Now I know how animals feel at this time of year. For most of last week, I did what could only be described as hibernate. Temperatures in London dipped below zero while wind chill made it feel even colder. I went out as little as possible and, when I did, quickly regretted it. Even double layers of socks and gloves were not enough to combat the bite of negative degrees centigrade.
I almost felt sorry for my resident squirrel, which last week was finally shut out of the space between my flat and that below. Several weeks ago, pest control constructed 'up-and-over' scaffolding, thus called because it is assembled vertically in front of the building, then over the roof, and finally down at the rear. Apparently, it was impossible for any sort of ladder to make its way through the basement flat.
Anyway, the aim of this vast climbing frame was to seal up an external hole which was being used by the said squirrel to make its way underneath my bathroom, where one assumes it was storing supplies and escaping the cold. After much toing and froing, much of it taking place early in the morning and without obvious gain, one chap came to insert a wire mesh in the gap, followed by another who reinforced this with cement.
The squirrel, however, appeared unfazed. Not only was its way up the side of my building eased by the scaffolding – I see it most days climbing the ladder – but it continues to scale the wall, pause briefly to meet my curious gaze, and then dart across the moss-covered slate tiles above me. What it's up to is anyone's guess, but it no longer disturbs either me or my downstairs neighbour with its incessant and rather creepy scratching.
Hibernation has been useful in other respects, for I have a book to finish, a history of the Scottish Liberals (and, later, the Liberal Democrats). The bare bones of this were written during a productive week on the Isle of Lewis back in October, but it still required considerable fleshing out with additional sources as well as finessing for the sake of style and readability. Last week was spent augmenting it with bits of Hansard, the superb Times Digital Index and, most rewardingly, eyewitness accounts.
One good thing about lockdown is that no-one has an excuse not to respond to emails. Experience tells me there's little to be gained from interviewing retired politicians in general terms about their parties or careers, for they tend to place themselves at the centre of events and repeat anecdotes from published memoirs or boilerplate speeches. It is better to send them your own account of a particular incident and stimulate feedback in the form of corrections and specific details.
This worked wonders, though it left me rather overwhelmed with new material. Happily, however, most of this did not conflict with conclusions already reached, while the whole experience has reminded me how much I enjoy historical research and writing. I immerse myself in source material from which themes and contradictions emerge gradually but clearly.
Happily, such a technique dovetails with my professional career as a House of Commons Library researcher, where one is quite rightly not allowed opinions but instead inhabits a world of observable empirical reality. My current project (concerning the Scottish Liberals) allows a little more analysis, but it's all guided by the evidence. On several occasions, someone has enquired as to my source. If I've found that to be lacking or, upon re-reading, to be less convincing that I'd previously judged, then out it comes to be replaced with something I could more easily defend if challenged once again.
It's an immensely satisfying process, though one unfortunate side-effect – especially when days and weeks form a timeless blur – is that I often awake half-dreaming of footnotes, narrative structures and chronological gaps. Intriguingly, I find my writing style has changed. Until a few years ago, it was overly journalistic, basically an extension of a carefully-researched news story or comment piece. Now it's more academic, a product of a late-stage PhD and the preferred Commons Library style.
I work well to deadlines, so I'm taking the Prime Minister's announcement on 22 February regarding a 'route' out of lockdown/hibernation as my completed typescript's final submission date. That said, I know myself and my writing habits all too well: by the time England's schools reopen on 8 March, I'll be busy marshalling sources for my next project.
David Torrance is
an author and contemporary historian