Oddnesses and cloudy crossroads


With the Librarian away and the cat, though frankly puzzled, not yet overtly resentful, I walk uphill after breakfast, through the other, smaller park and along quiet streets, one or two walkers glimpsed at comfortable distances, barely any cars on the roads I’ve chosen, and the only mild disturbance a runner with a backpack, who pants his way past while I shift well away, thinking that there’s surely no real need for that sort of thing.

Mild disturbance, though, is almost welcome, after the past few days of relentless activity in the neighbouring house, which is evidently being gutted before its sale or re-letting. Yesterday, the workmen seemed to be drilling directly through the wall – I expected their imminent arrival in the room where I sat at my keyboard. On several days last week they took over from the other crew beyond the back fence, the ones with the shocking musical taste. Occasionally they would harmonise, after a fashion, sledgehammer against drill, concrete mixer against hacksaw. Though raising sympathetic eyebrows to the Librarian and Harry the cat when our paths crossed, I regarded the unholy row with relative equanimity—mostly—still feeling the after taste of euphoria that attended the final surrender of a tooth that had wavered and jiggled for more than a week, making mealtimes purgatory and tending to vandalise my dreams.

(Honoré Daumier, Workmen on the Street: National Museum of Wales)

We tend to think of incessant noise as a recent development—wars apart—given motorised road traffic, aircraft and other modern machinery. It’s largely true. Still, it’s salutary to be reminded of the London streets in Victorian times, when the Inns of Court served as ‘oases of quiet’, into which people walked, especially in Dickens’ work, in order to hear one another speak.[1]

Out early this morning, not in Dickens’ London, I was buffeted and boomed at only by birdsong, the bushes and hedges and thick-leaved branches in constant movement. I always find such occasions oddly heartening, as when I saw recently, in the tree that overlooks—and reaches over—our garden fence, at least two bluetits and a pair of goldfinches, plausibly the same ones seen on several occasions this past fortnight. Why ‘oddly’, though? An odd choice of word. I should know by now that I can rely more confidently on birds, trees, cats, walls, cemetery paths and grassy slopes for reassurance that we are not approaching the end of days than on the behaviour of my fellow humans (sometimes yes, often no).


‘Nature has no destiny for us: our boat is upon her ocean and in her winds, but she has expended as much ingenuity designing the flea as she has expended on us, and is perfectly indifferent to Hooke’s conversation at Garraway’s Coffee House. We, however, perish the instant we take our eyes off nature.’[2]

There we have it: the perish option. Or not. Don’t take your eyes off it—her—it. And cherish the oddities, as Enid Bagnold wrote: ‘Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. To “Why am I here?” To uselessness. It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.’[3]

The past two and a half years­—very nearly that now—have changed some behaviours, habits, attitudes and perceptions in ways which are still largely invisible to us. In Elizabeth Bowen’s novel, Friends and Relations, Lady Elfrida reflects that: ‘Surely people were odder, or was it just that one met them? Had these years, with their still recent sense of catastrophe, brought out curious people, like toads after rain?’[4] I often find other people’s behaviour odd, to be sure, but suspect that the newer, larger oddness is in myself. ‘That is to say’, Ford’s narrator Gringoire in No Enemy remarks of the recent war from which he has emerged, ‘it did teach us what a hell – what a hell! – of a lot we can do without.’[5]

A good many people in the current crisis—there is always a crisis for some of them—are finding that they have little or no choice in the matter of what to do without, of course. Others, who are in a more comfortable position, have evidently decided on at least one of the things that they won’t do without. That scrubbed-smooth sky this morning was streaked with cloud strips like tracer but also with the swift lines of numerous aircraft, stuffed with people making their modest but not insignificant contributions to the climate crisis. At one point, with a symbolism so apt as to verge on unconvincing, the clouds had formed a solid and clearly delineated crossroads which one of those crammed airliners was approaching.

