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

Advice Notes

(James Campbell, Waiting for Legal Advice: Walker Art Gallery)

Writing to Hugh Kenner on 30 March 1970, Guy Davenport remarked: ‘Strategy to be recommended to any bright young mind: stray, wander, and meander, and pay attention to what things look like not only from here, but also from there.’[1]

Paying attention – that’s pretty much always sound advice, and not subject to today’s date on the newspaper. Sarah Bakewell, noting that Plutarch’s Moralia was translated into French in the same year that Michel de Montaigne began writing his Essays, observed that, on the question of how to achieve peace of mind, ‘Plutarch’s advice was the same as Seneca’s: focus on what is present in front of you, and pay full attention to it.’[2]

Many of us are far readier to proffer suggestions and recommendations than to accept them from others. But of course – who knows us better than we know ourselves? Answer: it varies, from practically nobody to practically everybody. Continuity is a good thing – except when it’s not. To a young woman writer who sought her advice, Colette responded: ‘When you are capable of certifying that today’s work is equal to yesterday’s, you will have earned your stripes. For I am convinced that talent is nothing other than the possibility of resembling oneself from one day to the next, whatever else befalls you.’[3] And Joan Didion commented: ‘I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.’[4]

Perhaps the best advice—if, practically, the most unhelpful—was Elizabeth Bishop’s take on Pascal. Writing to Robert Lowell (30 March 1959), she commented on John Keats that, ‘Except for his unpleasant insistence on the palate, he strikes me as almost everything a poet should have been in his day. The class gulf between him and Byron is enormous. As Pascal says, if you can manage to be well-born it saves you thirty years.’[5]

‘If you can manage’ – this to Mr Lowell of Boston, where a good many people were familiar with the famous verse by John Collins Bossidy:

And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk to the Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God.

A nice sense of humour, Ms Bishop had.


Notes

[1] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1300.

[2] Sarah Bakewell, How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer (London: Vintage 2011), 32.

[3] Judith Thurman, Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000), 409

[4] Slouching Towards Bethlehem, in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction (New York: Knopf, 2006), 106.

[5] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 372.

Noises off – and on


A bright, chilly day. In a neighbouring garden, workmen are making a truly fantastic noise. If they were in competition to produce the greatest number of decibels without mechanical assistance, I would have to rate their chances highly. Their relentless cacophony is overlaid from time to time by ambulance sirens and aircraft noise.

The sirens are probably connected with the fact that cases of Covid-19 are climbing dizzily again in this country but the government narrative demands official pretence that the pandemic is over. Accordingly, the Health Secretary assures those eager to hear such complacent nonsense that there is no cause for concern because vaccination will protect us. The production and distribution of vaccines, the scientists and the NHS, have certainly been hugely impressive; and I see every day the latest percentages of the population to have had two doses of the vaccine and the booster shot, also looking impressive. Yet translating those percentages into numbers, as accurately as I can, it seems that nearly thirty million people in the UK have not had a booster; and at least eighteen million haven’t even had two jabs—the last figure presumably including those that have had none at all, for whatever reason, none of them reassuring.

The aircraft noise, much though not by no means all of it from helicopters, may be connected with the tragedy taking place on the far side of Europe. This country is not officially on military alert but it would be naïve to suppose that no preparations, adjustments and relocations are taking place.

‘It is vain to torment oneself over sufferings that one cannot alleviate’, Somerset Maugham wrote—and by ‘vain’ I take him to mean ‘profitless’ rather than ‘conceited’—which is probably true but not easy at a time like this.[1] These are not restful days. We don’t have enough space to accommodate refugees; nor are we rich. So we donate what money we can and, along with countless others, sit and watch sickening images on television and laptop screens, as hospitals, schools, theatres and cars full of fleeing children are deliberately targeted by Russian bombs, shells and missiles. 

‘The acts of people are baffling’, Edward Dahlberg observed, ‘unless we realize that their wits are disordered.’[2] True again, often enough, though some cannot take refuge in such an explanation. And it’s too easy to dissipate energy in fruitless railing against malign or spectacularly dim politicians, proxies and useful idiots, and governments that must be dragged, kicking and screaming, in the general direction of a minimally humanitarian response to such a crisis.

Mary Wollstonecraft: ‘It is justice, not charity, that is wanting in the world.’ (Jug from Sussex Lustreware)

Luckily, I have four projects in train at present—related but often not quite closely enough. I mean that some glittering prize of a detail, lifted from one of the books I’m reading or, more often, rereading, may benefit two of those projects but never all. And there are the other things, often mislabelled ‘small’, which go to make up the civilised life. A handful of grapes, daffodils in the Mary Wollstonecraft jug, a cherry tree, a glass of wine, a cat in the garden, a voice on the stairs. Can I read Geoffrey Grigson while kneading bread dough? Why yes, if the book is placed at exactly the right angle. I can also find a use for the jar of roasted peppers that has been in the pantry far too long; connect a piece in Ford Madox Ford’s Provence with a passage in Doris Lessing’s In Pursuit of the English; add twenty lines to an essay I’m working on and take only a dozen of them out again.

