‘Yesterday you awaked very bad’, James Boswell wrote in his journal, Monday 9 April 1764. ‘You got up as dreary as a dromedary. . . . ’
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.
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; 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.
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.
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.’
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.
Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764, edited by Frederick A. Pottle (London: William Heinemann, 1952), 205.
 John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915; edited by Christopher Harvie, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 112.
 Michael Hurd, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 96.
 Harry Ricketts, Strange Meetings: The Poets of the Great War (London: Chatto and Windus, 2010), 101.
 George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935; London: Granada Publishing, 1970), 98-99, 106.
In a letter to poet and publisher James Laughlin, on 28 March 1995, Guy Davenport wrote about poet and publisher Jonathan Williams who, when he came to town (Lexington, Kentucky, in Davenport’s case), required a royal court, with about thirty people invited to dinner afterwards. ‘Whereas I am a hermit’, Davenport added. ‘Bonnie Jean [his partner] and I consider more than four people in a room to be a replay of the French Revolution.’
Some people wouldn’t turn a hair at this, of course, whereas I’m thinking: ‘Four people? How could you stand so many in a room?’ Though this might be so even without a pandemic.
I’m wondering now, on average grey days, whether we shall ever be wholly ‘without a pandemic’. I suspect not, though it’s difficult to envisage precisely what that ‘not without’ will look like. Like flu but a little worse? Invisible but some people always keeping their distance, stepping off paths, wearing masks? Some people themselves invisible because they will never – never – reappear in cinemas, theatres, restaurants, shops? People as ghosts, as revenants, as faces glimpsed or voices almost overheard?
In the aftermath of the First World War, Ford Madox Ford asked his friend Isabel Paterson if ‘in the case of certain dead people you cannot feel that they are indeed gone from this world?’ He added that ‘in my case the world daily becomes more and more peopled with such revenants and less and less with those who still walk this earth.’ Though Ford rarely alludes to it, the Spanish influenza pandemic killed more people than had died in the war itself. Far fewer people have died in the current pandemic than in 1918-1919 but there will still be a sense, I suspect, in which, once things move back a little—or a lot—towards what is usually termed ‘normal life’, the things familiar to us before Covid-19 hit will seem more substantial somehow, even more real, than whatever replaces them.
I feel no desperate need to go to the pub or a football match, or get on a plane somewhere, anywhere. To see, and walk beside, the sea, yes, and to reunite with a few—a very few—people. For the most part, my nostalgia—nostos, the journey home—is for quite mundane things, particular streets to walk on, particular buildings to look at again, hardly even that, just to pass by, barely remarking them. But, even given the singular nature of this pandemic, and a year like no other in my lifetime, I still know that, once that street corner and that building are there in front of me, something won’t quite jell, somehow the thing envisaged and the thing confronted will refuse to come together. Some other image will then arise: some other stretch of undistinguished street, some patch of sand, an obscure lane, the corner of a terrace, some scruffy path beside a canal. Which will be fine: the mild dissatisfaction, the readjustment, the readiness to try again. It will serve as ‘normal’ enough.
‘The ambiguous human condition means tirelessly trying to take control of things’, Sarah Bakewell wrote, with Simone de Beauvoir in mind. ‘We have to do two near-impossible things at once: understand ourselves as limited by circumstances, and yet continue to pursue our projects as though we are truly in control.’
As though, as though. My current condition is, I surmise, very ambiguous – but certainly human.
Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, edited by W. C. Bamberger, (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 196.
 Ford Madox Ford, Last Post (1928; edited by Paul Skinner, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 5.
 Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being & Apricot Cocktails (London: Chatto & Windus, 2016), 226.
The poet and painter David Jones wrote to his friend René Hague from Sidmouth in March 1935: ‘This bar, where we used to come, is absolutely choked with chaps talking awful balls—God it is depressing—what a world—heavenly lovely nice wodged in with bloody desolate old lachrymarum valle.’
Our ‘heavenly lovely nice’ just now would be the Covid-19 vaccination programme, a triumph for the National Health Service. The vale of tears would be – the rest.
