‘Into your clothes and come!’

‘“Come, Watson, come!” he cried. “The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!”’* Yes, the mornings just lately begin like that, though my name is not Watson (and ‘he’ is ‘she’) but, for that single permitted daily exercise outing, it’s up at six, into our clothes, feed the cat and go.

(* ‘The Adventure of the Abbey Grange’)

The Victorian Garden cemetery where we liked to walk – 45 acres, quiet apart from the magpies – has now closed its gates, so we use our (very: thirty metres away) local park, which was seeming a bit crowded four or five days ago but, at this hour of the morning, there are very few people around and perhaps the same number of dogs, if you average it out over solitary runners and owners of two or even three hounds. We walk briskly, the slightly more paranoid one – me – turning round more often to make sure that nobody’s coming up the path behind us. But the last few days have seen a definite change: everybody in the park keeps their distance – and a healthy distance at that. Half an hour’s walking then back for breakfast.

My reading has become even more disorganised and haphazard just lately; books picked up on no scheme or plan, to be read for the first time or reread or read properly after previous dipping-in or briefly browsing. So, in the parapet around me, I have Michael J. K. Walsh’s study of the painter Richard (C. R. W.) Nevinson, H. D.’s Trilogy, Roy Foster’s Paddy & Mr Punch, Fiona Benson’s Vertigo & Ghost (filched from the Librarian’s bedside pile), The Letters of Gamel Woolsey to Llewellyn Powys, John Buchan’s autobiography, Memory Hold-the-Door and Ford’s Fifth Queen trilogy. Our of the corner of my eye, I can see a pile of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels in the new Penguin translations, Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and John Christopher The Death of Grass, Penelope Fitzgerald’s A House of Air, another Irish history title by Foster – Vivid Faces – and Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey. Add them together and they should see me through a few weeks (if not the duration of a pandemic).

My days have altered less than a lot of other people’s because, since retirement, I’ve done more or less what I do now, except that I have much less time outside and the Librarian is currently at home though often engaged with online meetings, referencing queries, team briefings and the like. Being what William Maxwell termed ‘a sociable introvert’ helps too: I sympathise with those people who are naturally gregarious, who like the constant company of others and really only enjoy and value face to face interactions rather than remote ones. They must be having a very hard time.

Yesterday evening, at our open front door, clapping those on the frontline in this crisis: NHS staff, care workers, pharmacists, delivery drivers, supermarket staff and others. The closest thing to a social event for a while: near and more distant neighbours all along our street applauding, some waving and calling.

So it’s not all dark.

 

 

Zigzagging to the park – and the cemetery

STC205055

(22 March, birthday of the artist and illustrator Randolph Caldecott: ‘Scene at Montone’, with the shepherd and his sweetheart – ­if she is that – observing the rule of social distancing rather better than some inhabitants of these islands)

That old saying about a week being a long time in politics has been drastically revised; now a day is a long time and single hours are catching up, in part because, increasingly, we pay attention to other parts of the world, countries whose situations have previously tended to slide by under the generous rubric of ‘Elsewhere’.

The only course the Librarian and I can take is to stay at home and, for as long as possible and with all feasible precautions, have a daily walk. But the walks are getting trickier. Fine weather just at the moment, and more people feeling the need for fresh air, unused to spending so much more time than usual indoors. So we are zigzagging. Crisscrossing. Dodging to and fro, as we progress up the long, steep road, cut through the small park, circle the cemetery and come home again. One or two of the paths there are generously wide but most are not. A growing number of people are clearly conscious of the risks and the need to distance themselves but this only makes more obvious the many who are still not, whether distracted or thoughtless or simply irresponsible. Most of those, though, are at least walking near their homes and are to be distinguished from the massed ranks of arrant fools littering roads in the Scottish Highlands and the Lake District and Snowdonia and the Yorkshire Dales, crowding onto beaches and into beauty spots, stuffing themselves into second homes and holiday cottages in areas ill-equipped to deal with the likely fallout of their dangerous idiocy.

Path

At long to medium range, you register the risks: people with young children and with dogs are likely to wander over the pavement without much warning for child- or dog-related reasons, so we give them a wide berth. Pregnant women are already mindful of the dangers so tend to take their own avoiding action. And there are those others, still behaving as though there is no crisis, no pandemic infecting huge swathes of people and killing a lot of them. We were changing to single file and keeping to the edge of the path but all too often the people bearing down on us would either hog the centre of the path or veer about all over it. So now we simply cross the road or dive down side paths or detour abruptly over flowerbeds or old graves. In the cemetery, there are many paths branching off the main road – but other walkers can appear without warning, necessitating an explosive burst of speed. I’m now armed with the useful knowledge that the Librarian can move from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in about four seconds when threatened by a family group bursting out of the trees.