Warily, I recall Guy Davenport’s assertion, more than thirty years ago—and not, of course, in the later stages of a pandemic—that ‘We must move away from Sartre’s “Hell is other people”. The crux is this: that instead of asking the world not to threaten our solitude, our personal and solipsistic order, we should so behave ourselves as not to threaten the world’s order. This involves our understanding, and agreeing to, the world’s order, a process of complex immensity, but one in which culturally the arts have a great, mediating role.’[3]

‘The world’s order’: an irresistible, mysterious, hazardous phrase. I don’t think he was talking of political arrangements but something simpler, something larger. ‘“We can’t put it together,” as Stewart Brand said of the universe; “it is together.”’[4]

The workmen have fallen unaccountably silent. It must be that time of day. A welcome respite but probably temporary. Probably.


Notes

[1] Maugham, ‘A Man with a Conscience’, in Collected Short Stories: Volume 4 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963), 203.

[2] Edward Dahlberg, The Carnal Myth: A Search into Classical Sensuality (London: Calder & Boyars, 1970), 24.

[3] Guy Davenport, A Balthus Notebook (New York: Norton, 1989), 70-71.

[4] Quoted by Hugh Kenner, ‘Retrospect: 1985’, 7: this is the preface to a new edition of The Poetry of Ezra Pound, first published in 1951.

Receding tide


The tide was out at Lyme Regis: more, it had receded further than I ever remember seeing. In the harbour, some of the boats leaned drunkenly, almost on their sides; chunks of exposed wood left on its floor looked like huge fish, even fossils, probably unsurprising in this location, home to Mary Anning, palaeontologist and fossil collector. We sat in the shelter, high up in the Jane Austen garden, ate Portuguese custard tarts and watched the tide.

I recalled the strenuous efforts I’d made, thirty years back, to commit to memory the whole of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’, which I wrote out at the top of my paper, confident that it would impress the examiners.

Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

They probably thought: ‘God, what an insufferable smartarse!’—but passed me anyway.

The day before the trip to Lyme, we’d walked on the common where the Librarian’s parents walk every day, the signs of Storm Eunice (or was it Franklin?) still visible. It occurs to me, hardly for the first time and with marked unoriginality, that there are trees one thousand, two thousand, perhaps five thousand years old, that can be brought down in minutes. Now ‘once in a decade’ and even ‘once in a lifetime’ events are happening with increasing frequency – but there is no irrefutable sign that we, as a country, a continent, a species, are fully awake to it yet.


The day after war began again in Europe, and serious questions were being asked once again about the mental state of a Russian dictator, I walked to the storage unit in brilliant sunshine.

The park was quiet as I laboured uphill: the white-bearded man with the spaniels, his companion with hers, a few children with their parents in the play area, figures on benches, well-wrapped against the cold air. It occurred to me, descending the steps on the far side of the hill, that I’d avoided this route for months since it’s hardly wide enough for two people to give each other room as they pass. I’ve become more relaxed in the open air but indoor spaces—shops, public transport, after the government’s latest blunder—remain hugely unappealing.

The storage unit site was deserted. I heard an engine running for a few minutes while I was groping through boxes, but there was nothing in sight when I came out again. I’d visited so rarely in the past two years —and then just to check that the unit’s secure and there’s no sign of damp—that everything was as it had been in 2019, the boxes and bags still in their same configuration. A time capsule in its way, perhaps an example of that ‘normal’ that so many people seemingly wish to get back to, and believe possible.

Since that visit – a week of barbarism, war crimes, civilians targeted, schools and hospitals bombed and struck by missiles, children murdered. A week, too, of extraordinary courage, everywhere in Ukraine but also among protesters on the streets of Russian cities. And, though at least fifteen hundred miles from Kyiv, some of us jump a little when we hear a siren, a plane going over, a distant unexplained roaring. Those who lived through the 1980s remember that instinctive, momentary reaction well enough, a barely perceptible but constant tension that went on for years. That at least is a ‘normal’ we were all hoping not to get back to.

Storm warnings

Rousseau, Theodore, 1812-1867; Landscape with a Stormy Sky

(Theodore Rousseau, Landscape with a Stormy Sky: Victoria and Albert Museum)

Walking in the park, the Librarian remarks on how beautiful the light is: lying on the trees, the mosque glimpsed between buildings on the facing hill and the lines of colourful housefronts. The light is, yes, extraordinary—but not least because of the violent mixing of colours on the sky’s palette. Above the trees behind us, there’s a great stretch of glowering darkness, which collides at one point with a patch of pure brilliance, untouched by any shadow or streak of darker colour. Above another clump of trees, a cloud of deep grey seemingly squats among the branches.

