Saturday, 30 January 2021

Lizards in Lockdown

Someone I know - let's say her name is Elsa, (it isn't) - lives in the south west of England, (actually, she lives in a different region) but comes originally from Australia (this bit and all the rest, except the place names and her friend's name, are true). Usually, Elsa goes home for a month or two in the European winter, to get a bit of sun into her bones.

But this year that's out of the question.

As a result, when Elsa's rather wild friend Xan, (a glamorous old thing who plans to go for a facelift in Turkey when this is all over), rings one gloomy morning and suggests they go for a sunbed, Elsa doesn't do what she and all Australians would normally do and shriek in horror at the idea of any unnecessary extra exposure to damaging UV rays, (even though that is how we have all been brought up to react to such suggestions since infancy). Because it is the middle of a British winter and Elsa feels a glimpse of sun, even sunbed sun, would actually be quite helpful, Elsa says she'd love to. Actually, she says she'd love to, but how exactly is it going to happen? It's lockdown, no sunbed places are open. To which Xan replies, Ah, but there is a sunbed place she's found out about, an illicit sunbed place, operating in Ottery St Mary. 

This is what happens when you bring in a strict lockdown, Elsa thinks, a whole industry of illicit sunbed places springs up. Or at least one does. Even one is absurd.

How the hell did we arrive at a situation where people are running illicit sunbeds, Elsa asks Xan - in which crystal ball could this have been foreseen? Xan says she doesn't know but does Elsa want to come with her? Elsa cuts the philosophising and says she definitely does want to, and the two of them agree to go that afternoon.

By the time Xan picks up Elsa from her house, the rain is already beginning. As they head out of town, the sky ahead of them is zigzagged by tremendous bolts of lightning. Thunder follows and finally the heaviest downpour either of them have ever seen. Visibility is reduced to almost nothing. Xan, always a slightly alarming driver, becomes, at least in Elsa's eyes, downright terrifying, alternating spurts of anxious acceleration with sudden braking. She also appears to have forgotten that in the narrow old lanes that they are soon navigating you sometimes encounter another car coming the other way.

But in this weather maybe Xan has simply realised that there will not be anything else coming in any direction. Certainly, they don't see anyone at all during the rest of the journey, so it would be an accurate calculation to assume no one other than them would be mad enough to be out in a car.

And eventually, after a great deal of lurching and several extremely dramatic episodes of skidding, what Elsa claims must have been at least a hundred potholes (plus, according to her, numerous near collisions with hedgerows), they are at last getting close to their destination. Then, at the moment that the sign indicating the turn off to Ottery St Mary emerges from the murk beyond the windscreen, Xan's telephone springs into life. Elsa snatches it from Xan, who is about to answer it while negotiating the turn. 

The caller has a broad West Country accent but the content of his conversation is pure Chicago mobster. The cops are hanging round out the front, they've been after him all week - Xan and Elsa will have to cruise around the back streets of Ottery St Mary for about half an hour. That should mean it will be properly dark when they arrive, (from Elsa's point of view it already is, although strictly speaking night hasn't fallen, but she doesn't quibble), and, if they come in the back way, with any luck the cops won't see them or will already have packed up and gone home.

Elsa notes down all the West Country mobster's instructions. The two women spend half an hour discovering the glories of Ottery St Mary, (what a splendid garden centre; good heavens, they have their own hospital - and an enormous Sainsbury's!). Then Elsa reads out the instructions to Xan, and after another three-quarters of an hour of getting lost and retracing their progress, they find the address of the prohibited sunbed place. 

They scuttle out of the car and down a side alley. They ease themselves through a gap created by pushing two slats of someone's back fence aside. They make their way towards the back of a small house and go through a glass sliding door into somebody's kitchen. The room is, not to put too fine a point on it, a little malodorous, possibly thanks to the wellfed dog lying on a large pillow and snoring by the door. 

In the middle of the room, there is a man sitting at a table, smoking a cigarette and watching a boxing match on a small laptop. He looks up as they come in. Sure enough, he is the man Elsa spoke to on the telephone - owner and operator of a range of illicit sunbeds, if two can be said to constitute 'a range'.  

He takes the women through to what was probably originally designed to be a sitting room. He switches on the sunbeds and leaves them to it. 

