A Turn around the Cemetery

Arnos-Vale-1

2 October. Taking time away from news bulletins detailing mass murder, police brutality, terrorism and gross political irresponsibility, I take a turn around the cemetery, where the dead seem quite peacefully disposed.

They were calmer times in Westmorland, even though Britain and France were at war, when Dorothy Wordsworth recorded details of her day (and William’s) that Thursday, 2 October 1800. ‘A very rainy morning. We walked after dinner to observe the torrents. I followed Wm to Rydale, he afterwards went to Butterlip How. I came home to receive the Lloyds. They walked with us to see Churnmilk force and the Black quarter. The black quarter looked marshy, and the general prospect was cold, but the Force was very grand. The Lychens are now coming out afresh. I carried home a collection in the afternoon. We had a pleasant conversation about the manners of the rich—avarice, inordinate desires, and the effeminacy unnaturalness and the unworthy objects of education. After the Lloyds were gone we walked—a showery evening. The moonlight lay upon the hills like snow.’[1]

In Arnos Vale, I can hear, from far off, the workmen busy at the end of Sydenham Road. Wind buffets the trees. A woman in dark glasses walks three dogs towards me, one black, two matching white. We exchange half-smiles, nothing too risky.

Arnos-Vale-2

The wind pauses and the birdsong is more audible. Two, three Red Admirals in as many minutes pass me. The wind was only drawing breath. Gathered again, it gusts, leans, stills. There’s a sudden rush of children’s voices as the doors of the nearby school slap open and they spill into the playground.

On another 2 October, 1940, into the second year of another war, Josie Brinton wrote from Alexandria to her mother in Tennessee, ‘I know how worried you must be and it’s useless to tell you not to be but what else can I say. If you saw the carefree life everyone leads here you’d wonder what all the excitement was about’. Italian troops had crossed the border from Libya into Egypt three weeks earlier. Josie went on to recount the story current in Alexandria that ‘in the Mediterranean now all the English sailors had to do was lean over the side of their ships and shout “waiter” to have an Italian submarine come to the surface!’[2]

Alexandria-1940

(Alexandria, 1940 via histclo.com)

I used to be friends with a man who drove a Volkswagen Beetle. Drivers of this car would salute—or at least, acknowledge—one another, hooting, flashing their lights or simply waving. As a consequence, the whole world seethed with Beetle drivers: they were everywhere. Just so, romantic love will narrow all the people in the world to women with red hair or blue dresses, to men with slight stoops or yellow scarves. Now the streets are full of men of about my age, all equipped with rucksacks exactly like mine, all walking purposefully (when I am) or sauntering unhurriedly, without direction (when I am).

But there are no such men in the cemetery today: men with matching dogs, yes, but nothing more (I have no dog to match). And I notice again how often here the magpies are in pairs, as though companionship were more necessary, or at least a little more desirable, in the company of the dead.

References

[1] Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, edited by Mary Moorman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), 41.

[2] Michael Haag, Alexandria: City of Memory (Yale University Press, 2004), 180.

 

Autumn comes but once a year

Branch

The season turns. I wear a jacket for the first time in months, with a faint but definite sensation of relief. Strolling around in a shirt is fine—but where do you put things? In summer, I always have to carry a bag, not least because a good many shirt makers seem unacquainted with the concept of pockets. In any case: book, phone, notebook, memory sticks, black pen, red pen, pencil (rubber, pencil sharpener), tissues, sugar free sweets? What you need, my man, is a jacket.

We have had a week of uneasy, rather schizophrenic weather, some of it quite lively—though even the reported 70 m.p.h. around Avonmouth would likely seem a soothing breeze to the poor, battered Caribbean and southern United States. Yesterday, though, when I walked through the park, everything was so calm, bright, untroubled, so normal, that I experienced one of my apocalyptic moments. Unsurprisingly, these occur more often these days, given the last fifteen months or so and tend to consist of images of mayhem overlaying the scene in front of my eyes, the mown grass, trimmed flowerbeds, relaxed adults, playing children, gambolling dogs somehow provoking and evoking their opposite. That opposite is, of course, the ‘normal’ for a great many people: if not barrel bombs, snipers and nerve gas, then insufficient food, filthy water, inadequate shelter. And, always, the fear.

But in Bath, again, there are crowds of people at their ease, tourists from every part of the world as well as locals revelling in what may be one of the last really warm days of the year. We thread our way through, reach the bookshop, head directly home again.

New-Books

I revisit George Orwell’s essay ‘Inside the Whale’, looking at his explanation of why the young British writers in the thirties had turned to Communism, one of which was ‘the softness and security of life in England itself’. ‘With all its injustices,’ Orwell went on, ‘England is still the land of habeas corpus, and the overwhelming majority of English people have no experience of violence or illegality.’[1] This is still true, of course, though Orwell would find the current state of the country rather more worrying than he did then, I suspect, even though his essay was published in March 1940. The ordeal of the Blitz was still to come yet, bad as that was, other countries—Poland, Japan, China, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and, of course, Germany itself—fared far worse.

Yes, we have been lucky: but that luck has had its negative effects. One is an enduring fixation on the Second World War and a largely mythical version of our country’s role in it. This oddly skewed version of history, with its inflated view of our current relative importance in the world is constantly reinforced by the virulently anti-EU and anti-immigration sections of the press. Yet we also see, on an almost daily basis, a markedly tangential relation to reality displayed by some senior politicians, including cabinet ministers. Elsewhere, there seems a curious sense of paralysis and exhaustion, as if a period of extreme complexity and challenge were ended, rather than barely begun. Almost a century ago, John Maynard Keynes, in the aftermath of the First World War, wrote:

Keynes_Consequences

‘In this autumn of 1919, in which I write, we are at the dead season of our fortunes. The reaction from the exertions, the fears, and the sufferings of the past five years is at its height. Our power of feeling or caring beyond the immediate questions of our own material well-being is temporarily eclipsed. The greatest events outside our own direct experience and the most dreadful anticipations cannot move us.’[2]

There are dreadful anticipations enough. But, as the saying goes, we must bet: we are in the game. Okay, not actually a saying: this is Pascal on the ‘wager’ of whether or not God exists. (The comments that ‘Reason cannot decide anything. There is an infinite chaos separating us’ seem worryingly topical.)[3]

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.[4]

 

References

[1] George Orwell, ‘Inside the Whale’, in A Patriot After All: 1940-1941, edited by Peter Davison, revised and updated edition (London: Secker and Warburg, 2000), 103.

[2] John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (London: Macmillan, 1919), 278.

[3] Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, translated by Honor Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 154; the English phrasing is more that of John Fowles, in The Aristos (London: Pan Books, 1968), 220.

[4] Louis MacNeice, ‘Autumn Journal’, in Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 102.