Walking early, falling surely


We are walking early to avoid the heat – not ‘The game is afoot! Into your clothes and come!’ early; and not recent Southern European heat –we’re talking, rather, of very warm English days and returning at more or less the time scheduled for the cat’s morning snack (not breakfast: that’s a separate issue).

Already, in the smallish park en route to the cemetery, there are people with dogs, plus a few without dogs and occasionally those displaying neither dogs nor signs of motion. They sit or lie on the grass and don’t move at all. Perhaps they are hoping that history—especially rancid and rancorous of late—will pass them by.

News from Ukraine and the United States, and such features as the interview with the admirable Maria Alyokhina, may put this country’s constant troubles and relentless decline into perspective but those troubles are serious enough.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jul/11/pussy-riot-maria-alyokhina-putin-crimes-hitler-years-of-resistance

At present the news media—predominantly right-wing in the UK—is convulsed by another struggle for the Conservative Party leadership. Because the only required quality in senior government ministers was unquestioning agreement with Boris Johnson, there is, unsurprisingly, little evidence of talent, ability or intellectual strength among the candidates. There are, indeed, only variations in unpleasantness. Though a surprising number of Tories have suddenly discovered ‘integrity’ in the past week or two – how to pronounce it rather than how to practise it – all these Prime Ministerial hopefuls agree that trafficking refugees to Rwanda, or some other country with a dubious record on human rights, is a damned fine idea. Then, too, most of them beat the familiar drum of delusional tax cuts, confident that the unreflecting will go no further than recognising this too as a damned fine idea. To those of us who’ve noticed the collapse in public services and recognise the reasons for that collapse—and who remember the recent history of Britain’s railway system and its energy sector—it’s a little less fine.

Refugees, immigration, the right to protest, voter suppression, public services, education, climate emergency: in a country that had not lost its senses, people like these with the views they have on such issues would simply and rightly be regarded as reprehensible individuals. As it is, one of them will soon become Prime Minister of this country, backed by a vote of well under 1% of its population. 

Still, I’ve begun reading the estimable Sarah Churchwell’s The Wrath to Come: Gone With the Wind and the Lies America Tells – which will educate me but not, I suspect, cheer me up that much. One of its central questions, ‘What the hell happened to America?’, I’ve voiced myself, though not as often as I’ve applied the same question to my own country.


Deceptively, the sky is a pure, untroubled blue (or rather, troubled only by the repeated aircraft trails). The parasol is up; butterflies and bees are busy about their daily dealings. The  hammering of workmen pauses every so often to allow for the solo wails of ambulance sirens. But a little later, quiet is restored, the makings of a simple dinner – and the birthday champagne – are in the fridge, the cat is settled in a large earthenware pot in the garden. All is right, you might say, with the world – always excepting a significant number of the people in it and the damage they do.

Á votre santé!

Pouring a drink for Cassandra


‘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.’[1]

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!’[2]

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.’[3]


Notes

[1] Patrick White, letter of 13 April 1975, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 455.

[2] Wordsworth, ‘The world is too much with us’, 1802 sonnet in William Wordsworth, edited by Stephen Gill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 237.

[3] Marguerite Yourcenar, The Memoirs of Hadrian, translated by Grace Frick, with Yourcenar (1951; Penguin Books, 2000), 198.

Seventy years and more


Thinking of Queens, as you do on some weekends, I couldn’t help recalling the story of Dylan Thomas taking part in a public reading during the Second World War. The Queen Mother, who’d been in the audience, expressed a wish to meet the performers. Dylan’s wife Caitlin was at a nearby pub with friends, growing fretful at Dylan’s non-appearance. ‘Somebody explained to her that he was talking to the Queen. Caitlin said, morosely, that she did not approve of Dylan spending so much time with all these old queens. “But it’s the English Queen,” the friend explained. “English queens,” she grumbled, “Irish queens, American queens, it’s all the same. They’re bad for Dylan. They upset him.”’[1]

Indeed, Thomas was hardly unusual among male writers in feeling uncomfortable around gay men: individual ambivalences or smokescreens aside, it was surely sometimes connected with the history of English suspicion that writing was somehow ‘unmanly’ (long list of candidates: the French, the Aesthetic Movement, Decadents, Oscar Wilde, Edward Carpenter). ‘It was [W. E.] Henley and his friends’, Ford Madox Ford asserted, ‘who introduced into the English writing mind the idea that a man of action was something fine and a man of letters a sort of castrato.’[2]

There have been official celebrations in this country, anyway, Elizabeth II having acceded to the throne seventy years ago. I’d guess that a minority of people hated all the razzamatazz, a larger minority revelled in it, more people dipped in for a programme, a party, a bit of social media – and, for another large group, it really didn’t register much at all. A couple of days off? Okay!

My knowledge of royal history is patchy, stronger on some incumbents than others but still largely a series of notes and scraps. I see that fifty-five years back from that accession, the great jubilee pageant of 1897 turned London into the imperial metropolis, according to G. R. Searle. ‘The refronting of Buckingham Palace, the widening of the Mall, the construction of Admiralty Arch, and the building of the Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace were similarly intended to create a theatrical setting suitable for monarchical pageantry and imperial celebrations’, he observed, adding that, ‘in the music halls the irreverently Radical tone commonly found in the 1870s and early 1880s had been largely replaced by the end of the century by open displays of patriotism.’[3]


A bit further on – royally speaking – and King George and Queen Mary were present at the wedding, in the Chapel Royal, 11 May 1920, of Oswald Mosley and Cynthia Curzon, ‘as were the King and Queen of the Belgians, who had been flown across the channel in two two-seater aeroplanes specially for the occasion.’[4] Then, on 4 April 1924, the royal couple opened the ‘most striking imperial spectacle of the period’, the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium, where ‘[t]he material and symbolic aspects of Empire were neatly blended by a life-size model of the Prince of Wales sculpted in Canadian butter.’[5] Apparently, he was on horseback (and in a refrigerated case, luckily).