It ploughed straight on, of course.


Notes

[1] Judith Flanders, The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London, (London: Atlantic Books, 2012), 30-33.

[2] Guy Davenport, ‘The Death of Picasso’, Eclogues: Eight Stories (London: Picador, 1984), 23. That would be scientist and philosopher Robert Hooke (1635-1703), while Garraway’s, dating from the 1650s, was the first coffee house in London. I see that Simon Schama has it as ‘Garway’ – but am not downhearted.

[3] Enid Bagnold, Autobiography (London: Century Publishing, 1985), 59.

[4] Elizabeth Bowen, Friends and Relations: A Novel (1931; Chicago: University Chicago Press, 2012), 82.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, No Enemy (1929; edited by Paul Skinner Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 52. A decade earlier, his poem ‘The Starling’ began: ‘It’s an odd thing how one changes’.

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.

Leg trouble


Near the top of the hill, I pause.

‘Is it bad?’ the Librarian asks with well-worn concern, referring to my left ankle and lower leg, which have been behaving peculiarly in recent weeks. Ankle arthritis, we’ve decided.

But: ‘No’, I say, ‘higher up, seems to be my hip.’

‘Oh’, she says, clearly envisaging a whole new trajectory of complaint.

‘It’ll get easier, I expect.’ Do I believe this? Of course not. But it may. In any case, walking and its attendant ingredients here, trees, dogs, squirrels, the magpies, the children yelling in the school playground, the sudden panoramic view over Bristol that opens up suddenly on our left-hand side as the path sweeps round to run beneath close branches, all distract attention from a mere hip.

Trouble with legs. I remember the Reverend Francis Kilvert: ‘I preached in some discomfort for although the Vicar had assured me the pulpit would be almost up to my chin it was scarcely above my waist and in order to see to read my sermon I was obliged to crouch down in it and stick one leg out behind.’[1] At least he had two: the writer Colette’s father, an ex-captain of the select Zouave infantry, born in Toulon and trained at Saint-Cyr, had lost his left leg in Italy in 1859.[2] I recall too Theresa Whistler’s account, in her biography of Walter de la Mare, of a surgeon named Kidd offering his solution to the writer’s insomnia: ‘an eccentric Irish hypnotist named Leahy, who had a hot temper and a false leg, which proved a disadvantage. Climbing to his patient’s room, sporting a Leander tie [rowing club] and a little drunk, he would succeed in inducing slumber, and would then descend – step, thump, step, thump. Before he had reached the ground floor the nurse was speeding down to recall him. “The bloody man!” he would explode, and rushed up again, bursting in on the patient: “You bloody well go to sleep!”’[3]

In the First World War, those men unable to distinguish left from right were given a hay band and a straw band to tie round each leg. The drill instructor would call out ‘Hay, straw’ instead of left, right. On the back of the envelope of one of his letters to Edward Chapman, the poet and composer Ivor Gurney wrote: ‘Would you like a hay band or a straw – ? I’ve finished with mine.’[4]

Benjamin Robert Haydon, The Mock Election (Royal Collections Trust)

It’s often noticed that artists have trouble with hands – but often enough there are leg problems too. Alethea Hayter wrote of Benjamin Haydon’s inconveniently small studio—‘and he could never get far enough away really to see the effect of the whole picture, and his defective eyesight produced the errors of proportion—particularly the shortness of leg—which give a fatally ludicrous look to so many of his heroic figures.’[5] And, while artists often sketch their own hands, legs come into it too. On Valentine’s Day, 1938, David Jones writes to Harman Grisewood: ‘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.’[6]

At home, I download ankle arthritis exercises and sternly ignore any promptings from the hip. What a trouper. . .

Notes


[1] Entry for Wednesday 4 October 1871: Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, Three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969), Volume Two (23 August 1871—13 May 1874), 53.

[2] Colette, Earthly Paradise: An autobiography drawn from her lifetime writing by Robert Phelps (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), 15.

