Questions and answers


(George Lambert, ‘Moorland Landscape with Rainstorm’: Tate)

Wet. From time to time, windy and wet, but consistently, ceaselessly wet. The rain sees no reason to pause, nor to offer any sign of awkwardness or regret at not pausing. Still, we find ourselves at the extreme backend of a year in which such weather seems entirely appropriate. ‘Family customs should not be kept up after they decompose’, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote to William Maxwell on 31 December 1975,[1] and I see that statement applicable to so many areas of contemporary life that a sense of absurdity threatens to take over completely. Edmund Blunden recalled flares on the Ypres battlefield on New Year’s Eve, 1917:  ‘Their writing on the night was as the earliest scribbling of children, meaningless; they answered none of the questions with which a watcher’s eyes were painfully wide.’[2]

Questions and answers. Writing to Robert Lowell in July 1948, Elizabeth Bishop reported: ‘I think almost the last straw here though is the hairdresser, a nice big hearty Maine girl who asks me questions I don’t even know the answers to. She told me (1) that my hair “don’t feel like hair at all,” (2) I was turning gray practically “under her eyes.” And when I’d said yes, I was an orphan, she said, “Kind of awful, ain’t it, plowing through life alone.” So now I can’t walk downstairs in the morning or upstairs at night without feeling I’m plowing. There’s no place like New England . . . ’[3]

So, post-Christmas—having added Waste Land books by Matthew Hollis and Lyndall Gordon to the piled piles, plus Basil Bunting’s Letters—and pre-New Year, deciding fun is the order of the day, I move between Edgar Jepson and Eve Babitz, with the occasional break for a walk (in the rain, naturally) and leavened with one foray into podcasts, Lara Feigel talking about her book on D. H. Lawrence with Lauren Elkin at the London Review Bookshop.

Apart from the shafting of the country, the continent, the world, the universe, there have been highlights. A few I started writing about but fell off the end of a paragraph. One was certainly the 250th birthday of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a.k.a. Silas Tomkyn Cumberbatch (the name under which he enlisted in the dragoons). One item in the Librarian’s project of getting me out into the world was a recent revisiting of the Coleridge cottage in Nether Stowey. Her responsibilities extended to edging me towards the window when aware of me tensing in response to the small front room feeling a little crowded as we waited for the guide’s introductory talk to end. Paranoid, moi? Away with you.


Time, as several commentators have observed, has travelled just recently at both lightning speed and no speed at all, the speed of a rock immersed in molasses. I think of Guy Davenport’s story, ‘The Antiquities of Elis’ (which draws on the 6th Book of Pausanias): ‘It was Herakleitos who said that some things are too slow to see, such as the growth of grass, and some too fast, like the arrow’s flight. All things, I have often thought, are dancing to their own music.’[4] I’ve sometimes thought so – exclusively on the good days. . .

‘Did you see my blog?’
‘I did, yes.’
‘And?’
‘No Librarian. No cat. So. . . ’

Yes, we have certain standards to maintain. So, logically, as night follows day, we could not be, by any stretch of the imagination, present-day Tories.

How end a year, what message send to friends and strangers who happen by? I recur to the title of a volume by Jack Yeats, the painter, brother of that famous poet Willie: ‘Ah Well and to You Also’. That seems about right. In which case: all power to your elbow in 2023. Bonne année, Buon anno, Feliz Año Nuevo.

Notes

[1] Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 295.
[2] Edmund Blunden, Undertones of War (1928; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), 234.
[3] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 161.
[4] Da Vinci’s Bicycle: Ten Stories by Guy Davenport (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), 137.

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