Beastly normal

Lyme

(Lyme Regis, which I suspect we may not see this year)

Sunday morning, just before dawn, and the seagulls are out in vast numbers again. With less greasy rubbish and fast food containers strewn around the streets, they’re having to do an honest day’s gull-work and grub for insects on the slopes of the park. Two or three couples glimpsed at a distance, one man probably walking to work – and one cyclist, travelling too quickly from behind us, calling out a bit too late and shooting past us as we jump back.

‘It’s okay’, the Librarian says over my fluent curses, ‘he didn’t cough or sneeze, and he was still far enough away from us anyway.’ And yes, he probably was; in normal times, undoubtedly. But – ‘normal times’?

There’s a lot of discussion currently, in newspaper columns, opinion pieces, online comments, about ‘when things return to normal’. It’s perfectly understandable but unsettling. In the first place, surely not everything will ‘return’. Nor should it. It’s being pointed out with increasing frequency, for instance, that those people who are dutifully, bravely and impressively keeping the country running in this crisis are, in fact, the ones who usually do so anyway: the ones who have so often been classed as ‘unskilled’ by the government that now praises them and finds them indispensable, the ones who have been consistently underpaid and undervalued.

Normal: conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected; according to rule; ordinary; well-adjusted; functioning regularly. A relatively recent usage, linking back to the Latin for precept, rule – and the carpenter’s square. It’s all very shipshape and reassuring but, of course, one age’s ‘normal’ can look a little off, sometimes a bit macabre, to other ages. It was, apparently, ‘quite normal in the nineteenth century for the family album to have photographs of the infant dead, choreographed so that, with eyes open, they still seemed to be alive.’[1] Then too normality can be appraised from widely differing ethical and political standpoints: ‘It was normal for goods to arrive from all over the world and freely circulate, while men and women were turned away at the borders. To cross them, some had themselves locked into trucks, inert merchandise, and died asphyxiated when the driver forgot them in a Dover parking lot under the June sun.’[2]

Arendt-via-BBC

(Hannah Arendt via the BBC)

And there are those instances where the whole business of definitions and comparisons rather falls to pieces. Writing of Adolf Eichmann, whose trial for war crimes she was reporting for the New Yorker, Hannah Arendt stated that Eichmann ‘was indeed normal insofar as he was “no exception within the Nazi regime.” However, under the conditions of the Third Reich only “exceptions” could be expected to react “normally.” This simple truth of the matter created a dilemma for the judges which they could neither resolve nor escape.’[3]

Still, as individuals, we have a pretty clear sense of the normal we would recognise and long to see again. Perhaps for many of us, given the chosen or obligatory changes of the past few weeks, it includes a sharper or deeper sense of quite small and ordinary things, the details—often undervalued—on which our lives actually rest. From that secure position, we might again be cavalier about more general versions of ‘normal’. Writing in 1927 from Paris to Ford Madox Ford in New York, Stella Bowen praised Ford’s recently completed Last Post. Knowing that Valentine Wannop was based largely on her, Bowen commented on several successful aspects of the book, ‘even Valentine’s agonies’, adding: ‘even if she is so beastly normal!’[4]

No doubt the beast will come again – and how readily will we recognise him, or her, or it, when that happens?

 
Notes

[1] Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory (London: Verso, 1996), 375; and see some of the photographs in Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip (1973; Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000).

[2] Annie Ernaux, The Years, translated by Alison L. Strayer (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019), 205.

[3] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, revised and enlarged edition (London: Penguin Books, 1994), 26-27.

[4] Correspondence of Ford Madox Ford and Stella Bowen, edited by Sondra J. Stang and Karen Cochran (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993), 331.

‘Into your clothes and come!’

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

(* ‘The Adventure of the Abbey Grange’)

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

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

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

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

So it’s not all dark.

 

 

Hand wash, news watch

Defoe-Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apocalyptic shopping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Note

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

 

That parting

Shriek

31 January 2020. A pretty dark day here for the most part, not a lot of light. At midnight we become—officially now—a small, resentful, disunited island, moored off the coast of Europe. So that should make some people happy.

For the rest of us—not so good. Not a question of money though I expect things to get worse, particularly for those already struggling. There were endless, often pointless, arguments about trade, finance, various economic factors. But it was never really about that.

I was thinking of Ezra Pound’s ‘Exile’s Letter’ by ‘Rihaku’ (Li Po):

And if you ask how I regret that parting:
It is like the flowers falling at Spring’s end
Confused, whirled in a tangle.
What is the use of talking, and there is no end of talking,
There is no end of things in the heart.

But thinking also of Robert Creeley’s short poem, ‘Myself’:

I want, if older,
still to know
why, human, men
and women are

so torn, so lost, why hopes cannot
find better world
than this.

 

 

 

Not getting the news

Asphodel

‘It is difficult/ to get the news from poems’, William Carlos Williams wrote in ‘Asphodel, That Greeny Flower’, ‘yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.’

Nearly two weeks since the General Election and there are two consistent elements around here: it seems to have rained every day since then; and I’ve not had so much as a sniff of the other kind of news, the daily diet of stuff which in past days I’ve tended to pore over, something close to an addiction. This last fortnight, since the moment we saw the figures from the exit poll, I’ve not read or watched or listened to any news at all. I still collect the newspaper—having already paid for it, on subscription—but start from the back pages and confine myself to the crossword and a few reviews. That aversion may be down to self-preservation or detoxification or concern for my mental health or just a weariness with feeling constantly enraged and disgusted.

No doubt I’ll re-engage at some point but, for the moment, it’s fine: read books, watch Netflix, cook, drink wine, walk. Upstairs, the radio plays music, not news bulletins. I know that the worst sort of people are in the ascendant just now, that bad things are happening or are due to happen, that all the dire warnings turned out to be true—and I don’t really need the confirmation that it’s so or need to see the blood on the floor to know that something died.

As for the party that I currently support—it’s this one: Guy Davenport, Annie Ernaux, William Faulkner, Natalia Ginzburg, Henry Green, Ford Madox Ford, Mary Gaitskill, Joan Didion, Georges Simenon, and whoever else I’m reading or rereading next month and the month after that.

‘Freud, one of the grand masters of narrative, knew that the past is not fixed in the way that linear time suggests. We can return. We can pick up what we dropped. We can mend what others broke. We can talk with the dead.’—Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

 

 

Friday the thirteenth

Alfred-Rethel

(Alfred Rethel via oldbookillustrations.com)

Friday the thirteenth, appropriately enough, and a great many people now have precisely the government they deserve. Sadly, the rest of us, who deserved something infinitely better, also have that same government.

At least we are in Bristol where, now that this country is officially a lunatic asylum, we can at least claim to be in a small island or oasis of sanity (four seats: four Labour MPs).

Does this help? Less than you might think. . .

‘With the spectacle of madness before one’s eyes one feels the odds shorten. The eclipse of reason seems such an easy affair, the grasp on sanity so provisional and insecure.’—Lawrence Durrell