So many different parts we play in life; yet at this moment now they all become focussed in this whatever it is that I call ‘I’. The ‘I’ that takes itself forward from this moment now into whatever activity it might have planned for the next minute, hour, day, week, month, year… Different time-scales define different ‘I’s.
‘I’ am student/learner/business person/father/mother/son/daughter/footballer/statesman/cook/and so on, at different moments of my life; ‘I’ lead an existence variously fanciful, invented, humdrum, playful, exquisite, dour, magnanimous; the life of the outside world and that of our inner world both proceed together, in what seems to be an undifferentiated unity, in real time focussed on whatever ‘we’ (our many ‘I’s) may imagine to be important from time to time.
The inner world in which we swim, mysteriously, is of prime importance to ourselves but of singularly small real account to others, hard as they might try to empathise. It is represented by the bottom of the Figure of Eight model… For a full explication of the concept of the Figure of Eight, see https://colinblundell.wordpress.com/2011/11/16/somatic-markers and subsequent posts.
The Fleeting Ephemeral Quality of the Inner World
Dead and long gone, mouldered by now into almost nothing in the cemetery of Père Lachaise in Paris, are the remains of Marcel Proust who once noted that ‘trees in a clearing and the flowers on road sides or on old walls’ had a quality of having chosen ‘just that place to grow…’ so much so that ‘they filled it with a silent and different life, with a mystery in which my person found itself lost and alarmed at the same time…’
My person, my collection of multiple beings or ‘I’s, can find itself lost in mysteries and memories, alarmed and charmed at one and the same time; it is impossible to keep up with the way flipping in the memory from thing to thing, event to event brings to mind the millions of I-tags with which we label the minutiae of our past.
There was a road leading to Blackmoor Gate in Devon where she and I bent down to look at bladderwort only to discover a lizard basking in a short moment of sunshine before the mist came down fifty-five years ago. One lizard that achieves a kind of immortality for me; lizard scuttles off out of this all too brief trance of togetherness; if she is still alive, I wonder if she too remembers that moment—she’d be 76 whereas in all of lizard-time she is still 20… What was it that ceased in their relationship when the man who was up on a roof thatching saw fit to bid them, “Good Morning!”?
Pick a moment from your past—nothing spectacular but something that continues to have some ‘meaning’ for you. A moment to which you pin a label that represents one of your past ‘I’s, an I-tag. Notice how the experience comes and goes in intensity, in definition as you try to hold on to its mystery, to put it into words, both the event—what you saw, heard, felt—and its significance for you in afterdays.
In her novels Virginia Woolf captures the fleeting quality of inner experience so well; this from To the Lighthouse:-
Looking at the far sand hills, William Bankes thought of Ramsay: thought of a road in Westmorland, thought of Ramsay striding along a road by himself hung round with that solitude which seemed to be his natural air. But this was suddenly interrupted, William Bankes remembered (and this must refer to some actual incident), by a hen, straddling her wings out in protection of a covey of little chicks, upon which Ramsay, stopping, pointed his stick and said “Pretty—pretty”, an odd illumination into his heart, Bankes had thought it, which showed his simplicity, his sympathy with humble things; but it seemed to him as if their friendship had ceased, there, on that stretch of road. After that, Ramsay had married. After that, what with one thing and another, the pulp had gone out of their friendship.Whose fault it was he could not say, only, after a time, repetition had taken the place of newness. It was to repeat that they met. But in this dumb colloquy with the sand dunes he maintained that his affection for Ramsay had in no way diminished; but there, like the body of a young man laid up in peat for a century, with the red fresh on his lips, was his friendship, in its acuteness and reality laid up across the bay among the sandhills.
This was a poem was written by Charles Elton who was related by marriage to Lytton Strachey, part of the Bloomsbury set. Her relationship with Lytton Strachey was presumably how Virginia Woolf came across this not very well-known poem which was not published until 1945; she quoted it in To the Lighthouse (1927)
Come out and climb the Garden path
The China rose is all abloom
And buzzing with the yellow bee.
We’ll swing you on the cedar bough,
I wonder if it seems to you,
That all the lives we ever lived
And all the lives to be,
are full of trees and changing leaves,
How long it seems since you and I,
Roamed in the forest where our kind
Had just begun to be,
And laughed and chattered in the flowers,
How long since you and I went out,
To see the Kings go riding by
Over lawn and daisy lea,
With their palm leaves and cedar sheaves,
Swing, swing, swing on a bough
Till you sleep in a humble heap
Or under a gloomy churchyard tree,
And then fly back to swing on a bough,
The whole tone of the poem conveys the underlying fleeting sadness of life, ‘all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be, full of trees and changing leaves’. It illustrates, perhaps, the way we take observations deriving from the top half of the Figure of Eight and lodge them as symbolic images in the bottom half—’changing leaves’ being sufficient to stand non-verbally for the ephemerality of our Multiple-lives.