At least we can still go for a walk without needing to produce a document authorising us to do so. That, of course, could change. What’s needed is for common sense to become a bit more common – and quickly.

 

Plague, fire, war – and bark

Cowper

(George Romney, William Cowper (1792): © National Portrait Gallery)

On another 19 March (1788), the poet William Cowper wrote to his friend the Reverend Walter Bagot, ‘The Spring is come, but not I suppose that Spring which our poets have celebrated. So I judge at least by the extreme severity of the Season, sunless skies and freezing blasts, surpassing all that we experienced in the depth of winter. How do you dispose of yourself in this howling month of March? As for me, I walk daily be the weather what it may, take Bark, and write verses.’[1]

Cinchona

https://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/p/perbar29.html

Similarly, I walk with the Librarian daily (‘be the weather what it may’) – the park is noticeably busier but the cemetery is still pretty quiet – though I tend to write prose more often these days – and I’ve never knowingly taken ‘Bark’. Nor was I even sure what it meant. My dictionary offered ‘cinchona’ and I gather that this was Peruvian bark, the source of quinine. Roy Porter notes that it was brought to Europe between 1630 and 1640 or thereabouts, possibly by Jesuit missionaries, the reason for its being known as ‘Jesuits’ Bark’ – and also the reason why ‘staunch Protestants like Oliver Cromwell’ refused to take it. Porter adds that cinchona, demonstrably effective against fevers, was introduced into the London Pharmacopoeia in 1677.[2]

In August 1685, the diarist (among much else) John Evelyn visited Mr Watts, ‘keeper of the Apothecaries Garden of simples at Chelsea where there is a collection of innumerable rarieties of that sort, particularly beside many rare annuals the tree bearing the Jesuit’s bark, which had done such cures in quartans’.[3]

[‘Quartans’ refers to a form of malaria resulting in a fever which recurs every third day – by inclusive reckoning, the fourth day, so Latin quartanus, of the fourth]

Samuel_Pepys

(Samuel Pepys)

Recalling that Evelyn’s famous contemporary, Samuel Pepys, also lived through a period of war, plague and fire, I looked up his 19 March 1665 entry, though the Great Plague broke out in earnest a little later than that, so the record of that particular ‘Lords Day’, begins: ‘Mr Povy and I in his coach to Hide parke, being the first day of the Tour there – where many brave ladies. Among others Castlemayne lay impudently upon her back in her coach, asleep with her mouth open. There was also my Lady Kerneeguy, once my Lady Anne Hambleton, that is said to have given the Duke a clap upon his first coming over.’[4]

No reference to applause there, I suspect.

Plague, fire and war: that’s to say the second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667, when the peace treaty gave the Dutch a monopoly on nutmeg); it was a period thickly populated with conflicts. In another, later time of war (c. 19 March 1915), D. H. Lawrence wrote enthusiastically to Ottoline Morrell of his novel The Rainbow, having had the first 71 pages typed: ‘It really puts a new thing in the world, almost a new vision of life.’[5]

Lady_Ottoline_Morrell

(Ottoline Morrell)

A positive, anyway, a blow on behalf of the ordinary universe. A new thing in the world. Happy birthday, then, to Philip Roth, born on this day in 1933: ‘But back in bed he thought, The burden isn’t that everything has to be a book. It’s that everything can be a book. And doesn’t count as life until it is.’[6]

Yes. One more 19 March. 1941 this time, when Penelope Fitzgerald (by then a producer in the BBC Features Department) kept her friend Hugh Lee (‘Ham’) up to date: ‘The BBC is not exactly tedious, in fact it is rent with scandals and there are dreadful quarrels in the canteen, about liberty, the peoples’ convention, &c, and the air is dark with flying spoons and dishes. Miss Stevens poured some tea down Mr Fletcher’s neck the other day. He knew Freud who told him the term inferiority complex was a mistranslation and there was really no such thing. I have to eat all the time to keep my spirits up so I am getting quite fat.’[7]

Whatever it takes to keep your spirits up at the moment, I’d say, is just fine.

 
Notes

[1] William Cowper, Letters and Prose Writings, Volume III: 1787-1791, edited by James King and Charles Ryskamp (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 128.

