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.
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.
‘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.’
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!’
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.’
 Patrick White, letter of 13 April 1975, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 455.
 Wordsworth, ‘The world is too much with us’, 1802 sonnet in William Wordsworth, edited by Stephen Gill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 237.
 Marguerite Yourcenar, The Memoirs of Hadrian, translated by Grace Frick, with Yourcenar (1951; Penguin Books, 2000), 198.
(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.’ 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. 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.’ 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’.
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.
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.’
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?
(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.’ 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.’ 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. . .
 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.
 Henry Green, Pack My Bag: A Self-Portrait (1940; London: The Hogarth Press, 1992), 3.
 Ali Smith, How to be both (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2014), 95.
 Ezra Pound, Confucius. The Unwobbling Pivot; The Great Digest; The Analects (New York: New Directions, 1969), 29-31.
 Elizabeth Bowen, ‘Human Habitation’, in The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, with an introduction by Angus Wilson (London: Vintage, 1999), 166.
 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.
 Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, or Urn-Buriall, in Selected Writings, edited by Geoffrey Keynes (London: Faber and Faber, 1970), 152.
 Guy Davenport, ‘Wheel Ruts’, in The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), 133.
(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.
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.’ 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.’
‘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’ 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!”’
(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.
 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.
 E. P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 214.
 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.
 Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Nature’, in SelectedEssays, edited by Larzer Ziff (London: Penguin Books, 1982), 51.
 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.
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. 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.’ 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.’
‘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.”’
The workmen have fallen unaccountably silent. It must be that time of day. A welcome respite but probably temporary. Probably.
 Maugham, ‘A Man with a Conscience’, in Collected Short Stories: Volume 4 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963), 203.
 Edward Dahlberg, The Carnal Myth: A Search into Classical Sensuality (London: Calder & Boyars, 1970), 24.
 Guy Davenport, A Balthus Notebook (New York: Norton, 1989), 70-71.
 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.
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.
(Walter G. Poole, ‘Gauguin Played Here’: private collection)
The drip from the leak into the bucket quickens when stimulated by the cold water tap being run, then gradually quietens. Books from the last set of shelves are temporarily stacked on the floor of the sitting-room. Chunks and strips of broken plasterboard lean against the garden wall. The boiler is turned off, so no hot water; at night and at odd times during the day, we turn the water off at the mains. A Gas Board engineer is due on Monday, by chance the ill-conceived and misnamed ‘Freedom Day’.
I can hardly pretend surprise that our elected leaders finally abandoned even the pretence of governing the country and embraced again the notion of herd immunity—‘a dangerous and unethical experiment’, as a great many scientists have phrased it— though little over half the population has been fully vaccinated and cases have passed 50,000 in a day, the highest number of new cases anywhere in the world, I notice.
So, after last year’s Eat Out to Help Out the Virus debacle, we have Freedom to Catch and Transmit Covid-19 Day, another cunning wheeze. Tolerant to a fault I may be but I’m getting a bit sick of these people, their latest move to accelerate the privatisation of the National Health Service worthy to be set beside the corruption, the hypocrisy, the casual racism, the fake culture wars and this continuing lethal incompetence. But then I’m also getting a bit sick of the people who go on supporting and enabling them even now, unwilling to hold the guilty to account but perfectly happy to attack other targets they’re cynically diverted towards.
But soft! What light in yonder window breaks?—a call from British Gas to say that an engineer is in our area and could come in the next half-hour. We don masks and confine the cat to another room. The engineer arrives, looks at the leak, goes up to the loft, confirms yes, ball valve in hot water tank, fetches a new one from the van, returns to the loft and soon calls down to me to turn the mains water back on. Moments later the leak, tired of its minor status, transforms into cascade, waterfall, deluge, while the engineer plunges downstairs, shouting ‘Turn it off! Turn it off!’ I turn it off and attend to the explanation about a rare defective ball valve. Pretty small-scale in the light of appalling news from Belgium and Germany but alarming enough.
(William James Müller, ‘A Waterfall’ (sketch: York Art Gallery)
Now he’s capped off – something or other. The water is turned on, anyway, though not yet the boiler: we’ll wait until Monday and another engineer who’ll finish the job. Plenty of symbolism here, for the augur, the haruspex or even the paranoiac. A drip can become a flood; but a flood can be diverted, even halted. Broadly, we are now, I’d say, mid-flood with more to come. But recovery is possible. It will, though, take at the very least a change of government and a measurable increase in the number of English people willing to live in the twenty-first century rather than some other period of their choice.