Elsa and Xan undress and lie down. Elsa is enough of an Australian to stay in the sunbed for only a very short period. After a six-minute blast, she climbs out, dresses and goes back to the kitchen. Xan tells her that she will stay under the lights for a few minutes more. 

Back in the kitchen, the man is still watching boxing. Elsa asks if she can pour herself some water. The man nods and Elsa picks up a glass from the draining board. She turns on the tap. There is a crack of lightning, followed almost immediately by a crash of thunder. All the lights go out. 

The man swears. He gets up and goes out to where the sunbeds are. Elsa follows him. Xan is lying on a sunbed with no sun in it, struggling to open the top of the thing and get herself out. 

"It's no good", the man tells her. "It's a design fault - they lock themselves if the electricity ever goes off." Xan becomes angry, but the man insists there's nothing he can do about it. The lightning must have hit the local transmitter, he says - it happens sometimes, but she doesn't need to worry as they don't usually take too long to get the thing up and running again.

Xan has no choice. She has to accept the situation. Elsa and the man make their way back to the kitchen. Although the only source of light is the small amount the lap top sheds onto the table, the man snaps the thing shut, plunging the room into darkness. The dog groans in its sleep. 

Presumably the man doesn't want to waste the laptop battery. All the same, Elsa regrets the disappearance of its glow. Outside it is pitch black - and now it is equally dark indoors.

The man, it turns out, is a bit of a talker. Sitting in the blackness, he starts to tell Elsa about his political theories. The virus is a conspiracy, he says, the lockdown is a conspiracy, the US election was rigged, nothing is what it seems.

The man talks and talks. Elsa makes little sounds of if not exactly agreement at least non-aggression. She begins to wonder whether she is sitting in the dark with someone who is not entirely sane. Perhaps it is the fact that they can't see each other's faces that makes the conversation especially unsettling - the intensity of it, the rush of words from someone she has never met before, from a person who, though voluble, she can no longer see. 

The man begins to unfold his conviction that the world is ruled by a species of lizard with the ability to change its shape into that of humans. The Queen is a lizard, apparently. All the country's current politicians are too. Elsa decides after all that she is glad that neither of them can see the other. She imagines her face betrays the mixture of fear and bewildered amusement that, listening to him, she increasingly feels. 

That Professor Whitty, she hears the man say next, he's one, but he's really bad at transforming. And to her own dismay as she sits there in the darkness, in the middle of a lockdown that no one ever saw coming, in the kitchen of a man who is running an illicit sunbed parlour in the middle of a town in the West of England - that is to say, as she sits there in a real and yet entirely unbelievable situation - a horrible thought creeps into Elsa's mind.

What if he's right? 

But then the lights come on again, and Xan is released from her sunbed and they leave Ottery St Mary, without being waylaid by the cops. 

They continue breaking the law though - back in town, Xan doesn’t drop Elsa off and head straight on to her own home. Instead, she accepts Elsa’s invitation to come into her house and have a drink. They spend the rest of the evening in each other’s company, which, as anyone from the government will tell you, is a serious offence. They drink wine and eat crisps and watch television together, deep into the night. 

Hardened criminality is easier to slip into than you'd think in these strange times.

Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Not All Bad

I’d like to list all the things to complain about in current existence but I’m not going to. That’s because, along with striving to be less dogmatic, I pledged at the start of the year to try to complain a tiny bit less. So in a spirit of pure unadulterated Pollyanna-ism, I present the first in what may be (if I can continue to stifle my inner moaner) a series: Reason No. 1 to be glad to be around in 2021 - it is this. 

Breathtaking, don’t you think? But possibly almost too much? Stop it, inner moaner.

Sunday, 24 January 2021

Reasons to Tweet - a Continuing Series

I've posted before about how much I like Twitter. I think most bloggers steer clear of it, but I am open to any new way to waste my time. Variety is the spice of life, the cliche goes, and cliches don't get to be cliches unless their central point is true.

One of the aspects of Twitter that I like, as I've already mentioned here, is the descriptions people give of themselves, beneath their name. 