As with sky, of course, so with a great deal else. Those with the good fortune to be readers of Louis MacNeice think often of ‘Snow’, which reads in part:

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.[1]

‘Incorrigibly plural’, yes. There are simplicities, to be sure, but not always where our contemporary ‘culture warriors’ believe—or pretend to believe—they are. Elsewhere, MacNeice writes:

‘We are not changing ground to escape from facts
But rather to find them. This complex world exacts
Hard work of simplifying; to get its focus
You have to stand outside the crowd and caucus.’[2]

Now we are watching the trees bend; the door propped carefully open when the cat insists on fresh air; one brief and bitter squall of rain earlier; the wind yesterday afternoon and evening irritable, confidently predicted to be furious today. The worst storm in three decades, one forecast reads.

unknown artist; View of the Cobb and the Bay, Lyme Regis, Dorset

(Unknown artist: View of the Cobb and the Bay, Lyme Regis, Dorset: Lyme Regis Museum)

Novelist John Fowles wrote of the famous Cobb at Lyme Regis that it was not only a harbour but ‘a gigantic breakwater protecting the town from the great storms out of the south-west.’[3] That’s the quarter from which this storm is coming, as often before. Francis Kilvert wrote in his diary of a visit to Claremont House: ‘When the S.W. gales blew and rattled the windows Lord Clive used to get up in the night to wedge them tight and guineas being more plentiful with him than anything else he always used them. The housemaids used to transfer these guineas to their own pockets in the morning and prayed with reason for a S.W. storm.’[4]

Little wonder and plenty of reason, with an annual salary of around £20.

 Before the great storm of October 1987—an extreme depression in the Bay of Biscay moving north-eastwards—there were tough UK winters in 1962-63 and another drifting out of my lifetime, 1946-47. A few years before that, Rosamond Lehmann wrote in her story, ‘When the Waters Came’: ‘The wind was a steel attack; sharp knobs of ice came whirling off the elms and struck her in the face’, while the news at the post office was that: ‘The peacock at the farm had been brought in sheathed totally in ice: that was the most impressive item.’[5] This was, presumably, the wave of freezing weather in January 1940. The River Thames froze then for the first time since 1888 and there was a terrific ice storm across the country late in the month.

Hondius, Abraham, c.1625-1691; The Frozen Thames, Looking Eastwards towards Old London Bridge, London

(Abraham Hondius, The Frozen Thames, Looking Eastwards towards Old London Bridge, London: Museum of London)

In a diary entry of Sunday 8 December 1872, Kilvert wrote: ‘The morning had been lovely, but during our singing practice after evening church at about half past four began the Great Storm of 1872.’[6] In the eighteenth century, Gilbert White noted the  punishing winter of 1767-8: some days, he remarked, were more severe than any since 1739-40. But top billing was given to the ‘amazing tempest’, the great storm of November 1703.[7]

‘From the middle of the month there were gales’, Alexandra Harris writes, ‘and then on the evening of the 26th the wind grew unnerving. By midnight a hurricane was blasting across England, and there was no let-up until dawn. Fatalities were eventually calculated at about eight thousand. The greatest terror of the night was out in the Channel, where thirteen Royal Navy ships and their crews were drowned. On land barely a building survived intact. It remains the most violent storm recorded in England.’[8]

Up until ten this morning, the wind was fitful but not too severe. Predictably, some people were already dismissing the forecasts—‘Nothing’s happening!’—but footage of seafronts in south Wales and south-west England bore them out and I don’t plan to be walking under any trees today. I like this calm space, within easy reach of the kettle and the cooker. Eye of the storm. In Patrick White’s great novel of that name, Elizabeth Hunter’s daughter Dorothy, on the way to Australia, sits next to a Dutchman who tells her about a storm he experienced, being at sea when a typhoon struck. ‘For several hours we were thrown and battered – till suddenly calm fell – the calmest calm I have ever experienced at sea. God had willed us to enter the eye – you know about it? the still centre of the storm – where we lay at rest – surrounded by hundreds of seabirds, also resting on the water.’[9]

White-Eye-Storm

In a letter to Ingmar Björkstén (21 January 1973), who had asked about which of his novels felt closest to him, White confessed his difficulty. ‘I tend to feel close to The Aunt’s Story because in the beginning it was either ignored, or, in Australia, considered a freak. My feeling has been much as I imagine parents would feel towards a child who is not quite normal: they have to protect it. I also feel very close to The Solid Mandala because it conveys a certain nightmarish quality of life which I have experienced, though the incidents in the novel are hardly parallel to anything in my actual life. But at the moment I am obsessed by my latest book The Eye of the Storm, because in it I think I have come closer to giving the final answer.’[10]

David Marr, White’s biographer, remarked that: ‘The Eye of the Storm has the fundamental plot of all the books White wrote after falling in the storm at Castle Hill: the erratic, often unconscious search for God.’[11]

In his story centred on the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, killed at Neuville-Saint-Vaast in 1915, Guy Davenport wrote: ‘But our knowledge, which must come from contemplation and careful inspection, has collided with a storm, a vortex of stupidity and idiocy.’[12]

At least we don’t have to contend with anything like that, do we? To be sure, the storm is really getting into its stride now but it’s just the weather we have to worry about, no?