[3] Theresa Whistler, The Life of Walter de la Mare: Imagination of the Heart (London: Duckworth, 2003), 344.

[4] Letter of early 1915: Stars in a Dark Night: The Letters of Ivor Gurney to the Chapman Family, edited by Anthony Boden (Gloucester: Alan Sutton, 1986), 17 fn.

[5] Alethea Hayter, A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (London: Faber and Faber, 1965), 59.

[6] René Hague, editor, Dai Greatcoat: A self-portrait of David Jones in his letters (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 84.

Binding weeds


On Sunday, and again this morning, with the temperature due to rise to 30 degrees Celsius, we are out early. A handful of dog walkers in the park as we pass, occasional runners putting the time in while it’s still manageable. This morning, the inevitable traffic but our contact with the main road is brief.

Up the steep road to the top Perrett’s Park entrance, where we catch sight of a notice inviting people to help cull the bindweed which takes root and spreads so disastrously. Going on to Arnos Vale, the Victorian cemetery, both cool and quiet at this time of the day, we’re newly aware of the extent to which bindweed has taken hold here too.


Bindweed. Convolvulus arvensis—with the same root, unsurprisingly, as ‘convoluted’, it does its mischief to other plants by winding itself, binding itself, round the host counter-clockwise. Geoffrey Grigson launches with gusto into its local names, my favourites including Billy-Clipper, Devil’s Guts, Fairies’ Winecups, Granny’s Nightcap, Robin-run-in-the-field and Gipsy’s Hat. ‘Every gardener knows it’, Grigson remarks, ‘and perhaps more blasphemy is expended on Devil’s Guts, Cornbine, Withwind, and Withywind than upon all the other weeds of Great Britain. Neither blasphemy, hoeing, nor selective weed killers have yet destroyed it.’ He adds, characteristically (and quite rightly), ‘One should speak kindly of its white and pink flowers, all the same.’[1]

William Curtis, in his late 18th century Flora Londinensis, ‘warned against the deception implicit in its representation’, asserting that, ‘Beautiful as this plant appears to the eye, experiences proves it to have a most pernicious tendency in agriculture’. Only eradication by the spade could destroy it: simply cutting it down wouldn’t do the trick.[2]

No political symbolism here, obviously. None at all.



Notes


[1] Geoffrey Grigson, An Englishman’s Flora (Oxford: Helicon, 1996), 287.

[2] Mark Laird, A Natural History of English Gardening (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 374, 376, 377.

Travels, not Keatsian

From 25 June to 6 August 1818, John Keats went walking with his friend Charles Brown, to the Lake District, Scotland, briefly to Northern Ireland and back to Scotland. 42 days, 642 miles. On 29 June, setting off at four in the morning, they climbed Skiddaw, the sixth highest summit in England, just north of Keswick in Cumbria : ‘I have an amazing partiality for mountains in the clouds.’

I myself have an amazing partiality for staying at home of late, walled in by books. Nevertheless we ventured, the Librarian and Harry the cat and I, as far as Somerset (and Dorset and Wiltshire: meandering roads), and stayed the night—actually three nights—in A Different Place, for the first time since Christmas 2019. Not quite a Keatsian trip but quietly impressive on its own terms, I thought.


Once there, we talked, ate, read, walked, drank a little wine. At the Chalke Valley History Festival, the Librarian and I mooched about and necked a salted caramel ice-cream while her parents went to see Tom Stoppard and his biographer, Hermione Lee, discourse before a rapt audience in a large tent. Slightly unsettled by our earlier view of combatants wielding sticks, apparently in their underwear (‘Look! People fighting in their pants!’), we stayed to watch Dan Snow, with a smattering of other historians and willing helpers, re-enact the Battle of Agincourt.

