COVID-19 has cast a shadow that few of us could ever have imagined. Around the world, families are grieving, lives have been put on hold, finances are squeezed. The crisis is not yet over, but hopeful stories are emerging.

In a new series, we hear how individuals across the University community have coped with unexpected experiences, found new opportunities and are looking to the future.

What links two large furry Loch Ness Monsters, key-cards, and donning a gown to eat pot noodles? The answer is the unexpected creativity that blossomed in a time of coronavirus, says Catherine Arnold, Master of St Edmund’s College.

Let’s put that “unexpected” into context.

A year ago this week, I was inaugurated as St Edmund’s 15th Master. There was little unexpected on that day. Bathed in an amber, autumn light, my inauguration ceremony was everything expected of Cambridge. Latin, a phalanx of fellows in scarlet, seraphic music.

Inauguration of Catherine Arnold as Master

Launched from that point, I fell back into the rhythm of Cambridge remembered from 20 years ago as an undergraduate: Hall the fulcrum around which College life spins; surfing the wild eight-week wave of term, sweeping everyone on to the next vacation; finishing breathless, exhausted but exhilarated. Only this time my life had more committees. So many more committees.

Then, suddenly, just before the Easter vacation, the whole pattern at St Edmund’s, the University, and the world, abruptly changed. The Prime Minister gave the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.

But where is home? St Edmund’s is both a mature College, which means even our undergraduates are over 21 years old, and one of the most international in Cambridge.

Catherine's inauguration in October 2019. Photo credit: St Edmund's College

Catherine's inauguration in October 2019. Photo credit: St Edmund's College

As lockdown closed over the globe, students from across the University made bold dashes for home or to friends or relatives. But for many at St Edmund’s, this was their only home. Others found there was no safe way to travel half way around the world. Unexpectedly, I therefore found myself, for a short spell, the Master of the largest Cambridge College – well, the largest based on numbers of students living on the main College site.

What do you do with nearly 200 people living on nine acres in a national lockdown? The answer is: much that is unexpected.

To misquote Donald Rumsfeld. There are the expected unexpecteds: the swift move to new structures, the narrowing and sharpening of focus that comes with any crisis, the need to maintain morale and pace.

I switched from being the chair of many committees to being the chair of our crisis ‘Gold‘ team, supporting an incredibly devoted and driven team of officers, staff and fellows. Our priorities included moving dozens of students around site to form smaller ‘households’ – back then an alien concept – enabling remote IT for the majority of our staff, most of whom had never worked from home before, and constructing new ways of keeping residents fed and secure in cleaned buildings on a skeleton staffing.

"To misquote Donald Rumsfeld. There are the expected unexpecteds: the swift move to new structures, the narrowing and sharpening of focus that comes with any crisis, the need to maintain morale and pace."

Then there are the unexpected unexpecteds born of COVID creativity. Let’s have three.

How many of us had any accurate idea how far 2m is before March? Not many, judging by the woeful distancing seen around college in the first few days.

That needed to change. Judith Bunbury (senior tutor), armed with her trusty 2m ruler, Chris Powers (development officer), with a green, Loch Ness Monster under each arm, and I, mainly to enjoy the sunshine, apple-blossom and take a brief break, headed out to develop the “2m – it’s further than you think” campaign. Nessies picnicked. Nessies hung out in the CR. Nessies gossiped on the chapel steps.

“Uh ah, left a bit, the angle makes that Nessie look less than 2m away,” isn’t something I’d ever expected to say. But the results (no thanks to me) were rather wonderful – I particularly love this poster.

I’ve always fancied being a porter. Little happens without them knowing. Years later, long after other faces and names have blurred, favourite porters figure at weddings and frame youthful anecdotes. While in College they wield power over things that matter: access, post, replacement key-cards.

On that autumn day a year ago, I didn’t think that five months later I’d be sitting at the main reception desk being trained in the Olympian arts of access control, franking mail and how to programme a new key-card.

I never got to do a shift. Fortunately, our portering team stayed healthy and well. But with the threat of even tighter lockdown, every officer and staff member who lived on site or nearby needed to be able to cover vital support functions if called on. The Vice-Master drew the short straw and turned his attention from research into paradox to don marigolds and upgrade his rubbish disposal skills.

Face mask at hand, Catherine sits on the steps of Mount Pleasant Halls, the College's new accommodation development, which opened in Michaelmas term 2019

Face mask at hand, Catherine sits on the steps of Mount Pleasant Halls, the College's new accommodation development, which opened in Michaelmas term 2019

Come the end of Easter term dinner, the College community was flung across the world. But at the end of Cambridge’s first Virtual Term, what barrier a few thousand miles with Zoom? No barrier at all for our ever-active Combination Room (the Student Committee), who set up the first St Edmund’s Zoom Formal.

There we were, all of us gowned. Grace was said by the Dean, the conversation, as polished as the non-existent silver, flowed across continents, from Florence to Shanghai and back to Cambridge. Students showed off the local delicacies they’d cooked to celebrate. I had one mission: to avoid anyone realising that the Master, having failed to find time to cook, was stealthily enjoying a pot noodle.

As we’ve all learnt over the last seven months, there are even unexpected advantages to life lived through Zoom.

Words: Catherine Arnold
Design: Zoe Smith
Typography: Balvir Friers
Photography/Series Editor: Louise Walsh

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