(Unknown Artist, Two Figures Roll Out a Scroll of Paper with a Landscape Design on It, Watched by a Third: Wellcome Collection)
‘Any good news?’
‘There’s a goldfinch singing in the tree in the garden.’
‘Any bad news?’
(Unrolling forty-foot long scroll): ‘Where should I begin?’
A weird couple of weeks, my daughter’s text read. You might well say so. A new monarch and a new Prime Minister. Mutterings, stray black ties, then confirmation that London Bridge had, indeed, fallen. Some things since then, I gather, have gone extremely well, as smoothly as many years of rehearsals and preparations and a large wad of public money could make them; others seem be going extraordinarily badly. It was sobering, for instance, to hear of people threatened with arrest for being in charge of blank sheets of paper, not so long after British expressions of outrage and disbelief at the same phenomenon on the streets of Putin’s Moscow. By degrees, quite reasonable displays of decorum and respect began lapsing into absurdity: the often excruciating media coverage was predictable, perhaps less so some of the cancellations and closures: football matches, kids’ fun runs, bicycle racks, condom vending machines, guinea pig awareness week. . .
Since then, we’ve had the unedifying spectacle of a government clearly in hock to the fossil fuel industry, now augmented by the reckless vandalism proposed, first, by the latest Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, perhaps the most preposterous appointment in an era notorious for such appointments; second, a frankly disgusting mini-budget, focused solely on shovelling yet more money into the hands of those already stinking of the stuff. Never fear, the proles will pay. And their progeny, of course, unto the second or third generation.
The weather has changed, most evidently the early mornings: Harry the cat exchanging the briefest of greetings with the outside air before drifting back upstairs to the bedroom while I pull the back door discreetly shut; and the butter harder to spread. I note with just a touch of disquiet that the next Nicolas Freeling book I shall read—and here a footnote to ‘good news’, three Van der Valk novels in the nice green Penguin jackets—is titled Gun before Butter.
And there was The Queue. I read that a quarter of a million people chose to queue for many hours to pass the Queen’s coffin. Millions more watched the television for hours, although at least as many millions, probably more, got on with their lives in various other ways. As for The Queue: I’ve read explanations of the several credible reasons for people being there but, though Elizabeth II had been on the throne for almost the whole of my life and my mother died at much the same age as the Queen, the one never reminded me of the other (nor was there any grandmotherly resemblance) and I feel no need for a version of ‘something larger than myself’ that involves a huge crowd – the sight of one, even on a screen, still brings me out in a rash. And I am, anyway, I suppose, of the sizeable constituency that admired and respected the late Queen for the way she fulfilled her role while believing that the role itself was past its sell-by date and that this should really be the juncture at which the whole issue is debated, from the ground up (especially from the ground up). But I suspect that substantial elements of the country are neither willing nor able to engage with such matters.
In the Victorian cemetery where we walk, we skirted a wedding in full swing when we were there a while ago, a mass of people on the steps of the building, anyway: cameras, hats, smart clothes, excited chatter. A little earlier on that same afternoon, a funeral had, I think, just finished. We were passing what seemed to be the aftermath of a wake, two or three staff in the late stages of tidying the outdoor venue, sweeping up, rearranging tables and benches. And that near-miss was probably funeral enough for me for a while.
I was, I recall, rather more exercised by the possibility that I’d confused, at some stage, Norman MacColl, editor of the Athenaeum, with Dugald Sutherland MacColl, painter, critic and Keeper of prestigious galleries (the Tate and the Wallace Collection), but also wanting to check on that other connection between moonrise and ‘Henri Beyle who wrote as Stendhal’. Was I in fact thinking of Stonehenge in another context? Fairly specialised concerns, to be sure, but then a lot of people have interests that would fall under that heading for a majority of passers-by.
That’s the crucial point about passers-by, of course. They pass by. As do I, in a great many circumstances, as do I.