It seems that the isolation called for to combat the current Global Plague is affecting not just football but the way people dream and the quantity and quality of what they dream. Since, in six weeks, I’ve noticed no change in my sleep patterns or in dreaming, I wonder what others are experiencing; I’m not stressed by the idea of being a hermit for the rest of my life which I suppose could irk some more gregarious types. It’s obvious to me that it’s difficult for those who rely solely on outside events to run their lives to accommodate to being deprived of what’s out there – visits & spectacles & ‘fun’ in general but I would like to reach out to people stuck in a one room flat who might very well find it difficult if they don’t know John Donne’s poem about ‘making one little room an everywhere…’
One reporter says: ‘…It could also be that, as life is reduced to the size of a few rooms in lockdown, we have far less daily stimuli to draw from and are subconsciously digging around in the past…’ Digging around in the past has long been a constant daily avocation for me. ‘Hobby’? Nay, it is my main occupation! It’s my huge quantity of daily self-generated stimuli that get me going. Never an idle moment. It’s just the way it is.
I can certainly appreciate that if you haven’t got to think about wasting time going to work (thirty years out of it! – the people who pay my pension must be spitting blood), you might well have less anxiety about computer-minding to find yourself sleeping longer so you have more rapid eye movement (REM) sleep – during its last stage most dreams are recalled apparently. Without having to wake up with the alarm clock – something I’ve never ever had to do – it seems you naturally have longer dreams. You might have to sleep & dream a bit longer to sort out the problems that currently plague you, so it is said. That’s what dreams help to do.
There are awful stories of neglect, malnutrition and appalling uncertainty.
So far, except for worrying that my cat won’t get enough to eat and being rather sad at the idea that I will never walk North Hill in Colchester again or stroll down the Strand to Trafalgar Square past Manfield House, I’m not facing any kind of threat which dreams might help sort out. When I’m quick enough I can easily remember my dreams especially the recurrent dream which I’ve had for many years – the ‘Income Tax dream’ – the original source of which ceased in 1964: I’m still working in the Income Tax Office (in Manfield House, probably) worried about what will happen when they find that I am hopeless at my job; I ask myself how I will survive financially when they throw me out. More recently this dream has modified itself to my trying to meet the Chief Clerk to let him know that, having turned 70, I should be able to retire – he is never available. I still feel intense relief when I wake up to find I’ve just been dreaming. I put the dream down to the fact that I still choose to involve myself in so many things when I should just be sitting around being an ancient cabbage. Maybe my brain is telling me how fortunate I am – still writing poems & prose & music & painting & gardening… Why would I need to retire?
I wonder if I’ll have the dream tonight…
On the other hand, it seems that choosing to pay too much attention to the Global Plague is upsetting sleep patterns and causing Plague Dreams; it’s affecting our consciousness: I know it’s making me shift attention in various ways. I haven’t experienced dreams of earthquakes, tidal waves and tornadoes or bugs & monsters – metaphors for being attacked by the unknown. But I have been re-assessing the quality of my life, how I feel quite content with what I’ve got, what I have achieved in its small way. Being circumscribed has paradoxically enlarged my view of this tiny bit of world I call ‘mine’.
While I was thinking about all this, I happened to read an essay by JBPriestley that moved me somewhat (Papers from Lilliput – 1922 with two edges uncut & beautifully ragged for the page-turner to enjoy – how I love old books!) I am very familiar with its opening.
The afternoon sun, rather reproachfully, reillumined the page at which I was vacantly staring. I sank a little lower into my armchair, raised the book a trifle, and made a further pretence of reading. A few more words filtered into my brain ; then the warm sun, the drowsy air, the still afternoon, drowned sense after sense…
I was hurrying along a dark side-street between two rows of houses, tall, featureless buildings, close-shuttered and with no lights showing. It was a vile night, of what season I could not tell, but seemingly wintry, for there were frequent icy gusts of wind snatching at the chimneys, and an occasional spatter of rain. I dashed forward, not trying to pick my way through the pools and mud, but splashing along as quickly as possible, a growing feeling of panic urging me on. I had no idea what was afoot, or at least the rational part of me knew nothing of the matter, but it was clear that some terror was behind. At last, panting for breath, I reached what I knew to be the back gate of my own house. It was open, and I had sufficient strength to press forward through a kind of courtyard of no great size, gain the house-door, which was also unbolted, and lock myself in the house. I found myself in a great draughty kitchen, in which there was no fire but only the cheerless flickering light of two candles. I knew it to be my own place; everything seemed familiar, though actually, of course, it was all strange. Behind the massive door, now securely bolted, I felt easier than I had done outside in that ill-favoured street; but even yet the fear of a hunted creature remained with me ; I hardly dared to breathe, made no movement, but only listened intently. There was nothing to be heard above the wind. Yet I still felt that the terror had not been evaded, that it was drawing nearer, though what form it would take I could not guess, having been precipitated so suddenly into the adventure. I was flying from something, of that there could be no doubt, but whether my pursuers were wild beasts, men or devils, there was no knowing. Whatever they were, it looked as if I had evaded them in the darkness ; and as I was hidden away in one out of many similar houses, in a labyrinth of streets (for I knew somehow that I was in a large town, though not a modern one), it looked very unlikely that I should be discovered. I breathed more freely.
