Independence Days, or Daze

Alice-white rabbit

The Fourth of July. Birthday of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Stephen Foster (‘father of American music’), anniversary of the deaths of both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1826. And yes, I make it 244 years since the Continental Congress passed the Declaration of Independence (New York abstaining).

The Oxford Companion to the Year helpfully quotes those lines which must be in the minds of a good many thinking Americans just now as they scan their present political and social landscape, lines regarding those ‘unalienable Rights’, among them, ‘Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness’: ‘That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their Just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundations on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.’

The Companion also quotes, in addition to George Washington, an Englishman (Marryat) and a Scotsman (Macrae), the orator, activist and author of the classic Narrative of an American Slave, Frederick Douglass, in an address he gave on 4 July 1852: ‘I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common . . . This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice. I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthem, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.’[1]

frederick-douglass

(Frederick Douglass)

The anniversary of publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland would have seemed scarily appropriate to the state or states that we’re currently in and, apparently, it was scheduled for release by Macmillan on 4 July 1865. But the illustrator, John Tenniel, was wholly unsatisfied by the quality of the pictures in the finished book and Carroll recalled the entire print run, also asking for the advance copies he’d sent out to be retrieved.

So the occasion would seem to be an all-American one – except that some members of the British government, with the eager connivance of the popular press, have named this ‘Independence Day’ (seemingly forgetful of what and whom America was declaring its independence from), the reopening of pubs, hairdressers, theme parks and restaurants, with added slogans such as ‘eat out to help out’, that ‘help’ surely intended for the hospitality industry rather than the further spreading of the virus.

We are, in any case, a month further on from the Prime Minister telling the House of Commons that he was ‘very proud of our record’ in the fight against Covid-19, just a few days before the estimated total of excess deaths in the United Kingdom passed 63,000.(https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/jun/09/excess-deaths-in-uk-under-coronavirus-lockdown-pass-63000)

 

 

Notes

[1] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 281, 282.

 

Flickering optimism

Vera_Edward_Spartacus

(Vera Brittain and her brother Edward, 1915: https://spartacus-educational.com/Jbrittain.htm )

‘Words of grief become almost meaningless in these days, they have to be used so frequently. But one does not feel any the less. Sorrows do not grow lighter because they are many.’[1] This is Vera Brittain, writing in June 1915, less than a year into the First World War, in which Brittain’s fiancé, younger brother and two close friends were all killed.

It’s a little over three months since the first death from Covid-19 was reported in the UK. We are 50,000–60,000 deaths further on from that now. A smallish island off the west coast of Europe which has seen the second highest total of Covid-19 deaths in the world. Second only to the United States, so little more needs to be said—except, perhaps, that this government’s domestic approval rating is the lowest in the world, nestling beside Mexico’s and below—below!—that of Donald Trump’s America.

There have been several notable shocks to the system in the last week or two – in this time of pretty constant shocks to the system. Perhaps the first was the Health Secretary claiming that the UK government did the right things at the right time – which surely took the breath away of any sentient being who had been paying attention. Secondly: the Prime Minister asserting that he was proud of the way this country and his government had dealt with the pandemic.

The third thing was an article in the New Statesman by Edward Docx—together with some of the responses to it on the letters page of the next week’s issue—about intensive care consultant Dr Jim Down and his colleagues dealing with the pandemic at its absolute peak of deaths from Covid-19 in hospitals, in harrowing and quite impossible conditions, with breathtaking and humbling courage, skill and devotion. It was a devastating article which should be – but, alas, won’t be – read by everybody.

New Statesman (29 May – 4 June 2020), 24-33.
https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/health/2020/05/peak

I-Am-Not-Your-Negro

(Raoul Peck, I Am Not Your Negro)

The fourth thing was watching again the superb Raoul Peck documentary centred on the remarkable James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, which blew me away the first time and—well, well—blew me away the second time too. I felt just as sickened as the first time around by the footage of racist cops beating Rodney King, and by that lonely walk of Dorothy Counts through a rabid mob of white folks brave enough to scream and spit at a fifteen-year-old girl. I found it worryingly difficult to distinguish recent footage of murderous racist violence from historic footage of murderous racist violence—and very hard to differentiate American police and armed militia.

The fifth thing was footage and stills of, and commentary on, the toppling and sinking of the statue of Edward Colston in my home city of Bristol. My initial doubt about the way in which it happened centred on whether too much had been given away to reactionary elements in this country and beyond. I think now that the positive responses and effects since then have clearly outweighed that consideration, helped by some lucid and insightful pieces by historians, notably David Olusoga:
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/08/edward-colston-statue-history-slave-trader-bristol-protest

Hannah Rose Woods has a good piece too:
https://www.newstatesman.com/2020/06/destruction-edward-colston-s-statue-act-living-history

So even now, in the midst of a pandemic, with our flailing government and with appalling scenes in the United States still streaming across our screens, it’s hard not to feel a flicker of optimism that something might finally be changing for the better, that George Floyd’s killing will not simply be remembered as yet one more police killing of a black individual – because enough people have decided that they will not allow that, and are acting on their decision.

