many of the students at Edinburgh, but he was really excited. And I was trying to get him a scholarship to come and study with us. And I'm happy to report that Patrick has gotten a scholarship and he got his visa recently, which I was super nervous about, because it's a crazy process. But he's got it and he'll be here at the beginning of January to start what I hope is going to be a really incredible journey. And I know everybody here is going to make him feel welcome, even though I'm sure there's going to be challenges along the way. But I'm really excited for him and for us. So those are the things that have made 2020 really special to me.

Anne  18:55  
My object is a USB microphone, which I have chosen because it represents the ways in which my industry has adapted to working in these strange, strange circumstances we found ourselves in, in 2020.

Kate  19:08  
This is Anne Miller, writer and QI Assistant Producer. 

Anne  19:12  
Living through an uneasy, strange time is disconcerting, and I've been really admiring how much people have been trying to adapt and carry on in these strange times. So I thought I'd tell you a little bit about what it was like from my corner of the industry as we adapted to work in a world that no one could have seen coming. I produce a Radio Four show called The Museum of Curiosity, and we were due to make our new series in early summer 2020. Now normally we record in the BBC Radio Theatre, which is a beautiful building in the BBC headquarters in the centre of London, and we always have a full studio audience. So when we started talking about this programme, there wasn't a lockdown, it was business as usual. And when lockdown was called in March, we didn't really know what it was going to be like in the summer. So we basically had a three strand approach. One was this would all blow over quickly and we'd be carrying on as normal. That unfortunately did not happen but hopefully for next year. The second was that it will be a fully locked down, people in their houses, no interacting, lockdown version. And the third was somewhere in between, we thought perhaps it would be relaxed a bit by summer, perhaps we'd have an audience, a smaller one and socially distanced, but something along those lines. And what actually happened in the end was we decided to keep everything online to keep it as safe as possible. And we made a whole series from our living rooms [laughs]. We used Zoom, so all the panellists and our hosts could see each other and we had a brilliant sound designer called David Thomas, who managed the audio, and he did such a good job, it genuinely sounds like they're all in the same room. And at one point, I was worried we might get complaints about breaking social distancing, because they were all together, but they weren't, they were in separate buildings in various parts of the country. And they weren't just in one country, because we were online, we were able to have guests from all over the world. We had Hannah Gadsby joining us from Australia, we had Dr. Eugenia Cheng and Supernanny, Jo Frost joining us from America. And it really opened up our guest options because people didn't have to physically be in the radio theatre. The premise of the show is that our host Professor of Ignorance, John Lloyd, and his comedian curator - we had Alice Levine for this series - are joined by a panel of three experts who are choosing an object to donate to our vast imaginary museum, and they're presenting it before an auditorium packed full of an audience. Now, we couldn't have an audience, so what we did was we tweaked the show, and the idea was that John, Alice and their guests were going to be recording live from various parts of the museum. And because the museum is imaginary, we were only really limited by our imaginations of where we could take people. So we began quite straightforwardly, where they were having a picnic on the lawn, and you could hear birds and butterflies flying by-- past in the background. We did one on top of the museum roof, we had a lot of wind sound effects, and we did one I really liked, where we put them in the museum lift with some music playing and then got  them trapped in there for the full recording. One of my favourite bits of behind the scenes details from this series was one of our guests chose tardigrades as her donation, which are these tiny, tiny, tiny water bears and we wanted to do a joke about them being stood on because they're so tiny, but being okay, not actually damaging the imaginary creatures. So our sound designer David, he made this crunch effect. And when we asked him if he happened to already have had squashed tardigrade in his sound library, he said no. And he actually made that sound by testing out different bits of his cereal and standing on it to get the sound we needed. So there's a lot of fun ways to play with the tech. And even as we were making that series, things were continuing to evolve. I think the first time I saw a virtual audience was a recording of The Infinite Monkey Cage, and this was a way of bringing in an audience who weren't in the room to guests who were again, located all over the world. And it's happening with quite a lot of shows now, including TV shows, so QI is being recorded with a virtual audience over the summer, and it means that your panel can hear people laughing and sort of react to what's happening. But it also means crucially, that you can come to recordings even if you don't live particularly near the studios. So the BBC studios and tours Twitter feed is a really good place for finding out what's coming up, and who's got recordings and things that you can come and watch from the comfort of your living room. It also means you can have full choice of what drinks and snacks are on offer and there's very rarely a queue for the toilet. I love comedy and really miss going to stand up shows and I miss that there was no Edinburgh Fringe last year, but it was just the circumstances where well, we all know what they've been like. But if there are comedians that you like, do check out what they're doing, people are being so inventive. So the USB microphone is just the start. I've seen people do new material gigs, there's so many brilliant podcasts out there and live gigs are starting to happen again. I just saw Sarah Millican announce a huge tour for 2021, which I cannot wait to see. So if there are comedians that you love, please do check out what they're doing, and see what they've been putting online or what they're working on. And hopefully we'll be-- all be back together and laughing together very soon.

Prince  23:46  
I'm actually holding two plants, but I wanted to focus on the one that I bought from IKEA after moving to London to start my graduate job.

Kate  23:57  
This is Prince Chakanyuka, 2020 graduate, founder of Chashi Foods and Homecare Business Planner at Procter and Gamble.