I have a part in a major project now, though one still at an early stage; and, if it’s of interest primarily to readers of Ford Madox Ford and other modernists – that’s a pretty big constituency these days, isn’t it? So I have an impressive reading list – often books to be reread, in fact, though a little differently this time around, imprinting dates and names and other invaluable details on the mind, heart or skin. And yet, and yet – much of the time I can be found upstairs (or sometimes down), turning the pages of Mary Butts (yes, certainly relevant), chunks of Elizabethan history (possible but unlikely), Joan Didion (doubtful), James Merrill (also unlikely), Ruth Rendell and Josephine Tey (surely not).
‘This bad habit of absorption in anything other than the work that was my immediate duty has persisted all my life, and I have been most unjustly rewarded for it.’ So Arthur Ransome wrote in his absorbing autobiography, thinking of the highly successful books he had made out of remembering and describing the things that he really liked doing anyway: savouring the natural world of the Lake District and elsewhere, as well as the fishing and sailing. (I won’t be holding my breath for rewards, whether just or unjust: a few admiring words from people I admire will do nicely when the job’s done.) In John Buchan’s 1927 novel, Maclean asks: ‘Where is this magic country?’ To which Midwinter replies: ‘All around you – behind the brake, across the hedgerow, under the branches. Some can stretch a hand and touch it – to others it is a million miles away.’
A magic country – just off the beaten track. The shimmering attractions, the mirage of refreshment, enlightenment or merely a saving silence. My straying from the alleged centre – not pandemic-related, merely life-related – has a long history but hasn’t proved too harmful on the whole: I still usually meet deadlines, anyway. It is, I suppose, distantly related to a much less innocuous practice, often found in government circles, the diversion or smokescreen, such as conjuring up a phoney threat to statues to direct attention away from large, lethal failures or instances of rampant hypocrisy or the nasty habit of breaking international law or non-proliferation treaties.
No, my sometimes wayward reading habits do not, in contrast, represent a clear and present danger to this country. So I’ll probably go on much the same. . .
 René Hague, editor, Dai Greatcoat: A self-portrait of David Jones in his letters (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 67.
The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome, edited with prologue and epilogue by Rupert Hart-Davis (London: Jonathan Cape, 1976), 59.
 John Buchan, Midwinter (1927; Edinburgh, Black &White Publishing, 1993), 115.
‘Come, come, now, my blonde darling, I may not have written for a little longer than usual, but it couldn’t have been that “over a month” you mention. And you mustn’t worry about not hearing from me now and then. A lot of things can happen in a wartime Army to make writing difficult, and they don’t all have to be bad. If anything should happen to me, the good old USA would notify you, your name and address are on my dog tag. (The new dog tags, not yet issued to us, have no name and address of next-of-kin on them.)’
Dashiell Hammett was sending reassurances (after a fashion) from the Aleutians to his older daughter Mary, in February 1944. Over a month! Still, it was, as he says, the Aleutians in wartime. ‘Darling’, Ford Madox Ford wrote to Stella Bowen in November 1918, ‘I haven’t had a word from you for three days—& you can imagine how long a time that seems to me’.
There are people now that we haven’t had a word from for six months, people that we haven’t seen for a year – or more. So how would this work? That the people we haven’t seen for the longest period are the ones we most want to see? Of course not – or not necessarily. We are, after all, human animals, so we have, most of us, some of us, a few of us, lived in that magical state where we miss people the moment they leave us, more, even before they leave us since we can predict the moment when that separation will occur and feel it on our skin before it happens.
I see that people are pining away for the loss of a sight of Athens, Paris, New York, Sydney, Prague, Bilbao. I have been to some, though not all, of those places but, to be frank (to be earnest), the places I am plagued by pictures of—unannounced, unprompted, unasked for—are palpably absurd. Absurd and banal and not to be mentioned in the context of these discussions of exotic and far-flung locations. They are the corners of streets not far from here; the road leading to a park in Bath; the hill running down to the Librarian’s parents’ home; a lane in Clifton, three miles away.
The local is lodged in my brain in a way that those others are not. Even the marvels of that apartment in Prague, that we talked of this evening. Even the baguette and Brie and glass of red wine on a pavement in Paris, bringing to mind the letter that Ford Madox Ford writes to Henry Goddard Leach, the editor of Forum and Century, in 1938, about the pieces he is thinking of drafting: ‘Another I meditate treating very soon is simply the fact that France—from the point of view of culture and the arts—manages everything so infinitely better than either branch of Anglo-Saxondom that the sooner we acknowledge the fact the sooner we shall be out of the wood.’
