Noises off – and on


A bright, chilly day. In a neighbouring garden, workmen are making a truly fantastic noise. If they were in competition to produce the greatest number of decibels without mechanical assistance, I would have to rate their chances highly. Their relentless cacophony is overlaid from time to time by ambulance sirens and aircraft noise.

The sirens are probably connected with the fact that cases of Covid-19 are climbing dizzily again in this country but the government narrative demands official pretence that the pandemic is over. Accordingly, the Health Secretary assures those eager to hear such complacent nonsense that there is no cause for concern because vaccination will protect us. The production and distribution of vaccines, the scientists and the NHS, have certainly been hugely impressive; and I see every day the latest percentages of the population to have had two doses of the vaccine and the booster shot, also looking impressive. Yet translating those percentages into numbers, as accurately as I can, it seems that nearly thirty million people in the UK have not had a booster; and at least eighteen million haven’t even had two jabs—the last figure presumably including those that have had none at all, for whatever reason, none of them reassuring.

The aircraft noise, much though not by no means all of it from helicopters, may be connected with the tragedy taking place on the far side of Europe. This country is not officially on military alert but it would be naïve to suppose that no preparations, adjustments and relocations are taking place.

‘It is vain to torment oneself over sufferings that one cannot alleviate’, Somerset Maugham wrote—and by ‘vain’ I take him to mean ‘profitless’ rather than ‘conceited’—which is probably true but not easy at a time like this.[1] These are not restful days. We don’t have enough space to accommodate refugees; nor are we rich. So we donate what money we can and, along with countless others, sit and watch sickening images on television and laptop screens, as hospitals, schools, theatres and cars full of fleeing children are deliberately targeted by Russian bombs, shells and missiles. 

‘The acts of people are baffling’, Edward Dahlberg observed, ‘unless we realize that their wits are disordered.’[2] True again, often enough, though some cannot take refuge in such an explanation. And it’s too easy to dissipate energy in fruitless railing against malign or spectacularly dim politicians, proxies and useful idiots, and governments that must be dragged, kicking and screaming, in the general direction of a minimally humanitarian response to such a crisis.

Mary Wollstonecraft: ‘It is justice, not charity, that is wanting in the world.’ (Jug from Sussex Lustreware)

Luckily, I have four projects in train at present—related but often not quite closely enough. I mean that some glittering prize of a detail, lifted from one of the books I’m reading or, more often, rereading, may benefit two of those projects but never all. And there are the other things, often mislabelled ‘small’, which go to make up the civilised life. A handful of grapes, daffodils in the Mary Wollstonecraft jug, a cherry tree, a glass of wine, a cat in the garden, a voice on the stairs. Can I read Geoffrey Grigson while kneading bread dough? Why yes, if the book is placed at exactly the right angle. I can also find a use for the jar of roasted peppers that has been in the pantry far too long; connect a piece in Ford Madox Ford’s Provence with a passage in Doris Lessing’s In Pursuit of the English; add twenty lines to an essay I’m working on and take only a dozen of them out again.

Warily, I recall Guy Davenport’s assertion, more than thirty years ago—and not, of course, in the later stages of a pandemic—that ‘We must move away from Sartre’s “Hell is other people”. The crux is this: that instead of asking the world not to threaten our solitude, our personal and solipsistic order, we should so behave ourselves as not to threaten the world’s order. This involves our understanding, and agreeing to, the world’s order, a process of complex immensity, but one in which culturally the arts have a great, mediating role.’[3]

‘The world’s order’: an irresistible, mysterious, hazardous phrase. I don’t think he was talking of political arrangements but something simpler, something larger. ‘“We can’t put it together,” as Stewart Brand said of the universe; “it is together.”’[4]

The workmen have fallen unaccountably silent. It must be that time of day. A welcome respite but probably temporary. Probably.


Notes

[1] Maugham, ‘A Man with a Conscience’, in Collected Short Stories: Volume 4 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963), 203.

[2] Edward Dahlberg, The Carnal Myth: A Search into Classical Sensuality (London: Calder & Boyars, 1970), 24.

[3] Guy Davenport, A Balthus Notebook (New York: Norton, 1989), 70-71.

[4] Quoted by Hugh Kenner, ‘Retrospect: 1985’, 7: this is the preface to a new edition of The Poetry of Ezra Pound, first published in 1951.

One thought on “Noises off – and on”

  1. Alarming noises indeed, Paul. The UK’s pandemic numbers tend to anticipate what happens in madhouse U.S.A. And, because of the even greater insanity named Putin, April is going to be the cruelest month yet. Your countervailing sounds are a blessing. Thank you.

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