[2] Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present (London: Harper Collins, 1997), 233.

[3] John Evelyn’s Diary, quoted by Miles Hadfield, A History of British Gardening (London: Penguin Books, 1985), 143.

[4] Samuel Pepys, The Shorter Pepys, selected and edited by Robert Latham (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1993), 446-447.

[5] Letters of D. H. Lawrence II, June 1913-October 1916, edited by George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 308.

[6] Philip Roth, The Anatomy Lesson (1984), in Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy and Epilogue 1979-1985 (New York: Library of America, 2007), 443.

[7] So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 22.

 

Hand wash, news watch

Defoe-Journal

The news changes daily, hourly, minute by minute at times. I’d drifted away from my excessive consumption of the stuff because of the depressing political developments but this has drawn me back, however unwillingly. My younger daughter is in Barcelona (finding it hard to believe that Britain is being so slow to act when it’s clear what needs to be done), my elder daughter working in the National Health Service, the Librarian working in the university sector which is just emerging from a series of scheduled strikes and now has to make very difficult decisions quickly, there are friends in Europe and North America. So yes, I watch the news: Canada, the Netherlands, Argentina; China, Myanmar, Iran; Hong Kong, Australia, India, Monaco, the United States. . . France, Spain, England.

In the past, we’ve had epidemics that turned out not to be so bad, others that were deadly but didn’t spread beyond a few countries, one that was hugely and widely destructive but still allowed vast numbers of people to feel that it wouldn’t affect them since they weren’t ‘like that’. Whenever the news of such threats first breaks, it’s inevitable that we wonder: is this The One?

Now we have Covid-19, a true pandemic – that seems to target predominantly the elderly or those with existing health problems but which may prove to be rather less discriminating. And while the elderly are regarded as most vulnerable to the virus, others are highly vulnerable to the related effects of it: the poor – cash-poor, time-poor, resource-poor – who don’t have the options and can’t make the choices that the luckier ones enjoy. So our government also needs to focus attention and resources on precisely those who have come off very badly under recent administrations: the impoverished, the precarious, the disabled, the unemployed, the homeless, those with the greatest needs and the least hope of meeting them.

But all this washing of hands! Pontius Pilate on steroids, I thought, impressing myself for the space of a heartbeat before remembering that it is, if anything, the opposite: a taking of personal responsibility rather than the avoidance of it. So the hands get washed alarmingly often, door handles are wiped, parcels put aside for a while. Otherwise, I just read, cook, write. Every day we go out for a reasonable walk, avoiding busy places and keeping a wary eye on other walkers. While the weather’s still cool, I wear gloves, not yet looking a little paranoid, though warmer days may foster that impression. But after all, just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean that the virus isn’t out to get you.

And behind closed doors? Are bookish types reading or re-reading Camus’ The Plague or John Christopher’s The Death of Grass or the more recent post-apocalyptic delights? Or are they rewriting Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year? In Britain, more than a hundred thousand copies of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light are being read: but at least everyone knows how that story ends.

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head!

Covid-19 will clearly be with us for quite a while: and speculation about possible sequels has hardly begun.

Nourished by Travel – or not

Chambers, Thomas, active 1849-1859; A Burning Town by Moonlight with Travellers

(Thomas Chambers, A Burning Town by Moonlight with Travellers: York Art Gallery
© York Museums Trust)

Reading, on and off, Somerset Maugham’s short stories, I remembered Anthony Burgess, a great admirer of Maugham, writing that: ‘The form fitted a talent that was wide rather than deep, not (as with James) going over the same ground again and again till its possibilities were exhausted, but best nourished by travel, brief encounters with many human types, an anecdote swiftly jotted down between rubbers of bridge, a newspaper report, “brunch” with a planter in Burma, a whisky suku in a Malayan club.’[1]

‘Nourished by travel’, yes, though it’s often said that, in a great many cases, travel narrows the mind. Most obviously nourished are the travel companies, the airlines—and, as becomes daily more obvious, the spread of infectious diseases. But the number of those who feel less positive towards the industry is surely growing, now that even the thickest skull and skin must have been penetrated by some shaft of understanding that every journey by air—and, though less, by road and rail too—is another nail in the coffin of this abused planet.

There’s a moment in Jenny Offill’s new novel:
‘Young person worry: What if nothing I do matters?
‘Old person worry: What if everything I do does?’[2]

Like the destructive effects of smoking, denied, concealed or spun away for years, the facts now sit like giant stones on the road to the airport.

