At Hambledon Lock, trying to capture a momentary eddy in the tumbling water
(post first drafted on 5th Feb)
These days, I find little impulse to write. The process of dusting off more than a decade of posts for reissue, especially classifying them by topic, keeps reminding me that I don’t have anything new to say: only the same in different ways. A single set of themes can be traced from the start until now. It’s not a narrative, but a series of notes and snapshots, which may sometimes rise to the status of essays. Their chronology might interest a scholar, just as it interests me; but not the casual reader so much. “Two or three gathered together”, or scattered—wherever you are I’m forever in your debt. Without your encouragement thousands of well-spent hours would have been diverted—possibly frittered—elsewhere.
Never mind the might-have-beens, those alternate universes which, if they were to exist would be infinite in number. There remains only what we have now. Its possibilities are without limit. How shall we choose our way, moment to moment? It’s easy to think and behave as if we run on rails, like a tram or train, our route determined already. We could think of ourselves as motorists, free to roam at will; but then we’re constrained by the road network and all the rules enforced for safety.
One day, having returned to full-time office work after a long interval, I conceived the image of an aimless pedestrian and changed the name of this blog to “A Wayfarer’s Notes”. Walking seemed the ultimate symbol of freedom, especially for me after dramatically recovering from decades of so-called CFS. What do I mean by “aimless”? When there is neither agenda nor baggage.
So long as we have unsatisfied wants or needs, we have an agenda: to fix that lack. I started these writings when, for the first time in my life, I had everything; and knew it. That awareness has held to this moment. Still, there was baggage to be discarded: every vestige of belief, the notions of salvation that we cling to—some path to love, money, God or ideology. Sometimes we may see it as simply vanquishing our enemies, be they agents of malign Fate out there the world, or demons within our own heads.
Of the various arts, literature is the one I’ve been drawn to most: both reading and writing. But for me, writing is a craft not an art, a kind of making. If there are different parts of the head for “engineer” and “poet”, I’d guess at a proportion of 70-30 in my case. I can brood endlessly about clean functional design in things I make with my hands. It’s more satisfying than tapping with these fingers, or scribbling in my notebook.
And when it comes to art . . . I like to think in universals, that every man can be his own artist.* Each can acquire to some degree a skill in living gracefully. Someone asked me what I intended to do with my retirement. “Grow old gracefully,” I replied. “Surely you mean disgracefully?” said he, having known me since 1984 when I recruited him for my quality control team at BACS†. I know what he means though. Those shackled by family, debts and other cares sometimes dream of freedom as being able to say “F— you!” to the world.
To me, living gracefully— forgetting the “growing old” bit, when it doesn’t nudge at one’s elbow—must always involve some ongoing project, preferably making. And so I shall go on dusting off this site, cutting and polishing, as one might do with a stone, to reveal its translucency, veins and strata. Classifying & indexing each post according to the mix of topics takes time. In a labour of love, you don’t count time. It dissolves into eternity.
It’s impossible to write about the moment in the moment, because it passes so rapidly, to be replaced by further moments, bringing further feelings and ideas with them‡. In truth, there is plenty to say.
* Man, in the old inclusive sense: “A human being (irrespective of sex or age). Man was considered until the 20th cent. to include women by implication, though referring primarily to males. It is now frequently understood to exclude women, and is therefore avoided by many people.”
Not being “many people”, I’m grateful for the OED’s acknowledgement that the English language transcends the centuries and resists the tyranny of activists.
† BACS = Bankers’ Automated Clearing System. We worked together on several projects after that and still keep in touch, so he knows I’m an unpredictable maverick. He’s ten years younger and still working, so we can’t really share that kind of language any more. Furthermore, he does secret work now, which of course he has to deny, so we can’t talk about it at all.
‡ Could anybody write up moments like D H Lawrence? Here’s how he ends Chapter 1 of The Rainbow, “How Tom Brangwen Married a Polish Lady”:
“I came up,” he said, speaking curiously matter-of-fact and level, “to ask if you’d marry me. You are free, aren’t you?”