 
Note

[1] Entry for Thursday 10 June 1915, Vera Brittain, Chronicle of Youth: Vera Brittain’s War Diary 1913–1917, edited by Alan Bishop (London: Gollancz, 1981), 206.

 

Differing degrees

Domenico_Remps_-_Cabinet_of_Curiosities

Another kind of cabinet: (Domenico Remps, Cabinet of Curiosities)

I don’t actually know anybody who thought that the British – English, rather – government was handling the Covid-19 pandemic well, so have no one to ask whether recent events have changed their minds. Nor can I think of anyone who would have been surprised to learn just how much contempt Messrs Johnson and Cummings, along with those supine members of the cabinet, feel for the general public, so can’t gauge any shift in opinion there either. All I know for sure is that, given the clear evidence that protecting the nation’s health is not the prime minister’s first priority—and given the latest, wildly premature lockdown easings—I’m well advised to stick to my current strategy, which is to steer clear of anyone that I don’t already live with. Even that will get  harder as the weather warms up, now that people have been shown how the rules can be bullied or bent into a more personally convenient shape.

So I’ll continue to read, cook, try to write – and find other diversions in the early morning walks, the stand-off between a magpie and a crow which seemed to go on for hours – and Harry’s early occupation of his favourite plant pot.

Wed-2705

Journal, Tuesday 29 May 1764. ‘At three Tissot [a medical doctor] carried me to the Utrecht Bedlam. The poor creatures were almost all silly. They were mostly going about loose. They called me the King of England. I was amused with this scene. Tissot said mankind were all mad and differed only in degrees.’ (Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764, edited by Frederick A. Pottle, London: William Heinemann, 1952, 256.)

Degrees, perhaps, M. Tissot, but very large ones in some cases.

 

 

Haphazard navigations

Park-early

Harry’s waking earlier now. The lighter mornings must penetrate directly into cats’ bloodstreams. Whatever the reason, he’s there at around 05:30, suggesting breakfast. We hit the park by 05:45.

The walkers who favour the same early hour are there: the Indian couple, with whom we exchange waves and greetings; the man in the red trousers accompanied by the spaniel whose frenetic tail can be seen from space, I surmise, on the lines of the Great Wall of China; the man who clears up rubbish around the perimeter, accompanied by his wonky pooch—‘a John Burningham dog’, the Librarian supplies.

john-burningham-cannonball-simp

(John Burningham’s Cannonball Simp)

Others are a little less welcome.
“Bloody runners.”
“But he’s miles away.”
Miles are so subjective these days. I remember when a mile was a mile.

I seem to have moved from not being able to imagine walking at this time every morning of the foreseeable future to having trouble envisaging not doing it. Desires and longings vary in frequency, duration, intensity though some things recur or remain: to see and touch certain people; to stand looking out at the sea; to walk again on certain paths, in certain lanes.

Hill-Farm-Lane

‘One of my favourite places in the world’, she said.

Following some foolish and wildly irresponsible headlines in Tory tabloids, we are waiting to see whether the government will avoid compounding the earlier errors of locking down too late and too loosely by lifting some restrictions too early. The bass drum of ‘following the science’ is still beaten daily, as though that science were a single, solid, clearly defined object, not unlike an ice-cream van.

‘One definition of an expert is someone who understands better than most how little he or she knows’, Ian Leslie wrote in the New Statesman recently. ‘The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, has remarked that his scientific advisers preface every answer with “I don’t know”. The scientists know little about how infectious Covid-19 is, why it kills some people and barely bothers others, whether it returns to those whom it has already visited, whether and how it will mutate, or the best way to treat it. They are desperately trying to work out the best way to handle it, but it is like navigating in a snowstorm when every instrument is faulty.’
https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2020/04/politicians-must-do-more-simply-listen-expert-advice-they-need-challenge-it

Noting that life is not, like fiction, navigation, Penelope Lively observed in Making It Up (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2006, 136): ‘There is no shrewd navigator, just a person’s own haphazard lurching from one decision to another. Which is why life so often seems to lack the authenticity of fiction.’

That ‘a person’s’ could surely be enormously extended.