In my lifetime, there have been jubilees of various precious stones and metals: sapphires, rubies, gold. The silver jubilee year will still be vivid in a great many current memories, with its mugs for schoolchildren, street parties and a great deal of bunting, though, as Lavinia Greenlaw observed of June 1977, ‘England was no longer England, at least not the England it persisted in believing itself to be.’[6] Multiply that now by, what, ten? A hundred?


But lately I have the Virgin Queen rather more in mind, having just read Alan Judd’s splendid novel, A Fine Madness, inspired, as it announces at the outset, by the life and death of Christopher Marlowe—‘“Reality lacks reality,” he said more than once in later years, “until it is imagined.”’[7] Though the book’s present is nearly thirty years after Marlowe’s death, it looks back to Thomas Phelippes’ work with Sir Francis Walsingham, the queen’s spymaster-general. Phelippes, who narrates the novel from confinement in the Tower, in the course of his questioning by an emissary from James I, was indeed a linguist and cryptographer, instrumental in deciphering the coded letters involved in the Babington plot, a breakthrough which led to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (mother of the present king, not an ideal situation for Phelippes).

Sir Walter Ralegh crops up in the novel because of his association with freethinkers and Marlowe’s possible connections with that group through his acquaintance with Ralegh. In the year of Marlowe’s death, 1593, soon after his own release from prison, Ralegh entered his new home, Sherborne Castle, on the banks of the River Yeo, a 99-year lease at £200 per annum. This was a gift from the queen and, as Charles Nicholl remarks, ‘The transaction was finally signed by her in July 1592, shortly before his despatch to the Tower. She did not withdraw this last favour, one infers, because she meant Sherborne to be his place of exile.’ Elsewhere, Nicholl comments that such motifs as the ‘golden world’, the idea of ‘chaste’ colonizing, the idea of ‘virgin territory’ as related to the ‘Virgin Queen cult – spring in general from [John] Dee’s occultist musings on the new British Empire (as he was the first to call it).’[8]

(British School; c.1594; Ashmolean, Oxford)

One of my favourite Dr Dee snippets is that the only one of his astrological interpretations ‘of any length that survives concerns his pupil’, Sir Philip Sidney. It was a 62-page nativity ‘which made several tentative predictions. He foretold that Sidney would enjoy a wonderful career between the ages of fifteen and thirty-one. Then he faced mortal danger from a sword or gunshot injury which, if survived, would inaugurate even greater glories and a long life. Sidney was killed in battle in the Low Countries on 17 October 1586, aged thirty-one.’[9]

There is always a temptation to compare historical periods, not always resisted even by those that can reliably distinguish apples from oranges. The first Elizabethan age glitters extraordinarily brightly yet it was not, as Henry James might say, all gas and gingerbread. The cryptographers, spies, torturers and executioners were kept as busy as the explorers, playwrights and privateers. And, as Stephen Alford observed, ‘the heightened vigilance of Queen Elizabeth’s advisers was in fact potentially corrosive of the security they craved. It is a cruel but perhaps a common historical paradox. The more obsessively a state watches, the greater the dangers it perceives. Suspicions of enemies at home and abroad become more extreme, even self-fulfilling. Balance and perspective are lost. Indeed such a state is likely as a consequence to misconceive or misunderstand the scale of any real threat it faces.’[10]

No historical parallels there, to be sure, and ‘“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,” the Queen remarked.’ But that, of course, was through the looking-glass.[11]


Notes

[1] Constantine FitzGibbon, The Life of Dylan Thomas  (London: J. M. Dent, 1965), 97.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 241-242.

[3] G. R. Searle, A New England? Peace and War 1886-1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 39.

[4] Nicholas Mosley, Rules of the Game: 1896-1933; Beyond the Pale: Memoirs of Sir Oswald Mosley and Family (London: Pimlico, 1994), 24.

[5] Martin Pugh, ‘We Danced All Night’: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars (London: The Bodley Head, 2008), 400, 401.

[6] Lavinia Greenlaw, The Importance of Music to Girls (London: Faber & Faber, 2017), 114. Ford wrote a piece entitled ‘A Jubilee’ but that was a review of Some Imagist Poets: Outlook, XXXVI (10 July 1915), 46-48.

[7] Alan Judd, A Fine Madness (London: Simon & Schuster, 2022), 62.

[8] Charles Nicholl, The Creature in the Map: Sir Walter Ralegh’s Quest for El Dorado (London: Vintage, 1996), 45, 311-312.

[9] Benjamin Woolley, The Queen’s Conjuror: The Life and Magic of Dr Dee (London: Flamingo, 2002), 9.

[10] Stephen Alford, The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I (London:  Penguin, 2013), 11-12.

[11] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, in The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, edited by Martin Gardner (London: Allen Lane, 2000), 206.

Noted

(George Cattermole, The Scribe, Cooper Gallery)

I am working on a footnote. It’s a note to a Ford Madox Ford letter, one that was previously published but which needs a few emendations – and some footnotes. Lots of footnotes. I realise that not everybody loves footnotes: if you do, there is no possibility of excuse or explanation – it simply means that the rest of the world is out of kilter, is missing out on a huge expanse of the world’s fascination, beauty, richness. A section headed, austerely, ‘References’ – that’s a man on a barstool, guarding his pint; a heading of ‘Notes’ holds out at least the promise of a welcome, offers of drinks, snacks and stimulating conversation.