But the main business, apart from the company, was to see the sea, again for the first time in too long. It was a quiet stretch of coast—having no facilities—offering sea, sand, sea cabbage, occasional dog walkers, a distant angler, a wheeling gull or two, pebbles, mysterious flowers, mysterious stone circles.


As for literary connections—Keats aside—there was the village of Broad Chalke, familiar to John Aubrey, author of Brief Lives, and home to historical novelist and poet Maurice Hewlett (1861-1923), who lived in the Old Rectory. In 1904, recovering from a breakdown, Ford Madox Ford spent time at Winterborne Stoke, three miles from Stonehenge. He met and walked with W. H. Hudson, who had recommended that area as one to which Ford might escape from his situation in London. He later remembered standing for half an hour with Hudson watching a rookery near Broad Chalke. He saw a good deal of Hewlett too. At Christmas 1911, Ezra Pound also stayed with Hewlett, an occasion poignantly recalled—ghosts and shadows—as he sat in the military detention centre near Pisa:

and for that Christmas at Maurie Hewlett’s
Going out from Southampton
they passed the car by the dozen
     who would not have shown weight on a scale
               riding, riding
                     for Noel the green holly
     Noel, Noel, the green holly
     A dark night for the holly
          (80/515)

Going in circles

After a year or more of travelling no further than a couple of miles from home, whatever the shape and length of the walks, on closer nodding terms with the tulips than with other human animals, we broke out of the circle a few days ago and into. . . a circle. It was, though, a stone circle, more than that since Stanton Drew offers the third largest complex of standing stones in England, three circles, ‘the central “Great Circle” consisting almost entirely of fallen stones’, solid blocks of the local dolomitic conglomerate. As with the Rollright Stones in the Cotswolds, near Long Compton, a village on the borders of Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, ‘folklore decrees that the stones are uncountable.’[1]

The Bath antiquary John Wood claimed that he had counted the stones, ‘though the cloudburst that followed was attributed to his folly by the villagers.’[2]


Wood had added that those who did make the attempt ‘proceeded till they were either struck dead upon the spot, or with such an illness as soon carried them off.’ Quoting this, Janet and Colin Bord enlarge a little upon the ‘wedding legend’, the story traditionally associated with the stones, that they were a wedding party turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath. The wedding, on a Saturday, went on until the fiddler stopped at midnight, saying that he couldn’t play on the Sabbath. ‘But then a dark stranger appeared and continued the music, and the merry-makers danced faster and faster and could not stop. At dawn, the music ceased, and they saw that the fiddler was none other than the Devil. They could not run away from him, and he said that one day he would return and play to them again. Until that day comes, they stand, as still as stone, in a field at Stanton Drew.’[3]

The details vary in several versions, as Kingsley Palmer points out, noting that an alternative name for the stones is ‘The Fiddlers and the Maids’. ‘All however agree that it was punishment for breaking the sabbath which caused the tragedy, that it was the bride who insisted on continuing beyond the midnight hour and that the devil himself led the dance in the form of a fiddler. The legend obviously has strong moralistic overtones, and the role of the bride suggests its masculine origin’.[4]


When the famous antiquarian and biographer John Aubrey stayed with his grandmother in Compton Dando, he would visit Stanton Drew, which he referred to as ‘bigger than Stonehenge’. He claimed not to believe the story ‘that on her way to be married, a bride and the company she was with were all turned into these stones, which are grouped together, hard as marble and nine or ten feet high. One is called the bride’s stone, another the parson’s stone, another the cook’s. The stones are a dirty reddish colour and take a good polish. I cannot help wondering how they really came to be there, and why.’

Thirty years later, Aubrey went back ‘to see the stone monument there that I knew as a child. The stones stand in plough land.’ The corn was ready for harvest so his attempts to measure the stones were hampered. He recorded that the villagers broke the stones ‘with sledges because they encumber their fertile land. The stones have been diminishing fast these past few years. I must stop this if I can.’[5]

On a brisk and bright and breezy day, one pound per person entrance fee slipped into the honesty box, and we’re through the gate and into the field, with the River Chew beyond. It’s very atmospheric, or was when we were there, wind fanning through the grass, stones standing, leaning or fallen, some with small pools of rainwater in the shallow depressions, stone weathered into wildly varied colours, shades and textures.