In 1950, apparently, the English travelled an average of five miles a day; in 2000, it was more like thirty miles.[3] The Librarian and I now travel, and plan to travel, far less; and less far, mainly because we don’t want to fly – besides, the cat takes a dim view of prolonged absences. On cats and travel: Guy Davenport wrote to James Laughlin (29 July 1995) about an inquiry from Laughlin’s wife: ‘Gertrude’s question—how do I know all the things I know—is a good one in that it lets several cats out of the bag at once. If she means history and geographical detail, the answer is books, travel, and stealing. If she means psychology and the behavior of people, I make it up.’[4]

One of the main divisions among travellers seems to have been the matter of purpose; more specifically, is there one? Sometimes, it’s a personal trait or tic: Colette wrote in Chance Acquaintances of ‘the few personal belongings which, at that time, I held to be invaluable: my cat, my resolve to travel, and my solitude.’[5]

Colette-and-cat

(Colette and cat: via The Guardian)

‘For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go’, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in a famous passage. ‘The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.’[6] So too, in Angela Carter’s post-apocalyptic Heroes and Villains, she writes: ‘The roads were arteries which no longer sprang from a heart. Once the cities were gone, the roads reverted to an older function; they were used for the most existential kind of travelling, that nomadic peregrination which is an end in itself.’[7]

Samuel Johnson certainly defined a purpose: ‘The grand object of travelling is to see the shores of the Mediterranean. On those shores were the four great Empires of the world; the Assyrian, the Persian, the Grecian, and the Roman.—All our religion, almost all our law, almost all our arts, almost all that sets us above savages, has come to us from the shores of the Mediterranean.’[8] Elsewhere, the opening of The Vanity of Human Wishes proposed surveying mankind on a broader scope, ‘from China to Peru’.

A more personal object was voiced by Edward Leithen, central to half a dozen of John Buchan’s novels, who remarks that: ‘All my life I have cherished certain pictures of landscape, of which I have caught glimpses in my travels, as broken hints of a beauty of which I hoped some day to find the archetype.’[9]

The brutal fact is that millions of affluent people fondly believe that they have a perfect right to drive wherever and whenever they like, and to fly wherever and whenever they like, and that exercising such perceived rights concerns nobody else and affects nobody else. The truth is otherwise. Perhaps the most famous inhabitant of Concord, Massachusetts, once wrote: ‘I have travelled a good deal in Concord’.[10]

A few more of us may need to cultivate the ability—and the desire—to study, learn and feel, let’s say, nourished by our own locality, our own small corner of the world.

 
Notes

[1] Anthony Burgess, ‘Bitter-sweet Savour’ (1965), in The Ink Trade, edited by Will Carr (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2018), 23-24.

[2] Jenny Offill, Weather (London: Granta, 2020), 21-22.

[3] Madeleine Bunting, The Plot: A Biography of an English Acre (London: Granta 2009),  91.

[4] W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 205.

[5] Colette, Chance Acquaintances & Julie de Carneilhan (translated by Patrick Leigh Fermor; Harmondsworth; Penguin Books, 1957), 168.

[6] Robert Louis Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes and Selected Travel Writings, edited by Emma Letley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 163.

[7] Angela Carter, Heroes and Villains (London: Picador, 1972), 107.

[8] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman, revised by J. D. Fleeman, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 742.

[9] John Buchan, The Dancing Floor (1926; edited by Marilyn Deegan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 115-116.

[10] Henry David Thoreau, Walden, edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004), 2.

 

Apocalyptic shopping

The Great Day of His Wrath 1851-3 by John Martin 1789-1854

(John Martin, The Great Day of his Wrath: Tate)

The university strike is on again for lecturers, librarians, technicians and support staff. More pickets, rallies, marches and earlier mornings. What are the issues? Pensions, workloads, declining salaries in real terms, pay disparities (gender and ethnicity), reliance on staff who are on insecure, short-term contracts, the increased marketisation of higher education. Ah, the joys of late capitalism, set in the context of its abiding question: why do the bastards always win?

The shopping arrives and it occurs to me that the Librarian is planning for the apocalypse, though she mentions snow and epidemics as rational bases for such precautions. There is at least plenty of cat food and strong bread flour, toilet rolls, pasta, rice. We have a lot of tins, wine, cheese and vegetables. I think we’re covered.