Then suddenly, to my horror, I heard above the wind the tramp of many feet coming down the street I had just left. It was not the sound of soldiers marching, nor yet the vague tumult of a moving crowd; but something between the two, the noise of men going in some sort of formation, men of set purpose. It was this then that I had been fearing, for now I fell into a dreadful panic, and hastened to put out the two candles, so that not even a tiny ray of light through the shutters should draw attention to the house. The whole row was in darkness ; there was nothing apparently to mark off one house from another; I was safe enough. Probably the men did not even know that I had turned down this sidestreet; they could not have seen me in such a black night. So I reasoned with myself, but got little comfort out of it.
Meanwhile, the sound was drawing nearer, and the crowd, or whatever it was, seemed to have fallen into a fairly regular step, as if assured of its destination. A moment later, the men burst out into a kind of marching song, which they voiced fiercely in a deep-throated unison. Two lines of the chorus remain with me yet:
You shall know him by his jolly red mouth,
And the bushy black beard on his chin.
the last line being repeated with startling emphasis. It seems absurd enough now, but at the time it was charged with menace, as if the very sound of it called up all manner of dreadful associations. Having fallen into such a swinging step, it appeared unlikely that the mob outside would make a halt; but to my utter dismay, as soon as the sound passed close to my window it stopped, there was a shuffling of feet, and then a great voice, the very herald of doom, cried out, “This is the house!” At this, I crouched lower, and could do nothing else: there was a crawling and heaving in the pit of my stomach. I heard the outer gate being thrust open, then a stir in the courtyard, and a moment later, there came a thundering knock at the door. “Open the door!” cried that terrifying voice. I could not move. Had I gone through the house, escape might have been possible; but it appeared to be one of the rules of this fearful game that I should not be able to move.
“Open the door!” came the cry again. Then there followed a medley of sound, shouts and yells and the trampling of feet, after which there came a series of terrific blows at the door. They were bursting it open. For a few moments it resisted the attack, but the battering increased in violence, and soon it was all over. One mighty effort, a yell of triumph, and the door came splintering in.
But only to let in a flood of yellow sunshine, the murmur of the flies, and the sight of my own room. The windy night, the dark side street, the great draughty kitchen, the besieging crowd, all had vanished, huddled away into the lumber-room of such phantasmagoria; one twist of the brain’s kaleidoscope and the strange tale was in progress, another twist and it was gone. I glanced at my watch and found that I had only been asleep for some ten minutes ; I had only halted for a second near the Ivory Gate. Yet in that fraction of time, the chapter of romance, well conceived and deftly executed, was begun and ended, though the tale itself has neither beginning nor end. Surely, of all things in life, these fantastic dramas, coming and going between a few heart-beats, are the most personal and the most wonderful: ourselves alone are the authors and actors; we sketch out the scenario, fill in the dialogue, cast the parts and play them all ourselves; we it is who design and execute the scenery, clear the stage, and set the piece in motion ; we it is who yawn in the stalls, shudder in the pit, and cheer from the gallery; from first to last, it is our own affair, and we alone can step forward briskly at the curtain to receive our own plaudits. Life cannot show else where such a fine egotistical matter as this business of dreaming, and a dream, well done, makes even literature seem little more than its attenuated, halting shadow.
And, rightly conceived, lockdown or not, that’s all life is: a dream in which we are the authors & actors; we cast the parts and play them all ourselves; we could just keep on cheering from the gallery we construct for ourselves instead of bemoaning an empty stage.