My footnotes to this long letter are, necessarily, extensive. Some were worked out weeks or even months ago, added to the typed draft before the working notes, scraps and scribbles were discarded. I’m on the last footnote, a complicated one involving—as well as Ford, Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis—at least two serial publications, a couple of published volumes, a couple of other letters cross-referenced and some explanatory background. With a note like this, you could pack a picnic and set off for a day’s walk; you could write about it to friends in distant countries to whom you have, these days, too little to say. Armed with such a note, you could set out to seduce the man or woman of your dreams, your fingers resting lightly on their wrist as you murmur: ‘Listen to this. . .’

I’ve almost finished it but momentarily glance away in contemplation – you know that moment when the film script reads: ‘He [or, more likely, she] glances away, thoughtful, rapt, absorbed.’ When I look back at the screen – something has happened, yes, Something has Happened and my notes – all of them – have gone, have been inexplicably replaced by 1s and 2s, some bloody binary code that laughs – that jeers, maniacally and electronically – at my painfully crafted footnotes, that says, in effect: ‘Nothing lasts. Transience! All that was solid melts into air. Do it all over again. Begin again.’

So I begin again. There is no moral lesson here. Back it up? I was sure I had. No doubt there were positive things to do, steps to take. I found none of them. When I looked online, it told me to press keys and open menus that the latest version of Word might have allowed me to open. I had that version on my laptop – but the file was open on my desktop upstairs, with an earlier version. Save or not save? Copy, revise, delete? What are you thinking? I think we are in rats’ alley where the dead men left their bones. . . .

(Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Umbrellas, National Gallery)

In fact, by way of contrast, I’m now thinking about mackintoshes, naturally enough, since I was reading Evelyn Waugh, who writes of Lucy Simmonds and her friend Muriel Meikeljohn: ‘They had shared a passion for a leading tenor, and had once got into his dressing-room at the Opera House by wearing mackintoshes and pretending to be reporters sent to interview him.’[1] That set me wondering about how often literary mackintoshes signal comedy, absurdity or general strangeness, something slightly off (and this without so much as an explicit lingering over Dylan Thomas’s imagined press interview in which he would claim to have come to America to continue his ‘lifelong search for naked women in wet mackintoshes’).[2] When Enid Bagnold went to Marburg for three months, she recalled that: ‘There was something called a “Bummel”. I have stored the word and perhaps it doesn’t exist. It seemed to mean men walking up and down the street in the evening, wearing mackintoshes and looking for girls.’[3] The word did indeed exist. Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men on the Bummel had appeared in 1900 but the ten-year-old Miss Bagnold might well have missed it, then and later. German for ‘a ramble’, the word is enlarged upon by the narrator in the final paragraph: ‘“a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started. Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours and sometimes for a few days. But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand. We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way. We have been much interested, and often a little tired. But on the whole we have a pleasant time, and are sorry when ’tis over.”’[4] Which, yes, sounds very like the outline of an entire life of a certain kind, while still in close contact with the comic mode.

Women, mackintoshes. Less than fifty years after Charles Macintosh had patented his process of waterproofing cloth with rubber, the Reverend Francis Kilvert, who certainly liked girls—on occasion quite young ones, in that particular nineteenth-century way—and wrote of them often, arrived at the Chapel on Septuagesima Sunday, St Valentine’s Eve, 13 February 1870, in ‘the hardest frost we have had yet’, and recalled that ‘my beard moustaches and whiskers were so stiff with ice that I could hardly open my mouth and my beard was frozen on to my mackintosh.’[5] Plenty of ice; plenty of facial hair.

Footnote: There’s a neat metafictional touch towards the end of Waugh’s ‘Scott-King’s Modern Europe’ where the author reflects on the genre of the story he is writing: ‘This is the story of a summer holiday; a light tale. It treats, at the worst, with solid discomfort and intellectual doubt. It would be inappropriate to speak here of those depths of the human spirit, the agony and despair, of the next few days of Scott-King’s life. To even the Comic Muse, the gadabout, the adventurous one of those heavenly sisters, to whom so little that is human comes amiss, who can mix in almost any company and find a welcome at almost every door – even to her there are forbidden places’ (387-388).

In The Heart of the Country, Ford Madox Ford considers ‘an English country-house party’ on ‘a really torrential day’. Think, he says, ‘of the intolerable boredom of it. There is absolutely nothing to be done.’ If you’re not in the mood for a mechanical piano, more letter-writing or flirting in the drawing-room, there is just the persistent rain. ‘At last something really exciting occurs. Two self-sacrificing persons, the son of the house and his fiancée, having in desperation put on shiny mackintoshes and sou’-westers, stand, wind-blown and laughing figures, putting at clock-golf on the lawn just beneath the billiard-room window.’[6]

(‘Joyce’s Dublin’ via The Irish Times)

In a less privileged setting—1904 Dublin—we might hear this voice: ‘Golly, whatten tunket’s yon guy in the mackintosh? Dusty Rhodes. Peep at his wearables. By mighty! What’s he got? Jubilee mutton. Bovril, by James. Wants it real bad. D’ye ken bare socks? Seedy cuss in the Richmond? Rawthere! Thought he had a deposit of lead in his penis. Trumpery insanity. Bartle the Bread we calls him. That, sir, was once a prosperous cit. Man all tattered and torn that married a maiden all forlorn. Slung her hook, she did. Here see lost love. Walking Mackintosh of lonely canyon.’[7]

Back at the kitchen table, work proceeds on those other footnotes, on a grander scale and in a more determined vein. As for that final note: when it’s done you’ll be able to charter a boat with it . . .