After a brief pause here yesterday, the rain once again seems to want to fall forever, bringing further misery to a lot of places and perhaps demonstrating to those not already apprised of the fact just how much the current government, particularly the Prime Minister, cares. (The Greek apokalypsis, I see, means ‘an uncovering’.) Some days have been so dark at times that I had to turn on both overhead lights in the kitchen before I could glimpse the Bara Brith that I was trying to make (and, by the way, Anna Jones, excellent recipe but some detail must be wrong: either the duration of cooking or the oven temperature or the dish should be covered in foil for all or part of the time. If I simply follow the directions given – it burns). And the coronavirus, whatever the arguments over terminology, has very obvious pandemic ambitions – ‘You self-isolate almost all the time already, don’t you?’ the Librarian remarks.

Alexandra Harris, in Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies, has a quotation from William Cowper’s 5000-line poem, The Task (1785) which seems startlingly apposite to our current situation:

Is it a time to wrangle, when the props
And pillars of our planet seem to fail,
And Nature with a dim and sickly eye
To wait the close of all?[1]

For now, given the state of the game and the players engaged in it – stack the tins higher.

 

 

Note

[1] Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 214; the Cowper quote is from book 2, lines 62-65.

 

Adding a few Maigrets

Davies-Maigret-Sunday-Times

(Rupert Davies as Jules Maigret: via Sunday Times)

I read my first Simenon in translation more than forty years ago – and that wasn’t actually a Maigret but The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By. In the 1990s, particularly, I did read a lot of the Maigrets, between thirty and forty, usually in batches of five or six, some of them Penguins but probably at least as many Harcourt Brace paperbacks when the Penguins were out of print. Whenever the bookshop needed to order titles through our American wholesaler, I would add a few Maigrets.

In 2013, Penguin Books, Simenon’s long-time British paperback publisher, began producing a complete edition of the seventy-five Maigret titles, in new translations – and featuring some of the leading contemporary translators. Early volumes in the series are by David Bellos, Anthea Bell, Linda Coverdale, David Coward and Linda Asher.

These new translations, or the ones I’ve seen, are fresh, clean, brisk: these are qualities often ascribed to Simenon anyway, the shaving off of adjectives, of ‘every word which is there just to make an effect’, of anything ‘literary’, that lesson learned early from Colette, then literary editor of Le Matin: ‘“Pas de littérature!” she said. “Supprimez toute la littérature et ça ira!”’

The first Maigret (not, originally, the first in book-form, since it had appeared as a serial), Pietr the Latvian is, as Julian Barnes observes in a TLS piece of May 2014, reprinted in Maigret and the Penguin Books (London: Penguin Collectors Society, 2015), ‘the most hectic and the most anxiously complicated’, but he adds that the template is established as early as the opening paragraph of the second book. And yes, there are many of the details and much of the texture that readers recognise and rely upon: the office stove, the characteristic exchanges with telephone operators, the endless sandwiches and beer—the endless food and drink in fact (if Maigret hasn’t eaten for a while, that is always commented on), Maigret’s physical characteristics, his height and weight (‘a good hundred kilos’), his solidity, his imperturbability. He can and does talk to anyone, focusing often on those who have felt the rough edge of life. In the series’ first novel, we read that Maigret, ‘worked like any other policeman. [ . . . ] But what he sought, what he waited and watched out for, was the crack in the wall. In other words, the instant when the human being comes out from behind the opponent.’

Maigret-Yellow-Dog

The Yellow Dog has some enlightening exchanges between Maigret and Inspector Leroy (with whom he hasn’t worked before, since he usually teams up with Lucas): ‘But I don’t go in for deductions.’ When Leroy comments that he doesn’t quite understand Maigret’s methods but is beginning to see, Maigret replies: ‘You’re lucky, my friend. Especially in this case, in which my method has actually been not to have one . . . ’

Most readers find a few authors, or series of books, which they’ll happily return to repeatedly. Those resources can seem, and often are, priceless. Mine are hardly controversial: the Sherlock Holmes stories of Conan Doyle; the novels of P. G. Wodehouse; and Georges Simenon, particularly the Maigret stories.

So, when the series of new translations was nearing completion, I ordered half a dozen and asked for a few more for Christmas, so that I had a reasonable store against the time when winter really kicked in – or the world was unarguably going to hell. I dip into the news a little warily these days but the runes aren’t hard to read: Trump’s America, Modi’s India, my own unfortunate country; Australian bushfires illuminating flat-earthers; coronavirus in China – and in how many other countries by now?

Six Maigrets read in as many days is not so surprising then. But I should probably pause now and keep some in reserve – just on the off-chance that there are still dark days ahead. . .