Oddnesses and cloudy crossroads


With the Librarian away and the cat, though frankly puzzled, not yet overtly resentful, I walk uphill after breakfast, through the other, smaller park and along quiet streets, one or two walkers glimpsed at comfortable distances, barely any cars on the roads I’ve chosen, and the only mild disturbance a runner with a backpack, who pants his way past while I shift well away, thinking that there’s surely no real need for that sort of thing.

Mild disturbance, though, is almost welcome, after the past few days of relentless activity in the neighbouring house, which is evidently being gutted before its sale or re-letting. Yesterday, the workmen seemed to be drilling directly through the wall – I expected their imminent arrival in the room where I sat at my keyboard. On several days last week they took over from the other crew beyond the back fence, the ones with the shocking musical taste. Occasionally they would harmonise, after a fashion, sledgehammer against drill, concrete mixer against hacksaw. Though raising sympathetic eyebrows to the Librarian and Harry the cat when our paths crossed, I regarded the unholy row with relative equanimity—mostly—still feeling the after taste of euphoria that attended the final surrender of a tooth that had wavered and jiggled for more than a week, making mealtimes purgatory and tending to vandalise my dreams.

(Honoré Daumier, Workmen on the Street: National Museum of Wales)

We tend to think of incessant noise as a recent development—wars apart—given motorised road traffic, aircraft and other modern machinery. It’s largely true. Still, it’s salutary to be reminded of the London streets in Victorian times, when the Inns of Court served as ‘oases of quiet’, into which people walked, especially in Dickens’ work, in order to hear one another speak.[1]

Out early this morning, not in Dickens’ London, I was buffeted and boomed at only by birdsong, the bushes and hedges and thick-leaved branches in constant movement. I always find such occasions oddly heartening, as when I saw recently, in the tree that overlooks—and reaches over—our garden fence, at least two bluetits and a pair of goldfinches, plausibly the same ones seen on several occasions this past fortnight. Why ‘oddly’, though? An odd choice of word. I should know by now that I can rely more confidently on birds, trees, cats, walls, cemetery paths and grassy slopes for reassurance that we are not approaching the end of days than on the behaviour of my fellow humans (sometimes yes, often no).


‘Nature has no destiny for us: our boat is upon her ocean and in her winds, but she has expended as much ingenuity designing the flea as she has expended on us, and is perfectly indifferent to Hooke’s conversation at Garraway’s Coffee House. We, however, perish the instant we take our eyes off nature.’[2]

There we have it: the perish option. Or not. Don’t take your eyes off it—her—it. And cherish the oddities, as Enid Bagnold wrote: ‘Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. To “Why am I here?” To uselessness. It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.’[3]

The past two and a half years­—very nearly that now—have changed some behaviours, habits, attitudes and perceptions in ways which are still largely invisible to us. In Elizabeth Bowen’s novel, Friends and Relations, Lady Elfrida reflects that: ‘Surely people were odder, or was it just that one met them? Had these years, with their still recent sense of catastrophe, brought out curious people, like toads after rain?’[4] I often find other people’s behaviour odd, to be sure, but suspect that the newer, larger oddness is in myself. ‘That is to say’, Ford’s narrator Gringoire in No Enemy remarks of the recent war from which he has emerged, ‘it did teach us what a hell – what a hell! – of a lot we can do without.’[5]

A good many people in the current crisis—there is always a crisis for some of them—are finding that they have little or no choice in the matter of what to do without, of course. Others, who are in a more comfortable position, have evidently decided on at least one of the things that they won’t do without. That scrubbed-smooth sky this morning was streaked with cloud strips like tracer but also with the swift lines of numerous aircraft, stuffed with people making their modest but not insignificant contributions to the climate crisis. At one point, with a symbolism so apt as to verge on unconvincing, the clouds had formed a solid and clearly delineated crossroads which one of those crammed airliners was approaching.

It ploughed straight on, of course.


Notes

[1] Judith Flanders, The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London, (London: Atlantic Books, 2012), 30-33.

[2] Guy Davenport, ‘The Death of Picasso’, Eclogues: Eight Stories (London: Picador, 1984), 23. That would be scientist and philosopher Robert Hooke (1635-1703), while Garraway’s, dating from the 1650s, was the first coffee house in London. I see that Simon Schama has it as ‘Garway’ – but am not downhearted.

[3] Enid Bagnold, Autobiography (London: Century Publishing, 1985), 59.

[4] Elizabeth Bowen, Friends and Relations: A Novel (1931; Chicago: University Chicago Press, 2012), 82.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, No Enemy (1929; edited by Paul Skinner Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 52. A decade earlier, his poem ‘The Starling’ began: ‘It’s an odd thing how one changes’.

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