Here are a few that have caught my fancy just lately:

There is the poignant "I miss the good old days" and the enigmatic, "An enigma wrapped in a conundrum wrapped in bacon". There is the just short of despairing, "Holder of several useless patents" and the non-sequitur that is no non-sequitur: "Mother to 10. Wine drinker". There is also the faintly creepy: "Sometimes I shampoo my eyebrows".

However, the one I definitely like the best so far, for its honesty and brevity is this:

"Nasty old drunk."

It is a description that on Twitter could be much more widely used.

Saturday, 23 January 2021

Home Life

I was going through the filing cabinet today, looking for an important document that, of course, I couldn’t find.

Never mind, I found this old cartoon I tore out of the New Yorker years ago, back when there were no mobile telephones, let alone ones that had cameras so that you could take photographs of things you didn’t want to lose or forget about, (and then lose and forget about them amid all the other photographs of things you didn’t want to lose and forget about on your telephone). No, back in those days you had to tear things out of magazines and put them in the filing cabinet if you wanted to lose and forget about them - I mean neither lose or forget about them (or at least only lose or forget about them for a few decades, until one Saturday afternoon when you come across them while looking for something important):

Why did I tear it out, I wonder? Was it because it is funny? Or perhaps because it reminded me of my own dear husband and myself? The second possibility cannot be right as we do not have a cat.

At least we don’t any more. 

Friday, 22 January 2021

Book 2 2021 The Third Man Factor - Surviving the Impossible by John Geiger

The Third Man Factor is an investigation of something often experienced by people in extreme situations - the sense that there is a mysterious companion with them, helping them to survive whatever they are going through. I was attracted to the book because, in truth, naive as it sounds, I would love to have proof to back up my faith in the existence of dimensions beyond those that humans understand. 

The book goes through the accounts left by numerous people - mountaineers, seafarers, people caught in the World Trade Centre when the terrorists' planes hit them - of their sense that they encountered a helpful being not of this world. It also covers the various explanations given by science for the occurrence of this phenomenon. No firm conclusion is reached about whether the "third men" have any existence outside of the body or whether they are only a vision created inside the mind.

I found the book hugely interesting for an unexpected reason - the tales it tells of what some people have put themselves through in their attempts to explore inhospitable landscapes, conquer the sea or climb mountains are astonishing. In particular, the description of some of the things that Ernest Shackleton and his companions went through is staggering - but there are other tales in the book that leave one almost equally in awe of the determination of those involved. 

The scientific wrangling the book outlines about what triggers these experiences is in varying degrees plausible, although the theories don't entirely explain some of the puzzling accounts that seem to suggest something more than a vision came to some of those who experienced "the third man". In one particular story, I find it hard to see how a boat was steered for several hours while the person involved was not conscious. The description given by a survivor of the second Trade Centre tower to fall also suggests something more than a vision, as he is given instructions that he follows and that save him, rather than just experiencing a sense of someone being his companion.  But, in any case, the idea that a helper is seen by people who are experiencing particular chemical changes to the brain in certain circumstances does not preclude the possibility that what they are seeing exists. That is, those chemical changes may not be, as researchers seem to be assuming, creating the vision; they may instead be widening the scope of normal perception. That is, there may be things that exist constantly but which we are normally restricted from seeing by our brain chemistry. 

I suggest this because I have had a couple of strange experiences of my own, despite never having been mountaineering exploring or having set sail across the oceans. While I have managed to persuade myself that each was probably a figment of my imagination, there is one occurrence that I cannot explain in any way at all, except by accepting that some minds are able to see more than others. I will describe that in a future blogpost, but for now I recommend The Third Man Factor for its detailed revelation of extraordinary achievements by people of immense endurance. However they did it, there is something truly marvellous about their stories. 

Tuesday, 19 January 2021


I watched the BBC television news this evening. The bulletin was one long panic-stoking tearjerk about the desperate efforts of hospital workers to keep people with severe COVID-19 alive, (the BBC has been whipping itself into an ever greater fervour lately, using techniques from the Fergal Keane school of over-emotional journalism, and even wheeling out the man himself on one occasion to get us wringing our handkerchieves with anguish and grief). 

