22: Under Woodland Shadows – Dreaming

I remember being happy, once, for about half an hour. I am ten or eleven, and I am at school on a warm and still summer’s day. I have just finished lunch, and because it is warm and dry and there is no real prospect of anyone getting all muddy, they have let us come onto the playing field. Right at the back is a little strip of woodland, all that remains of what must have been in ancient times a real wood that extended northwards, right down into the valley and up the other side. But now, all that remains of this ancient wood is a little strip of trees and scrub running along the back of the field, hardly thirty feet deep. Under these trees I lie, propped up on my elbow so that I can read a book that I am resting on the dry pine needles next to me. I have with me one of my favourite books – and I have it still, The Pictorial Encyclo­pæ­dia[1] – that my uncle gave to me four or five years earlier – not on my birthday, or at Christ­mas, not wrapped up or officially presented. Sit­ting in the passenger seat of my father’s Ford Anglia, my uncle one day turned around to address me in the back, and said that here was a book he had found that he thought I might find interesting.

So for half an hour, I lay in the cool shade of the woodland trees, hidden from view, completely detached from the sweltering world beyond, feel­ing more safe than I usually did, engrossed as I turned the pages of this wonderful, wonderful book, completely absorbed in the pictures, enchanted by the human skeleton, by the insides of a locomotive, by the complex rigging of a sailing vessel, by the plumage of tropical birds. Here is a drawing of nine different types of roof, from the simple ‘flat’ to the much more complicated ‘ham­mer beam’ and ‘double hammer beam’, and oppo­site is a drawing showing different types of arches and vaults. Here is a page that crudely outlines the history of agriculture. Oh, how interesting the world is! It may well have been this very book, those few years before, when I was first given it, that first got me addicted to interesting things. And my addiction has grown. It is perhaps the only thing of comparable size that I can put in the scales on the side opposite my despair. However low my despair may have laid me, it has never, yet, vanquished my finding interesting things interest­ing. In interesting things, I did sometimes come across the merest glimmer of enthusiasm, until some frustration intervened and demolished my fragile mood. And now, in these hateful times, it is the evil of neoliberalism that makes the reawaken­ing of my unstable enthusiasm utterly impossible. I have no right to be enthusiastic about interesting things whilst the vulnerable and downtrodden, here and right around the world, are being abused by a rich elite that abuses its power to bleed every­one else dry. I cannot be the enemy of that power if I am distracted by enthusiasm for anything other than the destruction of that power.

[1] There is no date, but it must have been published earlier than 1952, for that is the year my grandfather enters in his inscription, declaring the book a gift to my uncle (when he was a teenager). The book’s editors and contributors have crammed an aston­ishing breadth of knowledge into its 230 pages, and include articles on human anatomy, the steam locomotive, mathemat­ics, astronomy, the natural world, the ancient world, tanning and papermaking, pottery and printing, architecture and musical instruments, housebuilding and shipbuilding, the history of science and the story of global exploration. That I can ever an­swer questions in quizzes must in large part be down to this very book. It is rather like a self-contained, mini-Internet for the pre-electronic age.

21: Purpose – Wanting

Still I call to my lost love. She died sud­den­ly over a year ago.[1] Yet still I call to her to come and talk with me. She, and her mother, and others had paranormal experiences which – if we are to accept them at face value – confirm the existence of the afterlife. And as the years passed, I always assumed that my dear, dear wife would come to me, in however small a way to say some­thing, however insignificant, to say perhaps that she is all right, and that the pain of her life-long illness has now gone, and that she can now rest at last from her suffering. But no … nothing as tangi­ble as I have been wanting. In the early months, I did experience a handful of ‘comings through’, in which I did not hear her voice, but nevertheless had a sense of meaning, and that it was indeed she who was conveying it … mostly to help me find lost things (I am forever losing things; here in this little house, hundreds of items are lost, hidden somewhere, somehow), and that was of course so very much appreciated.

It is not the loss of my lost love that causes my despair, for that despair has been with me since childhood, since even before that day when I learnt that the weather was the cause of my head­aches. But her loss has intensified that despair in a specific way which traps me even more securely beyond all hope of improvement. For I have lost my purpose. I came to this world in order to find her and to care for her through her illness, for there was no one else able to do it – no parent, no sibling, no friend, no spouse other than me. So that was my role, and I see now how enormous was that sense of purpose that it bestowed on me. And now it is gone, and I am so totally adrift. I cannot begin to express adequately the quality of distress that this loss-to-add-to-my-loss has caused me. Now that I am qualified to judge the matter, I think I would more easily have borne anything in its stead, any pain, any loss, any humiliation, any ca­lamity.

In all other respects, my life, what it is, what I do, why I do it, how it matters to me, all these things have not changed. I have lost two things – my love and my purpose, and if through all those years, from childhood onwards, I experienced what I am calling despair, then what do I call this thing that I experience now? For it is not the same. It is of course in some regard larger, more insistent, more painful, more intrusive, more hate­ful, and more destructive of any endeavour that I might hope to bring to bear against it.

