(Joseph Wright of Derby, Firework Display at Castel Sant’Angelo: Birmingham Museums Trust)
Walking to the Victorian cemetery, we pass a spent rocket on the pavement. I thought briefly of Mr Leopold Bloom on Sandymount shore, Gerty MacDowell leaning far, far back to watch the fireworks in the night sky and the, ah, stimulated Mr Bloom having to recompose ‘with careful hand’ his wet shirt. ‘My fireworks. Up like a rocket, down like a stick.’ The morning after Guy Fawkes’ Night: on the previous evening, we travelled the one hundred and twenty metres to a bonfire in the park. ‘People’, the Librarian reminded me, ‘you’re among people.’ True enough. Several hundred of them, in fact. But it was all in the open air and the only physical contact with a stranger was with the large dog that took a liking to my right leg. Positioned painfully near two young males of the species, the Librarian remarked that ‘boys are horrible’. I know, I said, I used to be one. After a slow start, the flames took a firm hold, climbed, threw glowing embers high into the air. Guy Fawkes. Of course, the effigies burned on the fires used to represent the Pope or various prominent Catholics, while, half a century before Mr Fawkes’ indiscretion, Mary Tudor, Bloody Mary, devoted a fair bit of energy, in her five-year rule as Queen of England, to the immolation of Protestants. One of the Oxford martyrs burnt at the stake in 1555, Hugh Latimer, is supposed to have said to another, Nicholas Ridley (the third was Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury): ‘Be of good comfort, and play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.’
Candles, ah, literary candles: Wilfred Owen, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, Josephine Tey, Ford Madox Ford. . .
(Matthias Stom, An Old Woman and a Boy by Candlelight: Birmingham Museums Trust)
‘Do you happen to know Haydn’s symphony? . . . It is a piece that begins with a full orchestra, each player having beside him a candle to light his score. They play that delicate, cheerful-regretful music of an eighteenth century that was already certain of its doom. . . As they play on the contrabassist takes his candle and on tiptoe steals out of the orchestra; then the flautist takes his candle and steals away . . . .The music goes on—and the drum is gone, and the bassoon . . . and the hautbois, and the second . . . violin. . . . Then they are all gone and it is dark. . . .’
Well, yes. ‘For it is not unusual in human beings who have witnessed the sack of a city or the falling to pieces of a people, to desire to set down what they have witnessed for the benefit of unknown heirs or of generations infinitely remote; or, if you please, just to get the sight out of their heads.’
Ford wrote that even before the outbreak of the First World War, long before our current malaise, with—on bad days—its irrefutably apocalyptic tinge. Still, on a later occasion, there’s this: ‘But I couldn’t keep on writing. I was obsessed with the idea of a country, patrie, republic, body politic, call it what you will[ . . .] Yes: I had a vision of a country.’
It is often, to be sure, hard to keep on writing. Still – a vision of a country. Some people look back in search of it, others look forward, while a good many others clearly don’t care or, contrary to that Dylan song, really do need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Emerging reluctantly from the fictional worlds of P. G. Wodehouse and Kate Atkinson, I find the political landscape essentially unchanged. (I’m reminded that one of Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels is called When Will There Be Good News? No answer is required, as they say.) Perhaps, after the destructive antics of Boris Johnson and the deranged flurry of Liz Truss, some hard-pressed members of the public—even members of the so-called Conservative party—experienced a fleeting frisson of relief that there was now an unelected, right-wing multimillionaire in 10 Downing Street, poised to announce massive cuts in public spending. But in any case he fell at the first hurdle, with his appalling cabinet appointments or reappointments, squandering his one clear chance in sordid little deals; then at the second hurdle of the climate emergency, the subsequent scuffles and scrambles all profoundly unconvincing.
It’s odd that so many of the people who recur obsessively to the Second World War and the defeat of Nazism now seem not to notice or to care that countries long held up as beacons of freedom and democracy are a heartbeat away from – what’s the current phrase, ‘post-fascism’? Leaving aside the worrying recent developments in Sweden, Italy and Israel, the United States is clearly at a crisis point, on the verge of knowing for sure whether or not its two hundred and fifty year old experiment with democracy has effectively ended. Here, the Home Secretary – a scandalous appointment, then a more scandalous reappointment – channels the sort of malignant rhetoric which refugees from Hitler’s regime would find only too familiar, while the Public Order Bill, designed to limit the right to protest to such an extent that it’s effectively removed altogether, might, with trifling revisions in wording, sit quite happily in the legislative registers of China, Iran or Putin’s Russia.
Ah well. If there was settled weather for a while, it is changed and changing now, for sure. As they have it in the Scottish play:
Banquo: It will be rain tonight.
First Murderer: Let it come down.
(They fall upon Banquo)
 James Joyce, Ulysses (1922; London: The Bodley Head, revised edition, 1969), 482, 483.
 Ford Madox Ford, Provence (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938), 261.
 Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 12.
 Ford Madox Ford, No Enemy (1929; edited by Paul Skinner Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 132.
 Kate Atkinson’s long novel, Life After Life (London: Transworld, 2014), is centrally concerned with bearing witness, as several characters—and the author herself—make clear: Ursula (472), Miss Woolf (457-458), ‘Author Note’ (618).