“The ordinary-sized stuff which is our lives, the things people write poetry about—clouds—daffodils—waterfalls—what happens in a cup of coffee when the cream goes in—these things are full of mystery, as mysterious to us as the heavens were to the Greeks… the smallest variation blows prediction apart… The future is disorder. A door like this has cracked open five or six times since we got up on our hind legs. It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.”
Tom Stoppard, Arcadia (1993)
And so, after long months in exile, the end begins. The government appears to be ready to loosen the waistband as some, inevitably, stretch and chafe at self-imposed boundaries –bodies emboldened once again by glorious spring sunshine – in curious alignment with a May Holiday marking the 75th Anniversary of the beginning of the end of another world war, albeit one fought over years, not months. That war saw heroism and casualties, rationing and stirring tales from the Home Front, as has this one. That war saw late arrivals and early departures, errors forced and unforced, and humanity in its greater landscape, as has this. (Although that war also enjoyed considerably less social distancing, as Mary Wesley delighted in reminding us in her sex-fuelled novels).
And so, as if waking from an epic dream smeared across days and weeks – a kind of Mahābhārata, albeit with less interesting gods – interspersed with moments of sudden and shocking clarity, we stumble, in that fugue state between sleeping and wakefulness, towards the mirror, and the light, knowing how it ends, to look upon ourselves anew, and to ask: what will we have learned from all this active dreaming, what does it tell us, what do we understand more truly, and what, if anything, will we choose to change? And the pity of it is that we risk accepting Time and tide’s usual answer: a nonchalant shrug, as if to say, ‘not much’, or Michelle Houellebecq’s “the same as before – only worse”.
For decades, one way or another, we will be paying the price of this extraordinary double-edged gift: a remarkable season in which we collectively pressed the Pause button on our hurtling, shuddering, overwhelming, exhaustingly showy semi-sanity of modern consumerist and corporate life, one we allowed to prevail inadvertently, by paying too little attention to the important. Will it be worth it? Has seeing ourselves – and each other – so closely, under the thin lens of pandemic panic, revealed enough to stimulate real change? Or are we still, as the leopards, unchanging in our spots?
The good shone, as, quietly, they always do; the less good skulked and sulked, as they always do, too, albeit more noisily. Private Godfrey’s essential kindness was still there, as was Lance Corporal Jones’s inclination to panicky instructions to not panic. Private Walker was still, rather efficiently, dealing – although, this time, cocaine and PPE – while Private Frazer’s doom-laden prognostications had a run for his carefully hoarded money.
Many of the Mainwarings will, in due course, be shown to have failed at their essential tasks, as will the organisations they run, but the garters of their self-regard – and agreeable gold-plated public sector pension provision – will likely enable them to escape the fitful public gaze: our institutional sclerosis is probably too far advanced, and they’ve had decades to master the art of escape and evasion. Real change is always hard. (That said, a kind of post-Covid Rule – something like “Would this fly in a pandemic?” – might be usefully baked into future policy assessments). The Pikes, meanwhile, seem as young and charmingly inept as ever: we’ve enjoyed watching them, nonetheless – for their lovely youth prevails, even at a distance.
The comedy aside, we’ve also been reminded of the underlying cloth that bound that far off world together: not least in the grace with which today’s elderly, who grew up as children in the shadow of the last world war, have quietly negotiated this one. The backing fabric and some of the wonderful embroidery may be frayed and faded, but the essentials remain: fragile but still loved, like Colonel Tom – for whom we even had the perfect pop song, courtesy of Major Tom.
We’ve also been vouchsafed glimpses of hidden worlds crashing into familiar ones, wild animals roaming in deserted cities, of jellyfish dreamily making their way up the canals of Venice, like something out a Ballardian landscape. We’ve reconnected with old friends and nurtured each other a little more. And fretted as we faced ourselves more than we usually do, lacking, as we have, the ‘normal’ distractions by which we can slink through years and decades, studiously avoiding that inconvenient act of examining ourselves too closely.
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Our list of books to read, films to see, and music to hear, has lengthened (even as we returned to comfortingly familiar foods), as has the list of those we now see in their more heroic garb, often for the first time: cleaners and delivery drivers, volunteers and frontline workers, all those who moved towards trouble even as we moved away.
And, somehow, we got on with it, as humans are wont to do. And so here we are, having started our new century at last, and perhaps remembering the things of the last with a little more care. In September 1942, T.S. Eliot finished Little Gidding, the last of his Four Quartets, in which he wrote:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Jeanette Winterson, a great admirer of Eliot, once wrote that “It’s hard to remember that this day will never come again. That the time is now and the place is here and that there are no second chances at a single moment.” And now we find ourselves, to quote another of Eliot’s Quartets, The Dry Salvages, with a slightly awkward question: have “We had the experience but missed the meaning”?
Our intentions are always magnificent, our private concerns always urgent. We will no doubt still carry that extra weight (indeed, rather more), still “have the poor always” (indeed, rather more), still yearn for that beautiful Tuscan villa, lost love, or bespoke tweed suit [insert at will]. We will still turn to Charles Dickens’s “bottled lightning, a clean tumbler, and a corkscrew.” Our itches will still need scratching. We will still be cursed by what more scientific sorts call ‘the hedonic treadmill’, an inability to register the remarkable – in either direction – for too long. And yet, of late, something deeper has surely called, like an Inspector.
We have all, one way or another, laid down some kind of sediment, some great humus from this Great Flood upon which new growth can thrive. As to whether we farm it usefully, and maintain or create a new Ma’at, is another matter – perhaps in the hands of those gods we so confidently scorned for a century or so in favour of science, technology, and progress for all – those newer gods we all hope will get us out of this pickle.
Nevertheless, however we answer Eliot’s implied question about whether we’ve really listened, this time, to that ‘still small voice’, this much will surely be true: we shall return to the places and people that we missed, and know them once more, as intimately and tenderly and carefully as we do a bruise. And this old world, as Nina Simone sings so hauntingly, so beautifully, will, for a little while, at least, be a new world, offering a new life.
And for that, may the Lord make us truly grateful.