Notes

[1] ‘Work Suspended: Two Chapters of an Unfinished Novel’, in Evelyn Waugh, The Complete Short Stories (London: Penguin Books, 2011), 281.

[2] John Malcolm Brinnin, Dylan Thomas in America (1955; New York: Paragon Press, 1989), 14-15.

[3] Enid Bagnold’s Autobiography (from 1889) (London: Century, 1989), 33.

[4] Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat; Three Men on the Bummel (1889, 1900; edited by Geoffrey Harvey, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), xx-xxi, 324. The book was published in late Spring; Bagnold was born in 1889 but her birthday was in October, so ten not eleven. . .

[5] Francis Kilvert, Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, Three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969). Volume One (1 January 1870—19 August 1871), 34.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, The Heart of the Country, in England and the English, edited by Sara Haslam (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2003), 204-205.

[7] James Joyce, Ulysses (1922; London: The Bodley Head, revised edition, 1969), 560.

Archiving the opposites


I was thinking about opposites: or no—‘I would meet you upon this honestly’—for some reason, remembering the opening of Easy Rider, which I saw twice soon after its release, once straight and once. . . not, probably recklessly taking advice from a friend of that time (‘You have to see it stoned, man, otherwise you’re just wasting time and money’). The opening sequence has the soundtrack of a Steppenwolf song, its refrain being: ‘God damn the pusher’. I was reminded of it only because of its opposite, not curse but benediction, since I was thinking, after an exchange of emails yesterday and this morning: ‘God bless the archivist.’

That sentiment is common enough among researchers, I know. There is darkness; an archivist fiddles with the solar system and – there’s light. Accept the miracle, send the lavishly grateful email, know your place in an ordered universe. . .But I was thinking about opposites.

‘I reacted violently against him at first on the grounds that he was a militarist. But I soon found that if he was a militarist, he was at the same time the exact opposite.’ This is the Australian painter Stella Bowen writing, not long after his death, of her partner of ten years and father of her child, Ford Madox Ford.[1] When she met him in 1917, he was in uniform, as almost all Stella’s other friends and acquaintances at that time—poets, painters, dancers, musicians, translators—were not. The least likely candidate for an organisation such as the British Army, one might think, yet, when he was given a commission, he wrote to Lucy Masterman, ‘I can assure you, for what it is worth, that it is as if the peace of God had descended on me—that sounds absurd—but there it is! Man is a curious animal.’[2] Indeed.

(Stella Bowen, ‘Ford Playing Solitaire’)

Opposites are routinely employed or deployed in all manner of writers’ work and are integral to some. F. O. Matthiessen wrote of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ‘inveterate habit of stating things in opposites’, while Guy Davenport noted of John Ruskin that he ‘quite early began to use the digression as a major device of style, and later saw in his infinitely branching digressions (Fors Clavigera is a long work of nothing but) “Gothic generosity” – the polar opposite of classical restraint.’[3] Of Penelope Fitzgerald, fellow-novelist Julian Barnes wrote: ‘Many writers start by inventing away from their lives, and then, when their material runs out, turn back to more familiar sources. Fitzgerald did the opposite, and by writing away from her own life she liberated herself into greatness.’[4] Reflecting on her Booker Prize winning novel, Offshore, Fitzgerald remarked: ‘It was a pity that the title was translated into various European languages with words meaning “far away” or “far from the shore,” which meant the exact opposite of what I intended. By “offshore” I meant to suggest the boats at anchor, still in touch with the land, and also the emotional restlessness of my characters, halfway between the need for security and the doubtful attraction of danger. Their indecision is a kind of reflection of the rising and falling tide, which the craft at anchor must, of course, follow.’[5]

(Thomas Rowlandson cartoon , ‘Walking up the High Street’: Messrs Johnson and Boswell in Edinburgh)

The idea of the opposite is indispensable to the firm contradiction of a prevailing trend or assumption, as essential a tool in the biographer’s or historian’s bag as a plunger in a plumber’s. Adam Sisman’s absorbing book on James Boswell observes of the famous trip to the Hebrides that this was, for most Britons, ‘still a wild and exotic region, one of the least explored in Europe. The Grand Tour was very much the fashion in the mid-eighteenth century, but the route directed the sons of the aristocracy to the sites of classical European civilization. Johnson and Boswell, by heading for the barbarian North, were going in the opposite direction.’[6] (The story-board for the animated short, ‘Sam and Jim Go Up Not Down’, is currently in draft form.) The great historian Fernand Braudel was also in a contradictory mood when he stated that, between 1350 and 1550, Europe ‘probably experienced a favourable period as far as individual living standards were concerned.’ Manpower was relatively scarce after the ravages of the Black Death. ‘Real salaries have never been as high as they were then.’ And he adds: ‘The paradox must be emphasized since it is often thought that hardship increases the farther back towards the middle ages one goes In fact the opposite is true of the standard of living of the common people – the majority.’[7] Moving on (chronologically), Alexandra Harris suggested that ‘The Georgian revival was in important ways precisely the opposite of Little Englandism: it was an investigation of England’s cultural relations with Europe and an effort to promote an audaciously international version of Englishness.’[8] If that’s the case, we clearly need another one.

