Monday, 30 July 2007

How to be English in the face of disaster

Today I succeeded in walking on the water. Apart from the deep ditch at the entry to the meadow, it was easy to wade the raised path across to the allotments. The water was exceptionally clear: no fish, but plenty of drowned worms. At the allotments it was the smell that hit me first, the sweet stench of rotting vegetation. So much has died from simple drowning. The runner beans hang limply on dead vines, the lettuces are heaps of decay, the newly-bought bell cloches stand proud in a lake of brown water with nothing inside them (that was my third attempt at squashes this year). I wanted to cry. Instead I got busy and, using a plank as a duck board, pulled up the onions. One fork into the potato patch revealed my worst fears: all have turned to mush. Now I wanted to be sick: all that effort, digging, planting, watering – all for nothing. Robin arrived, soon followed by Don. Not from them the breast-beating ululation of grief I was ready to express; no, a quiet smile and soft, ‘Oh, well. . .’
I came home, mulling over things. At the post office, Carl sympathetically gave me a free cabbage, rescued by one of the Wise Ones who got out there on the Saturday after the rains. I wish I were wise. I wish I had sangfroid. The question is, how to turn evil into good? I said to David, ‘This is our pivotal point. Do we give up, or do we make the most of the situation, clear the whole plot and go for raised beds? Deal or no deal?’ ‘No deal!’ And so that will be our August – getting the materials, marking out the site and doing what I’ve wanted all along, raising the beds. If it works, this will be our last year of such hard work. From now on we shall have weed-free, no-dig beds where one just plants and picks. I hope. . .

The portaloo in Meadow Prospect now sports a poster showing the tardis, and a legend: ‘Meadow Prospect Flood Relief, sponsored by Dr Who.’

Sunday, 29 July 2007

29th July 2007

Breaking news! Geoffrey Parkes has sent me a startling report from the BBC website about the exhumation of Pico and Poliziano, but I’ve found something longer and slightly more accurate on

Scientists from the University of Bologna are going to do a DNA test to try and establish the cause of death (one cannot trust news reports, but if the scientist in charge really said that, in respect of the cause of Poliziano’s death ‘we’re going to find it was either poison or syphilis’, his work seems somewhat predetermined and not scientific at all). They are also going to try and reconstruct the faces so that we can see what they looked like. Given the excellent portraits of Poliziano by Ghirlandaio and Bertoldo, they have quite a lot to go on already (less so with Pico).

Naturally my feelings are mixed. The mind is twitching with curiosity: how did Pico and Poliziano die? Will it affect my plot? Must I delay publication until the scientists have finished their work? What will the facial reconstructions show? Meanwhile the soul curls up and weeps. This is desecration. One can tolerate scientific curiosity about unnamed characters of the Bronze Age, but known men of only five hundred years ago? Or is known-unknown a silly distinction? Perhaps no bones should be disturbed except for very good reason. I suppose, however, that the scientists could claim that there may be a murder to solve. In recent exhumations of possible murder victims, however, the deed was done at night out of respect for the dead. When does such fine feeling evaporate? After how many years? Now we have to witness these poor fifteenth century bones being made a public TV spectacle.

But, of course, I can’t wait to see the programme!

The bodies were exhumed before, in the 1940s, but it was a discreet affair within the monastery. One American present – H. C. Bodman – wrote a short note of what he found. The body of Poliziano was reduced to a few fragments of bone, but Pico’s was well preserved ‘in as perfect condition as an Egyptian mummy’, dressed in gold and scarlet brocade. See the account in Juliana Hill Cotton, ‘Death and Politian’, Durham University Journal, vol. xlvi no. 3, 1954, appendix iii.

Saturday, 28 July 2007

28 July 2007

It was our wedding anniversary two days ago. I remembered it three days ago, at which point I told David that we had forgotten it. It's been that kind of week. Hard to think that last Saturday was a nice, sunny day, the day after the storm, and we had no idea what was coming. Our only concern was that Art in Action should keep going, despite a boggy carpark. In 1947 Wolvercote was hit hard by the floods. This house was a sweetshop then, one of 13 shops in this small village. I wonder how much warning they had? Did they, like us, watch the levels on the meadow rise and rise, only to find that the water, when it comes, comes from the stream at the end of the road? Did they salvage any stock, or were they ruined? Did they cry, or were they too tired for that?

We've been miraculously spared, except for the allotment. I tried to get there yesterday but all three routes across the meadow are blocked by fast-flowing and very deep water. After a week of suspense - which is, in itself, disorientating and exhausting - I think it really hit me then, the loss and the impossibility of salvage. It's debilitating to have to go and buy potatoes when only last week I thought I'd planted too many and was facing a glut. As a student of philosophy, I try to be philosophical: it's all a passing show. Success and failure - treat the imposters both the same. I'm disappointing myself. But at leastI understand why melancholy is common among philosophers: it is unexpressed grief.

And then, when in the depths of the glums, one looks up to see the light catching the water, swans taking a free ride on the current, ducks colonising one of the islands, and beauty comes like a bright, golden blade to pierce the misery. For that moment, all is well and happy.

23 July 2007

In December, when I was just about to complete The Rebirth of Venus, we had to reorganise the house completely to accommodate my elderly mother. 'While we're at it. . .' said David, and the next thing I knew was that my study was stripped out, my books put into store, and I was painting the walls while David took up the floorboards to do a bit of rewiring. I finally got back to work in mid-January having completely lost the thread. 'No more upheavals,' I told him. 'Not ever, and certainly not this year.' Now, on the day when I was printing the novel out ready to go to the proof-reader and typesetter, the police came round to tell us we were on high flood alert. As I write this, upstairs is as stuffed as it can be with things from downstairs. Through the window I keep an eye on the waters rising on the water meadow. Friday's monsoon rains are due to surge down the Thames tomorrow morning. Meanwhile I think, I know, I'll design a website. While David makes sandbags out of my popsocks, I take my own precautions and email the entire trilogy to my agent in California.