And that was it, more or less. I remember thinking at the time, as I sat on that pavement in Paris: If we can’t even manage to provide bread and cheese and a glass of wine at this sort of level, how the hell can we manage anything else?
The answer was, of course: we can’t. And so it proved. Proves. Has proven. Will prove. Will prove to have proven.
Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett, 1921-1960, edited by Richard Layman with Julie M. Rivett (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2001), 281-282.
Correspondence of Ford Madox Ford and Stella Bowen, edited by Sondra J. Stang and Karen Cochran (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994), 38.
 Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 288.
I was thinking about habits—not the monkish kind—but order, repetition, the almost unthinking, hardly a novelty in a plague time, when the Librarian and I wear ruts in the park that trace out our daily walks there. I’m aware, for instance, that I hear tunes in my head to accompany various tasks or movements: unscrewing the top of the coffeemaker to clean it and walking up or down stairs, I hear thirteen notes. On the stairs, this corresponds to the theme tune of The Archers—I don’t listen to the programme but anyone in this country who ever listens to the radio recognises that theme tune, as they do EastEnders, whether they watch the television programme or not—or a riff in the Kinks’ Autumn Almanac or, worryingly, ‘Me and My Teddy Bear’.
Habit, custom, ritual? The last is more ceremonial, usually religious, though it need not be, An often repeated series of actions will qualify—which brings me to the cat, just lately. Breakfast dish; back door; dish again; back door again; check that the dish is empty; stroll upstairs to lie on the Librarian until she gets up.
The back door is part of the deal. Having no catflap, the arrangement is that, if the cat asks for the door to be opened – I open it. Sitting at the table, eating breakfast, reading, in sub-zero temperatures or with a drifting rain, the arrangement holds. He doesn’t actually step outside unless there’s warmth and sunshine – but a deal’s a deal.
Habit, though: positives and negatives. ‘Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit’, Henry Adams wrote, who would not quite qualify as a Man with No Regrets. And, once established, a habit sticks: ‘A habit or an attitude of mind is the hardest thing to change, whatever tricks or suppressions you may play with its projection’, Mary Butts wrote. Some habits are worse than others or, rather, harder to break. Ronald Duncan wrote of ‘the worst and most dangerous of all mental diseases—the habit of seeing things as we wish them to be, not as they are.’ He liked the formulation so much that he used it again twenty years later, just a little amplified. The narrator of Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman wryly observes that ‘The habit of sardonic contemplation is the hardest habit of all to break.’
Some habits become stylistic tics, artistic signatures, as Guy Davenport remarked of Picasso: ‘throughout his career his habit of combining full face and profile became a stylistic trademark—prompting Henri Rousseau’s perfectly accurate observation, “You and I, M. Picasso, are the two greatest living painters, I in the modern manner, you in the Egyptian,” the full-face eye in a face seen sideways being the rule in Egyptian drawing.’ Penelope Fitzgerald alluded to ‘the insight of long habit, so much more reliable than love’.
Born in Paris and moving to London at the age of twenty-three, W. L. George published his novel The Making of an Englishman, centred on the Anglicising of a Frenchman, in 1914. ‘I believe silence is England’s secret’, George’s narrator says, ‘and I bore many a snub before I acquired the habit.’ Reviewing this ‘atrocious’ book, Ford Madox Ford wrote: ‘if I were an Englishman, I should try to kick Mr George sixty times round Leicester Square for writing it.’ Like his review, George had, Ford concluded, ‘his tongue in his cheek’, concluding: ‘He is a wicked man.’ George was, in fact, a friend of his, part of the English Review circle, and writing about George’s novel gave Ford an opportunity for several digs at English national traits as he had come to regard them, not least the inarticulacy of ‘the English gentleman’.
Sixty years ago, Richard Cassell suggested that Ford developed ‘a theory of style from the English habit of avoiding direct speech.’The Inheritors, written in collaboration with Conrad (but mostly by Ford), begins:
“Ideas,” she said. “Oh, as for ideas—” “Well?” I hazarded, “as for ideas—?”
A little over twenty years later, with Conrad so recently dead, Ford wrote: ‘If you listen to two Englishmen communicating by means of words, for you can hardly call it conversing, you will find that their speeches are little more than this: A. says, “What sort of a fellow is … you know!” B. replies, “Oh, he’s a sort of a …” and A. exclaims, “Ah, I always thought so….” This is caused partly by sheer lack of vocabulary, partly by dislike for uttering any definite statement at all. For anything that you say you may be called to account.’
