Cake, justice and other helpings

(Harmen van Steenwyck, Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life: National Gallery, London)

The name on the local builder’s van parked just outside our window recalls a nineteenth-century book title. ‘“Socially and politically mean one thing in the end,” said Beauchamp. “If you have a nation politically corrupt you won’t have a good state of morals in it, and the laws that keep society together bear upon the politics of the country.”’ I’ve not actually read George Meredith’s novel, Beauchamp’s Career, but was happy to lean on Roy Foster, clearly familiar not only with Meredith but also Trollope, Disraeli, George Eliot, Dickens, Mrs Humphrey Ward and others, together with a raft or, rather, flotilla of critics, biographers, diarists and historians that had any bearing on his subject.[1]

1871 was the date of the Meredith novel. A long way back—Victoria, Gladstone, the opening of the Royal Albert Hall, trade unions legalised, Stanley bumping into Livingstone, a UK census total (2 April) of 26,072,036—in some ways, at least.

In the early eighteenth century, E. P. Thompson remarked, ‘High politics was a predatory game, with recognized spoils, and [Robert] Walpole is to be distinguished chiefly by his systematizing of the means of corruption, with unusual blatancy.’[2] Through much of the nineteenth century, with England seen as primarily an industrial nation, foreign visitors went North to visit the ‘real seat of English power’, while London was regarded a place of idleness and corruption.

As economic power failed, the perc­eived centre of the economy shifted south. The last years of the nineteenth century brought ‘a new urban world to the fore, the world of inner London.’ Imperial designs increased as manufacturing aspirations declined – and London was the heart of the Empire.’[3]

‘Unusual blatancy’ then: impunity now, with little attempt to hide the corruption, lying and hypocrisy that characterises the current English government. And Emerson’s 1836 remark that ‘The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language’[4] is still germane.

My younger daughter comes over from Barcelona: the first sighting for eight months. While she’s here, my elder daughter comes for dinner; the four of us together, first time in a long time.

How are you?
I’m all right, I say. Apart from my eyes, ears, teeth, leg and back.
(Leave it there, man, leave it there.
I leave it there.)

All too soon, politics edge in. Then and now, sitting at a dinner table, sitting down to a keyboard, I think, though briefly: don’t just rant about bloody Tories. Surely everyone in this country with a half-decent view of the world now rants about bloody Tories. Or is that too sweeping? I’m old enough to remember when the Conservative party was a serious and respectable political organisation. I knew reasonable, intelligent people who voted for them. They were the law and order party, the party of economic moderation and stability, the party of patriotism and national pride. Not my party but – respectable. All that’s gone, of course. They’re well on the way to becoming like the Republican Party in the United States, a cult, utterly divorced from truth, honesty, justice, fairness, the national interest, democratic principles and the rest. All those Conservative MPs had their chance, they had several chances – but chose not to take them. Any claim to moral authority or ethical standards is now long gone.

I think of Elizabeth Bishop writing to her friend Pearl Kazin in 1953, mentioning a piece in Darwin’s Beagle journal about a Brazilian complaining that English Law gave the rich and respectable no advantage over the poor. ‘It reminds me of Lota’s story about a relative, a judge, who used to say, “For my friends, cake! For my enemies, Justice!”’[5]

(Mabel Frances Layng, The Tea Table: West Park Museum, Macclesfield)

Cake, yes. Having it, eating it. Could we say ‘no advantage’ now? Hardly, when rich men frequently bring libel actions against investigative journalists who have looked into their dealings with offshore accounts, tax havens, foreign agents, cyber hackers, purveyors of fake news and the like, in an attempt to shut down those journalists’ researches.

The day descends. Russian forces continue their genocidal campaign in Ukraine. In India, Jignesh Mevani, a prominent campaigner for the Dalit community, is arrested for tweeting criticism of Prime Minister Modi. Police clash with Palestinian protesters in Jerusalem. In the US, car crashes have been overtaken by guns as the main cause of death among children and teenagers. In France, the far right are in serious contention for the Presidency, while Leave and Tory voters in this country apparently favour Le Pen by a margin of some 13 points. In Singapore—which currently ranks 160th out of 180 territories in the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index (behind Belarus and Russia – yes, really)—Terry Xu, the former editor of the Online Citizen, has been jailed for three weeks for defamation over a letter published on the site that alleged corruption among government ministers. And here – we read the headlines, watch members of parliament defend the indefensible (not least the latest vicious and absurd proposal to traffic refugees to Rwanda) and wonder how we ended up here.

No, of course we don’t really wonder, because we already know. We know. But the knowledge hurts.


Notes

[1] R. F. Foster, ‘“Fatal Drollery”: Parliamentary Novels, Outsiders and Victorian Political History’, in Paddy & Mr Punch: Connections in Irish and English History (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 139-170.

[2] E. P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 214.

