Crafting an attentiveness to the unspoken rhythms and textures of life is sociology’s most important gift to understanding cities. It’s noticing those remarkable things that often go unremarked upon and finding ways to record and honour what would otherwise be lost. As cities have emptied during the pandemic and citizens remain confined to their homes that gift is all the more valuable.
This artful challenge of paying attention is not self-evident or automatic. It is a skill that needs to be honed and cultivated. In teaching students how to do social research I often set them listening tasks and attentiveness exercises. I ask them to document in writing what they have seen, heard and felt. It is through writing that a movement of imagination achieved that can bring those remarkable things to life in words. The best fieldnotes are recognisable and vivid in a way that anticipates understanding.
It might seem that socially distanced sociology is a contradiction in terms. However, teaching during the lockdown has revealed how much can be still achieved at a distance. As part of the MSc in Social Research I asked this year’s students to write some fieldnotes about their experiences of the lockdown. Their writing was so good and the insight so sharp that we have decided to serialised them here on Street Signs. What they capture is the enduring social life of cities from the ways in which we talk and stay in touch via screens to the ballet of park life and the choreography of social distancing. I am sure you’ll enjoy them as much as I have.
Les Back, Professor of Sociology, Director of Centre for Urban and Community Research, Goldsmiths, University of London.
Five rings and an “Ooh!”
Then the line disconnects.
I wait a moment, reconsidering when (and whether) to try again. I drum my fingers on the desk in front of me, and check the time. 3.30pm. I am in a small bedroom in South East London, where I spend 20 hours of the day, most days. At the moment, anyway.
The disconnection did sound like a mistake. The “Ooh!” was of a higher pitch, as though someone had dropped something.
I give Joyce another minute; time for her to send a text or to call back.
When I don’t receive anything, I reconsider, and decide to call again. If the time is inconvenient, Joyce can tell me in person, or she can simply hang up.
Six rings and Joyce answers, with a “Hiya babe” that is barely audible beneath a clattering and clanging noise in the background. Joyce explains that it’s the sound of shopping trolleys. She’s at “Iceland Express, is it? I dunno.” Her voice sounds as though it’s a little away from her mobile, as if she’s set it down for a moment, or is holding it under her arm. Joyce has a strong scouse accent with a nasal tone. It is a little raspy, which betrays her age.
There is one central shopping area in Ellesmere Port, where (I assume) Joyce is, currently. It is an industrial town in the North West of England, situated next to an oil refinery and the Manchester Ship Canal. Joyce has lived here for almost half a century; the past 20 years by herself, in a small council house.
I ask Joyce how she is, and whether this is a good time to be talking. The trolley clangs are replaced by the screams of children. Joyce doesn’t seem to hear my question, but explains that she’s “lightin’ a ciggie”. The screams fade, and I hear hurried footsteps – presumably those of Joyce.
“Still there?” she shouts, and I say yes, asking again whether another time would be best to talk. Joyce doesn’t answer my question, I don’t think she hears me. The footsteps stop and I listen to the sound of cigarette smoke being inhaled and exhaled.
“You there?” she shouts, again, and I confirm that I am. Joyce’s voice changes in quality, and I can tell that she’s put the phone to her ear. She bursts into conversation, telling me about the trouble she has been having with the ‘phone, and how worried she feels being outside of her home. “It’s different”, she says. “You’re frightened to do this, frightened to do that…”
(I try to communicate empathy to Joyce over the telephone, with sounds of “mhmm” and “I agree” but I’m not sure whether she hears them.)
Joyce then says that she has to go, as she has more shopping to do, but that she is happy to talk later in the day.
“Perhaps we could try video calling?” I ask, but I am answered very swiftly with a negative.
“I don’t know how to do it”, Joyce states. Her tone is final, matter-of-fact.
“I can help you, if you’d like?”
“No. I’ll ring ya.”
(It is only after this exchange that I realise this is the worst time to ask Joyce to go out of her comfort zone. She is already stressed and anxious, so introducing a new form of communication that she is not confident about using would only increase those feelings.
On reflection, what I should have done was simply reschedule a telephone call for later in the day, at which point we could discuss our methods of communication.)
At 5pm, I follow up with Joyce via text message.
An experiment in verbatim
From notes taken during phone conversations with Joyce, I wrote twelve poems using her words. I read these to her once I’d finished (she prefers to listen, rather than read and doesn’t know how to download images on her mobile). She gave permission for me to share these. Here’s a short one, in which she describes the Liverpool Locarno Ballroom.
As one group finished
The stage would turn
and Marty Wilde
I can see them
The Dave Clarke Five
All the big bands
they’d be dancin all night
And I sat on his stool
Robin Skyer is a postgraduate student of Social Research at Goldsmiths. They are a mental health trainer and theatre producer.