There was a long silence, whilst his blue eyes, strangely impersonal, looked into her eyes to seek an answer to the truth. He was looking for the truth out of her. And she, as if hypnotized, must answer at length.
“Yes, I am free to marry.” The expression of his eyes changed, became less impersonal, as if he were looking almost at her, for the truth of her. Steady and intent and eternal they were, as if they would never change. They seemed to fix and to resolve her. She quivered, feeling herself created, will-less, lapsing into him, into a common will with him.
“You want me?” she said.
A pallor came over his face.
“Yes,” he said.
Still there was no response and silence.
“No,” she said, not of herself. “No, I don’t know.”
He felt the tension breaking up in him, his fists slackened, he was unable to move. He stood there looking at her, helpless in his vague collapse. For the moment she had become unreal to him. Then he saw her come to him, curiously direct and as if without movement, in a sudden flow. She put her hand to his coat.
“Yes I want to,” she said, impersonally, looking at him with wide, candid, newly-opened eyes, opened now with supreme truth. He went very white as he stood, and did not move, only his eyes were held by hers, and he suffered. She seemed to see him with her newly-opened, wide eyes, almost of a child, and with a strange movement, that was agony to him, she reached slowly forward her dark face and her breast to him, with a slow insinuation of a kiss that made something break in his brain, and it was darkness over him for a few moments.
He had her in his arms, and, obliterated, was kissing her. And it was sheer, bleached agony to him, to break away from himself. She was there so small and light and accepting in his arms, like a child, and yet with such an insinuation of embrace, of infinite embrace, that he could not bear it, he could not stand.
He turned and looked for a chair, and keeping her still in his arms, sat down with her close to him, to his breast. Then, for a few seconds, he went utterly to sleep, asleep and sealed in the darkest sleep, utter, extreme oblivion.
From which he came to gradually, always holding her warm and close upon him, and she as utterly silent as he, involved in the same oblivion, the fecund darkness.
He returned gradually, but newly created, as after a gestation, a new birth, in the womb of darkness. Aerial and light everything was, new as a morning, fresh and newly-begun. Like a dawn the newness and the bliss filled in. And she sat utterly still with him, as if in the same.
Then she looked up at him, the wide, young eyes blazing with light. And he bent down and kissed her on the lips. And the dawn blazed in them, their new life came to pass, it was beyond all conceiving good, it was so good, that it was almost like a passing-away, a trespass. He drew her suddenly closer to him.
For soon the light began to fade in her, gradually, and as she was in his arms, her head sank, she leaned it against him, and lay still, with sunk head, a little tired, effaced because she was tired. And in her tiredness was a certain negation of him.
“There is the child,” she said, out of the long silence.
He did not understand. It was a long time since he had heard a voice. Now also he heard the wind roaring, as if it had just begun again.
“Yes,” he said, not understanding. There was a slight contraction of pain at his heart, a slight tension on his brows. Something he wanted to grasp and could not.
“You will love her?” she said.
The quick contraction, like pain, went over him again. “I love her now,” he said.
She lay still against him, taking his physical warmth without heed. It was great confirmation for him to feel her there, absorbing the warmth from him, giving him back her weight and her strange confidence. But where was she, that she seemed so absent? His mind was open with wonder. He did not know her.
“But I am much older than you,” she said. “How old?” he asked.
“I am thirty-four,” she said.
“I am twenty-eight,” he said.
She was oddly concerned, even as if it pleased her a little. He sat and listened and wondered. It was rather splendid, to be so ignored by her, whilst she lay against him, and he lifted her with his breathing, and felt her weight upon his living, so he had a completeness and an inviolable power. He did not interfere with her. He did not even know her. It was so strange that she lay there with her weight abandoned upon him. He was silent with delight. He felt strong, physically, carrying her on his breathing. The strange, inviolable completeness of the two of them made him feel as sure and as stable as God. Amused, he wondered what the vicar would say if he knew.
“You needn’t stop here much longer, housekeeping,” he said.
“I like it also, here,” she said. “When one has been in many places, it is very nice here.”