Notes

[1] Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 24.

[2] Louis MacNeice, ‘Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard’, Letters from Iceland, W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice (London: Faber & Faber, 1937), 31.

[3] John Fowles, A Short History of Lyme Regis (Stanbridge: The Dovecote Press, 2004), 10.

[4] Francis Kilvert, Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969), I, 297.

[5] Rosamond Lehmann, The Gypsy’s Baby and Other Stories (1946; London: Virago Press, 1982), 94.

[6] Kilvert’s Diary, II, 288-289.

[7] Gilbert White, The Illustrated History of Selborne (London: Macmillan, 1984), 46, 19-20.

[8] Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English  Skies (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 170.

[9] Patrick White, The Eye of the Storm (London: Penguin Books, 1975), 69.

[10] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 410.

[11] David Marr, Letters, 354; on the fall, see  Patrick White: A Life (London: Vintage, 1992), 281ff.

[12] Guy Davenport, ‘The Bowmen of Shu’, in Twelve Stories (Washington: Counterpoint, 1997), 140.

Tapping the glass


(Ernest Board, ‘The discovery of the barometer: Torricelli experimenting in the Alps’, 1643: Wellcome Collection.)

Alluding to the still-controversial matter of Edward Jenner’s experiments, Lord Byron in 1818 observed:

But vaccination certainly has been
    A kind antithesis to Congreve’s rockets,
With which the Doctor paid off an old pox,
By borrowing a new one from an ox.

The Congreve rocket, the editors note, was used at the Battle of Leipzig (1813), producing sufficient noise and glare to frighten and confuse the French.[1]

Fright and confusion have been much in evidence lately, not least in connection with vaccination rather than the Congreve rocket. But then Jenner’s use of cowpox germs led to resistance on religious grounds, people refusing to be treated with ‘substances originating from God’s lowlier creatures’ and when vaccination was made compulsory in 1853, this ‘led to protest marches and vehement opposition from those who demanded freedom of choice.’[2]

The rain, currently exercising its freedom of choice, appears to positively enjoy being rain and doing the things rain does. ‘How dark/ seems the whole country we enter’, the poet Keith Douglas wrote, ‘Now it rains,/ the trees like ominous old men are shaking.’[3] In her novel set in late 15th century Somerset, Samantha Harvey’s narrator observes that: ‘In the village at this time of year we had only one way of telling the weather: if you can see the ridge, you know it’s going to rain; if you can’t, it’s already raining.’[4]

Wet or dry, the last week or two has seen me out for the most part on my own, sticking mainly to the lower paths in the park because my back was noticeably resentful of hills and acutely keen to tell me so. The Librarian has been walking later and alone, for longer and on an altogether higher plane. Aware that I was missing some lines from the handful of poems committed to memory, I’ve taken to carrying a paperback in my pocket so I can prompt myself. My memory seems more and more to resemble the version proposed by Mr Sherlock Holmes to a sceptical Dr John Watson early in A Study in Scarlet, the brain as a kind of attic with limited space, so that: ‘“Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before.”’[5]


I’m reasonably discreet but a woman with a child in a pushchair may have flinched a little to hear as she passed me that ‘John Macdonald found a corpse, put it under the sofa,/ Waited till it came to life, and hit it with a poker’. Describing the same circular route as myself, though in the contrary direction, she may have been in time to catch the last run through: ‘It’s no go the Herring Board, it’s no go the Bible,/ All we want is a packet of fags when our hands are idle.’ The last lines of MacNeice’s poem seem painfully apt: ‘The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall for ever,/ But if you break the bloody glass you won’t hold up the weather.’[6]

In my sunnier moments, it also prompts the thought of how many houses used to have barometers—I must have come across dozens—and how relatively few do so now. It’s hardly surprising: they were for use not ornament and the Met Office forecasts are increasingly accurate. There’s also this new-fangled thing called the internet.


(North east view of Selbourne, from The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne by Gilbert White © The British Library Board)

The naturalist Gilbert White, at whose house barometers and thermometers ‘were much-prized members of the household’—and who was ‘assiduous’ in his readings and recordings—wrote of house-crickets that: ‘Whatever is moist they affect; and therefore often gnaw holes in wet woollen stockings and aprons that are hung to the fire: they are the housewife’s barometer, foretelling her when it will rain; and are prognostic sometimes, she thinks, of ill or good luck; of the death of a near relation, or the approach of an absent lover. By being the constant companions of her solitary hours they naturally become the objects of her superstition.’[7]

Pressure rising, pressure falling. We don’t, I suppose, really need to tap the glass of a barometer these days. Farce or tragedy or tragicomedy, it’s being played out before our eyes—quite enlightening, no doubt, for those in the habit of thinking that we had only the one plague to contend with.