These days – I don’t know. Calling to account seems to have gone right out of fashion in this country – and several others. In any case, for the foreseeable future, my Englishness will continue to carve deeper ruts on the park walks and limit itself to broken sentences should any stranger be so reckless as to approach me.
 Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1918; New York: The Modern Library, 1931), 249.
 Mary Butts, ‘Traps for Unbelievers’, in Ashe of Rings and Other Writings (New York: McPherson & Company, 1998), 317.
 Ronald Duncan, Journal of a Husbandman (London: Faber 1944), 212; see All Men Are Islands: An Autobiography (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1964), 8: ‘the worst and most dangerous of all mental diseases which is the habit of seeing things as we would wish them to be and an inability to see things as they are.’
 Angela Carter, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972; London: Penguin Books, 2011), 245.
 Guy Davenport, Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature (Washington: Counterpoint, 1998), 68.
 Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower (1995; London: Everyman, 2001), 301.
 W. L. George, The Making of an Englishman (London: Constable, 1914), 72.
 Ford Madox Ford, ‘Literary Portraits—XXI. Mr W. L. George and “The Making of an Englishman”, Outlook, XXXIII (31 January 1914), 143.
 Richard A. Cassell, Ford Madox Ford: A Study of His Novels (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1961), 68.
 Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad, The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story (1901; Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), 5.
 Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 135-136.
So that was January. Turning over in bed onto my left side, I feel a slight discomfort and remember that, jostling for position in the month’s high notes—with snow, some of the Ford Madox Ford material I’ve been looking at, the cat’s developing relationship with a table tennis ball and probably the best venison spaghetti Bolognese I’ve yet made—is my first shot of Pfizer vaccine. That is, the one made by BioNTech in Germany, then sent to Pfizer in Belgium to be formulated and bottled.
I went to the local surgery rather than a football stadium, and it was all very efficient, though every patient had to wait for fifteen minutes afterwards, to make sure there were no serious reactions to the vaccine, so I was in close proximity to more people than at any time in the past ten months except, possibly, when I had my flu and pneumonia vaccinations in October. But everyone was masked—medical grade in my case, at least—and sitting a safe distance apart.
A positive touch in these strange times, for sure, and the whole vaccination process so far is a huge credit to the NHS – though here’s Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, pointing out that 2021 could be a lot less predictable than 2020:
‘From last January onwards, we knew this was a novel virus for which we had no immunity. We knew it was transmitted from human to human, and while it often triggered no illness at all it could also end in death. Once we knew that last January, then 2020 became predictable. Unfortunately, we are now entering a year whose outcome is far less predictable. The virus is evolving and changing, and so that is reducing our capacity to cope with it – and that means we are really going to be stretched.’ https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/31/jeremy-farrar-until-we-are-all-safe-no-one-is-safe-covid-is-a-global-problem
In Elizabeth Bowen’s The Hotel, Sydney Warren thinks: ‘“It is all very well to escape to the future and think it will always be that; but this is the end of the future.”’ More encouraging, perhaps—and not in a novel— George Yeats (Georgie Hyde-Lees), electing to remain for the present in Dublin, wrote to her husband, W. B. Yeats, then in London, on 1 February 1923. ‘It seems strange to me that I have no feeling of fear over the future, but this very lack of anxiety increases my belief that there is no need for fear, for if I do not fear for you when you are my whole world surely my instinct is right?’
‘We could go for a later walk’, the Librarian said, ‘and try to catch a sunset – if there is one. It’s a bright, clear day at the moment.’ The sunset time on the BBC weather site was 16:34. I remembered being on the Dorset coast a couple of years ago, when we could watch the sun slip out of sight at exactly the predicted time. Science: knowledge ascertained by observation and experiment, critically tested, systematised and brought under general principles, derived from the Latin, to know – so not popular with everyone.
I suspect that there are dawn people and sunset people – and, needless to say, a huge number of others that will take both or neither or who, in any case, are never up sufficiently early to take a balanced view of the matter. Wordsworth’s dawn (in which it was bliss to be alive) in The Prelude embraced both youth and the initial promise of revolutionary France. A red sky at night, the proverb says, has shepherds capering about in sheer glee. Certainly my mother, who was a keen amateur painter, could never get enough of sunsets – but then she lived for a few years in the Far East, and a vista of junks picking their way through a dazzling sunset across the South China Sea was absurdly romantic to western eyes. A more prosaic question is probably: does your day stretch awfully ahead of you in some deadening job that barely puts food on the table after a ten-hour stint or is the prospect rather more alluring?