[3] Alan Howkins, ‘The Discovery of Rural England’, in Robert Colls and Philip Dodd, editors, Englishness: Politics and Culture, 1880-1920 (London: Croom Helm, 1986), 65.

[4] Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Nature’, in Selected Essays, edited by Larzer Ziff (London: Penguin Books, 1982), 51.

[5] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 255. ‘Lota’ is Lota de Macedo Soares, with whom Bishop lived in Brazil for fifteen years.

Noises off – and on


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

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

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

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

Receding tide


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Dripping, deluging, divining

(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.

Highlights, lowlifes, old fashions

‘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.

The reliably splendid Marina Hyde has discussed the question that increasingly preoccupies commentators:
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/may/28/cult-britain-boris-johnson-prime-minister

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. . .

Variable speeds


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?

A word about the dromedary

(Thomas Bewick, ‘Dromedary’)

‘Yesterday you awaked very bad’, James Boswell wrote in his journal, Monday 9 April 1764. ‘You got up as dreary as a dromedary. . . . ’[1]

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.[2]

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;[3] 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.[4]

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.

https://centenariestimeline.com/1912_AHR.html

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.’[5]

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.

Notes


[1] Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764, edited by Frederick A. Pottle (London: William Heinemann, 1952), 205.

[2] John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915; edited by Christopher Harvie, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 112.

[3] Michael Hurd, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 96.

[4] Harry Ricketts, Strange Meetings: The Poets of the Great War (London: Chatto and Windus, 2010), 101.

[5] George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935; London: Granada Publishing, 1970), 98-99, 106.

Rosemary and rue


We walk back from the frosty cemetery, my jacket pocket stuffed with sprigs of rosemary, courtesy of the bush—one of two—in the park we cut through on the way. The original Latin phrase (ros marinus) translates as ‘sea dew’. Put soon into a jar of water, it lasts surprisingly well.

‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance—pray you, love, remember’, poor Ophelia says to Laertes (Hamlet, IV, v). ‘And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.’

There is, I suspect, little danger of our failing to remember the events of the past week. In our country, record numbers of Covid-19 cases seemingly every day, and the hospitals, especially in London, in crisis. In the United States, a record number of daily deaths from the same cause – and, ah, what seems rather like an attempted coup. Astonishing scenes from the Capitol, which apparently surprised even some of those who knew something very like it was on the cards – let alone the ones who pretended that it hadn’t been coming down the track for the past four years. Clearly, I don’t know enough about American politics to understand why the man who incited all this—and incited or effectively authorised so much more—isn’t already behind bars, along with a good many other members of his entourage, past and present. ‘The cradle of democracy’, I’ve seen the United States referred to as several times recently (not always ironically). If that’s so, the child has been sickening for some time now and, for all the hopeful signs, the prognosis must be in doubt.

Here, luckily, no Conservative politician is acquainted with Donald Trump; nor do they even recognise the name. The thumbs-up, the golden elevator, the smarming and sucking up and toadying – never happened. Reality can be so misleading.

In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (IV, iv), Perdita (which means lost, suitably enough, though she is found again) offers ‘flowers’ to the disguised Polixenes and Camillo: ‘Reverend sirs,/ For you there’s rosemary and rue. These keep/ Seeming and savour all the winter long.’ ‘Rue’, of course, offers puns a-plenty but its Old High German root, I see, meant ‘mourning’.

Let’s hope for sufficient doses—and effective distribution—of rosemary and rue.

Also the living


New Year’s Day, and we walk in the cemetery. I think we might catch a glimpse of that fabled ‘sovereignty’ which is all the rage among Brexiteers but I see only a couple of examples of the more common unicorn. So it goes.

That we are, for the most part, in the company of the dead, is not inappropriate, given the past nine months. But there are also the living – saving the Librarian, I find there are a few too many of those for my current peace of mind but they mostly keep their distance and the paths are wide here.

On this day in 1916, D. H. Lawrence wrote to his agent, James Pinker: ‘Already, here, in Cornwall, it is better; the wind blows very hard, the sea all comes up the cliffs in smoke. Here one is outside England, the England of London — thank God.’[1]

Two years later, Wyndham Lewis found himself in the region of Neuville-Saint-Vaast, where the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska had been killed in June 1915, at the age of twenty-three. Lewis wrote to Ezra Pound on 1 January 1918: ‘I was taken out sight-seeing today, with a dismal & angry feeling I passed the place, through the fields, anyway, where Gaudier was killed. The ground was covered with snow, nobody about, and my god, it did look a cheerless place to die in.’[2]

2020 has been, by almost every measure, a dreadful year. The United States, Brazil, India, Russia, France have registered appalling figures of infection and death. Here in the United Kingdom, where terrible numbers of infections and deaths have also been recorded, the unutterable foolishness of Brexit has lurched to its appointed, what – end for some people, way station for others. In contrast to the astonishing achievements of the scientific community and the beleaguered National Health Service, our government has continued on its blundering way, handing out lucrative contracts to their unqualified, unsuitable chums as they go. Her Majesty’s Opposition, meanwhile, are missing in inaction.