Writing little more than a year before his death, Byron had a word about barometers:

The London winter’s ended in July,
    Sometimes a little later. I don’t err
In this: whatever other blunders lie
    Upon my shoulders, here I must aver
My Muse a glass of weatherology;
    For Parliament is our barometer:
Let radicals its other acts attack,
Its sessions form our only almanac.[8]

If Parliament is our barometer now, I think it’s safe to say that the weather prospects are not encouraging.


Notes

[1] Lord Byron, ‘Canto I’, Don Juan, edited by T. G. Steffan, E. Steffan and W. W. Pratt (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 78, 580n. On the proof, Byron’s friend, John Cam Hobhouse wrote: ‘Mon cher ne touchez pas à la petite Verole [smallpox]’: ‘Appendix’, 757.

[2] See: https://www.jenner.ac.uk/about/edward-jenner (accessed 8 January 2022)

[3] Keith Douglas, last lines of ‘Soissons’ (1940): The Complete Poems of Keith Douglas, edited by Desmond Graham (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 47. Soissons is a commune in Hauts-de-France, roughly 100 kilometres north-east of Paris.

[4] Samantha Harvey, The Western Wind (London: Jonathan Cape, 2018), 91.

[5] Arthur Conan Doyle, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels, edited with notes by Leslie S. Klinger (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company 2006), 34.

[6] Louis MacNeice, ‘Bagpipe Music’, Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 95, 96.

[7] Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English  Skies (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 209; Gilbert White, The Illustrated History of Selborne (London: Macmillan, 1984), 210.

[8] Byron, ‘Canto XIII’, Don Juan 453.

Backing the inevitable


(Henri Rousseau, Surprised!, National Gallery)

As the Chinese Year of the Ox prepares to shuffle off in favour of the Year of the Tiger, more locally I have the Year of the Back – or no, that’s too downbeat, even for me. Say: the Month of the Back. Or, as I noted in my sporadically-kept diary, ‘The Back is back.’ Following in what has, unfortunately, become an irregular traditional practice—2013, 2015, 2019 and 2020—I am devoting twenty minutes each morning to putting my socks on. A schooling in patience, so to speak.

Initially, the cat looked suspicious and a little bewildered to have the Librarian preparing and serving his food—that bowl on the floor being just too far away for me—but is becoming reconciled. As is she. Probably. Perhaps.

When it comes to the serious work, though, the problem is that, like a bad toothache, a wrecked back tends to occupy the mind and resents any incursions by such brittle beasts as research or writing. But I can read more rovingly, so I do that: Mary Gaitskill, C. L. R. James, Annie Ernaux, Jane Gardam – and Byron’s Don Juan. Writing to poet-publisher James Laughlin in 1993, Guy Davenport told him: ‘I’ve been rereading (for the whatevereth time) Don Juan, which may be the funniest poem in English—certainly the greatest stylistic tour de force. It’s proof enough that God doesn’t read our books that Byron didn’t get to finish it. Juan was to have become a ranting Methodist in Yorkshire.’[1] Nearly sixty years earlier, W. H. Auden had, at the age of twenty-nine:

Just read Don Juan and I found it fine.
I read it on the boat to Reykjavik
Except when eating or asleep or sick.[2]

I remembered a brief exchange with the poet and artist David Jones that William Blissett recorded:

 ‘“Bugger old age.” 
“Is that your final word today?” 
“Yes.”’[3]

Jones lived to—almost—seventy-nine. In the half-century since his death, of course, our expectations are a little greater. (Or were, until the recent downturn, often the sign of governments with fatally wrong priorities.)

Still, physically at least, deterioration is written into everybody’s contract. A quotation was long lodged in my head from Henry Miller, which I had trouble finding, not least because, it transpires, I had the word order slightly wrong. I’m reminded now that ‘We resist only what is inevitable’ is from Miller’s 1957 Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, one of those statements that seems to shunt the reader or listener straight to the opposite or corollary statement, here, that we don’t resist what is not inevitable—and which, arguably, might be changed or averted through resistance. That would accord with the view of Miller famously presented by George Orwell in ‘Inside the Whale’, which begins and ends with Miller, to whom Orwell ascribes ‘a sort of mystical acceptance of thing-as-it-is.’ Orwell then runs through just what such acceptance includes in the mid-twentieth century—concentration camps, Hitler, Stalin, press censorship, political murders and the rest—but argues that Miller’s general attitude, nevertheless, is ‘“Let’s swallow it whole”’.[4]


(David Jones, from The Book of Jonah
https://www.artwales.com/exhibition-mtg-en.php?locationID=184 )

Inevitability, then, most famously that of death and taxes, according to Benjamin Franklin, though my Oxford Dictionary of Quotations points to Daniel Defoe as precedent, more or less. For the rich, of course, in this country and surely many others, paying tax seems to be optional if you have that sort of moral threshold, that sort of accountant and offshore accounts already set up – but no government, however supine or conflicted, has yet managed to legislate against the Grim Reaper or to arrange loopholes for its friends.