I don't know why but I have been always been actively resistant to emotional manipulation, so this stuff doesn't work for me. My perspective, as I have mentioned too many times, is this: we have an exceptionally catching virus in our midst, it kills some people in a very nasty way, and medical staff are having their work cut out looking after people who catch it - but, on the other hand, flu has completely vanished this year, make of that what you will. To stop the spread of the current virus, people are being prevented from leading their lives as they would normally. They are lonely, they are being dragged into poverty, they are dying from other, now neglected, medical disorders, their children are not being educated or allowed to see each other every day. Additionally, some 250,000 businesses in the United Kingdom are predicted to go bust in the near future. But COVID-19 and how the NHS is coping is the only thing that matters for the UK government. And, as far as the BBC News team is concerned, it is the only story. 

Perhaps to thank the public for its compelled efforts, tonight, at the end of the BBC's usual coronavirus-fest of misery, we were given what I'm sure was intended as a feel-good story. To cheer us up, we were shown joy breaking out in a care home where the workers are celebrating the 105th birthday of a woman who has dementia and has just recovered from the current COVID virus.

To me this was the worst moment of the entire bulletin. I wasn’t cheered up at all. In fact I was appalled. It seemed to me that this story encapsulated a growing and utterly crazy cult that has developed during the pandemic. It is a cult in which we seem to believe that the greatest goal of life is to try to all cheat death forever. It is a cult where we celebrate those who survive and keep breathing, ancient and decrepit, panting and staggering and barely able to see, hear or think. It is as if we are all part of some vast and utterly pointless competition in which he or she who lives longest is the winner. It doesn't matter how little of the essence that makes the winner an individual remains within them. It doesn't matter if they can understand what's going on around them. It doesn't matter if they are incontinent. It doesn't matter if they can read a paper or hold a conversation. All they need to do is to maintain a beating heart.

I thought I might be alone in my bafflement but, when a friend sent me this by a cartoonist called Nick Newman, published in the Spectator, I realised that there are others thinking on at least similar lines:

Wednesday, 13 January 2021


 Anyone - (I use the term advisedly, as thanks to several compulsory reeducation programmes, [coming to a council near you in the not too distant future], I do now fully understand that anyone can give birth, not just women) - who has given birth and then goes on to do it again will acknowledge that forgetfulness is "baked in" to the female - sorry, human - psyche. Otherwise, none of us, least of all women, would ever repeat the process.

In the same way, politicians, once elected and comfortably set up with reliable - at least reliable for the duration of their stay in parliament - salaries, seem to forget what it is like to be poor and to live in tiny spaces. Having forgotten, they cannot imagine what it might be like to try to get children to attend lessons online, when there is a poor internet connection and there isn't enough computer equipment to go round, or what it might be like to go day after day with no interaction with any friendly souls outside your four walls. 

It's not their fault. The human forgets adversity. It would be too painful not too. As well, most of us would prefer not to know - particularly if knowing involves acknowledging the folly and failure of policies forced on the poor by our own side or class in earlier decades.

All of this struck me, while rereading a novel by Aldous Huxley called Point Counterpoint. The single most striking thing about the book is how much Huxley loathed John Middleton Murry, upon whom he based the character Burlap in the novel. However, it is in a scene involving another character, a damaged person called Spandrell, that one of the problems of lockdown seemed well-expressed to me. 

In the scene Spandrell is in a pub on a cold wet evening. In conjuring the scene, Huxley captures what pubs provide and thus, unwittingly, since the book was written in the 1920s, gives the reader a taste of modern day lockdown, during which the inhabitants of Britain are deprived of pubs and other places to gather with fellow humans and escape the cramped conditions of life in third-rate accommodation:

"The swing door opened and shut, opened and shut. Outside was loneliness, damp and twilight; within, the happiness of being many, of being close, and in contact."

A conversation that takes place in a much earlier scene in the book is also highly pertinent today, in its suggestion of an alternative, if brutal, approach to the current pandemic. It takes place between Spandrell and "ruthless amusement-hunter" Lucy Tantamount, (supposedly based on Nancy Cunard, now feted as an anti-Fascist and anti-racist, but inextricably linked, perhaps wrongly, in my mind, with Evelyn Waugh's Brenda Last in A Handful of Dust). It goes like this:

'"What shall I do when I'm old?" [Lucy] suddenly asked.

"Why not die?" suggested Spandrell.'

