Beastly normal

Lyme

(Lyme Regis, which I suspect we may not see this year)

Sunday morning, just before dawn, and the seagulls are out in vast numbers again. With less greasy rubbish and fast food containers strewn around the streets, they’re having to do an honest day’s gull-work and grub for insects on the slopes of the park. Two or three couples glimpsed at a distance, one man probably walking to work – and one cyclist, travelling too quickly from behind us, calling out a bit too late and shooting past us as we jump back.

‘It’s okay’, the Librarian says over my fluent curses, ‘he didn’t cough or sneeze, and he was still far enough away from us anyway.’ And yes, he probably was; in normal times, undoubtedly. But – ‘normal times’?

There’s a lot of discussion currently, in newspaper columns, opinion pieces, online comments, about ‘when things return to normal’. It’s perfectly understandable but unsettling. In the first place, surely not everything will ‘return’. Nor should it. It’s being pointed out with increasing frequency, for instance, that those people who are dutifully, bravely and impressively keeping the country running in this crisis are, in fact, the ones who usually do so anyway: the ones who have so often been classed as ‘unskilled’ by the government that now praises them and finds them indispensable, the ones who have been consistently underpaid and undervalued.

Normal: conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected; according to rule; ordinary; well-adjusted; functioning regularly. A relatively recent usage, linking back to the Latin for precept, rule – and the carpenter’s square. It’s all very shipshape and reassuring but, of course, one age’s ‘normal’ can look a little off, sometimes a bit macabre, to other ages. It was, apparently, ‘quite normal in the nineteenth century for the family album to have photographs of the infant dead, choreographed so that, with eyes open, they still seemed to be alive.’[1] Then too normality can be appraised from widely differing ethical and political standpoints: ‘It was normal for goods to arrive from all over the world and freely circulate, while men and women were turned away at the borders. To cross them, some had themselves locked into trucks, inert merchandise, and died asphyxiated when the driver forgot them in a Dover parking lot under the June sun.’[2]

Arendt-via-BBC

(Hannah Arendt via the BBC)

And there are those instances where the whole business of definitions and comparisons rather falls to pieces. Writing of Adolf Eichmann, whose trial for war crimes she was reporting for the New Yorker, Hannah Arendt stated that Eichmann ‘was indeed normal insofar as he was “no exception within the Nazi regime.” However, under the conditions of the Third Reich only “exceptions” could be expected to react “normally.” This simple truth of the matter created a dilemma for the judges which they could neither resolve nor escape.’[3]

Still, as individuals, we have a pretty clear sense of the normal we would recognise and long to see again. Perhaps for many of us, given the chosen or obligatory changes of the past few weeks, it includes a sharper or deeper sense of quite small and ordinary things, the details—often undervalued—on which our lives actually rest. From that secure position, we might again be cavalier about more general versions of ‘normal’. Writing in 1927 from Paris to Ford Madox Ford in New York, Stella Bowen praised Ford’s recently completed Last Post. Knowing that Valentine Wannop was based largely on her, Bowen commented on several successful aspects of the book, ‘even Valentine’s agonies’, adding: ‘even if she is so beastly normal!’[4]

No doubt the beast will come again – and how readily will we recognise him, or her, or it, when that happens?

 
Notes

[1] Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory (London: Verso, 1996), 375; and see some of the photographs in Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip (1973; Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000).

[2] Annie Ernaux, The Years, translated by Alison L. Strayer (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019), 205.

[3] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, revised and enlarged edition (London: Penguin Books, 1994), 26-27.

[4] Correspondence of Ford Madox Ford and Stella Bowen, edited by Sondra J. Stang and Karen Cochran (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993), 331.

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