Prince  24:04  
And I was excited to venture into a new career. So before COVID when I had gotten the offer, my excitement was you know, move to London, move to a new city, meet loads of people, get loads of insights learning about my career. And, you know, start the whole adulthood life, which quite frankly, I've been doing quite a bad job at but I chose to talk about this plant because I think it represents kind of a lot of the things that are happening in the world right now in 2020. The fact that we're all going through this very difficult time and I think the, the levels of complexity of what 2020 means to different people's lives is, you know, yeah, it just, it folds into loads of different experiences and stories. Yeah, I think I think it just represents how like I was so excited to kind of-- thinking that 2020 is going to be the other when I graduate, I'm going to have a grad trip and all these things and this plant not only represents the fact that my entry into adulthood has not been, you know, the, the most ideal, but actually just kind of working in line with whatever is happening in the world in 2020, as well. So yeah, it's just kind of a reinforcement of that message. But the caveat of that is, this plant is not actually dead, like, it's dying. But I feel like if I, if, if I do more YouTube videos, or more Googling, and also make sure that I'm watering it enough and taking care of it, I think it might be able to revive. So I guess what I'm trying to say is, at the end of the day, I think 2020 has been difficult to everyone in different spaces, scenarios and environments. But there's something we can learn from this and there's something that we can take out of it, not to discredit all the bad news and all the negativity that came with 2020. But to just say that we can be resilient and we can try to bring meaning to some of the things that we've gone through. Whether it's the pain, whether it's the changes, whether it's the discomfort, I think there's an opportunity there that we can take time to kind of step back and rethink our priorities and rethink how we can build ourselves based on the experience we've gone, we've gone through.

Ellen  26:32  
Amidst the chaos, I have graduated, and moved back to my parents home, which is also the home of the meaningful object that I've chosen for today.

Kate  26:44  
This is Ellen Blunsdon, 2020 graduate and MA Law student at the University of Law.

Ellen  26:50  
I guess technically, he's not an object, because he's a lizard. But he is definitely the thing that I've relied on most closely this year for comfort in the gap that lack of human interaction has left in all of our lives. I made the decision to move back to my parents house on the Thursday, and then on the Friday while we were pulling up into my driveway, we got the email saying that the University was closing. I've been shielding since then. I've seen friends about twice. And while it's lovely to have the company of my mum, my dad and my sister, the lizard, our little crested gecko called Arthur is what has really got me through, what has been such a hard year. We got him in July when he was six grams, and he's now a mighty 21 grams, which we're very proud of him for. He is just the cutest little man, even though he's my sister's, and I'm Auntie Ellen. He is my little baby and I love him so very much. He's not very good at the kind of normal lizard things in terms of, he's not very jumpy, which they're supposed to be. He doesn't like banana, which he's supposed to do. He's up and about during the day at random times, even though they're supposed to be nocturnal. He's always wanting to come out and say hello, run up my shoulder, and leap off to random things. He's a very good boy though. In September, which is honestly, maybe the highlight of the entire year for me, we threw him a little birthday party, a first birthday party, where we ate lovely cake and had a great time and he was forced to do an entire photo shoot, where he wore the little hats that I bought for him from the internet with money that I definitely don't have. He was also put on a mini skateboard with very close supervision. I then Photoshopped that-- those pictures and put them on Instagram and Tony Hawk actually liked the one that I Photoshopped of Mr Lizard on a skateboard with Tony Hawk. So time well spent? Probably, probably. Not that I'm doing a master's degree or anything, that should be taking up my time. And actually, I'm just spending it doing photoshoots with a lizard, who I think loves me, but only loves me as much as a lizard can love anything. In a year where human contact has been so lacking for everybody, it's so nice to have our own little alternative. And I guess not to be too cheesy, it's a running theme that I criticise myself for being too cheesy on this podcast, but not to be too cheesy, while I love my lizard, he wouldn't have been here without my sister. And it has been so nice to spend more time with my sister through the shared interest that we've developed. You know, going to uni and for four years being away from her, I have missed a lot. Being an early teen isn't fun for anyone. But I'm so glad that I now have the opportunity to see her through her first round of exams and listen to her as she worries about her future as so many school kids are at the moment. We have such a nice little routine where every night after dinner, we go and we take the lizard out for his little, little stomps, and for a little bit of food. He's hand-fed, he's very spoiled. And while we are definitely talking to the lizard, he doesn't know what's going on. So really, we're talking to each other. Coming home after so many years of freedom has definitely been a big adjustment. And I wasn't sure how I was going to feel about, you know, living with my family again for so long, which, you know, wasn't part of the plan. But I love my lizard. And I love my sister. So if lockdown has had any silver linings, it's been that I've been able to spend more time with her. I guess in an essence and what I presume a lot of people will be talking about is objects or lizards that represents so much more and my Mr Lizard represents how much I care about my sister.

[Theme music]

Kate  31:37  
Thank you for listening. We'll return to conversations between members of our University community in 2021. So subscribe now and stick with us. In the meantime, check out the Sharing things back catalogue and get to know our community through objects that were important before this year. You might want to roll back to Christmas 2019 and our festive special featuring Catherine Rayner and Ross Nixon. See you next year!

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