Sunday, 10 January 2021

In Search of Jolts

It struck me today that, although I read quite a lot of fiction - more and more not of the contemporary variety (but that's another story) -  despite the dozens or even hundreds of novels I've read, I can only think of two where I have been genuinely shocked, quite physically jolted, by something they contained. 

The two novels that come to mind are Still Life by AS Byatt and A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. I won't tell you how they jolted me - they are both so worth reading that I wouldn't dream of spoiling them.

There is a third novel I can think of that delivered if not quite a jolt then certainly a shocking surprise in its final pages. It is the exquisite Paul Street Boys by Ferenc Molnar. The really clever thing about Molnar's little jolt is that when you race back and look at the book's beginning you realise that the late surprise ought not to have been one at all.

Can anyone recommend literary jolts other than the examples cited above?

Friday, 8 January 2021

A Worrying Development

This afternoon may have been the beginning of the end for me. I did something I've never done before. I took the first tentative step down the slope that leads to the abyss. 

I have wanted to for a long time, but until now I've exercised some self-control. The lockdown though, it affects us all differently, and for me it's eroded my defences. 

Which is how I found myself at the counter in a stationer's, handing over several hundred Hungarian forints in exchange for a bottle of green ink.

Yes, green. Is there any way back? 

If there is, do I even want to take it? 

Green is the new black:

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

Book 1 Reading 2021 - Tea with Walter de la Mare by Russell Brain

The first book I've read this year is a short one called Tea with Walter de la Mare by a man called Russell Brain. Russell Brain was a neurologist, best known, if Wikipedia is to be believed, for a volume called Brain's Diseases of the Nervous System, and for something called "Brain's reflex", which is, apparently, "exhibited by humans when assuming the quadrupedian position". I have looked up an explanation of what this is, but remain none the wiser, as the explanation centres around "a hemiplegic flexed arm", which is quite beyond me. 

As to Walter de la Mare, he may not be well-known now but he was once a fairly famous writer. His work seemed omnipresent in my childhood. I don't think I was enormously fond of it, but, although it might have struck me as a little dull, it didn't repel me, and I've found that with increasing age almost anything that was part of my childhood now contains an allure it might not have had at the time. 

De la Mare and Brain became friends after Russell Brain, intrigued by a phrase - "the little nowhere of the mind" - that Walter de la Mare used in something he wrote about the poet Rupert Brooke, sent a letter in 1942 to de la Mare and asked where the phrase was from. De la Mare generously answered, sending a copy of a book as a loan. The two then corresponded for some years, until, in 1951, they at last met, after de la Mare invited Brain to tea. 

I think it is possible to see right there the essence of what makes this book so delightful, for it speaks of a quiet and gentle world that has almost entirely vanished now. Would anyone write letters to someone for almost a decade these days and then finally decide to develop the relationship further, choosing to do so by means of a series of afternoon teas (do afternoon teas even happen these days, except the chaotic kind involving mothers and young children and sometimes called play dates by some people?) 

Anyway, after that first invitation until de la Mare's death in 1956, Brain went fairly regularly de la Mare's house, and they talked and talked. The book is made up of the notes Brain made after each of these occasions. Whether Brain told de la Mare that he was making notes of their conversations, or that he intended to create a book from them - if that was his initial intention - I don't know. I should find it quite uncomfortable to think that anyone was writing down the idiocies that constitute my conversation. 

All the same, I'm glad Brain did write down what he and de la Mare said to each other. It seems to me that it is a record not only of their meetings, nor simply of an individual called Walter de la Mare and his conversation. In the subject matter that Walter de la Mare repeatedly came back to - his preoccupation with childhood, dreams, memory, the occult and death, his fascination with what constitutes reality and what role perception plays in that, together with his attempt to understand the connection of mind and body and his hugely enquiring attitude towards everything - I think the reader has a glimpse of the furniture of a Victorian mind. 

The writers that most interest de la Mare are also often very much those who were prominent in his lifetime but have faded from public view, (as, to an extent, has de la Mare himself now) -  Beddoes,  Bridges and Tyrell get a lot of air time, as does Swinburne, who remains better known than the first three, (to the extent that I believe I don't need to provide a link to identify him to readers), but is still no longer someone whose work many people think about a great deal. Like everything, literature has its fashions.

