‘A Lady Asks Me’

Italian (Venetian) School; Portrait of an Unknown Young Woman; Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/portrait-of-an-unknown-young-woman-189206

‘A Lady asks me’, as Ezra Pound begins Canto 36, borrowing from his own translation of Guido Cavalcanti’s ‘Donna mi prega’, ‘I speak in season’. In fact, here, the season is undeniably autumn – and it’s the Librarian, asking what I’m finding the worst thing about the pandemic – ‘apart, obviously, from huge numbers of people dying’.

I know already that she misses, often very keenly, her library, the beautiful physical space itself and her colleagues—the greetings on a staircase, words exchanged in a corridor, on the phone or round the edge of a door, those brief moments that, tabulated and totalled, make up a significant proportion of any working day, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

For me, though, the shape of the days is much less changed. I read, I write, I walk, I cook, I feed the cat. The things that huge numbers of my fellow-citizens are apparently frantic for don’t really bother me. In another age, we would go to the cinema occasionally and to restaurants a little more often: but a large part of going out to eat—and of being in the cinema—is being able to relax. I certainly couldn’t relax in those settings at the moment, so why would I do it? Going on holiday: yes, but we’d be doing the same things, just in a different setting and at a substantial cost, and the logistics of any such trip make my head hurt. I’d really like to walk by the sea again – but now, as always, I don’t want to do it in the company of several thousand others.

There’s a world out there of worsening political chaos, lethal incompetence, thousands of avoidable deaths (and how many more in the United States, whose president is waging war against his own country); after the schools failures, now the universities fiasco, students imprisoned while administrators rearrange deckchairs on an ever more steeply tilting deck amidst ignorant comments from politicians and tabloid journalists.

Louis MacNeice writes in Autumn Journal:

It is this we learn after so many failures,
The building of castles in sand, of queens in snow,
That we cannot make any corner in life or in life’s beauty,
That no river is a river which does not flow.

Even in lives superficially unchanged or little changed, this has changed. Life at present does not flow. Watching moving water, the fact of it moving becomes less and less its dominant feature; the currents that make our own lives flow are often invisible, unremarked. So perhaps one of the worst things is the simplest. We can go out, we can walk, other people can and do take buses or trains – but never now in an untroubled way, never wholly spontaneous, never unthinking, never without watchfulness, wariness, a readiness to take evasive measures. It’s the old literary metaphor of the poem as a field of action, of moving through hostile territory, always on the qui vive. A potentially productive conceit, you might argue, but probably not how you want to live your – civilian – life.

On this day in 1916, Ford Madox Ford published a piece called ‘Trois Jours de Permission’, about a three-day leave granted to him a little earlier that year, which he spent in Paris, much of it waiting for some grand fromage or other. ‘Yes, one learns to wait’, Ford wrote. ‘The most impatient temperament, somewhere in France, will be strait-waistcoated into inaction, into introspection.’

So here I am, somewhere in England, inactive and introspective, waving goodbye to September – though mentally active and prospective enough to expect little better of October. . .

Foxed, boxed

(Via Natural History Museum)

I begin to think that the foxes recognise us – by sight or scent? The second, more likely. At first they would retreat much further along the road that crosses the hill we walk up; now, as we reach that point, we see them sitting or crouching only a few metres from the junction and can almost see the thought bubble that reads: It’s them, walking straight up as usual. No problem.
 
A morning’s tally of close encounters: three foxes, one white cat—emerging like a ghost from the bushes in the small park—one woman runner and, as we pass the larger park when almost home, a man with two small dogs. On another morning, darker and with a heavy mist, we see no foxes, two cats and five people: not so good. But always the birds: sparrows, certainly, in some of the hedges, and blackbirds, beyond which even my provisional identification skills peter out.
 
I’ve read, just lately, reflections on several encounters with the wild, by Helen Macdonald, John Burnside and Melissa Harrison, particularly focused on what Harrison, probably in her excellent podcast (https://melissaharrison.co.uk/podcast/) called the ‘I and Thou’ moments, after Martin Buber, the moment of relationship rather than objectification, when the bird, the animal, the forest, even the single tree, looks back at the observer, listens to the listener, in a reciprocal engagement.
 
Certainly, for me, these near-encounters with the wild—however wild urban foxes are reckoned to be these days—are like a shot into the veins, a thrill along the nerves, a rush of oxygen into flagging lungs. Is it the increasing rarity, the always-attendant sense of what’s being lost, the disorienting nudge out of the circles and boxes and bubbles into which we back ourselves these days, even without pandemics? Hard to say. It could just be the contrast with people, with some people.
 
National leaders trashing their own countries’ reputations—and often enough trashing  the countries themselves—the lethal incompetence, the undisguised corruption; the sheer impunity, the denial of climate emergency, the barefaced, continuous lying and the blatant contempt for those voters who, quite bafflingly, will vote for them again—or so it seems. To those of us old enough to remember the Thatcher years, Cold Wars, nuclear stand-offs, illegal invasions and the rest, it seems extraordinary to find oneself thinking—and saying—‘It has never been this bad before.’
 
Ah, well. Winter is coming—as the saying goes.
 

Sampling Amanda Cross

Looking for something to read the other day, since I had fewer than a hundred waiting candidates, I was browsing the Librarian’s Virago shelves. I’d looked several times at three mystery novels by Amanda Cross but never to the point of actually reading them. This seemed as if it might be the time.

‘Amanda Cross’ was, in fact, the pseudonym of Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, a professor of literature at Columbia University, where she taught from 1960 to 1992, publishing several volumes of feminist literary criticism and fourteen mystery novels featuring Kate Fansler, an amateur sleuth who is also, curiously enough, a professor of literature at a New York university.

The Amanda Cross books are upbeat, civilized, witty, highly readable – and well-populated with literary references, quotations and allusions. I’m not sure how I resisted for so long the first one I read, given that it’s called The James Joyce Murder. It has a prologue, an epilogue – and fifteen chapters, all with the titles of the stories in Joyce’s Dubliners. The order of her chapters differs from the order of the stories in Joyce’s book but all are used and, often very cleverly, the content of the chapter related to the story which gives it its title. There are also characters in the novel with names familiar to a reader of Joyce (in addition to Grace and Eveline): Kate, Molly, Lenehan, Mulligan, Eugene Stratton.

In the last one I read, A Death in the Faculty (1981), which centres on the first appointment of a woman to a tenured position in the Harvard English department—as, I gather, Heilbrun was the first woman to receive tenure in Columbia’s English department—Kate Fansler, while listening to the speeches by graduating students, recalls an event she has read about that took place at the Commencement of 1969. A law student had ‘begun his speech with a call to law and order: “The streets of our country are in turmoil. The universities are filled with students rebelling and rioting. Communists are seeking to destroy our country. Russia is threatening us with her might. And the republic is in danger. Yes, danger from within and without. We need law and order! Without law and order our nation cannot survive!”’ From the audience there is ‘wild applause’, after which the student continues: ‘“Those words were spoken in 1932 by Adolf Hitler.”’ The writer adds: ‘Kate would have given a great deal to have heard the silence that followed.’

Fifty years on from that address, it doesn’t take much effort to see the same tactics employed by Hitler still being used, most obviously and unashamedly in the United States. Still, even here, those Londoners with just a smattering of historical knowledge or, in some cases, long memories, who had thought their streets were cleared of fascists many years ago, have recently discovered that this is not in fact the case.

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.