He was silent again at this. So close on him she lay, and yet she answered him from so far away. But he did not mind.
“What was your own home like, when you were little?” he asked.
“My father was a landowner,” she replied. “It was near a river.”
This did not convey much to him. All was as vague as before. But he did not care, whilst she was so close.
“I am a landowner—a little one,” he said. “Yes,” she said.
He had not dared to move. He sat there with his arms round her, her lying motionless on his breathing, and for a long time he did not stir. Then softly, timidly, his hand settled on the roundness of her arm, on the unknown. She seemed to lie a little closer. A hot flame licked up from his belly to his chest.
But it was too soon. She rose, and went across the room to a drawer, taking out a little tray-cloth. There was something quiet and professional about her. She had been a nurse beside her husband, both in Warsaw and in the rebellion afterwards. She proceeded to set a tray. It was as if she ignored Brangwen. He sat up, unable to bear a contradiction in her. She moved about inscrutably.
Then, as he sat there, all mused and wondering, she came near to him, looking at him with wide, grey eyes that almost smiled with a low light. But her ugly-beautiful mouth was still unmoved and sad. He was afraid.
His eyes, strained and roused with unusedness, quailed a little before her, he felt himself quailing and yet he rose, as if obedient to her, he bent and kissed her heavy, sad, wide mouth, that was kissed, and did not alter. Fear was too strong in him. Again he had not got her.
She turned away. The vicarage kitchen was untidy, and yet to him beautiful with the untidiness of her and her child. Such a wonderful remoteness there was about her, and then something in touch with him, that made his heart knock in his chest. He stood there and waited, suspended.
Again she came to him, as he stood in his black clothes, with blue eyes very bright and puzzled for her, his face tensely alive, his hair dishevelled. She came close up to him, to his intent, black-clothed body, and laid her hand on his arm. He remained unmoved. Her eyes, with a blackness of memory struggling with passion, primitive and electric away at the back of them, rejected him and absorbed him at once. But he remained himself. He breathed with difficulty, and sweat came out at the roots of his hair, on his forehead.
“Do you want to marry me?” she asked slowly, always uncertain.
He was afraid lest he could not speak. He drew breath hard, saying:
“I do.” Then again, what was agony to him, with one hand lightly resting on his arm, she leaned forward a little, and with a strange, primeval suggestion of embrace, held him her mouth. It was ugly-beautiful, and he could not bear it. He put his mouth on hers, and slowly, slowly the response came, gathering force and passion, till it seemed to him she was thundering at him till he could bear no more. He drew away, white, unbreathing. Only, in his blue eyes, was something of himself concentrated. And in her eyes was a little smile upon a black void.
She was drifting away from him again. And he wanted to go away. It was intolerable. He could bear no more. He must go. Yet he was irresolute. But she turned away from him.
With a little pang of anguish, of denial, it was decided. “I’ll come an’ speak to the vicar to-morrow,” he said, taking his hat.
She looked at him, her eyes expressionless and full of darkness. He could see no answer. “That’ll do, won’t it?” he said.
“Yes,” she answered, mere echo without body or meaning. “Good night,” he said.
He left her standing there, expressionless and void as she was. Then she went on laying the tray for the vicar. Needing the table, she put the daffodils aside on the dresser without noticing them. Only their coolness, touching her hand, remained echoing there a long while. They were such strangers, they must for ever be such strangers, that his passion was a clanging torment to him. Such intimacy of embrace, and such utter foreignness of contact! It was unbearable. He could not bear to be near her, and know the utter foreignness between them, know how entirely they were strangers to each other. He went out into the wind. Big holes were blown into the sky, the moonlight blew about. Sometimes a high moon, liquid-brilliant, scudded across a hollow space and took cover under electric, brown-iridescent cloud-edges. Then there was a blot of cloud, and shadow. Then somewhere in the night a radiance again, like a vapour. And all the sky was teeming and tearing along, a vast disorder of flying shapes and darkness and ragged fumes of light and a great brown circling halo, then the terror of a moon running liquid-brilliant into the open for a moment, hurting the eyes before she plunged under cover of cloud again.