‘One after another I feel my friends snap off from the old moorings, and become derelict. England herself seems like a ship adrift, entirely without course or anchorage. We must watch out.’— D. H. Lawrence to E. M. Forster, 30 May 1916.
The highlights of the past week probably didn’t include a chunk of one of my teeth breaking off at dinner—that was quite some flatbread—or being almost mown down by a speeding cyclist on the hill. There was a brisk exchange of views: always the master of the witty rejoinder, I finally offered: ‘Well, fuck off anyway.’
Rats, though. A highlight there. The agility and determination of the rat that shinned up the metal pole of the bird table, swung on the half-coconut while furiously gnawing, leapt at the fat ball in its metal cage, missed and almost fell but recovered itself superbly. The cat watched this performance through the glass with a naturalist’s interest but showed no particular desire to intervene..
Elsewhere, reports of the Dominic Cummings testimony to the joint inquiry by the health and science committees was pretty dispiriting, partly because it merely confirmed what anyone paying attention over the past year and a half already knew or strongly suspected; and partly because it won’t make a damn bit of difference to those people who vote for Johnson and his crew in any event. So, to those who say ‘if this doesn’t make any difference, we’re finished’, well, it looks as though we may very well be finished.
It turns out that all the stuff I took as read for most of my adult life—expecting elected representatives to be, or at least to seem, truthful, not markedly corrupt, believers in public service and the rest—is now hopelessly old-fashioned. Even though a good many MPs are still like that, there’s an obvious political advantage for those in government to pretend otherwise.
Old-fashioned! The very phrase is like a bell, to toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Sugar and bitters, sweet and sour. Still, I’m reminded that, of the Walt Whitman exhibition put on in Paris in the 1920s, Sylvia Beach (bookseller and first publisher of Ulysses) recalled: ‘Only Joyce and the French and I were still old-fashioned enough to get along with Whitman.’
And Whitman seems to be doing all right. So maybe even a rational politics will drift back into view at some stage, this fitful optimist murmurs. . .
Feeling a little odd is not, it transpires, down to the cat beginning the day by licking my eyebrows; rather, a recurrence of an old trouble, a touch of positional vertigo, a common enough problem of the inner ear but no less unsettling for that. It will, or should, pass off. In the meantime, I try not to look up – or down – or move my head too quickly or stretch my neck or bend or twist. . . Best to sit and read or stand and think about sitting to read. So the morning goes, with exaggerated care taken not to drop the soap in the shower or get too inventive coming downstairs.
On the plus side, I’m two Pfizer doses in – and, the other morning, took what I believe to have been my first solo walk in more than a year; not the Daily Walk but a brisk sortie to another park – the one with the rosemary bushes, so I could pick a few sprigs for the asparagus, rosemary and tomato tart (Anna Jones’ recipe) I was making for lunch. It was early, the air felt wonderfully fresh, there was barely any noise except birdsong, the distant slamming of a car door and, until I went home by a slightly different route, passing the park at the end of our road, I saw no people at all. Then, scattered across the slopes, there were dog walkers and two or three runners.
So here I am now among the women: Mary Butts and Nathalie Blondel (biographer of Butts and editor of her journals); Olive Garnett; Juliet Soskice, Ford Madox Ford’s sister; Stella Bowen; and Selina Hastings’ biography of Sybille Bedford.
(Mary Butts in 1919)
Just as time, in this pandemic, seems to move at two utterly different speeds—like lightning and barely at all—and the past is both a fingertip away and impossibly remote, so it is with the theoretical sharing of the experience of the pandemic. The early rhetorical booming about how we were all in it together (painfully reminiscent of the early days of Tory austerity policies) was quickly recognised as nonsense, even in the context of England alone. Now we look at the appalling footage from India, the funeral pyres, the staggering numbers of new infections and people dying for want of oxygen. We have all experienced a pandemic but in such widely differing ways and in such wildly differing circumstances that the statement is practically meaningless. And to write about it? Feasible but – very difficult, yes.