The narrator of Henry Green’s first novel, Blindness, lingers on an approaching sunset. ‘The sun was flooding the sky in waves of colour while he grew redder and redder in the west, the trees were a red gold too where he caught them. The sky was enjoying herself after the boredom of being blue all day.’ John Ruskin, writing in the early 1870s, was a little more agitated: ‘I…cannot any more look at a sunset with comfort, because, now that I am fifty-three, the sun seems to me to set so horribly fast; when one was young, it took its time; but now it always drops like a shell, and before I can get any image of it, is gone, and another day with it.’
Guy Davenport observed that ‘Turner’s violent sunsets can be traced to a volcano in the Pacific, which loaded the air with dust and made chromatic changes in the sky. An element in romanticism can thus be traced to tectonic plates. From Turner, Ruskin; from Ruskin, Proust; from Proust, Beckett. Our sense of history can always be activated by such connections, whether they’re dependable or not. Every age’s past is a chosen one, and tells as much about the age as about the history it recovers.’
Writing to his friends Geoffrey and Ninette Dutton, the Australian novelist Patrick White mentioned that his story, ‘Being Kind to Titina’, was based on his partner Manoly’s ‘childhood and youth in Alexandria and Athens’, and that he wanted to write a novel ‘about a boy growing up in those places, in a large family and ending with the German invasion of Greece. I think of it under the title of “My Athenian Family”, and see it as a kind of Greek version of a Turner sunset’. One of his favourite paintings was Turner’s ‘Interior at Petworth’ and, in a letter to Mary Benson (30 June 1971), he wrote that he used to go and look at it almost every Sunday when living in London: ‘besides being a subtle painting, I feel it taught me a lot about writing.’ Late Turners, he told another friend, Penny Coleing (23 June 1971), made him ‘grow breathless with delight every time I see them’.
I was trying to remember the title – of a book or a section of a book – to do with sunsets, or the sinking of the sun in the west. I could remember the rhythm: the something of the something in the west but got no further. The Decline of the West seemed a possible part of it – Spengler? David Caute? – but no. The closest I got was the latter half of the title of a Cormac McCarthy novel I’d read years back: Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West – and noticed that he’d written a play called The Sunset Limited. Of the novel, I mainly recalled a great deal of blood, scalping and general mayhem.
To Hugh Kenner, Davenport wrote on 18 January 1974: ‘Cormac McCarthy, the Gothic nuvvlist of Sevier County, Tennessee, has begun sending back his Xerox copy of Tatlin!, page by page, with the socks of my prose pulled up. He is right most of the time, but he has made me feel so unsure of my ability to write even a simple English sentence that I’ve had dark and despairing thoughts of withdrawing the manuscript altogether.’ To which Kenner sent his reassuring reply five days later: ‘Pay no ultimate heed to Cormac McCarthy. No hand is surer than your’n with English syntax and epithet.’
There was, of course, no sunset on our walk: no sun to begin with by the time we went out, barely any light at all in fact. It had become a day determined to give a new edge to the word ‘dull’. Still, it was good exercise.
It’s a bright and brassy day and – ‘We could walk by the city farm and see the goat’, the Librarian says, ‘and then maybe go on as far as the harbour.’
‘The goat may not be out in this weather’, I say (pawn to c4), ‘and the harbour area will be swarming with infected people (Bf4).’
‘We’ll be in the open air’, she says, ‘you can wear a mask and’—(Qd4)—‘it’s my birthday.’
Birthdays – they come but once a year, unless you’re a reigning monarch. The pleasure, the anticipation, the dread, the guilt. ‘I did not forget your birthday’, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her friend Loren MacIver, ‘but could not find the Western Union and had no telephone. Forgive me. I am just not used to work, you know, and find it takes a lot of time, effort, and character, etc.—things I don’t have any of.’
