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Word of the week: journal

Earlier this month I attended a very enjoyable Reunion Lunch at my old school. It was the first time I have been back for such an event. I have attended all four of my old college reunions – I wouldn’t miss one of those – but since leaving school at the age of 18 I had only returned to the premises on two previous occasions.

The first of these was in the mid-1990s, for an informal tour. My old form teacher showed me round. There had been a few changes. The old gym had become the library building, for example. The new sports hall (which was being built during my final few terms there) had been completed. We had lunch in the staff dining room. I mentioned it in this piece about how young some people look these days (policemen, priests, teachers). The only other time I returned to the old place, at the end of the 1990s, was a briefer visit when a friend was thinking of applying for a job there.

When I was a pupil at the school, the intake for what we now call Year 7 was straightforward: five classes, 30 boys in each, 150 per year. By the time we got to sixth form there were fewer students, 139 in my year. I know this because I have just checked in the relevant school journal. I doubt that many of my contemporaries still have a complete set of these volumes, which were issued to every pupil at the start of each autumn term, but I do. The covers are missing from two of them, but all of the inside pages are there.

Each journal contains lists of governors, staff, prefects, school rules, activities and sports clubs, and the names of every pupil. Almost half of each journal, as the name suggests, is taken up with a blank diary for the academic year. The equivalent publication at my daughter’s school is called a planner.

My diary entries for my first year of sixth form end on 1 December. There are nearly five blank months, then a few more entries the following April and May. My November homework requirements include an essay on “The Duchess of Malfi” one Monday. I have no recollection of ever writing about that play, it certainly wasn’t an A-Level text. The following Sunday I had the following note about a gig: “Rezillos / Undertones – Marquee”. I believe that this was the first time The Undertones played in London and I was privileged to be there.

Of the 139 people in my year, nine booked to come to the Reunion Lunch this month.  Two of them didn’t make it, so there were seven of us, all easily recognizable to each other, and a few dozen people from other years, none of whom were there at the same time as us. I brought a few old school journals with me, for nostalgia purposes, and can confirm that none of the other attendees from my year have theirs. They have been lost, thrown away, or turned to papier-mâché by a leaky ceiling or flooded basement. I also brought the autograph book that I carried around with me for a couple of years in the 1970s, which I wrote about here last year. There are signatures, jokes and artwork spread across four pages from my Year 7 and Year 8 classmates, two of whom were at the lunch. One of them, as you might expect in the year 2020, took photos on his phone of the relevant pages.

For me, the word “journal” always brings to mind those school publications. It may be the same for my daughter when she hears the word “planner” when her school days are done. For me, “planner” still brings to mind those year-at-a-glance wall charts that rarely get filled in for the whole 12 months (rather like the diary pages in my journals).

If the reunion had been taking place later this month it would probably have been cancelled. For now, schools are still open here in the UK, but most additional activities have been called off. Meetings, Options Evenings and school trips for this week, due to take place at the schools that my son and daughter attend, have all been cancelled. Many other events have been postponed because of concerns about the spread of Coronavirus, including all major sports events since last Friday. This left a big football-shaped hole over the weekend for millions of us. Anyone reading these words in March 2020 will know about Coronavirus. I wonder how much explanation will be needed this time next year, or in five years’ time, about what we are currently going through. Until the last month or so, neither of my children had heard of SARS.

Thoughts about the word “journal”, and the effects of Coronavirus, made me wonder if I should read Daniel Defoe’s “Journal of a Plague Year”. Thanks to an excellent piece from last Friday by Marina Hyde, I don’t feel that I have to just yet. She compares Defoe’s account of the “1665/66 London plague season” (which was written over 50 years later) with current events. You can read it here.

I’ll finish with a photo showing the inside cover of my old school journal for 1980/81. It lists “Rules of Quarantine” for “Infectious Ailments”, including scarlet fever, diphtheria and measles (spelt incorrectly throughout as “measels”). I suspect that most of this information was dropped from more recent editions of the journal. If so, it might be time to bring back a new set of rules for quarantine, or “self-isolation” as we’re calling it these days.




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