What is past, or passing, or to come

Newsletter 37 (8 February 2018)

Some time after conducting a rather sudden parking manoeuvre outside our house, I discovered I had flattened a rat in the gravel. I reported this to Katie: “What are you going to do about it?” she asked, with the ‘you’ heavily underlined. What indeed does one do with such an object? Not compost, obviously. Black, brown, or green bin? Food caddy? Or a hasty, shallow grave in a flower bed? Being unable to decide, and not particularly eager to embark on the task, I shelved the problem and got on with other things.

   Later in the day, emerging from the front door, I was astonished by a huge bird, caught just at the moment of take-off, golden wings outspread. It seemed momentarily to fill the whole garden, then shot upwards, and disappeared. And so had the rat. These one or two seconds, merely impressions, with no moment of stasis that would have helped me clarify exactly what I was seeing, have fixed themselves indelibly in my mind. Now occasionally I find myself wondering if this really happened: it was so remarkable. I remember the flattened rodent. I could have looked at it closely, but had not done so; having glimpsed something pink and grey with a scaly tail, that was enough. But the bird had spread its wings and instantly, magically disappeared.

    The bird was of course a Red Kite. There are always one or two to be seen circling around the Oxford suburbs, gliding and soaring with their forked, fishy tails always in motion. The Birds Britannica remarks on their ‘capacity to drop to ground… then return instantly skywards’.

    Since then I have turned the incident over in my mind, trying to work something out. Here goes. The present moment is forever fleeting, like a knife cutting between the past and the future. It can hardly be isolated or slowed down, though we can make ourselves aware of its passage; it is alarming to think that a few moments have passed that are absolutely irretrievable. So we cannot avoid living in our imagination. In the past, whether five seconds, or an hour, or five or fifty years ago, we have our memories, some of which stay with us, while the vast majority disappear forever. Into the future we project dreams and aspirations and ideas.

    What is a holiday if not a deliberate effort to create memories, preferably good ones? We desire to travel, let’s say to see Venice; we have a notion or dream or a memory of what that city might be like.

   For some 950 years St Mark’s has been solidly there for pilgrims and tourists. To encounter its puzzle of mosaics on floor and wall, its dreamlike combinations of golden space and darkness, could hardly be a more different experience than a chance momentary encounter with a large bird in a small garden. Yet though I can easily discriminate between these events, both occupy the same kind of space in my mind. Both are part of that unique rag-bag of memories, ideas, facts, inventions, stories and feelings that make up human consciousness, that finite ‘me’ that expresses and encompasses a lifetime. In insomniac hours, everything seems equally linked and equally separate. I turn things over, as if playing patience with an almost infinite pack of cards, some scuffed and old, some faded, and others smartly bright and new.

     Not long after you receive this newsletter I shall be in Venice. If all goes well on the first day of our stay the group will make its way from the Hotel Ala to St Mark’s piazza, and stand a while to contemplate the outside of the basilica, its portals and façade. Everyone in the group will take away different impressions, whether it’s a first, second or fifth visit, or one of very many.

    I will no doubt find myself thinking the same sorts of thing as on former occasions. I will shepherd folk towards the Pala d’Oro (‘such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make/ Of hammered gold and gold enamelling’), and wonder behind which pier Pamela Widmerpool might have grabbed Russell Gwinnett in Anthony Powell’s Temporary Kings. I will remember with a gentle shock of mild surprise the height and depth of the architecture, the gold of the mosaics, the colours and patterns of the Cosmatesque pavements.

   I trust we will all take something away to reconsider and remember in our different futures, something connected with pleasure, beauty, and instruction, before that thing of shreds and patches that lurks around the corner has its way, and we move further towards the peaceful enormity of oblivion.