Occasionally, there are instances of peerless symmetry: D. H. Lawrence’s wife Frieda, both born and dying on 11 August, or Charles Waterton, the traveller and conservationist, buried on his 83rd birthday. Some people celebrate by doing something life-changing. On his thirty-first birthday, Saturday 22 February 1913, the sculptor Eric Gill went to Brighton to be received into the Church by Canon Connelly, accompanied by his wife Ethel – who afterwards changed her name to Mary. Then they went home, in time for Leonard and Virginia Woolf to arrive for the weekend. Others involve themselves in other people’s birthday celebrations – sometimes unwisely. So Major-General J. F. C. Fuller, Boer War veteran, military theorist and former disciple of Aleister Crowley, served as Oswald Mosley’s minister of defence-in-waiting—so some pretty bad choices already—then, in April 1939, accepted an invitation to Hitler’s fiftieth birthday parade. In that same year, he denied allegations about German concentration camps.
Still, presents! Occasionally, beauty trumps utility. Of W. B. Yeats receiving on his fortieth birthday ‘a book so ornate you couldn’t read it’— a copy of Chaucer from William Morris’s Kelmscott Press—Hugh Kenner comments: ‘Fortunately, Morris tended to print books you’d already read.’
The Librarian made do with a few books, a necklace, champagne, chocolates, fish pie (which, admittedly, she made herself), phone calls and text messages: a proper lockdown birthday. There was no goat; nor did we go on to the harbour that morning. But the next day, Arnos Vale Victorian garden cemetery being open, we wandered around some of its 45 acres, sticking to the wide paths. Damp weather but a good, unbirthday walk.
 Postcard dated 10 February 1966: Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 443.
(Gerrit Dou, Maid at the Window: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam)
So – yes and no. America’s made a decisive start on the crucial task of cleaning house but there are some stubborn stains and a deal of anxiety about just how much of the building is structurally sound. Will even this dark period not be an historical footnote eventually?
On that matter of footnotes – I was reading Denton Welch’s journal for January 1944, when Welch and Eric Oliver, the intimate companion of his last years, took refuge from the rain in a pub called the Chequers in the Kent village of Crouch. ‘It was not imitation at all, very home-made, unperiod, just itself. All round the walls were narrow benches. There was a daddlums board and darts board, nothing else except a table and two chairs.’
There was a what board? ‘Daddlums’? My Chambers and Concise Oxford dictionaries merely shrugged when consulted; downstairs, my Shorter Oxford was heaved off the shelf with no better result. Wandering online confirmed a not unreasonable guess that it referred to a version of table skittles.
The Journals do carry a good many footnotes by their very efficient editor but these tend to be of that specific factual kind: explaining who people were, correcting or adding to an assertion that Welch has made, references to his published stories in which various people appear under different names, explanations of some abbreviation or phrase current at the time of Welch’s writing, much of it during the war and all of it during the 1940s – the journal covers the years from 1942 to 1948, when Welch died at the age of thirty-three. No ‘daddlums’, at any rate.
Ironically, perhaps, Welch himself writes a little later: ‘Is it in Montaigne that I have just read that the way to know what to write about is to think of all the things you wish writers in the past had mentioned? I wish that people should mention the tiny things in their lives that give them pleasure or fear or wonder. I would like to hear the bits of family or intimate history they knew’ (Journals 175). Yes, we tend not to mention the details of our lives which are so familiar that we barely notice them, and these are often the precise materials that future historians will be crying out for.
Personally, I’m a fan of footnotes and acknowledge the meatiness of the remark by Chick, Saul Bellow’s narrator: ‘I have always had a weakness for footnotes. For me a clever or a wicked footnote has redeemed many a text.’ They can be a means of smuggling in an editor’s obsessive interests—which the text itself may not warrant mention of—and can ease other feelings too. Alethea Hayter writes of historical painter Benjamin Haydon’s son: ‘Frank Haydon suffered miseries of embarrassment from his father’s dogmatism and showing off, and years later he revenged himself by writing vicious footnotes to the more pious and pompous sentences in his father’s diary.’
In context, there’s something undeniably pleasing about that ‘vicious footnotes’.
Of his 1941 book on W. B. Yeats, Louis MacNeice wrote: ‘The book is nearly all quotations (I am beginning to think the ideal lit. critic would only speak in person in footnotes)’, while Hugh Kenner, leaving Santa Barbara for Baltimore, explained the nature of his concerns in a letter to Guy Davenport (21 November 1972): ‘The principle is not desertion of a leaky ship, nor sight of pastures greene, but simply need for a massive change if I am to avoid becoming a writer of footnotes and sequels to my previous work. I have finished what I set out to do 20 years ago, and need to get started on something else of some magnitude.’