Endings, anyway. As Annie Ernaux has it, ‘The time that lies ahead of me grows shorter. There will inevitably be a last book, as there is always a last lover, a last spring, but no sign by which to know them.’[5] And D. H. Lawrence wrote to Catherine Carswell, ‘One can tell what will happen, more or less. Some things one knows inwardly, and infallibly. But the how and the why are left to the conjunction of circumstances.’[6]

Lawrence, in fact, dwelt often on inevitability. ‘This is England. One meaning blots out another. So the mines were blotting out the halls. It was inevitable. When the great landowners started the mines, and made new fortunes, they started also their own obliteration from the English countryside. One meaning blots out another.’ And: ‘It had taken Constance a long time to accept the inevitable. The old England was doomed to be blotted out, with a terrifying absoluteness, by a new and gruesome England. It was inevitable.’[7]

This, perhaps, has a distant relative in Aldous Huxley’s pronouncement in a letter to his brother Julian a few months before the Armistice in 1918: ‘Whatever happens, we may be sure it will be for the worst. I dread the inevitable acceleration of American world domination which will be the ultimate result of it all. It was a thing that had got to come in time, but this will hasten its arrival by a century.’[8]

Patrick White’s Voss remarks that: ‘Human behaviour is a series of lunges, of which, it is sometimes sensed, the direction is inevitable.’[9] A little more positively, perhaps, ‘And yes’, Katherine Mansfield wrote to William Gerhardi in March 1922, ‘that is what I tried to convey in The Garden Party. The diversity of life and how we try to fit in everything, Death included. That is bewildering for a person of Laura’s age. She feels things ought to happen differently. First one and then another. But life isn’t like that. We haven’t the ordering of it. Laura says, “But all these things must not happen at once.” And Life answers, “Why not? How are they divided from each other?” And they do all happen, it is inevitable. And it seems to me there is beauty in that inevitability.’[10]


(Ferdinand Brütt, Gartenfest (1900)

There is, lastly—or firstly—the consciously literary. Ford Madox Ford wrote, in a piece on Joseph Conrad, of ‘the great faculty of this author – that he can make an end seem inevitable, in every instance, the only possible end.’[11]

More than a decade later, and returning to the subject—and the writer—at greater length, Ford wrote of ‘all that is behind the mystic word “justification.” Before everything a story must convey a sense of inevitability: that which happens in it must seem to be the only thing that could have happened. Of course a character may cry, “If I had then acted differently how different everything would now be.” The problem of the author is to make his then action the only action that character could have taken. It must be inevitable, because of his character, because of his ancestry, because of past illness or on account of the gradual coming together of the thousand small circumstances by which Destiny, who is inscrutable and august, will push us into one certain predicament.’[12]

‘One certain predicament.’ There’s a neat summary. My current predicament is, though, gradually easing. Of course, that’s a subjective assessment. Subjective? ‘This word has made considerable progress in England during the year you have been away’, Edward Fitzgerald wrote to his friend Frederick Tennyson (7 June 1840), ‘so that people begin to fancy they understand what it means.’[13]

I fancy it means that I no longer have to read Don Juan while lying on the bedroom floor.


Notes

[1] W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 146.

[2] Letter to Lord Byron, in W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, Letters from Iceland (London: Faber and Faber, 1937), 18.

[3] William Blissett, The Long Conversation: A Memoir of David Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 108.

[4] George Orwell, A Patriot After All: 1940-1941, edited by Peter Davison, revised and updated edition (London: Secker and Warburg, 2000), 86-115.

[5] Annie Ernaux, A Girl’s Story, translated by Alison L. Strayer (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020), 17.

[6] Letters of D. H. Lawrence III, October 1916–June 1921, edited by James T. Boulton and Andrew Robertson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 24.

[7] D. H. Lawrence, The First and Second Lady Chatterley Novels, edited by Dieter Mehl and Christa Jansohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 366.

[8] Aldous Huxley, Letters of Aldous Huxley, edited by Grover Smith (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), 160.

[9] Patrick White, Voss (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1957), 16-17.

[10] Katherine Mansfield, Selected Letters, edited by Vincent O’Sullivan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 250.

[11] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Joseph Conrad’, English Review (December 1911), 82.

[12] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 204.

[13] The Letters of Edward Fitzgerald, edited by Alfred McKinley Terhune and Annabelle Burdick Terhune, four volumes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), I, 250.

Bells, books, Brussels sprouts

(Frank Spenlove-Spenlove, Vespers, New Year’s Eve in the Low Country, Glasgow Museums Resource Centre)
Ours is not a low country, of course – not in that sense, at least

The year has little to show, will leave a heavy
Overdraft to its heir;
Shall we try to meet the deficit or passing
By on the other side continue laissez-faire?[1]


New Year’s Eve, though—strictly speaking—that’s not until later on today. Hogmanay, north of the border: though it seems from news reports that Scots will be streaming over that border to celebrate more freely than in their home country, this government having opted once again to make sure that English citizens take the blame themselves for any increased harm they come to in their revels. In Spain and a lot of Latin American countries, I gather, the habit of eating twelve grapes, one on each stroke of the midnight clock, is well-established. And in Japan, on Ōmisoka – I’ve seen it translated as ‘Grand Last Day’, which manages to sound simultaneously splendid and a touch apocalyptic[2] – there is joyanokane, the ringing of the temple bells 108 times, a number linked to the prayer beads used by most Japanese Buddhists, signifying the totality of the world and the heavens, and now the number of sins or negative forces to be expelled from the self in order to enter the New Year cleanly.