The Entrancement of Literary Texts
When I first read Richard Jefferies’ The Story of my Heart at Easter 1953—I remember the date because I took it to Paris on a school holiday, an important I-tag—I was entranced by the way his observations seemed to sum up for me all the things I had felt till then in what I might now describe as my proto-self. To give myself what the sacred book then named as a ‘strong inspiration of soul-thought’, I had for a long time on a Saturday morning cycled the half-hour to Wimbledon Common where the ferns and dank undergrowth and the silver birches gave me all I needed to lapse into ‘communion with Nature’.
My old Greek master, Mr Brown, in a rare moment of confiding in me, said that although at 15 my soul was replenished by undergrowth and hidden streams by the time I was his age (around 50 then, I expect) I would have a replacement yearning for high hills. That interesting pattern did not exactly play itself out for me but on long cycle rides later I certainly relished the alternating taste of deep valleys, wide bare landscapes and open hills. But for his timely comment I might not have appreciated the distinction.
This is the beginning of The Story of my Heart. It will always send shivers up my spine.
The story of my heart commences seventeen years ago. In the glow of youth there were times every now and then when I felt the necessity of a strong inspiration of soul-thought. My heart was dusty, parched for want of the rain of deep feeling; my mind arid and dry, for there is a dust which settles on the heart as well as that which falls on a ledge. It is injurious to the mind as well as to the body to be always in one place and always surrounded by the same circumstances. A species of thick clothing slowly grows about the mind, the pores are choked, little habits become a part of existence, and by degrees the mind is inclosed in a husk… There was a hill to which I used to resort at such periods. The labour of walking three miles to it, all the while gradually ascending, seemed to clear my blood of the heaviness accumulated at home. On a warm summer day the slow continued rise required continual effort, which carried away the sense of oppression. The familiar everyday scene was soon out of sight; I came to other trees, meadows, and fields; I began to breathe a new air and to have a fresher aspiration…
But then there’s the way our expectations are dashed. Remember to put the high moments with the low since all human experience has some positive intention for us. We are in To the Lighthouse again.
“Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,’ said Mrs Ramsay. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added.
To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled the expedition were bound to take place, and the wonder to which he had looked forward, for years and years it seemed, was, after a night’s darkness and a day’s sail, within touch. Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallize and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator as his mother spoke with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy. The wheel barrow, the lawn-mower, the sound of poplar trees, leaves whitening before rain, rooks cawing, brooms knocking, dresses rustling—all these were so coloured and distinguished in his mind that he had already his private code, his secret language…
“But,” said his father, stopping in front of the drawing-room window, “it won’t be fine…”
I vividly remember the huge shock when, at the centre of the novel, I read that ‘Mrs Ramsay died in the night’. This was abruptly announced in squared brackets as though being of little consequence. This woman through whose eyes we have been experiencing a whole sequence of events, a complex of feelings and intimations… Dead! How could she be dead when the reader has been by her side for so long and so intimately? All the contents of the previous pages burst like a bubble, just like that. I-tag for the bubble-nature of human life.
Though advocated in all the self-help books on Creative Writing, it’s not of great consequence to me, but it is probably useful for a novel to open with some kind of shock; it makes the reader sit up and take notice. I like the less conventional shock of an opening to a novel that appears to start mid-stream as though a lot of other stuff has been happening before we set off on the great journey that is the novel. One of my favourite neglected novelists, Henry Green, is a dab-hand at launching into things as though we’re already familiar with what’s going on. I was on holiday in Eastbourne—little boy pausing from playing with stones on the beach—when war broke out in 1939. I-tag.
When war broke out in September we were told to expect air raids. Christopher, who was five, had been visiting his grandparents in the country. His father, a widower, decided that he must stay down there with his aunt, and not come back to London until the war was over.
The father, Richard Roe, had joined the Fire Service as an Auxiliary. He was allowed one day’s leave in three. That is, throughout forty-eight hours he stood by in case there should be a fire, and then had twenty-four in which he could do as he pleased. There were no week-ends off.
Public holidays were not recognised. The trains at once became so slow that there was no way he could get down to see Christopher in a day.
Christopher was like any other child of his age, not very interested or interesting, strident with health. He enjoyed teasing and was careful no-one should know what he felt.
He was naturally a responsibility but, with things as they were in the first few months, he was not too great a one, nevertheless rather irritating at a distance. War puts men in this position, however, that they can. do little about their own affairs, they have no prospects, their incomes fluctuate wildly, heavier taxation is always threatened. As soon as Roe felt he could do no more for the boy than he had already done and by what he was still doing, dropping in to the office on leave days, Christopher grew very much closer to him.
