Before and after

Allen_Tate Tate-Memories

Allen Tate remembered his young self wondering (he was born in 1899), ‘What effect could a war in Europe have on me? No more than the news of a thunderstorm over at Deer Park. I could not know that August 5th, 1914, was the end of the nineteenth century, and that four years later, when I entered college, I would be in a new world so different from the old that I would never quite understand it, but would be both of it and opposed to it the rest of my life.’[1]

That ‘before and after’ sensation is more strongly established now, though there are still people apparently believing—and sometimes being encouraged to believe—that at some unspecified point in the future everything will go back to ‘how it was before’. Meanwhile, the global death toll has passed 700,000, with a Covid-19 fatality every 15 seconds.

Writing from China of the point in late January at which ‘nationwide self-isolation began’, Wang Xiuying observed: ‘it was said that Chinese people fall into two groups: cat types and dog types. Cat types were likely to suffer less from the quasi-house arrest that drives dog types mad.’ Not just Chinese people, I suspect, fit neatly into these two categories


Unsettlingly, Wang Xiuying also writes that ‘Liberal sentiment in China is at a low ebb. The pro-democracy cause has been weakened drastically since Trump took office. How do you defend a system that gives power to a celebrity with no knowledge of international relations who filed for corporate bankruptcy half a dozen times?’[2] That’s surely a question that will engage more than one future generation of Americans.

And yes, here in the UK, despite frequent confirmations of the lethal mismanagement of our government’s response to the pandemic, along with corruption and cronyism which is now not only unchecked but frankly undisguised, we can at least be grateful that we’re not in the United States. It took me a while to remember that my uncle used to live in Portland, Oregon. He and his wife left Portsmouth in, I think, 1953 and went to Canada. After some years there, with two sons by then, they moved down to Oregon. I didn’t know him well enough to be confident about his likely allegiances but I suspect he was a moderate conservative, so probably a Republican back when that party was still a serious and respectable one. As a decent and civilized man, though, I can be sure he would have been appalled by armed thugs in the streets of his home town attacking and teargassing peaceful protesters and strongarming them into unmarked vehicles—and both puzzled and distressed by a President mustering a private army and fomenting civil unrest.

Requiescat in pace, Peter.


[1] Allen Tate, Memories and Essays Old and New 1926-1974 (Manchester: Carcanet, 1976), 17.

[2] Wang Xiuying, ‘Diary’ (dated 2 April), London Review of Books (16 April 2020), 37.

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