But we have – what we have, whatever each of us has that is valued and cared for. We can lament the recent past and dread—or even be sanguine about—the future but, on the whole, the present seems the best bet, and as truly local as possible.

Happy New Year, as the saying goes.


Notes

[1] Letters of D. H. Lawrence II, June 1913–October 1916, edited by George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 494.

[2] Pound/Lewis: The Letters of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, edited by Timothy Materer (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), 113.

The turning of the year, the turning of the pages

(Anthony, Henry Mark; Stonehenge; Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/stonehenge-19092)

St Thomas grey, St Thomas grey,
The longest night and the shortest day.[1]

‘I might be lost’, Adolfo Barberá said to Iain Sinclair, ‘but I know where I am.’[2] Many of us can say, with confidence, that we’re lost. Do we know where we are? We now appear to be quarantined on an island off the coast of Europe. There are features discernible in this winter solstice landscape and the main one is probably recurrence, repetition, things going round again. I find the same quotations running through my head, for sure, such as Guy Davenport’s, ‘In our time we long not for a lost past but for a lost future’, or this from Charles Olson:

What has he to say?
In hell it is not easy
to know the traceries, the markings[3]

In England, the pattern is established, if not one to emulate. Receive the advice, ignore it, then eventually act on it—too late—and retreat from it too soon. Repeat. Even the—what is the latest euphemism, ‘low information voters’?—yes, it must surely be dawning on even those co-operative souls that the Leave UK gang hasn’t handled matters quite as well as they might have done. The news from Kent, on the other hand, must be hugely reassuring to those who voted for that Brexit thing.

(Via BBC)

Has this country ever been governed so badly? As we edge, run or career towards the end of 2020, it occurs to me that I’ve been reading for dear life these last months, as if the relentless turning of pages could offset to some degree the idiocy and dishonesty of this government and, frankly, the sheer insanity of the United States administration and many of its supporters.

‘Prose is the devil’, Ezra Pound once remarked in a letter to Alice Corbin Henderson, poet and assistant editor to Harriet Monroe at Poetry magazine. ‘ALL prose is the devil, except perhaps a little of Flaubert and De Maupassant.’[4] Nevertheless, pace Ezra—who was, I note in passing, a clue in yesterday’s speedy crossword, ‘troubled US poet’, though why he should be described as ‘troubled’, more so than Robert Lowell or Anne Sexton or John Berryman or Sylvia Plath or a hundred others, who can say?—it’s been mainly prose that I’ve been reading, although, in conjunction with Roy Foster’s incisive book on Seamus Heaney, I found myself reading (or sometimes rereading) the first six books of Heaney’s poetry.[5]

Some tremendous books have passed before my eyes this year, though it still feels hugely pleasing to be back with Maigret—in Antibes at the moment. There have been jaunts avec M. Simenon in previous months, and a few Golden Age authors such as Margery Allingham but, beyond those, I took in several of the year’s high profile titles. Still, not for the first time, some of the best things were older – but, in either case, most seemed to be by women this time around.

Some of them cropped up on several Books of the Year lists: Maggie O’Farrell’s impressive Hamnet and Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light (I added her collection of pieces from The London Review of Books, Mantel Pieces, and—one I’d missed—her fine memoir, Giving Up the Ghost). Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting was a blast and Helen Macdonald’s collection of essays, Vesper Flights, was marvellous, one of my books of the year for sure. After Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults, I read her earlier, very unsettling The Lost Daughter.


Not quite so new but add Annie Ernaux and Mary Gaitskill, just about anything by either of them:  Ernaux seems to have reinvented or recast the genre of autobiography (Fitzcarraldo Editions have done five of hers in translation now); while Gaitskill seems to possess something like perfect pitch.

Maybe the most fun was either Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time, six hundred plus pages which I ripped through in a couple of days; Ysenda M. Graham’s British Summer Time Begins; or Paraic O’Donnell’s two novels, The Maker of Swans and The House on Vesper Sands, which came recommended on Melissa Harrison’s podcast, ‘The Stubborn Light of Things’, also the title of the collection of her monthly nature diary columns in The Times, certainly another of my books of the year.

‘The year’, ‘the year’ – an endlessly recurring phrase, often in conjunction with such optimistic sentiments as ‘the next one can’t be worse’ and ‘soon be over’.

Ah, well.

Notes


[1] Quoted in Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 505.

[2] Iain Sinclair, ‘Diary’, London Review of Books, 21 May 2020), 40.

[3] Guy Davenport, Apples and Pears (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), 63; Charles Olson, ‘In Cold Hell, in Thicket’, in The Collected Poems of Charles Olson, edited by George F. Butterick (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 155.

[4] The Letters of Ezra Pound to Alice Corbin Henderson, edited by Ira B. Nadel (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993), 43.

[5] R. F. Foster, On Seamus Heaney (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020).