After a time, when the turmoil of the first weeks of war subsided, conditions settled in the Service and it became possible to do ninety-six on duty to get forty-eight hours off. In this way, after three months of war and no raids, that is of anticlimax, Roe worked four days to be two days on leave.
He took a train. It was raining. The carriages were full of young men uniformed…
(Henry Green: Caught)
So many questions raised, patterns set up.
The Openings of Novels
William Morris’s brilliant revolutionary News from Nowhere starts abruptly with a kind of rhythmic incantation:-
Up at the League, says a friend, there had been one night a brisk conversational discussion, as to what would happen on the Morrow of the Revolution, finally shading off into a vigorous statement by various friends of their views on the future of the fully-developed new society.
Says our friend: Considering the subject, the discussion was good-tempered; for those present being used to public meetings and after-lecture debates, if they did not listen to each others’ opinions (which could scarcely be expected of them), at all events did not always attempt to speak all together, as is the custom of people in ordinary polite society when conversing on a subject which interests them. For the rest, there were six persons present, and consequently six sections of the party were represented, four of which had strong but divergent Anarchist opinions. One of the sections, says our friend, a man whom he knows very well indeed, sat almost silent at the beginning of the discussion, but at last got drawn into it, and finished by roaring out very loud, and damning all the rest for fools…
And when Morris awakens on the morning after we find ourselves around a hundred years into his future. Haunting! The I-tag here is Utopian-I. I have always hung my hat on Oscar Wilde’s dictum that a map of the world that doesn’t include a place called ‘Utopia’ is a map not worth having.
A few months ago, strolling up Charing Cross Road lamenting how, before the filthy capitalists moved in to put the rents up, it used to be the Secondhand Bookshop Road in London, I suddenly conceived the desire to possess Joseph Conrad’s The Rover. I had a hunch that I’d find a copy in Henry Pordes, my favourite remaining bookshop, and there, sure enough, the owner knew exactly where a handsome copy was filed amongst thousands of books.
What was it presented my being with this desire? For fifty years I had represented the novel as ‘pigeons outlined against a blue sky on a roof ridge’ (describes my I-tag for the original experience of reading it). I wished to find the reference and to refresh my image of the book. I was not disappointed. You’ll have to find the pigeon image for yourself—it doesn’t appear in this opening paragraph!
After entering at break of day the inner roadstead of the Port of Toulon, exchanging several loud hails with one of the guardboats of the Fleet, which directed him where he was to take up his berth, Master-Gunner Peyrol let go the anchor of the sea-worn and battered ship in his charge, between the arsenal and the town, in full view of the principal quay. The course of his life, which in the opinion of any ordinary person might have been regarded as full of marvellous incidents (only he himself had never marvelled at them), had rendered him undemonstrative to such a degree that he did not even let out a sigh of relief at the rumble of the cable. And yet it ended a most anxious six months of knocking about at sea with valuable merchandise in a damaged hull, most of the time on short rations, always on the lookout for English cruisers, once or twice on the verge of shipwreck and more than once on the verge of capture. But as to that, old Peyrol had made up his mind from the first to blow up his valuable charge—unemotionally, for such was his character, formed under the sun of the Indian Seas in lawless contests with his kind for a little loot that vanished as soon as grasped, but mainly for bare life almost as precarious to hold through its ups and downs, and which now had lasted for fifty-eight years.
It is old Peyrol’s undemonstrativeness that I think I built into my being all those years ago; the idea of his simply ‘knocking about the sea’. I-tag. I have just ‘knocked about’ this place and that accumulating by chance a treasure that would be difficult to locate even to me for whom presumably it ought to be relatively easy.
The I-tag of Place
Finally, the opening of HGWells’ Ann Veronica:-
One Wednesday afternoon in late September Ann Veronica Stanley came down from London in a state of solemn excitement and quite resolved to have things out with her father that very evening. She had trembled on the verge of such a resolution before, but this time quite definitely she made it. A crisis had been reached, and she was almost glad it had been reached. She made up her mind in the train home that it should be a decisive crisis. It is for that reason that this novel begins with her there, and neither earlier nor later, for it is the history of this crisis and its consequences that this novel has to tell.