The Great Circle, at 113 metres in diameter, is the second largest after Avebury, and has 26 surviving upright stones. Recent research, outlined on the English Heritage site, states that there were nine concentric rings of wooden posts inside the great circle, each standing several metres tall. Similar timber circles such as Woodhenge are known elsewhere, but this is apparently the largest and most complex timber monument known in the British Isles. There would have been a large, deep circular ditch around the stones, 6 or 7 metres wide and about 135 metres in diameter. The site may date back around 4500 years.

https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stanton-drew-circles-and-cove/history/

Hardly the ends of the earth for us, but a few miles—and a few thousand years—beyond our own recent circle. Modest progress but progress, after all.


Notes


[1] Images of Prehistory, text by Peter Fowler, photographs by Mick Sharp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 124.

[2] Julian Cope, The Modern Antiquarian: A Pre-Millennial Odyssey through Megalithic Britain (London: Thorson 1998), 222.

[3] Janet & Colin Bord, Mysterious Britain (London: Paladin Books, 1975), 29.

[4] Kingsley Palmer, The Folklore of Somerset (London: Batsford, 1976), 74, 75. The story is also retold in Sybil Marshall, Everyman’s Book of English Folk Tales (London: Dent, 1981).

[5] Ruth Scurr, John Aubrey: My Own Life (London: Chatto & Windus, 2015), 26, 155.

May Day, jay day


Our local Victorian cemetery is pretty quiet, certainly early on a Saturday—Mayday—morning. Good walking, orchestral birdsong. The sparrows en route are noisy, even clamorous in two or three specific bushes, but it’s chatter, sociability. Some of the cemetery birdsong smacks more of performance.

At one point, the Librarian and I conduct a highly technical ornithological exchange.

—What’s that bird up there?
—Where? Oh, just a pigeon, isn’t it?
—Is it? I thought there was something about the beak.
—Oh yes, looks like a finch.
—I thought perhaps a jay.
Tiring of this, the bird launches itself into space.
—Oh yes! You can see now. Beautiful colours. It is a jay.

In Ford Madox Ford’s 1923 novel, The Marsden Case, the narrator is found ‘gazing through a plate-glass window set in granite at a blue straw hat trimmed with jay’s wings pointing backwards so that it resembled a helmet of Mercury’.[1] ‘The jay, the “British Bird of Paradise”, displaying his vari-coloured feathers at a spring-time gathering’, W. H. Hudson wrote in one of his catalogues of the birds which ‘give most delight to the aesthetic sense’.[2]


(Benjamin Haughton, Jay:  Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services)

Ford was a great admirer of—and well acquainted with—Hudson, who devoted a great deal of time in his later years to combatting the barbaric treatment of birds, which slaughtered hundreds of thousands and drove many species to extinction. ‘Rare visitors were shot on sight. In May 1870 a flock of forty golden orioles, arriving in woods near Penzance, was quickly wiped out: “everyone in the place was up and after them.”’ This ‘spirit of destruction prevailed everywhere’, in town and country and ‘running through all classes.’ Fashionable women wore hats ‘trimmed with gulls’ wings or the plumes of great crested grebes, or a ball dress set off by a spray of goldfinches or robins.’ Hudson was closely involved with the founding in the late 1880s of the Society for the Protection of Birds, which was incorporated by Royal charter in 1904.[3]


‘The wilderness is near as well as dear to every man’, Henry Thoreau wrote, ‘The very uprightness of the pines and maples asserts the ancient rectitude and vigor of nature. Our lives need the relief of such a background, where the pine flourishes and the jay still screams.’[4]

As well it might.