The saying that ‘opposites attract’ will be true enough, no doubt, in many instances; but so too will the assertion that ‘opposites repel’, more so than ever at the current juncture when societies and nations seem to have cracked down the middle or lost their collective minds. Some ideals are being held so fiercely that they are breathlessly expiring; but then, as Robert Musil wrote: ‘Ideals have curious properties, and one of them is that they turn into their opposites when one tries to live up to them.’[9]

Sometimes. Still, God bless the archivist: that statement will brook no opposition.


Notes

[1] Stella Bowen, Drawn From Life (London: Collins, 1941), 62.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 61.

[3] F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941; New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 3; Guy Davenport, ‘Ruskin According to Proust’, in The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), 334.

[4] Julian Barnes, ‘The Deceptiveness of Penelope Fitzgerald’, Through the Window: Seventeen Essays (And One Short Story) (London: Vintage, 2012), 4.

[5] Penelope Fitzgerald, ‘Curriculum Vitae’, in A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 478.

[6] Adam Sisman, Boswell’s Presumptuous Task (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2000), 89.

[7] Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th – 18th Century. Volume I: The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible, translated from the French; revised by Sîan Reynolds (London: Fontana Books 1985), 193, 194.

[8] Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (London, Thames & Hudson 2010), 70.

[9] Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike (London: Picador, 1997), 247.

Bowling mangel-wurzels across the lawn

(James Eckford Lauder, The Parable of Forgiveness: Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool)

‘It was Janet’s view’, Elspeth Barker wrote of her stubbornly individual young heroine, ‘that forgetting was the only possible way of forgiving. She did not believe in forgiveness; the word had no meaning.’[1] Janet has, you might say, a lot to put up with – and the Calvinist harangues of Mr McConochie are hardly designed to stimulate the more generous Christian virtues in the bosoms of his flock. Still, other approaches are, as they say, available.

‘After such knowledge, what forgiveness?’, T. S. Eliot wrote.[2] It’s a question that’s cropped up several times in the news just lately. In Ukraine, unsurprisingly, they ask if they can ever forgive Russia, though that question often focuses more specifically on Putin. Some Russians are themselves wondering whether they can ever forgive their President for what he has done to their country, its neighbours, its standing in the world. In England, many of the relatives of those who died in hospitals and care homes in the earlier stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, unvisited, isolated from their families because of the rules made by a government that itself habitually failed to keep them, have stated that they will not forgive the man ultimately responsible for the whole lethal mess: the Prime Minister.

Forgiveness can also be given, or withheld, on a rather smaller scale. Of their gardener—until the family moved to another house—Henry Green wrote: ‘Poole, so they say, could never forgive my mother when soon after marriage she made him bowl mangel wurzels across one lawn for her to shoot at.’[3] Smaller or more frequent, up to that final point, as Ali Smith observed: ‘many things get forgiven in the course of a life: nothing is finished or unchangeable except death and even death will bend a little if what you tell of it is told right’.[4]

The news at the moment—none of it good—is of large events on a large canvas. But those events, whatever their size and nature, began elsewhere: in a room, in a bed, on a screen, in a garden, in a bar, in a grave. The direction of travel may vary. In Ezra Pound’s Confucius, he has this:

The men of old wanting to clarify and diffuse throughout the empire that light which comes from looking straight into the heart and then acting, first set up good government in their own states; wanting good government in their states, they first established order in their own families; wanting order in the home, they first disciplined themselves; desiring self-discipline, they rectified their own hearts; and wanting to rectify their hearts, they sought precise verbal definitions of their inarticulate thoughts [the tones given off by the heart]; wishing to attain precise verbal definitions, they set to extend their knowledge to the utmost. This completion of knowledge is rooted in sorting things into organic categories.[5]

In the bath with Elizabeth Bowen (so to speak), I read about Jefferies listening to Jameson as he declaims about the New Jerusalem to the aunt and the young mother, as they wait for the young husband who will not, perhaps, come home. ‘After all, it all came back to this – individual outlook; the emotional factors of environment; houses that were homes; living-rooms; people going out and coming in again; people not coming in; other people waiting for them in rooms that were little guarded squares of light walled in carefully against the hungry darkness, the ultimately all-devouring darkness. After all, here was the stage of every drama.’[6]

Walking briefly on the main road before turning off again into quieter places, at seven o’clock in the morning, I watch car after car go by, each containing one person, and am reminded of the final question that the New Statesman asks of its interviewee on the Q & A page each week: ‘Are we all doomed?’ The answers are sometimes considered, sometimes flippant. Here, now, the world presents itself as a peculiar version of, say, a golf course produced by a team of deranged designers or architects: they create some hazards, to make the course a little more difficult or challenging or exciting or unpredictable – bunkers, some cunning slopes, water (ideally a lake deep enough to drown in), a few awkward corners where many players will slice or hook into undergrowth or trees. Then they take away all those smooth greens and fairways, leaving only the hazards. No, wait, they put back a couple of greens and call them, what, foreign holidays or television streaming services or barbecues on somebody’s terrace. Then tee off. Fore! Playing is, of course, mandatory. As Pascal didn’t quite say: you must bet; you are in the game. But you might get lucky. So – you have to ask yourself – do you feel lucky? Well, do you?[7]

(Charles Lees, ‘A Golf Match’: National Galleries of Scotland, Scottish National Portrait Gallery)

It’s often, as they say, relative. The conduct of the present English government generally disgusts me – but I live in a wealthy country which is privileged by position, climate, history and the rest. So I hold the country and its government to high standards, with correspondingly high expectations of liberal, enlightened, equitable governance – and they fall woefully short. By almost every measure of a civilized nation, the current state of the country is a disgrace. Yet I’m still hugely – relatively – lucky by many measures. I would far rather be here, an angry and disappointed Englishman, than in a score of countries that come only too swiftly to mind, where having the wrong religion, skin colour, racial heritage or gender can all too easily leave you dead in a ditch.

