‘Did you say something?’ the Librarian asked as the forty-fifth runner in the space of a couple of hundred metres passed us, panting infectiously. I said I might have briefly referred to the runner but wasn’t aware of having said it aloud. ‘Yes’, she said, ‘I thought it was one of the sounds you make.’
One of the sounds. We were out for lunch—‘Here we go, out into the world’, said the Librarian, who is prone to doing that sort of thing, the front door gaping as we stepped onto the pavement. Along the park’s lower path, under the railway bridge, over the river, up between the flats, through the grounds of St Mary Redcliffe, where Samuel Taylor Coleridge married and Thomas Chatterton turned up some likely manuscripts, across the hill and up to the high road from which steps cut down to the harbourside, another footbridge, then along by the river for a mile, dodging runners, watching the paddleboarders, the dogs, the photographers, then on to the Underfall Yard, the patent slipway presently unoccupied.
Lunch. I recalled Patrick White relating, in a letter to Ninette Dutton, his attendance at a lunch given by James Fairfax for ‘the visiting American millionaires’. ‘Madame Du Val cooked the lunch. Most unwisely they chose to give us omelettes. I went into the kitchen afterwards to see her and she said, “I’m fucked!” She looked it too, after eighty omelettes. I said I was fucked after one; I find cooking an omelette a highly emotional experience. Some of the elderly maids standing around seemed rather shocked.’
You don’t need to be an elderly maid to feel shocked, if not surprised, just lately. And going out to lunch was quite a while back now, with half a dozen or more blog posts begun and abandoned or left for dead since then. ‘The world is too much with us’, William Wordsworth observed, not in 1802 burdened with appalling news (let alone social media) but more concerned with that ‘getting and spending’ which lays waste our powers and blinds us to the natural world and our connection to it: ‘We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!’
Writing to a couple of archivists, always in search of Fordian letters, I can’t quite bring myself to wish them a happy Independence Day, in case they suspect me of blackest humour. Independence from the tea-swilling Britishers two and a half centuries back, but not now from their own religious and political extremists. It might be no more welcome than an American congratulating me on the fantasy glories of Brexit and the election of a government clearly intent on removing my democratic rights and safeguards.
The sense of threat from America’s gigantic lurch back into the dark feels very real: oddly, it might seem, given that I’m white, male, of an older generation, not gay – and not in the United States. But recent developments are an attack on humane and civilized values: the threat is not, or will not for long be, confined to the obvious targets. That discredited supreme court may be ‘over there’, but those who make reassuring noises about how it can’t happen in our Disunited Kingdom are dangerously naïve – or just dangerous. We too have our fair share of religious zealots, miscellaneous lunatics and neofascists and, while many Americans no doubt thought It Can’t Happen Here, it has happened there or is happening there.
Advice of the day: think of the worst that could reasonably be expected to happen then double it. More. Invite Cassandra round, pour her a drink and listen to what she has to say. If she says: ‘O dark, dark, dark. They all go into the dark’ or if she mentions ‘end of days’– listen closely.
‘I was wrong to forget’, Marguerite Yourcenar has her emperor Hadrian say, ‘that in any combat between fanaticism and common sense the latter has rarely the upper hand.’
 Patrick White, letter of 13 April 1975, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 455.
 Wordsworth, ‘The world is too much with us’, 1802 sonnet in William Wordsworth, edited by Stephen Gill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 237.
 Marguerite Yourcenar, The Memoirs of Hadrian, translated by Grace Frick, with Yourcenar (1951; Penguin Books, 2000), 198.
2 thoughts on “Pouring a drink for Cassandra”
Speaking of Cassandra: last week I re-read Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Cassandra appears there, ignored as usual. Right now an American citizen doesn’t need preternatural powers to predict the bad that is coming. Last night the public July 4 celebrations in Philadelphia were cut short by gun shots that injured two policemen and started the crowd running to safety. It could have been worse. That sentence is a measure of how low we’ve fallen. Of course it was far worse in Illinois. But I needn’t start a list of our shames. The despicable Supreme Court would no doubt imagine Jefferson, Adams, and Madison congratulating themselves on this latest outcome in Philadelphia of the Bill of Rights’ preservation of guns for private citizens and for a “well-regulated militia.” If only it were the Supreme Court solely at fault! A terrible noose of circumstances has created a pervasive cultural pathology here (and elsewhere). There seems no escape from a long slow nation-wide strangulation. Where to turn for possible relief? To the writers who can at least see the truth, even if they can’t make things change. Truthful vision is no mean thing to effect. Thanks for keeping hold of their truth, and yours .
Thank you, as ever, Robert. Email on its way.