(Via http://www.japanstyle.info/ )

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, pinned his hopes on the bells (the bells! the bells!), several stanzas seeming particularly relevant now—or are they always relevant, alas?

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of true and right,
Ring in the common love of good.[3]

I see that the Chinese New Year, which falls on 1 February, will usher in the Year of the Tiger. My birth year was also of that same stripe, which is, I suspect—and hope—a good omen. We could all do with a few of those.

So those that are able to—and who also wish to—can hibernate for a while longer, probably with less regret in the current weather. I must settle down to some real work. Then, too, if I run out of my own books to read, I can cast my eye again over the Librarian’s combined birthday and Christmas hoard and purloin something on the sly.


Halfway to Twelfth Night, the Christmas tree is lasting well and Harry the cat is settled back into his routines after a few days in Somerset, where he spent some time on the stairs, a useful vantage point, which surprisingly resulted in no fatalities or serious injuries. In common with a great many other people, we passed a few hours in the company of the Beatles—the Peter Jackson documentary, the book edited by John Harris, reminiscences, the Librarian’s dad working out several tunes on his guitar and the final triumphant group rendering of ‘Get Back’. There were, too, important conversations, sometimes in the kitchen with the Librarian’s mum:

‘Do you use butter or olive oil?’
‘Both, usually. A bit of each.’
‘Blanch them, then whizz them round the pan in a bit of oil and butter with chopped garlic.’
‘Yes.’

That’s how we cook Brussels sprouts these days. . . I could never warm to them simply boiled – perhaps I’d suffered too much from the Christmas meals of my childhood, in the days when grandparents knew for a fact that, if you were dining at one o’clock, you started cooking the vegetables about three hours earlier. What vegetable could survive such an ordeal? Brassica oleracea: known in French and English gardens from the late 18th century, and in the United States not long afterwards, when Thomas Jefferson planted some in his garden in 1812.[4] That was the year, of course, that saw the beginning of the war between Britain and the United States, arising from British violations of American maritime rights – which may remind some of us of the current disputes between France and the United Kingdom over fishing rights. Jefferson, as noted Francophile (as well as noted slaveholder), trade commissioner in France, then US minister, succeeding Benjamin Franklin, would likely have sided with the French.


Still, I was never as hostile to that particular vegetable as Ford Madox Ford, who declared in Provence that ‘what Eve ate sinfully was not an apple but a dish of brussels sprouts boiled in water that lacked the salt of the Mediterranean’, adding, judiciously: ‘Let that at least serve for a symbol.’ And, on the plus side: ‘somewhere between Vienne and Valence, below Lyons on the Rhone the sun is shining and, south of Valence, Provincia Romana, the Roman Province lies beneath the sun. There there is no more any evil for there the apple will not flourish and the Brussels sprout will not grow at all.’[5] The sprout as root of all evil – exaggeration from Ford Madox Ford. Who’d have thought it?

Without exaggeration, then, perhaps a little warily, I raise a glass to everyone that happens by here: 2022, ready or not, here we come. Apparently.


Notes

[1] Louis MacNeice, Autumn Journal in Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 146.

[2] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 540.

[3] Tennyson: A Selected Edition, edited by Christopher Ricks (Harlow: Longman Group, 1989), 453-454.

[4] Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food, Second Edition by Tom Jaine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 110.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Provence (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938), 79, 80.

Communicable experience: words begin again


Sitting down to write the handful of Christmas cards we sent this year, I found myself oddly inhibited when it came to the notes I’d meant to add—mainly rallying cries or apologies for silences, distances and disappearances. Last year, so much still felt relatively new, baffling, a strangeness that could be conveyed in simple language, with an expectation of a shared response, a reciprocity. To say the same things twelve months later seemed somehow absurd; in fact, any phrase that came to mind appeared wholly banal, quite pointless. Then, too, it required too many assumptions, some quite hazardous, about people’s recent history and present circumstances. So, either a five-page letter or nothing at all – beyond best wishes for next year – hardly, when it came to it, a difficult choice.