Visits from The Strange

Allan, Andrew, 1863-1942; Thistledown

(Andrew Allan, Thistledown: Glasgow Museums Resource Centre)

Yesterday, two goldfinches in a tree beside the uphill path through the park. Gulls, pigeons, starlings, sparrows and blackbirds also, singing in a purer air among the hawthorn. ‘Dutch study’, the Librarian murmured once as a cyclist moved along a parallel path, referring to the joint Belgian-Dutch research project which concluded ‘that for walking the distance of people moving in the same direction in 1 line should be at least 4–5 meters, for running and slow biking it should be 10 meters and for hard biking at least 20 meters. Also, when passing someone it is advised to already be in different lane at a considerable distance e.g. 20 meters for biking.’
https://medium.com/@jurgenthoelen/belgian-dutch-study-why-in-times-of-covid-19-you-can-not-walk-run-bike-close-to-each-other-a5df19c77d08

Burne-Jones, Edward, 1833-1898; The Beguiling of Merlin

(Edward Burne-Jones, The Beguiling of Merlin: photo credit, Lady Lever Art Gallery)

My current social distance is 25 metres, to be on the safe side. Beyond the early morning walk, age and circumstances mean that the only contribution I can realistically make is to stay at home, out of the health professionals’ way, and take no chances. With a small back garden and the wider expanse of the park nearby, I have the luxury of making such choices. Many don’t, as is clearer every day, the fault lines of social and economic inequality—the gaping holes that ten years of austerity, cuts and closures and underfunding, have left in the social structure—painfully apparent. The blunders made by the government in the early stages of its response to the crisis are also increasingly clear.
https://www.newstatesman.com/2020/04/eleven-days-may-have-tragically-cost-uk-fight-against-coronavirus

Today: steady rain. But a parcel arrives, sensibly placed on the doorstep by the postman, who knocks and retreats. My order has arrived from the excellent Handheld Press, started a few years back by the writer and academic Kate MacDonald. Beautifully designed books, superbly packaged and received in two working days from my placing the order: post free too.
https://www.handheldpress.co.uk/

Handheld-titles

And we go on. ‘Nothing, perhaps, is strange’, Rose Macaulay wrote, ‘once you have accepted life itself, the great strange business which includes all lesser strangenesses.’[1] Jonathan Williams was more proactive: ‘I love to visit The Strange like some people love to visit The Country, as I say over and over again.’[2]

Now The Strange has ferociously visited all of us, is mutating into many forms, some of them mimicking the ordinary, habits of strangeness bedding down, the same people in the park at six in the morning, that couple, that runner with her dog, the spaniel man, the man who picks up rubbish as he tours the perimeter. Some days, some moments, are stranger than others. Every so often, taking what have now become the habitual precautions, washing your hands yet again, wiping down door handles, quarantining envelopes, packages, food wrapped in plastic, you catch your own eye in the mirror and ask what the hell you’re doing and what you’ve become.

Probably more disturbing is the widespread evidence that a great many people not only expect things to ‘go back to how they were before’ but believe that to be a desirable outcome. Are we so lacking in ambition? Are those tens of thousands of lost lives, including many medical and other frontline staff, not worth more than that? Might it not be an opportunity to begin repairing and rebuilding the country? Or do we simply not have any contemporary politicians with the necessary qualities?

‘O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell’, Hamlet says, ‘and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams’ (Hamlet, II, ii).

Hacker, Arthur, 1858-1919; Sir John Martin-Harvey (1863-1944), as 'Hamlet'

(Arthur Hacker, Sir John Martin-Harvey as ‘Hamlet’: Museum of London)

Infinite space is itself a dream just lately – and yes, I’ve been having a few bad ones myself, probably in the company of at least twenty or thirty million other people in this country and who knows how many more worldwide. Tens of millions of bad dreams, not so much nightmares as creeping unease, unsettling encroachments, an impermeable sense of threat, figures in doorways, dark cars waiting where they really shouldn’t be. ‘There is at least one spot in every dream at which it is unplumbable’, Sigmund Freud wrote, ‘a navel, as it were, that is its point of contact with the unknown.’[3] At least one, yes. And all those dreams must add up to a lot of negative energy. Or is the arithmetic quite different? Does it account in part for the immense weariness that seems to be affecting so many people now, even the ones working from home? Or is that down to their online meetings, ten times as tiring as those old face-to-face ones?

Goya-Los-caprichos.jpgDuendecitos-

(Francisco de Goya, Los caprichos: Duendecitos)

After a visit to an injured colleague, feeling unsettled, Inspector Maigret ‘did not go home, although he lived only 500 metres from there, in Boulevard Richard Lenoir. He began walking, because he needed to walk, needed to feel the indifferent crowd brush against him.’[4]

Yes, that is familiar, less so recently but for years, the desire to be one of a crowd, any crowd, the mass, the many, included, immersed, incorporated and invisible. Less keen these days, unsurprisingly, on crowds and certainly on being brushed against by anyone that I can’t personally vouch for, currently one woman and one cat.

 
Notes

[1] Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train (1926; New York, Carroll & Graf, 1986), 30.

[2] Jonathan Williams, ‘“Who Knows the Fate of His Bones?”’, in Blackbird Dust: Essays, Poems, and Photographs (New York: Turtle Point Press, 2000), 189.

[3] Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, translated by James Strachey, edited by Angela Richards (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976)  186, fn2.

[4] Georges Simenon, A Man’s Head (1931; translated by David Coward, London: Penguin Books, 2014), 51.

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.