‘Darknesse and light divide the course of time’, Sir Thomas Browne wrote, ‘and oblivion shares with memory a great part even of our living beings; we slightly remember our felicities, and the smartest stroaks of affliction leave but short smart upon us.’[8] I don’t know. We have machines and social media to help us remember our grievances now and those strokes of affliction leave long-lasting scars, while slightly remembered felicities probably reside on Instagram or crop up as random and unprompted ‘memories’.

‘The uncritical mind is a prey to credulity’, Guy Davenport commented, ‘and without skepticism there can be no democracy.’[9] Yes, there’s that, the gullibility which people seem oddly reluctant to admit to, retrospectively. But there comes a point, certainly in those countries that have any pretensions to a democratic system, when voters can no longer claim ignorance since they know now the nature of the ones they opted for last time. And it comes to this, that huge numbers of citizens, in many countries, say, in effect: yes, these people are corrupt, hypocritical, untruthful bastards but we’re giving them our support, so they can continue to wage war against democratic freedoms or public services or immigrants or women or universities or the poor. . .

After such knowledge, what forgiveness?


Notes

[1] Elspeth Barker, O Caledonia (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021), 116.

[2] T. S. Eliot, ‘Gerontion’, The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 32.

[3] Henry Green, Pack My Bag: A Self-Portrait (1940; London: The Hogarth Press, 1992), 3.

[4] Ali Smith, How to be both (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2014), 95.

[5] Ezra Pound, Confucius. The Unwobbling Pivot; The Great Digest; The Analects (New York: New Directions, 1969), 29-31.

[6] Elizabeth Bowen, ‘Human Habitation’, in The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, with an introduction by Angus Wilson (London: Vintage, 1999), 166.

[7] Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, translated by Honor Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 154; as rendered, or polished, by John Fowles, in The Aristos (London: Pan Books, 1968), 220.

[8] Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, or Urn-Buriall, in Selected Writings, edited by Geoffrey Keynes (London: Faber  and Faber, 1970), 152.

[9] Guy Davenport, ‘Wheel Ruts’, in The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), 133.

Roses (almost) all the way


‘What a lovely thing a rose is’, Sherlock Holmes remarks, adverting to the necessity of deduction in religion – and goes on to add that: ‘Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers.’ Client and client’s fiancée view this demonstration ‘with surprise and a good deal of disappointment’ but Holmes, with the moss-rose between his fingers, has fallen into a reverie. Not unusually, all turns out well in the end.[1] Oddly, I see that, in the language of flowers, the moss-rose was associated with ‘voluptuous love’, not the first thing that comes to mind in Holmes’s case.

It’s that time of the morning when there are no workmen yet hammering, drilling or sawing, and the park and the cemetery are peaceful enough even for me. The Librarian photographs a good many flowers and trees while I stand gazing into middle distances, though I succumb to the orange specimen in the park on the way back home.


Reading Rebecca Solnit earlier, I was reminded again of how much George Orwell’s short life (forty-six and a half years) was hampered by respiratory disease: bronchitis, pneumonia, tuberculosis.[2] Set against that are the plump volumes of Peter Davison’s scholarly edition of Orwell’s work: twenty of them in all. Of the ones I have, the 600-page extent of the first volume is not unrepresentative. But then Orwell’s productivity, given his state of health and his honest confrontation of it, the long-held knowledge that his life would not be a long one, is not itself unique: the example that comes quickest to mind is D. H. Lawrence, also hugely prolific, his letters alone filling eight fat volumes, his life two years shorter than Orwell’s.


‘If war has an opposite’, Solnit writes, ‘gardens might sometimes be it, and people have found a particular kind of peace in forests, meadows, parks and gardens’ (5). Orwell’s life was, as she says, shot through with wars. The German writer Ernst Jünger, born almost a decade before Orwell and in a markedly different cultural tradition, recalled that: ‘Grown up in an age of security, we shared a yearning for danger, for the experience of the extraordinary. We were enraptured by war, We had set out in a rain of flowers, in a drunken atmosphere of blood and roses. Surely the war had to supply us with what we wanted: the great, the overwhelming, the hallowed experience.’[3]

This theme of roses conjured up for me not Ruskin, Pound, Gertrude Stein, Sappho, Shakespeare or Sir John Mandeville but, not for the first time, Patrick White, a young child in the First World War, an intelligence officer in the Second, serving in Egypt, Palestine, Greece. His books are dense with roses. A dozen references, more, in The Tree of Man, as motif, symbol, marker of passing time, from the moment when Stan and Amy Parker arrive at the house after the wedding:

‘Once I saw a house’, she said, in the even dreamlike voice of inspiration, ‘that had a white rosebush growing beside it, and I always said that if I had a house I would plant a white rose. It was a tobacco rose, the lady said.’
‘Well’, he said, laughing up at her, ‘you have the house.’[4]