The loss and grief that I have suffered is com­mon to all, and is an inevitable aspect of the Human Condition, the condition we are doomed to live as a consequence of being self-conscious, of being aware that we are aware, and being able to narrate the stories of our lives, both in terms of their histories and in terms of their anticipations and hopes and terrors for the future, knowing that we are both the narrators of our lives as well as the people who must live them.

I have of course sought the purpose that I so desperately need, yet I cannot find it. I do not know how to search, and I do not know how to recognise the object of my search. I might have passed a dozen times what I seek and for which I yearn, and I simply cannot see it…

[1] I provide a full account of this, discussing my experience of grief in another book, Another Grief Observed, which in part re­sponds to the thoughts of the author C. S. Lewis in his little book A Grief Observed.

20: Enthusiasm – Lacking

What I haven’t yet done tires me out. I am already exhausted by the things I must do tomor­row. Rather, it is the mere anticipation of having to commit myself to action that is so debilitating. I can tolerate thoughts of writing, if no one has any expectations of me, and if I have no expectations of myself. And the idea of reading isn’t too un­comfortable, though this very much depends upon the precise nature of my projected reading matter. But everything else is unbearably wearying, especially the thought of having to prepare food and having to eat it. The thought of dealing with other people, meeting them, talking with them, especial­ly strangers, is debilitating. Any anticipation of having to sort things out, of having to move them about, of having to decide how to order them and what to keep and what to throw away, simply crushes me.

I wonder whether I have ever experienced enthusiasm in the way that I think other people expe­rience it? Not to feel a tremendous weight of aversion for something is perhaps the best I can mus­ter. Even though I am not every day scrubbing the floors or cleaning up filth, it seems to me that life is nothing but an endless, cheerless, numbing, exhausting chore. Would that I could have a feel­ing that is different from this. There is nothing I can do to effect that change in my perception. So I wait and wait, and hope for some miraculous change, a cure perhaps, that would render living something less than abominably aw­ful.

19: Curtain – Rustling

It is the early summer of 1964, and I am sev­en. I am in my grandparents’ back garden very early in the morning, and the warming sun is bear­ing down on the little bit of paving that my grand­fa­ther has put down by the French doors to the living-room, joining it to the wide concrete path that leads away from the kitchen door to make a patio that extends across the entire width of the house. I am kneeling at a little table that someone has placed in the centre of the paving, upon which are scattered a variety of pens and pen­cils, together with a few sheets of paper. My grand­mother has already this year been distressed by flies and wasps coming into her kitchen, so my grandfather has fitted a cheap fly screen at the back door, the sort with multi-coloured plastic strips that extend over the full height of the door frame, and as my moth­er steps in and out of the kitchen, attending to her chores, the plastic strips, as she passes through them, make a loud and distinc­tive rustling sound.

For some months I have been enduring the most unpleasant tension headaches – a symptom of my overall existential condition that will never leave me in peace – and my mother, just a few moments ago, arrived at her diagnosis: my head­aches are caused by the weather.

Oh dear! What a calamity … caused by the weather? I took this to mean that the wonderful summer weather that was now upon us, the very weather that I loved and even craved, was the agent of my suffering. Throughout my entire life, I have hoped for and wanted, and loved and lived through wonderful, long, warm, quiet summer days that for me are the only oases I have ever known, fragile and fleeting and already full of the sadness of their ending. But now I learn that my favourite thing in all the world is causing my terri­ble headaches, and I am so upset by this news that I cannot hold back my tears. The more I enjoy the warmth of the sun on my back, the worse my head­ache will get, and I knew at that moment the true depths of despair.

Of course, what my mother had told me was ut­ter tosh, and there was no connection between my headaches and the weather. My headaches come and go according to their own agenda, even on cold days in the depths of winter, perhaps even more so at such times, when one’s jaw clenches tight against the chill, and the muscles of one’s neck and shoulders harden like setting concrete.

Some people, some cruel and heartless people lacking any sort of interior life, ridicule and con­demn nostalgia. My long gone summer days re­main the only treasure that I ever really cared about. Take from me what you please, my posses­sions, my health, my sanity, but do not take my wonderful summer days.

18: Fog – Sticking

Everything I do, I do with the most over­whelm­ing sense of desperation. I read a book gaz­ing at it through this veil of desperation, wishing and wishing that this time the writing be interesting or insightful or just informative, or whatever it is that I had wanted from that particular volume. Every paragraph I write – such as this paragraph – I do so, desperately wishing that it be done well, or that at least it may make some little sense, or perhaps use a few interesting words, or in its entirety say something interesting, interesting for a reader to read, as well as interesting for me when in a few days, having completely forgotten what I have written, I chance upon it and read it again.

