Blackberrying again: working our way down bushes on the slopes of the park, filling plastic containers, taking them home, rinsing the fruit in a colander, transferring them to compostable bags and sticking them in the freezer. It seems, oddly, like a blow on behalf of the ordinary universe. As are the hot air balloons, going over so early some mornings, as they have done for years. And, as I have done for years, I step outside and stare up at the sky and feel a strange sense of reassurance, of confirmation, of a fitness in the world.
We have stepped, or been forced, outside of all that. Our recent pleasures have included quite ridiculous weather and quite ridiculous politics. Or, more soberly, terrifying weather and terrifying politics, two areas intimately linked, of course. There have been hot summers before, 1976, 1911, and droughts, such as 1921, 1911 again – and 1976, again. But in recent years, it is no longer in a metaphorical sense, or even a hyperbolic one, that we say: the world is on fire. Set against this, of course, is the continuing failure of governments to meet the urgency of need with priority of response. If major heart surgery is needed, sticking a plaster on the patient’s thumb strikes some of us as less than adequate. But there is also the massive disconnect, the stolid denial that individual actions can make any difference – while the careful sorting of paper, cardboard and plastics for the weekly collection somehow co-exists in the same single life with a steely determination, and a conviction of entitlement, to fly to three holiday destinations every year.
Walking on one of the quieter paths in the Victorian cemetery, we pass a wedding reception at the Underwood Centre, several dozen guests in a woodland setting. In the midst of death we are in life. It is odd, to say the least, to know, or at least to suspect, that after so many centuries of progress, if you can call it that, of achievement, if that’s what it is, we are living in an age of extinction, an age in which things will not simply slow down or even go backwards but will just stop and die. We don’t want to think of such things… and the vast majority of us – manage not to
04:28 – and the cat feels it’s time to begin discussing breakfast. The workmen won’t be here to plague us for another three and a half hours. But there’s the light – and the birdsong. ‘All winter long’, William Maxwell wrote to Eudora Welty in June 1979, ‘I worried because there were no birds, and now there is such a racket you can’t hear yourself think.’ (Not long before this, he’d written: ‘In some ways the most beautiful journeys are the ones you don’t take’, which are the journeys I’ve been enjoying for a while now, liking them more and more.)
‘In this weather’—Maxwell again, this time in the summer of 1953, ‘one needs astonishment in the head to keep the heat out.’ That afternoon, listening to the rain on the windows, I was struck by the consciousness of what I was doing and the moment in which I was doing it: listening to the rain. It was late in the hottest day ever recorded in this country, the bulletins said, the hottest anyway since the day before. Fires were reported all over the United Kingdom, in London, South Yorkshire, Leicestershire. Our temperate northern climate, forsooth.
All those weary years, those decades, in which the warnings were given, the recommendations made, the figures presented – and nothing done and nothing done and nothing done. It would have been so much cheaper then, more manageable then, the future infinitely strengthened and sweetened then. But we had no influential figures equal to the task. Nor have we had any since. And, looking at the poor creatures now, with their paucity of ideas and their disgusting gestures at policy, it’s painfully evident why we have declined so fast and so far.
‘It does no good to regret history’, Samuel Hynes remarked, ‘all we can do is to try to understand it.’ That seems reasonable enough, though forces here, there and everywhere want something quite other. Why understand it? Here’s the version we like – why not go with that?
As Sarah Churchwell recently remarked, ‘The past has consequences in the present regardless of whether we know what happened in it; learning the history makes those consequences intelligible.’
The other day, in an attempt to prevent the Librarian’s determined misquoting of a couple of lines in Dirty Harry, I played her the clip: at the end, the wounded man, maddened by the uncertainty about whether Harry has fired five shots or six, says: ‘I gots to know! I gots to know!’
Yes, I think I suffer a little from that compulsion. Is there one left – or is it already empty?
Answers on a postcard, please – but then you may as well recycle them.
 Suzanne Marrs, editor, What There Is to Say, We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 348.
 What There Is to Say, We Have Said, 35.
 Samuel Hynes, ‘Introduction: A Note on “Edwardian”, in Edwardian Occasions: Essays on English Writing in the Early Twentieth Century (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972), 11.
 Sarah Churchwell, The Wrath to Come: Gone With the Wind and the Lies America Tells (London: Head of Zeus, 2022), 11.