Devilish Warnings


‘For years of our lives the days pass waywardly, featureless, without meaning, without particular happiness or unhappiness’, says the narrator of Jane Gardam’s 1985 novel, Crusoe’s Daughter. There are, of course, exceptions – yesterday, for one instance, when I received both Covid booster and flu jab, emerging, as they say, fully armed.

‘‘Hello, good-looking’, the Librarian says—addressing neither me nor, a little more surprisingly, Harry the Cat, the usual object of her admiration—but my new computer. After several years of engaging with a Desktop that felt no sense of obligation—‘Would you please open this file?’ ‘Nah.’ ‘How about that website?’ ‘Not now!’—I’ve invested (interest-free deal!) in new hardware: a MacBook Pro, which is now set up with most basic necessities, thanks to my 5% input and the Librarian’s 95%. There have been very few problems, apart from her tendency to stroke the MacBook—and to murmur compliments in its direction—‘So shiny, so new’. I presume, perhaps unwisely, that this is a passing phase, together with her veiled threats—‘You should watch it very closely: these things have a habit of disappearing.’

(Not a MacBook)

Also disappearing is the summer, since the weather is turning – again, yes, but with serious intent this time. Still trying to wean myself off my appalled fascination with the daily totals of new cases—probably significantly underestimated now—hospitalisations and deaths, I sit listening to ambulance sirens on the distant main roads. Are they more or less frequent now than six months or twelve months ago? Did we just get so used to them then that they all but vanished into a familiar aural background?

In the park and the cemetery, the blackberries are mostly shrivelled or gone. There has long been a widespread belief in this country that they shouldn’t be picked after a certain date, usually Michaelmas but with some regional variations, up to about 10 October, which, as Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud point out, ‘allowing for the eleven-day calendar shift of 1752, is the same thing.’[1] The berries are said to be bad because the Devil has spat on them, stamped on them or, alas, pissed on them. On a walk a few days ago, I noticed a bush in the park still boasting several plump and very black berries and pointed them out. In defiance of devilish warnings, the Librarian’s mother picked one off, popped it into her mouth and pronounced it ‘delicious’.


‘I like to remind myself of the Dorset proverb’, Patrick White wrote, ‘“God gave us meat, we have to go to the Devil for sauce”.’[2] An astonishing number of people now not only want but apparently require sauce.

The Gardam quote I began with continues: ‘Then, like turning over a tapestry when you have only known the back of it, there is spread the pattern.’[3] Some of us are uncommonly fond of patterns. Also in 1985, Anthony Burgess published a piece called, ‘The Anachronist Strikes Back’, in which he remarked: ‘The point is, I think, that the past is made by the present. The pattern we call history is not in history: it’s made by us.’[4] This will not sit well with those for whom ‘history’ is fixed, unchanging and manifesting no need whatsoever for questioning or examination. But still, but still – in the individual life, as in the collective, the past is constantly reappraised, revised, reconfigured. How could it not be?


Notes

[1] Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 24.

[2] Patrick White, ‘The Reading Sickness’ (1980), in Patrick White Speaks, edited by Paul Brennan and Christine Flynn (London: Jonathan Cape, 1990), 75.

[3] Jane Gardam, Crusoe’s Daughter (London: Abacus, 2012), 270.

[4] Anthony Burgess, The Ink Trade, edited by Will Carr (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2018), 157.

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