I draw the curtains back every morning, desperate for the scene outside not to alarm me, or by its dismal aspect depress my mood even before I have opened my first book or opened my notebook to write. That scene is dismal today, for a gelatinous fog sticks tenaciously to the leafless trees, to the walls and roofs of the houses, resembling nothing so much as a contagion. If it had a smell, it would be putrid and repulsive. Even in­doors, because the heating is off, the air itself is wet. It feels like disembodied malevolent sticky hands sticking to my face. For it is winter, the most hated of seasons, when every day (except those blessed with bright sunlight that streams through clean, clear air) is simply nasty, like the sort of day you would expect to find rotting, caught with all the other rubbish, in the Devil’s own trouser turn-ups. This is the sort of day I feel desperate to avoid. Yet what can one do to avoid the days themselves?

Some, I suppose, elect to stay in bed all day, and I do remember times, especially when I was a child suffering some minor illness that probably didn’t even need the doctor, when I would remain under my warm covers for several days on end. I used to hurt my left shoulder propping myself up, because not so many hours would pass (though perhaps not on the first day, or even the second day) before I felt desperate to get back to the book I was reading, or start a new book even if I had not finished the previous one, to be once again charting the unknown coasts of New Zealand and Queensland with Captain Cook, or sitting with Thor Heyerdahl on the deck of the Kon-Tiki or, later in Aku-Aku, musing over the enigmatic statues on Easter Island where he would fail to deci­pher an example of an ancient script, written by a scribe from the previous generation, that no one could read any more. My bedroom became the Doctor’s Tardis, and I could go anywhere and think about any­thing. Anything to take me away from the despair of that very day. It wasn’t the sickness that made me want to escape, but this ever-present sense of desperation. And as I grow older, it also grows, so that now I am desperate to relieve that sense of desperation. But I do not know how. I have no idea what brings it here, what gives it life, what makes it so corrosive. But it is a hateful thing, and I have no armour against it other than my books, and that is why, over the years, I have accumulated so many of them, for I cannot resist the ridiculous idea that one day I will chance upon a book whose content or style, or advice, or insights will obliterate my desperation forever, and I can at last, even as an old man, begin to live my life.


17: Pencil – Sharpening

I must have used up hundreds of pencils in all this time, from when I was two or three, when my parents or grandparents first gave me pencils and paper to play with. Yet I have no recollection of ever throwing away a pencil stub. I can remember one instance of struggling to sharpen a little stub, because I had foolishly forgotten to bring to class a much-needed replacement pencil. So there I was, at the age of perhaps seven, struggling to put a point on a little bit of pencil that was hardly an inch long. Yet not a single instance of dispos­ing of a useless pencil stub will come to me. So as I gradually sharpen away this mustard-yellow Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth 1500 (8B) that I am us­ing to underline the books I am reading, I am keeping my eye on it, watching as my sharpen­ing reduces it bit by bit. There is some way to go, as I started using it only recently, and it is still a decent length, at perhaps five and a half inches. I am sharp­ening it with a new penknife that I acquired just a day or two ago, a knife I chose online look­ing at the pictures and carefully reading the de­scriptions, selected especially for this single func­tion. From one end folds out the larger clip point blade and the smallest spey blade. These I will reserve for special tasks that may not be pencil-related at all, such as opening packages, or turning plastic bot­tles into useful pots (you can use the opposite end to make a funnel). From the other end of the knife folds out a single, medium-sized sheepsfoot blade, whose straight edge is ideal for sharpening pencils. Trial runs have proved most satisfactory. For the first time ever, I am deter­mined to remain con­scious of my throwing away – perhaps in a couple of weeks – the stub of this Koh-I-Noor pencil.

Perhaps the excitement of starting a new pencil has always been so strong that my memories of having just thrown away a stub could not survive the thrill. I have a 7B ready for the forthcoming event.


16: Venus – Rising

I look out of the back door, and by the light of the single streetlight that my grandfather erected there, I see there is a foot of mist carpeting the lawn at the back of the house. A distant owl calls out from the forest and, in the east, Venus flickers through the pine needles of the old trees that tower over the caravan. The Morning Star heralds the approach of dawn, and if we don’t get to sleep in the next few minutes, there will be no night left for our slumber. Did those old stories really take that long to tell?

By the time we awoke, the summer sun had burned away the mist, and Venus, although we could not see her, hung directly over our heads. The big, old gate creaked as the milkman deliv­ered our daily pint, and my grandmother lifted the big, old kettle from the hob as the steam from the boiling water inside made its whistle sing. This was a day when we didn’t have to do anything, but we did what we did because we chose to. Later, away from the oasis that my grandfather built, I found, as did my dear wife, that everything we did was compelled by other people whose business it was to order our lives.

As my years advance, I am trying to resist that domination. See, I have written this, and no one told me to.