She had a compartment to herself in the train from London to Morningside Park, and she sat with both her feet on the seat in an attitude that would certainly have distressed her mother to see and horrified her grandmother beyond measure; she sat with her knees up to her chin and her hands clasped before them, and she was so lost in thought that she discovered with a start, from a lettered lamp, that she was at Morningside Park, and thought she was moving out of the station, whereas she was only moving in. “Lord!” she said. She jumped up at once, caught up a leather clutch containing note-books, a fat text-book, and a chocolate-and- yellow-covered pamphlet, and leaped neatly from the carriage, only to discover that the train was slowing down and that she had to traverse the full length of the platform past it again as the result of her precipitation. “Sold again,” she remarked. “Idiot!” She raged inwardly, while she walked along with that air of self-contained serenity that is proper to a young lady of nearly two-and-twenty under the eye of the world.
So what’s the I-tag here? ‘Morningside Park’ is Wells’ disguise for the place where he lived briefly around 1896— Worcester Park in Surrey, England, where I lived for the first twenty years of my life. The wide station approach still has a coal merchant and an estate agent on one side though the wicket gate and the field path have long since given way to suburban sprawl and the main road from Kingston to Cheam. Huge numbers of I-tags dangle on the events and the scenes and the feelings relating to the twenty years I lived there.
She walked down the station approach, [I do so with her!] past the neat, unobtrusive offices of the coal merchant and the house agent, and so to the wicket-gate by the butcher’s shop that led to the field path to her home. Outside the post office [a fine building now sold off to save money] stood a no-hatted, blond young man in grey flannels, who was elaborately affixing a stamp to a letter. At the sight of her he became rigid and a singularly bright shade of pink. She made herself serenely unaware of his existence, though it may be it was his presence that sent her by the field detour instead of by the direct path up the avenue.
“Umph!” he said, and regarded his letter doubtfully before consigning it to the pillar-box. “Here goes,” he said. Then he hovered undecidedly for some seconds with his hands in his pockets and his mouth puckered to a whistle before he turned to go home by the Avenue.
Ah, The Avenue! Wells lived somewhere in The Aveue. Even up to the year he died, it was tree-lined, with large Victorian houses in leafy gardens, leading up to the church and beyond where, in my early years, there was the Big Field from the top of which was a view across Surrey to rival that from the top of Richmond Hill. Up The Avenue was the direction—not the direct way—I headed off on so many cycle rides to the coast. I went that way because I remember at the age of around 8 standing in The Avenue with my mother while she talked to somebody about journeys. While she talked I looked into the undergrowth and sniffed the dank air and determined that this was where all journeys should begin. The Big Field is now a housing estate and most of the big old mansions have been knocked down so that builders can pack in twenty houses where one was quite sufficient in the old days.
Ann Veronica forgot him as soon as she was through the gate, and her face resumed its expression of stern preoccupation. “It’s either now or never,” she said to herself…
Morningside Park was a suburb that had not altogether, as people say, come off. It consisted, like pre-Roman Gaul, of three parts. There was first the Avenue, which ran in a consciously elegant curve from the railway station into an undeveloped wilderness of agriculture, with big yellow brick villas on either side, and then there was the Pavement, the little clump of shops about the post office, and under the railway arch was a congestion of workmen’s dwellings. The road from Surbiton and Epsom ran under the arch, and, like a bright fungoid growth in the ditch, there was now appearing a sort of fourth estate of little red-and-white rough-cast villas, with meretricious gables and very brassy window blinds. Behind the Avenue was a little hill, and an iron-fenced path went over the crest of this to a stile under an elm-tree, and forked there, with one branch going back into the Avenue again.
Wells’ memory is not exactly accurate—Pavement and Post Office were under the railway arch which until the 60’s or 70’s was so low that the 213 bus I used to board to get to school in the 50’s had to be a single decker. The iron-fenced path would have gone around the church… And beyond the stile there was what I called the Big Field where I used to spend much time with Maureen with our backs against the Big Log in the middle of the field… The last time I remember spending good time with her was at Blackmoor Gate.
“It’s either now or never,” said Ann Veronica again, ascending this stile. “Much as I hate rows. I’ve either got to make a stand or give in altogether.”
She seated herself in a loose and easy attitude and surveyed the backs of the Avenue houses; then her eyes wandered to where the new red-and-white villas peeped among the trees. She seemed to be making some sort of inventory. “Ye gods!” she said at last. “What a place! Stuffy isn’t the word for it.”
Of course, I didn’t think Worcester Park in the least bit stuffy. It was a place I relished. A profound part of my Inner Life. Much of the sense of it residing in the bottom half of my Figure of Eight. Though the area as far as Epsom had been built over by the time I was born in 1937 the smell in the air still comes from the Surrey hills and is fresh with ferns and silver birches. My parents said that when they bought our house there was nothing but countryside at the top of the small hill on which it survived the Blitz.
I go back there in memory and collect up the Multiple-I’s that hang around in every street and tree and at every corner.