Striding, gliding, sliding into autumn

(Utagawa Hiroshige, Sudden Shower at Shōno: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

‘She can’t be completely stupid’, the Librarian says, in a rare moment of optimism, ‘she went to Oxford.’ And for a moment I almost wish I could find in that a good knockdown argument. Alas.

The heat, which changed many individual patterns of behaviour, was succeeded by several days of rain, which didn’t, and then by something balanced, pleasant, relaxing – or it would have been had the workmen in the neighbouring house, who have been there for months now, not chosen one morning to drill directly into my head. They showed too a remarkable willingness to persist, to graft, I suppose, thus refuting the latest reports of the witless witterings of—good grief!—the odds-on favourite for the leadership of the Conservative Party and thus, under our generally nineteenth-century political arrangements, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Upstairs—and sometimes downstairs too—I bother archivists, occasionally in this country but far more often in the United States. The happy result of this is that, even as I pour a drink in the evening, goods news sometimes arrives from the Midwest or the west coast. An archivist has unearthed a previously unlisted letter from Ford Madox Ford to a publisher, a literary agent, a New York hostess, a budding author. I scrawl a message of heartfelt gratitude. Librarians and archivists may yet save the world.

Downstairs, I linger over Robert Lowell, Lafcadio Hearn and Mary Midgley. Dear Cal is of course his usual unfailingly cheerful self and emphatically not a daddy’s boy. ‘He was a man who treated even himself with the caution and uncertainty of one who has forgotten a name, in this case, his own.’[1] Hearn shuns the usual ragbag of common sense and scepticism by numbers: ‘I hold that the Impossible bears a much closer relation to fact than does most of what we call the real and the commonplace.’[2]

And Mary Midgley—I remember, a few years back, seeing an interview with, or brief statement from, the Green Party Brighton MP Caroline Lucas and Sophie Walker, then leader of the Women’s Equality Party. I found myself thinking, quite explicitly, My God! If we had people like that in charge of this country, there might be some hope. It wouldn’t be the complete bloody basket-case it is. Mary Midgley was a person like that: hugely intelligent, well-informed, intellectually curious. I read her memoir because my curiosity was piqued by the highly enjoyable volume by Benjamin Lipscomb, The Women Are Up To Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022),[3] one of those valuable books which, like those of the wonderful Sarah Bakewell, are able to convince me—at least while I’m reading them—that I understand philosophy.


Midgley discusses, at one point, the idea that thought, like life, occurs in complex patterns, linked together, which have to be sorted out and dealt with on their merits. ‘This does not mean that our work is impossibly complicated. It does not mean that we cannot know anything until we know everything. Human cultures contain all sorts of convenient ways of breaking up the world into manageable handfuls and dealing with one part at a time. And we can keep continuously developing these ways so that they can correct one another. In this way, quite a lot of the time we do get things right. Attending to the background pattern of questions and answers does not tip us into a helpless relativism. But it is perfectly true that this approach does stop us hoping for a universal scientific formula underlying all thought. We cannot, as Descartes hoped, find a single path to infallible certainty. But then luckily we do not need to.’

Indeed. I confess, though, that one of my favourite moments in the book is an account of a discussion group which included Carmen Blacker, later a distinguished Japanese scholar. ‘It was Carmen who supplied me with the best example I have ever met of the diversity of moral views. When I raised the topic of conflicting customs, “Oh, I see”, she said. “Like, there’s a verb in classical Japanese which means to try out one’s new sword on a chance wayfarer?”’ Midgley later used this in an article with that name.[4]

Light rain, the faintest murmuring, and a soft soughing in the branches and leaves above the fence. Harry the cat is crouched at the open back door, snuffing up late August early evening English air. He has noticed, I think, that my method of serving his teatime bowl approximates more and more to that of Henry James’s butler, as recalled by Ford Madox Ford:

‘His methods of delivery were startling. He seemed to produce silver entrée dishes from his coat-tails, wave them circularly in the air and arrest them within an inch of your top waistcoat button. At each such presentation James would exclaim with cold distaste: “I have told you not to do that!” and the butler would retire to stand before the considerable array of plate that decorated the sideboard.’[5]

We are sliding into autumn. There is an acknowledged cost-of-living crisis. But then, come to that, there is a crisis in every area of public life, from education to social care, from farming to transport, from library provision to news media to the raw sewage fouling our coastal waters. Given our current electoral system, there’s little we can do at present: turn down the heating a degree or two, hope for a mild winter—and do our level best to resist trying out new swords on chance wayfarers.


Notes

[1] Robert Lowell, Memoirs, edited with a preface by Steven Gould Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc Faber & Faber 2022), 18.

[2] Lafcadio Hearn, ‘The Eternal Haunter’, in Japanese Ghost Stories, edited by Paul Murray (London: Penguin Books, 2019), 33.

[3] Benjamin J. B. Lipscomb, The Women Are Up To Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022).

[4] Mary Midgley, The Owl of Minerva: A Memoir (London: Routledge, 2007), 72, 160.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Return to Yesterday (London: Gollancz, 1931), 14.