The black rose on Theodora Goodman’s hat in The Aunt’s Story; Waldo and Arthur talking of the white rose in The Solid Mandala; and, in Riders in the Chariot: ‘Where Himmelfarb was at last put down, roses met him, and led him all the way. Had he been blind, he could have walked by holding on to ropes of roses.’[5] Among the stories, ‘Dead Roses’ calls attention to itself while ‘The Letters’, another  mother-son relationship leading to mental disintegration, has some lovely flowers but, alas, ‘this morning something was eating the roses.’ In ‘A Cheery Soul’, the dreadful Miss Docker doesn’t care for the rector’s wife, who ‘accused her of pruning Crimson Glory to death. “I only did it as a gesture,” Miss Docker had defended herself, “and nobody knows for certain the rose did not die a natural death.”’[6] Most poignantly, perhaps, in Voss, Laura picks roses while the pregnant Rose Portion holds the basket: ‘But the girl was dazed by roses.’ Laura will later find Rose dead in her bed: ‘the girl who had arrived breathless, blooming with expectation and the roses she had pinned at her throat, was herself turned yellow by the hot wind of death.’[7]

White had met Manoly Lascaris, with whom he would live for the rest of his life, in the apartment of Charles de Menasce in Alexandria, in July 1941.[8] They would spend a good deal of time in Greece and, appropriately, White remembered, decades later, Athens after the German occupation: ‘The smell of those days remains with me – the perfume of stocks in the Maroussi fields, chestnuts roasting at street corners, Kokkoretsi turning on spits in open doorways. And the roses, the crimson roses. . . ’[9]

Maxfield Parrish, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, Colliers (1912)

No rose without a thorn, the saying goes – unless you’re that lucky. Or perhaps in the right sort of story, say ‘Briar Rose’, where, the hundred years of the curse having expired precisely on the day that the prince comes breezing along, the briar hedge is transformed into beautiful flowers. The bride is won with minimal effort—no giants or dragons—just impeccable timing, ‘illustrating’, as Maria Tatar observes, ‘how good fortune often trumps heroic feats in fairy tales.’[10]

Remembering the appearance of the early romances of H. G. Wells, Ford Madox Ford wrote: ‘Fairy tales are a prime necessity of the world’.[11] So they are, so they are.


Notes

[1] Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Naval Treaty’, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, 2 volumes, edited with notes by Leslie S. Klinger (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company 2005), I, 686, 687.

[2] Rebecca Solnit, Orwell’s Roses (London: Granta Books, 2021), 25-26.

[3] Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel, translated by Michael Hofmann (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004), 5.

[4] Patrick White, The Tree of Man, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961), 28.

[5] Patrick White, Riders in the Chariot (Harmondsworth: Penguins Books, 1964), 383.

[6] Patrick White, The Burnt Ones (1964; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968), 231, 180.

[7] Patrick White, Voss (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1957), 170, 250.

[8] David Marr, Patrick White: A Life (London: Vintage, 1992), 213.

[9] ‘Greece – My Other Country’ (1983), in Patrick White Speaks, edited by Paul Brennan and Christine Flynn (London: Jonathan Cape, 1990), 134.

[10] Maria Tatar, editor, The Annotated Brothers Grimm (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), 238.

[11] Ford Madox Ford, Portraits from Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937), 109.

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’.

Cake, justice and other helpings

(Harmen van Steenwyck, Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life: National Gallery, London)

The name on the local builder’s van parked just outside our window recalls a nineteenth-century book title. ‘“Socially and politically mean one thing in the end,” said Beauchamp. “If you have a nation politically corrupt you won’t have a good state of morals in it, and the laws that keep society together bear upon the politics of the country.”’ I’ve not actually read George Meredith’s novel, Beauchamp’s Career, but was happy to lean on Roy Foster, clearly familiar not only with Meredith but also Trollope, Disraeli, George Eliot, Dickens, Mrs Humphrey Ward and others, together with a raft or, rather, flotilla of critics, biographers, diarists and historians that had any bearing on his subject.[1]

1871 was the date of the Meredith novel. A long way back—Victoria, Gladstone, the opening of the Royal Albert Hall, trade unions legalised, Stanley bumping into Livingstone, a UK census total (2 April) of 26,072,036—in some ways, at least.

In the early eighteenth century, E. P. Thompson remarked, ‘High politics was a predatory game, with recognized spoils, and [Robert] Walpole is to be distinguished chiefly by his systematizing of the means of corruption, with unusual blatancy.’[2] Through much of the nineteenth century, with England seen as primarily an industrial nation, foreign visitors went North to visit the ‘real seat of English power’, while London was regarded a place of idleness and corruption.

As economic power failed, the perc­eived centre of the economy shifted south. The last years of the nineteenth century brought ‘a new urban world to the fore, the world of inner London.’ Imperial designs increased as manufacturing aspirations declined – and London was the heart of the Empire.’[3]

‘Unusual blatancy’ then: impunity now, with little attempt to hide the corruption, lying and hypocrisy that characterises the current English government. And Emerson’s 1836 remark that ‘The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language’[4] is still germane.

My younger daughter comes over from Barcelona: the first sighting for eight months. While she’s here, my elder daughter comes for dinner; the four of us together, first time in a long time.

How are you?
I’m all right, I say. Apart from my eyes, ears, teeth, leg and back.
(Leave it there, man, leave it there.
I leave it there.)

All too soon, politics edge in. Then and now, sitting at a dinner table, sitting down to a keyboard, I think, though briefly: don’t just rant about bloody Tories. Surely everyone in this country with a half-decent view of the world now rants about bloody Tories. Or is that too sweeping? I’m old enough to remember when the Conservative party was a serious and respectable political organisation. I knew reasonable, intelligent people who voted for them. They were the law and order party, the party of economic moderation and stability, the party of patriotism and national pride. Not my party but – respectable. All that’s gone, of course. They’re well on the way to becoming like the Republican Party in the United States, a cult, utterly divorced from truth, honesty, justice, fairness, the national interest, democratic principles and the rest. All those Conservative MPs had their chance, they had several chances – but chose not to take them. Any claim to moral authority or ethical standards is now long gone.