Possibly the remark of de la Mare's relating to literature that most interested me was this one about Thomas Hardy (who he knew and of whom he has quite a lot of interest to say):

"The opening chapter of The Return of the Native is one of the best pieces of prose written in the last century" 

As the list above suggests the tea talk, as Brain calls it, ranged far and wide. In the course of their various afternoon meetings, De la Mare tells many good stories. I like this one about Oscar Wilde, for instance:
“We spoke of Oscar Wilde, in connection with whose centenary it was proposed to put a plaque on his Chelsea house. W. J. (Brain's abbreviation for Walter de la Mare) asked if there was any record of anyone’s being as severely punished as Wilde had been. Even the ordinary criminal is never punished twice for the same offence. He said that Henry Newbolt once found Wilde in a drawing-room surrounded by a crowd of female admirers. They were asking him which he thought were the best passages in Shakespeare’s plays, and Wilde quoted these at length. Newbolt didn’t recognise them, and on looking them up afterwards found that Wilde had invented them on the spot.” 

I'm also fond of the absurdity of this one about de la Mare's mother: 

“W. J. related how, when the Duke of Cambridge died, his house was opened to the public, and W. J.’s mother, intending to go round it, entered by mistake a neighbouring house, the door of which she found open. She went round this until she came to the drawing-room, where she met a young man who pointed out her mistake. Quite unabashed she said: ‘What beautiful things you have here” 

This one about an infamous employee at the London Library also amused me: 

"He asked whether I knew Cox, who used to be chief assistant at the London Library. I said he was apt to be rude, and W. J. said: ‘Yes: if you went in and asked for Oliver Twist, he, in a loud voice: “You are enquiring whether we have Oliver Twist in the library”, so that everyone could hear, in an attempt to make you look foolish.’ I said that after the library was bombed Cox was found at work next morning amid the chaos. Someone condoled with him, and he replied: ‘Yes, this is not at all what we have been accustomed to.’ W. J. thought that that was probably quite a serious remark.” 

 I can't go on quoting all de la Mare's little anecdotes, but, if you liked these, there are plenty more in the book, including a quite funny account of doing jury duty and of telling lies as a child - or rather getting carried away with a fantasy and being caught out. There are also some interesting things from Brain himself, including an intriguing description of how bees communicate and something that if true is rather interesting in the midst of today's endless arguments about sex and gender: 

 “I told him about recent physiological work which had shown that it is possible to decide by microscopical examination of any cell in the body whether it comes from a male or a female, so that sex must be evident in every cell.” 

De la Mare wrote a good many ghost stories and clearly had an interest in the supernatural - and also, not entirely unrelatedly, was intrigued by the question of what constitutes a personality, and what living things such as trees have, if they don't have personalities, which is an intriguing if ultimately probably fruitless line of thought. 

My favourite comment of de la Mare's on the supernatural comes when he and Brain are looking at a picture and de la Mare observes: “I could almost haunt that picture. How odd to discover that a picture was haunted by oneself.” The remark reminded me of a story by Susan Hill and I wondered whether she had come across de la Mare's comment or whether it was a case of pure coincidence, another phenomenon that interested de la Mare. If she did find the idea in this book, I wonder why she didn't also take up another story idea that de la Mare mentions to Brain: 

“What a good story one could make about a witness who volunteered to give evidence on demoniacal possession to the Commission and who, it gradually became apparent, was the Devil himself!” 

In the context of horror and ghost stories, I rather like de la Mare's contention that the most terrifying thing imaginable is when something that isn't real gets vitality. It made me remember an incident in my childhood that I had forgotten, which entirely bears out his thesis. 

As Brain reports it, de la Mare was full of original insights, always looking with curiosity at what we can easily take for granted, and from his questioning attention conversation unfurls. For instance, having been given a budgerigar, unlike most people who just think, "It's a budgie", de la Mare observes it closely and thinks about what he sees, telling Brain: 

‘He has a very Gladstonian look. He never seems to look at you with more than one eye —his blackberry sphere of an eye", then going on to wonder, "Does he suppress what he sees with the other? You never look at a person between the eyes, or if you do he notices it at once. Isn’t it remarkable that you can always tell to a minute degree what another person is doing with his eyes!" 