Should I quote Robert Phelps once again? Absolutely: ‘Scrapbooks, footnotes, almanacs, letters, diaries, questionnaires, marginalia, memos, alphabets . . . how I love them. Pasolini once called himself a “pasticheur.” I think I am an annotator. The story exists for the scribbled notes in the margin.’ Sylvia Townsend Warner, having created a new story about her elfin, faery world, wrote to her friends Marchette & Joy Chute: ‘It is rather beautiful and has a great deal of information about Elfhame unknown till now as I have just invented it. Oh, how I long to give it learned footnotes, and references. There is such heartless happiness in scholarship.’
Happy but not heartless, Bertie Wooster breaks off partway through The Mating Season to observe: ‘But half a jiffy. I’m forgetting that you haven’t the foggiest what all this is about. It so often pans out that way when you begin a story. You whizz off the mark all pep and ginger, like a mettlesome charger going into its routine, and the next thing you know, the customers are up on their hind legs, yelling for footnotes.’
Still, questions inevitably arise. What to put in a footnote – or, very often, does this need a footnote at all? Or, occasionally, would a footnote here end up being longer than the page, chapter, volume, it is intended to explicate?
I recall editorial discussions over whether or not to footnote an anti-Semitic remark voiced by a character in Ford’s Parade’s End (we decided not to). As readers, we notice it, but should we, as editors, draw attention to it, to say, in effect, this is worthy of your scrutiny? What might that note say? That such racist slurs were commonplace in English society at that time in all classes? In a sense, that would militate against a text which renders a world, a time, a social context in which such remarks were, precisely, barely noticed or refuted or queried. And ‘at that time’? I recall a history of anti-Semitism by Léon Poliakov from the University of Pennsylvania Press: its four volumes ran from the time of Christ up to the rise of Hitler. Had there ever not been a time?
Some relevant phrases that had long stuck in my head I later tracked down to an essay by George Orwell, ‘Anti-Semitism in Britain’, published in Contemporary Jewish Record in April 1945. Early on he writes: ‘it is generally admitted that anti-Semitism is on the increase, that it has been greatly exacerbated by the war, and that humane and enlightened people are not immune to it.’ This is pretty dismaying, given the late stage of the war at which Orwell is writing, although the full horror of the concentration camps was only then just emerging into public knowledge, Auschwitz liberated as Orwell was writing the essay and others, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen among them, during April, as the essay was published.
Orwell points out almost immediately how ‘anti-Semitism is an irrational thing’ and that the ‘accusations’ of which he has given examples, remarks made to him over the past year or two, ‘merely rationalize some deep-rooted prejudice.’ He adds that, ‘To attempt to counter them with facts and statistics is useless, and may sometimes be worse than useless’ (65), which has its own uneasy resonance for us, given the past four and a half years, to reach no further back. He concluded that he didn’t believe anti-Semitism could be ‘definitively cured without curing the larger disease of nationalism’ (70).
So yes, hardly helpful simply to point out that anti-Semitic remarks were common in the 1920s since they were still flourishing twenty years later in wartime Britain (and can hardly be said to have vanished now). And there is always the temptation in any case, which some commentators seem unable to resist, to ascribe fictional characters’ views and prejudices to their author, as Guy Davenport wrote to James Laughlin: ‘It annoys the hell out of me when reviewers say I like or dislike whatever: they’re always looking at what a character likes or dislikes. In a confessional age I keep my mouth shut (in fiction; not as a critic, natch). . . . ’
Probably no footnote is necessary for ‘a confessional age’.
 Denton Welch, The Journals of Denton Welch, edited by Michael De-la-Noy (London: Allison & Busby, 1984), 121.
 Alethea Hayter, A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (London: Faber and Faber 1965), 70.
 Louis MacNeice, Letters of Louis MacNeice, edited by Jonathan Allison (London: Faber, 2010), 369.
Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1424.
Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps, edited by John McIntyre (Berkeley, California: Counterpoint, 2010), 38.
 Letter of 8 April 1973, in Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 265.