Notes


[1] Ford Madox Ford, The Marsden Case (London: Duckworth, 1923), 22-23.

[2] Hudson, Birds and Man, (1901); see  Ruth Tomalin, W. H. Hudson: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 150.

[3] Tomalin, 144, 145, 146-149; RSPB website: https://www.rspb.org.uk/

[4] Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (New York: Crowell, 1961; Apollo, 1966; Library of America edition, 1985), 138.

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?

Pursuing those projects


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.’[1]

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.’[2] 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.’[3]

As though, as though. My current condition is, I surmise, very ambiguous – but certainly human.

Notes


[1] Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, edited by W. C. Bamberger,  (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 196.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Last Post (1928; edited by Paul Skinner, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 5.

[3] Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being & Apricot Cocktails (London: Chatto & Windus, 2016), 226.

Ashes, sawdust, felled trees


In 1976, 3 March was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Western Lent, named for the custom of sprinkling on the heads of penitents the ashes of consecrated palms left over from Palm Sunday. In a letter of this date, Hugh Kenner wrote to Guy Davenport: ‘The enclosed clippings may amuse. And did I mention the sermon on hell in an Irish church last month, in the midst of which a choir boy was noticed to be on fire? Sleeve too near a candle apparently.’[1]

Dear Hugh – ‘was noticed’.

Clear, dry days draw us back to Arnos Vale, our local Victorian garden cemetery, one of the city’s wonders. The last few visits there, though, have been a bit disconcerting: unfamiliar gaps and bare slopes and sightlines where before were dense gatherings of trees. Then, too, we can often hear the melancholy sound of chainsaws.

Guy Davenport wrote of two entwined trees, an apple and a pear, which had stood near his home for over fifty years. They were cut down by a developer, ‘in full bloom, with a power saw, the whining growl of which is surely the language of devils at their business, which is to cancel creation.’[2]

‘My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled’, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote,

Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
   Of a fresh and following folded rank
         Not spared, not one
         That dandled a sandalled
   Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering
   weed-winding bank.[3]


The situation at Arnos Vale is quite other. Not, like the felled trees mourned by Hopkins or Davenport, due to rapacious developers, nor like those in so many present or recent cases of misguided (or not wholly disinterested) councils or the disastrous vandalism inextricable from hugely expensive vanity projects. The Arnos Vale trees have fallen prey to Chalara ash dieback, a fungal disease affecting ash trees in many locations across the country, an infection frequently fatal once contracted. At Arnos Vale they have been dealing with it since 2017 and, tragically, they have almost total infection across this beautiful 45-acre site.
https://arnosvale.org.uk/ash-dieback-faqs/#:~:text=If%20you%20have%20recently%20visited,total%20infection%20across%20the%20site.

The cemetery was, in fact, rescued from development, more than thirty years ago, when the private owner of the site announced plans to clear and commercially develop a large part of it. Local individuals and other citizens, Bristol city council and well wishers from around the world campaigned and worked together to rescue and preserve it for future generations. Still a working cemetery, it also offers a paradise for walkers with or without dogs, nature lovers, curious children, people in need of quiet, of ‘a green thought in a green shade.’[4]


They will plant other trees there. The gaps will be filled, the spaces will narrow and we’ll go on walking along the paths. If we could change governments or perceived priorities or media shortcomings or UK laws, we’d do that. Since we can’t, we’ll have to settle for making a donation every so often, to help the work that’s being done there. Where better, after all, could we walk?

Notes


[1] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1611.

[2] Guy Davenport, ‘Shaker Light’, in The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), 59.

[3] ‘Binsey Poplars (felled 1879)’, Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, fourth edition, revised and enlarged, edited by W. H. Gardner and N. H. Mackenzie (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 78.

[4] Andrew Marvell, ‘The Garden’, in The Complete Poems, edited by Elizabeth Story Donno (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985), 101.