Among the many, many striking things de la Mare says, I particularly liked his assessment that, in creating the Alice books, Lewis Carroll did something absolutely original that had never been done before; this is true, and yet I had never quite grasped it, much as I love those books. Perhaps Willans and Searle did something not altogether dissimilar in their Molesworth books. His assessment of Harold Nicolson also struck me as absolutely accurate, and I found something he pointed out about the language of the Book of Common Prayer revelatory.

There are many more instances of de la Mare's insights in the book but what he does most of the time is ask questions - at one point he apologises for asking too many but he doesn't really need to as they are generally such puzzling and unusual questions that they open up whole new vistas in the mind. I suppose they provide in abundance what is often called "food for thought:

"If you had to prove I was insane, what single question would you ask me?" he wonders. 

"If, when you died and reached Heaven's gate, you were asked what do you really know, what would your answer be?" he demands. 

"How do you visualise yourself? Do you ever picture your own back? What scientific discovery would change your whole outlook on life? Do you ever try to stop thinking - it's like trying to dam a kind of torrid stream, Have you ever known a human being who seemed entirely different from anyone else? What would Man Friday's biography of Robinson Crusoe be like? How much of what we do is automatic, do you think? How much of your past life would you not find boring if you had to live it again? If you were asked to prove you were sane how would you do it? 

The question of de la Mare's that made me laugh out loud comes in response to Brain quoting to him something said by JBS Haldane: 

"I quoted J. B. S. Haldane’s remark that the wings of an angel, as they are traditionally depicted, would not be strong enough to raise his body. To which W. J. replied: ‘How does he know what the weight of an angel’s body is?’ 

 The question that will haunt me with its strangeness is what de la Mare said to Brain at the time of their poignant final meeting. As Brain tells it, De la Mare, aware that he was very near  death, asked Brain to visit; the two men sat - or perhaps de la Mare was lying, in bed - alone in de la Mare’s room: 

“He greeted me with a smile and a joke about his lack of party manners. We spoke a little, and I took his hand. Then, after a pause he said: ‘All these onlookers! There are so many of them. I wonder, where do they come from?’ He died a few hours later, in the night following the longest day.” 

All these onlookers! I too wonder where they came from. A lovely book, ending with the most intriguing question I have ever come across. I highly recommend it. You can find a roughly scanned copy, without the page numbers or anything scrubbed out of it, but a copy nonetheless, here.

Monday, 4 January 2021

The Other Side of the Argument

In keeping with my New Year’s resolution to be less dogmatic about things I don’t really understand, here is a different point of view on COVID-19 from my usual toddlerish moaning. I found it expressed as a comment in reply to a video that argued that the current virus is far less dangerous than Spanish Flu. 

I don’t doubt any of the stats quoted in the comment, but I do think they raise some questions. 

The first is: why are so many people obese and suffering from diabetes? Could it be anything to do with a rise in food being processed before sale to consumers and being supplied by big corporations rather than sourced locally (and don’t get me started on that line of thought - most especially don’t let me start wailing on about the loss of community that is an underlying factor in mass food production and supply.)

The second  query I have is this: despite the fact that it might have meant shielding 20 to 25 per cent of the population, was it really beyond the wit of politicians to organise things so that 75 per cent could go about life as normal? That strategy could scarcely have been more expensive than mass lockdowns. Certainly, in Tübingen they seemed to manage to do it, so why not elsewhere?

Anyway here are the pro lockdown figures and facts we ought to consider (sigh, small tantrum, I suppose):

 Who are "the vulnerable"? The Contrarians don't like to give numbers or to suggest how they can be isolated effectively, but let's try and build them anyway: Let's include the over 65 group, which are known to have the highest chance of a serious COVID complication, including death. Ireland's Central Statistics Office estimates these are 14.4% of Ireland's population in 2020, and Ireland's population is younger than most other European nations! There's a NHS list [1] of other groups with proven higher risks of COVID complications, those with existing heart, lung, kidney conditions, diabetics, the obese, people from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background, among others. I haven't time to find the numbers for all these groups, but in the USA, an estimated 7.7% of adults have BMI > 40 (National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS)), about 10% of the USA population is estimated to have Diabetes (Centers for Disease Control (CDC)).@