Gustave Doré, Vale of tears (Petit Palais, Paris)
The poet and painter David Jones wrote to his friend René Hague from Sidmouth in March 1935: ‘This bar, where we used to come, is absolutely choked with chaps talking awful balls—God it is depressing—what a world—heavenly lovely nice wodged in with bloody desolate old lachrymarum valle.’
Our ‘heavenly lovely nice’ just now would be the Covid-19 vaccination programme, a triumph for the National Health Service. The vale of tears would be – the rest.
I have a part in a major project now, though one still at an early stage; and, if it’s of interest primarily to readers of Ford Madox Ford and other modernists – that’s a pretty big constituency these days, isn’t it? So I have an impressive reading list – often books to be reread, in fact, though a little differently this time around, imprinting dates and names and other invaluable details on the mind, heart or skin. And yet, and yet – much of the time I can be found upstairs (or sometimes down), turning the pages of Mary Butts (yes, certainly relevant), chunks of Elizabethan history (possible but unlikely), Joan Didion (doubtful), James Merrill (also unlikely), Ruth Rendell and Josephine Tey (surely not).
‘This bad habit of absorption in anything other than the work that was my immediate duty has persisted all my life, and I have been most unjustly rewarded for it.’ So Arthur Ransome wrote in his absorbing autobiography, thinking of the highly successful books he had made out of remembering and describing the things that he really liked doing anyway: savouring the natural world of the Lake District and elsewhere, as well as the fishing and sailing. (I won’t be holding my breath for rewards, whether just or unjust: a few admiring words from people I admire will do nicely when the job’s done.) In John Buchan’s 1927 novel, Maclean asks: ‘Where is this magic country?’ To which Midwinter replies: ‘All around you – behind the brake, across the hedgerow, under the branches. Some can stretch a hand and touch it – to others it is a million miles away.’
A magic country – just off the beaten track. The shimmering attractions, the mirage of refreshment, enlightenment or merely a saving silence. My straying from the alleged centre – not pandemic-related, merely life-related – has a long history but hasn’t proved too harmful on the whole: I still usually meet deadlines, anyway. It is, I suppose, distantly related to a much less innocuous practice, often found in government circles, the diversion or smokescreen, such as conjuring up a phoney threat to statues to direct attention away from large, lethal failures or instances of rampant hypocrisy or the nasty habit of breaking international law or non-proliferation treaties.
No, my sometimes wayward reading habits do not, in contrast, represent a clear and present danger to this country. So I’ll probably go on much the same. . .
 René Hague, editor, Dai Greatcoat: A self-portrait of David Jones in his letters (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 67.
 The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome, edited with prologue and epilogue by Rupert Hart-Davis (London: Jonathan Cape, 1976), 59.
 John Buchan, Midwinter (1927; Edinburgh, Black &White Publishing, 1993), 115.