I thought of the famous observation of Walter Benjamin, ‘Was it not noticeable at the end of the [First World] war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience?’ He has been discussing the loss of ‘the ability to exchange experiences’, one reason for this being that ‘experience has fallen in value.’ Our picture of both the external world and the moral world have undergone ‘changes which were never thought possible.’ He goes on:

A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.[1]

It’s very easy to look at this and think ah, yes, mechanized warfare, dramatic scientific and technological changes, transport and communications revolutions, all very historical, all very back then. Despite the massive volume of commentary—largely because of it, perhaps—we find it harder to grasp the speed and impact of some of the changes occurring in our own historical period, in part because as things develop and change increasingly quickly, we accommodate, allow for and absorb those changes increasingly quickly too. The internet—we fret if it takes more than a few seconds to respond to a search term. And if we should actually draw a complete blank? ‘If it’s not on the internet it doesn’t exist’—I remember an American librarian ascribing this assumption to college students who frequented the library, some ten or fifteen years ago now. We see many programmes, essays, articles devoted to the phenomenon of social media, especially the aggressive and destructive aspects of it. Were there always this many repellent people? Have they been created or merely enabled by the internet, because before it existed they would have had to write a letter, address an envelope and stick a stamp on it? Incredible advances in medicine: why do so many people reject them out of hand? Questions pretty simple, answers less so.


But Benjamin’s ‘communicable experience’? Men returned from the battlefield, even had they wished to, could rarely find the vocabulary to convey the enormity, intensity and sheer unprecedented nature of what some of them had seen, heard and suffered. That surely differs fundamentally from our situation now. These last two years, there has been a good deal of shared, or at least common, experience. Not as common as it was originally represented as being: the—sometimes literally—murderous inequalities that obtain in this country (among others) meant that, while some glided, many others crashed and burned. Still, there were elements of a society under siege which were at least recognised by most of us.

Helen Macdonald recently articulated with her usual lucidity some familiar if often inchoate thoughts, firstly about the dual speed of time, passing ‘far more slowly than it did before’ but also ‘running far too fast’, secondly with the unvarnished statement that: ‘Most of us began this pandemic thinking that life would return to normal. We all now know that this is a fiction; nothing will return to what it was before.’[2] And I nod, yes, though I’d baulk at that ‘all now know’. A lot of New Statesman readers, maybe. More broadly, I suspect the rule of division still holds sway. I see I wrote a little earlier of ‘our situation’. But once more particularised than ‘the human animal’, that ‘our’ is a little shaky.

We’re told, on an almost daily basis, that we live now in a divided country, a fractured society. The nation splits along fault lines of class or age or education or information sources. Brexit showed up the real cracks and some of the reactions to the pandemic, or measures intended to combat that pandemic, have revealed some more, frequently new pressures on earlier, still suppurating wounds—which are often, in fact, the most troubling.

(Cherry-Garrard and pony: https://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/History/biography/cherry-gearrard_apsley.php

The biographer of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a member of the Terrra Nova expedition, travelling with Scott on that doomed journey to the Antarctic in 1910, and author of The Worst Journey in the World, observes that:

Many of those who had served felt, after the war, that the world had been everlastingly divided into those who had been there, and those who had not. To Cherry that binary vision had been cast before 1914, and the war only served to polarise it further: those who had been south, and those who had not. His psyche never fully engaged with the war. It was still in the Antarctic.[3]

In a way, things were simpler in the ancient world. Herodotus lived in a world divided into Greeks and barbarians, that is to say, ‘hoi barbaroi’, the non-Greeks.[4] In more recent times, Penelope Fitzgerald’s memorable categories occur in The Bookshop: ‘She blinded herself, in short, by pretending for a while that human beings are not divided into exterminators and exterminatees, with the former, at any given moment, predominating.’[5] And predominate they do, as so much of the twentieth century and, alas, this one too, can testify. Primo Levi, who survived the death camps, later wrote: ‘Those who experienced imprisonment (and, more generally, all persons who have gone through harsh experiences) are divided into two distinct categories, with rare intermediate shadings: those who remain silent and those who speak.’[6]

Personal, temporal. A time to keep silence, and a time to speak, as Ecclesiastes has it. Anne Carson, as ever, has her own take: ‘After a story is told there are some moments of silence. Then words begin again. Because you would always like to know a little more. Not exactly more story. Not necessarily, on the other hand, an exegesis. Just something to go on with. After all, stories end but you have to proceed with the rest of the day. You have to shift your weight, raise your eyes, notice the sound of traffic again, maybe go out for cigarettes.’[7]


In the teeth of it all, we—we?—proceed with the rest of the day, and the words that accompany it. The rain has cleared, the sky has brightened a little. And Fat Santa has not left the building.


Notes


[1] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’ (1936), Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited and with an introduction by Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1985), 83-84.

[2] Helen Macdonald, ‘The lure of hibernation’, New Statesman (10 December 2021 – 6 January 2022), 44.

[3] Sara Wheeler, Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard (London: Jonathan Cape, 2001), 189.

[4] Herodotus, The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, revised by John Marincola (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 3.

[5] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop (1978; London: Everyman, 2001), 29.

[6] Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, translated by Raymond Rosenthal (London: Abacus, 1989), 121.

[7] Anne Carson, ‘Afterword’, in  Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (New York: Vintage, 2000), 88.