 P. G. Wodehouse, The Mating Season (1949; in The Jeeves Omnibus: 3, London: Hutchinson, 1991), 177.
 Quotations from George Orwell, I Belong to the Left: 1945, edited by Peter Davison, revised and updated edition (London: Secker and Warburg, 2001), 64-70. The essay is cited approvingly in the opening pages of Brian Cheyette, Constructions of ‘the Jew’ in English literature and society: Racial representations, 1875-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 1-2.
 W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 96.
I’m a fairly greedy and promiscuous reader these days—though yesterday I was worryingly pleased to see that, of the ninety-nine books read so far this year, fifty were written or edited by women and that the one I’m most likely to finish next is by a man, which will give me an even hundred, precisely fifty-fifty, though unplanned and unintended, so no credit to me, obviously. I remembered the Beckett character who observes: ‘I’ve always had a mania for symmetry’: having knocked down a man met in the forest and kicked him in the side, he is now manoeuvring himself into a position from which he can kick him in the same place in the other side. Symmetry is often pleasing but I’m not afflicted by that particular mania – not, at least, to that extent.
A greedy reader, as I say, and with a pretty strong stomach – but just lately I find that I can’t bring myself to read anything substantial about the imminent U.S. election. My nerves won’t stand it. And I’m not even American. I accept that we don’t have much to celebrate, given our own corrupt and incompetent government, but democracy seems even more threatened there and in more violent, urgent and brazen ways. Much of it, in any case, is quite mysterious to me: those Evangelicals proclaiming a Christianity which bears no relation to any version of it that I’m familiar with; the aggressively overt voter suppression, seemingly performed with impunity; and the undisguisedly partisan judges who make my understanding of that phrase ‘the rule of law’ just a little wobbly.
T. S. Eliot—American citizen, later British citizen and almost exactly half of his life spent as each—wrote:
“My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me. “Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak. “What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? “I never know what you are thinking. Think.”
I think we are in rats’ alley Where the dead men lost their bones.
Yes, one is tempted to say: Good answer, I share that general suspicion.
David Jones (born on this day in 1895), having survived Mametz Wood, trench fever and much else, unsurprisingly had a touch of the same thing as the speaker in Eliot’s poem, writing to his friend Harman Grisewood on 14 February (‘St. Valentine’s Day’) 1938: ‘I think if I could only get not having the worst type of nerves and could work at painting or writing (Bugger—O did not know this had a drawing on the back—it is my leg. I drew it as a study for a thing I’m doing—bugger! I want it, but can’t write this letter over again—well, I shall have to send it as it is and do my leg again if I want it) I should be quite happy alone always.’
Too much in the way of nerves or too little? I recall this line by P. G. Wodehouse: ‘Whiffle on The Care of the Pig fell from his nerveless hand, and he sat looking like a dying duck.’ None of us, surely, wants to look quite like that.
But I think that one of my favourite literature-related nerves items is the passage in Allyson Booth’s fascinating Postcards From the Trenches, where, referring to Wallace Stevens’ poem, ‘A Postcard from the Volcano’, she writes: ‘Like the children who pick up bones without stopping to consider that they once strung nerves and housed passions, we read modernism without fully realizing the extent to which it handles the bones of the war dead.’ Yes. Here’s the Stevens poem:
Children picking up our bones Will never know that these were once As quick as foxes on the hill;
And that in autumn, when the grapes Made sharp air sharper by their smell These had a being, breathing frost;
And least will guess that with our bones We left much more, left what still is The look of things, left what we felt
At what we saw. The spring clouds blow Above the shuttered mansion-house, Beyond our gate and the windy sky
Cries out a literate despair. We knew for long the mansion’s look And what we said of it became
A part of what it is . . . Children, Still weaving budded aureoles, Will speak our speech and never know,
Will say of the mansion that it seems As if he that lived there left behind A spirit storming in blank walls,
A dirty house in a gutted world, A tatter of shadows peaked to white, Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.
‘And what we said of it became/ A part of what it is’. Wonderful.
Hold your nerve, America. Please.
 This is Molloy, of course: The Beckett Trilogy (London: Picador Books, 1979), 78.
The Waste Land, ll.111-116: The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 59.
 René Hague, editor, Dai Greatcoat: A self-portrait of David Jones in his letters (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 84.
 ‘The Crime Wave at Blandings’, in Lord Emsworth and Others (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966), 29.
 Allyson Booth, Postcards From the Trenches: Negotiating the Space Between Modernism and the First World War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 17.
 Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), 158-159.