I think of Elizabeth Bishop writing to her friend Pearl Kazin in 1953, mentioning a piece in Darwin’s Beagle journal about a Brazilian complaining that English Law gave the rich and respectable no advantage over the poor. ‘It reminds me of Lota’s story about a relative, a judge, who used to say, “For my friends, cake! For my enemies, Justice!”’[5]

(Mabel Frances Layng, The Tea Table: West Park Museum, Macclesfield)

Cake, yes. Having it, eating it. Could we say ‘no advantage’ now? Hardly, when rich men frequently bring libel actions against investigative journalists who have looked into their dealings with offshore accounts, tax havens, foreign agents, cyber hackers, purveyors of fake news and the like, in an attempt to shut down those journalists’ researches.

The day descends. Russian forces continue their genocidal campaign in Ukraine. In India, Jignesh Mevani, a prominent campaigner for the Dalit community, is arrested for tweeting criticism of Prime Minister Modi. Police clash with Palestinian protesters in Jerusalem. In the US, car crashes have been overtaken by guns as the main cause of death among children and teenagers. In France, the far right are in serious contention for the Presidency, while Leave and Tory voters in this country apparently favour Le Pen by a margin of some 13 points. In Singapore—which currently ranks 160th out of 180 territories in the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index (behind Belarus and Russia – yes, really)—Terry Xu, the former editor of the Online Citizen, has been jailed for three weeks for defamation over a letter published on the site that alleged corruption among government ministers. And here – we read the headlines, watch members of parliament defend the indefensible (not least the latest vicious and absurd proposal to traffic refugees to Rwanda) and wonder how we ended up here.

No, of course we don’t really wonder, because we already know. We know. But the knowledge hurts.


Notes

[1] R. F. Foster, ‘“Fatal Drollery”: Parliamentary Novels, Outsiders and Victorian Political History’, in Paddy & Mr Punch: Connections in Irish and English History (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 139-170.

[2] E. P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 214.

[3] Alan Howkins, ‘The Discovery of Rural England’, in Robert Colls and Philip Dodd, editors, Englishness: Politics and Culture, 1880-1920 (London: Croom Helm, 1986), 65.

[4] Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Nature’, in Selected Essays, edited by Larzer Ziff (London: Penguin Books, 1982), 51.

[5] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 255. ‘Lota’ is Lota de Macedo Soares, with whom Bishop lived in Brazil for fifteen years.

On the other hand


There was, is, a saying:
‘Till April is dead
Change not a thread’

Perhaps less a suggestion to heavy users of social media than a body blow to personal hygiene. All Fools’ Day, I finally troubled to find out, is of French origin, the poisson d’avril—April fish—persons to be hoaxed or have a cardboard fish attached to their backs or simply to be sent on some ridiculous errand. The April fish, because of its abundance in that month, is the mackerel – and the French maquereau also meaning ‘pimp’, occasional complications, or extensions of the idea, were always likely to arise.[1]

‘Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote’ or no, rather, as has been very often quoted of late, ‘the cruellest month’. Some days begin well enough. After breakfast, sitting at the kitchen table with Wodehouse or Lawrence or Mary Wollstonecraft (‘more tea, Mary?’), the cat at the back door or already upstairs again, sprawled on the bed with the Librarian, who is speaking French back at her iPad or looking at her timetable, clouds on the breezier days moving, steadily stately galleons, above the trees and houses, maybe the quick crossword done, even a sentence written that stays written.

But the news is always there, whether just arriving or already waiting. The worst is still from Ukraine, of course, the continued targeting and murder of civilians, and names that will not be forgotten by historians of atrocity: Borodyanka, Bucha, Mariupol, Kramatorsk.

‘Far from his illness’, W. H. Auden wrote of W. B. Yeats, ‘The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests’.[2] To those deluged in grief or fighting for their lives, it’s often shocking that things go on elsewhere – perhaps not as normal, or as before, but they go on. Apsley Cherry-Gerrard, youngest member of Scott’s second Antarctic expedition, who had gone to the war with his health still shaky, was invalided out of the army with what was eventually diagnosed as ulcerative colitis. While men died in their hundreds of thousands on the other side of the channel, Cherry found himself, in 1916, alone in the family home for the first time. ‘There, in the stillness behind the high yew hedge, he watched the oaks and beeches flower and observed the progress of a family of robins nesting in the willow. He noted the arrival of a hen sparrowhawk, and listed the species of tits hovering around the fruit trees. It was a stay against the chaos of the war, and he absorbed himself in the smallness of his garden while the world went mad.’[3]

A few months after the end of that war, Aldous Huxley—who had, in fact, volunteered but was, inevitably, rejected on health grounds because of his famously poor eyesight, following a serious infection years before—wrote to his brother Julian: ‘great events are both terrifying and boring, terrifying because one may be killed and boring because they interfere with the free exercise of the mind—and after all, that freedom is the only thing in the world worth having and the people who can use it properly are the only ones worthy of the least respect: the others are all madmen, pursuing shadows and prepared at any moment to commit acts of violence. The prospects of the universe seem to me dim and dismal to a degree.’[4]

Well, yes. On the other hand – there are goldfinches in our garden. . .


Notes

[1] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 140, 142-143.

[2] Auden, ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats (d. Jan. 1939)’, W. H. Auden, The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1977), 241.

[3] Sara Wheeler, Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Gerrard (London: Jonathan Cape, 2001), 185.

[4] Aldous Huxley, Letters of Aldous Huxley, edited by Grover Smith (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), 173-174