A new national poll concludes that 40% of those surveyed thought the Tories were corrupt – presumably the other 60% were either Tories or that very prevalent breed of contemporary voters: the ones who really and truly Don’t Know, and, very often, don’t care either. The Prime Minister may or may not have said ‘no more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands’. The two points that most struck me were, firstly, how very plausible it was that Johnson would have said it, or something very like it, given what we know of him; and secondly, bodies were already piled in their scores of thousands, many of those deaths directly attributable to his government’s policies, particularly being too damned slow to lock down and too damned quick to come out of lockdown.
Future historians will surely have a whale of a time looking back at the state we’re now in and the last few years that led us here. Will they be able to believe their eyes?
‘Yesterday you awaked very bad’, James Boswell wrote in his journal, Monday 9 April 1764. ‘You got up as dreary as a dromedary. . . . ’
I suspect that—‘dreary as a dromedary’— we’ve all been there. Not to bask in the alliteration but to glimpse the dromedary’s view of a day: plod, plod, plod – then a nosebag at the end of the day, if you’re lucky.
‘Arras’ used to signify a tapestry, a hanging screen, of the sort that Renaissance heroes or villains were forever thrusting swords through or maids or villains were pressing their ears against to overhear crucial intelligence—until I first read about the First World War. Then it became a battle, most famously—for literary historians—the battle in which the poet Edward Thomas was killed, on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917. So too was Tommy Nelson (Thomas Arthur Nelson), to whom John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps is dedicated—they were both partners in the publishing company—while Buchan’s brother Alastair was also fatally wounded there, though not on the same day.
The poet Ivor Gurney was wounded on Good Friday night and sent to the hospital at 55th Infantry Base Depot, Rouen, so two days before Edward Thomas’s death; while Siegfried Sassoon at Basseux on that Easter Monday was close enough to hear the guns at Arras, where Thomas was killed that morning by the blast from a shell.
104 years on, though, I suspect we’re largely back behind the arras: eavesdropping, occasionally subject to Renaissance villains thrusting blades through, tragedies of blood, the old stories. . .
Even in a country still largely in denial about the Brexit fiasco—and many people who predicted exactly how this would turn out are finding that there’s very limited satisfaction in being proved right about a disaster, as we’d already learned from predicting more or less how the invasion of Iraq, lacking legality and hard evidence, would turn out—even given all that, I say, there’s been an extraordinary amount of utter nonsense unleashed on us recently.
A highly suspect report exonerating the measures taken by the Metropolitan Police at Clapham Common—notably, male violence against women peacefully protesting the death of a victim of male violence—followed by a widely-criticised report which concluded that there was no institutional racism in this country, all in the teeth of the evidence or rather, picking the teeth of the evidence and carefully ignoring the bits of expert testimony that didn’t fit the predetermined narrative. Then there was— there is!—the ludicrous business of statues, policemen and policewomen milling around a statue of Winston Churchill. And flags. Lots of flags. Very small politicians, sometimes with very small flags, but sometimes with very large ones.
There was a famous meeting at Balmoral, 9 April 1912, attended by Bonar Law, Walter Long, Sir Edward Carson and other luminaries. In the centre of the show grounds was a signalling tower with a flagstaff ninety feet high. The Union Jack unfurled was forty-eight feet by twenty-five. ‘It was the largest ever woven’, the historian George Dangerfield remarked, adding dryly: ‘Patriotism could do no more.’
A little later, he remarked: ‘There was a method in the Unionist madness. Such was the state of English nerves in those days, that violence made a stronger appeal to the public than any other form of speech and action.’
And here we are. Hard to believe, of course, given what we—what some of us, why not all of us?— know and have known but. . . here we are.
I wonder, sometimes, why my only reliable guides to the current state of things are Devi Sridhar, Marina Hyde and Cold War Steve. But I look at the front pages of the national newspapers every morning on the BBC website — and that reminds me.
Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764, edited by Frederick A. Pottle (London: William Heinemann, 1952), 205.
 John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915; edited by Christopher Harvie, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 112.
 Michael Hurd, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 96.
 Harry Ricketts, Strange Meetings: The Poets of the Great War (London: Chatto and Windus, 2010), 101.
 George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935; London: Granada Publishing, 1970), 98-99, 106.