Unemployed at last! Who can forget that feeling of freedom you get when, finally resigned, you clear your desk and walk out the door? Secure in the knowledge – or at least sustained by the hope – that (whoever’s banishing whom) there is a world elsewhere?

But that was then. Now it’s 2020, and I’m trapped at home. Politely but firmly placed under low-key house arrest. My iPhone has become a double agent, working overtime: part-guidance counsellor, part-ankle bracelet.

This was the year the great globe itself hit Pause. To a planet with problems aplenty – more than humanity ever seems willing or able to handle – the pandemic now adds its bad new brand of purgatory.

Australia has been, again, a lucky country. A few bad lapses and outbreaks – but no wider collapse into the waves of disease and despair that have broken out elsewhere. Here in Victoria, the long months of lockdown seemed at first insanely extreme – then stunningly effective. Would it last?

In the event, ours was a kind of benign winter of discontent, spent scanning our screens for the latest official statistics, precautions and predictions. And any reliable sign of a spring re-awakening. Meanwhile the empty streetscapes of Melbourne felt like a perfect place for a film about the end of the world.

Image: Alex Coppel

Being housebound here in suburbia hasn’t been so bad. (Each teenager, let’s note, has a room and a screen of their own.) Without regular work, I can indulge in armchair travel at least, through parallel worlds, courtesy of Stan and Netflix.

In fact, it’s been far too easy to defer any task that asks for serious commitment. My inner retiree, bucket-list on hold, soon relaxed into a lazily aimless half-life. Whole days would slide by in a low-throttle drift of trivial pursuits and domestic routines, from bed to table to desk to sofa, punctuated by short excursions to the supermarket, masked like a daylight robber. Meanwhile, in the really-real world, no-one I know has been infected by the virus. And everyone I know has been affected.

Not least, those still buried in work at our universities, as they scrambled to plan and execute the Big Shift Online. Talk about your burning platforms.

The campus I know best (as a clueless undergraduate decades ago, and a superseded staff member since) now looks like an abandoned theatre set; where few may strut, as many fret elsewhere. Cast and crew alike, now cast overboard, have been floating alarmed and adrift like Titanic survivors.

2020 will be the year to remind us that today’s University exists mainly as a matrix of assumptions and routines, played out in the heads or on the screens of its former denizens. Like Plato’s Republic, its daily reinvention relies on those willing to renew their suspension of disbelief in its true aims, and to self-identify with that imagined community that professes to uphold its values and practise its disciplines accordingly.

University of Melbourne Old Arts building. Image: https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Tertiary_education_in_Australia

Off-campus meanwhile, students and staff have strenuously kept the whole tenuous show afloat, tethering themselves to desks and tasks and identities like Hogwarts ghosts with unfinished business.

Before the year had even begun, my resolve to work at the University ever again had been fading fast. By March, the first waves of the virus began to place everyone’s plans on hold. And by May, with budgets acrumble across the sector, any shred of remaining hope to resume regular work dissolved, vanishing into the thin suburban air.

With no grand Plan B to pursue, there was ample room to reflect. So, with other commitments still few and far between, it’s time to write those “unreliable memoirs“.

Sit back and sip a Furphy, gentle reader. With 2020 hindsight, let’s begin somewhere near the end with The Year My Career Broke as I called out other furphies, widely swallowed from as far away as London or Paris…

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