Uncertain and Afraid

I sit down to write this at a quarter past eight (GMT) on New Year’s Eve. As has become my habit, since I started this blog, I want to take the opportunity to pause, as so many others do at this time of year, and assess all that has passed since I last wrote such a post. Like many of those others, this time I will also be reflecting on the changes the past ten years have wrought. While I know pedants will point out that the new decade doesn’t start until 2021, as a mathematician’s wife I believe in the reality and power of zero, and the the changing of the third as well as the fourth digit of the year seems a good moment to plant a marker in time.

Over the past six years, I have written about hard years, and harder ones. I have written about poetry, both that which has accompanied me since childhood and that which I have discovered more recently. I have written of my family and of my work, of triumphs and of troubles. I have tried, throughout, to write with hope. I hope this evening that, despite the title of this post, I can continue that tradition.

So, how has the last decade been for me? Hard is probably the right word for it. In January 2010 I was the married mother of a young son with a PhD but no career. My first book had been published for just under a year. I lived in a rented house without a garden in a city that, after two and half years, I was starting to learn to call home. I had a loving family, many of them far away. I was teaching myself to bake bread and trying, for the first time since I was an undergraduate, to write fiction. I wasn’t sure where I was going or what I was doing.

In the intervening years I have had my second child (a daughter) and written my second book. I have found and forged an academic career, winning two significant grants and moving from an ‘early career academic’ to a mid-career one. I have developed new skills as a teacher and public speaker. With my husband, I have bought two houses and sold one, both with gardens. I no longer live (although I still work) in the same city, but feel that yes, I have come home. I have gained a niece and a nephew (as well as an honourary niece and a goddaughter); I have lost both my parents. I have learned to cope with long-term illness in those I love best. I no longer bake bread but have become very good at preserving, particularly marmalade and sloe gin. I am teaching myself to quilt and am trying, for the first time in a decade, to write fiction. I sleep less and run (and shout) more. Robert Frost and W.H. Auden are still my favourite poets.

So where does this leave me, on the cusp of the new decade, one which many people are hailing as holding the possibility of being the new ‘Roaring Twenties’? As a historian of that decade, I can’t but be ambivalent about such predictions. The Twenties, after all, were, for many, a decade marked as much by violence, displacement, disability, poverty, joblessness and illness as by bootleg gin, jazz and art deco styling. This was the decade of the British General Strike and the art of Otto Dix, of the Irish War of Independence (and associated Civil War) and the Scopes Monkey Trial. And there are enough echoes in both the politics and public discourse of the present to make me feel wary. Like Auden, writing about the following decade, I cannot help but feel ‘uncertain and afraid/ As the clever hopes expire / Of a low, dishonest decade.’ [1]

This sense of uncertainty and fear is reflected in my feelings about my personal life. This coming year will see the end of the funding for my current project. I need to write up that research in some form(s) and work out what the next project is, and while I have some ideas for both, ideas which excite and enthuse me, I don’t have the energy I did a decade ago. I look back on the woman that I was and wonder how I could have achieved so much in such a short space of time. I can’t do that again, nor anything like it.

As I say, I still love my subject. I want to read and to write and to teach and to talk about it. But I cannot do it in the way I have been. Grief, and family life, and private passions have become part of my being in a way they weren’t a decade ago. I am still learning how to live with the weight they bring, the space they occupy as a professional historian.

So looking forward, for me I am not sure that the Twenties will roar. Instead, they will be slower, perhaps more considered, a time of conserving energy and prioritizing passions, of learning how to give of myself without losing myself. There will be more reading, and more writing, but probably more fiction and less history. There will, I hope, be a lot of gardening and cooking (although not immediately, as we are on the verge of ripping out and replacing our kitchen, an act weighted with a symbolic mixture of hope and frustration). There will be friends and family, new and old, near and far.

I don’t know if those ambitions and expectations are as hopeful as those I have looked forward to in earlier years, but they are what I have to fortify myself against exhaustion, uncertainty and fear. However modest or ambitious, I hope your own hopes for the coming year and years are fortifying and fulfilling.

Wishing you a very happy new year, one and all.

[1] W. H. Auden, ‘September 1st, 1939’, lines 3-5.

Not about Arnold Loosemore

I was in the US two weeks ago, staying with my mother on my way to give a paper about Sgt. Arnold Loosemore at the North American Conference for British Studies, held this year in Washington, D.C.  Loosemore, a V.C. who lost his leg in the war and died of TB in 1924, is a fascinating character, whose life and death contain more information to be analysed than I can possible cover in a 20-minute conference paper or, indeed, the 8,000-word book chapter I am currently turning that paper into.  So I planned to write a post about the treatment Loosemore received from the British government and his local community in the aftermath of the war, and about the ambiguity of the word ‘pension’ in interwar society.

Except that I was in the US two weeks ago and two weeks ago, on the night of my 39th birthday, the US, and with it the world, changed.

I, like millions of others, have been trying to come to terms with what a Trump presidency will mean for me, for those I love, for the communities I was raised and live in, for those I work alongside, for my fellow countrymen and women, for my fellow citizens of the world.  But doing so is incredibly hard, not least because I, like many others, have been here before.  On 24th June I posted on here, without comment, W.H. Auden’s September 1st, 1939On the morning of 9th November, I posted a link to the same poem via Twitter, this time pulling out the lines ‘The habit-forming pain/ Mismanagement and grief:/ We must suffer them all again’, although to be quite honest, many, many other lines from the ‘The windiest militant trash/ Important persons shout/ is not so crude as our wish’ to ‘The lie of Authority/ Whose buildings grope the sky’ seemed just as apposite.  In fact, in the week that followed I read and passed on to friends and loved ones quite a lot of Auden, including his mocking description of ogres and his far from funny poem, Epitaph on a Tyrant.

This last may seem like the most inappropriate.  Trump appears a buffoon, a spoiled child, not the subtle manipulator of human folly described by Auden.  And yet the terror of the last two lines is palpably in the air in both the US and Britain.  Trump himself is offensive, but what is far more frightening are those to whom he gives succor and entitlement.  And this has only become more true as the weeks have gone.  Initially the thought of a cabinet made up of Rudy Gulliani, Newt Gingrich and John Bolton was horrifying enough – a return to the hatred and prejudice of a past age, a rule by gerontocracy that brought with it whiffs of Weimar.  What we have seen since – the appointment of Steve Bannon, the celebrations of the far-right, the smug bravado of Nigel Farage as he ignores all modern standards of international diplomacy in his effort to peddle influence – has been worse.

Do I, as a historian, think this is the return of fascism to political dominance?  No, although it would be interesting, if it were possible to gain any scholarly detachment, to compare contemporary America to Weimar Germany, not least the men of the so-called ‘alt-right’ to those analysed by Klaus Theweleit in his two-volume gender history of the rise of fascism in Germany, Male Fantasies.  But scholarly detachment about this is something I am finding next to impossible.  Who I am, as a scholar, an ‘expert’ even, a woman, a liberal (with heart proudly bleeding on my sleeve), and everything I have been taught to value – compassion, education, kindness, community, generosity, solidarity , the value of women as more than their bodies, the human value of all people, whatever their colour, creed, sexuality or gender – feels under attack.  All the small gains my grandparents fought for in war and my parents worked for in peace may not have been enough but they now look to be undone and I don’t know what I can do to help heal the rents being torn in the societies I felt so secure in.  For two weeks I have been paralysed by exhaustion and a sense of hopelessness in face of this social unraveling, a tiny frail individual caught in the current of history that is bearing us all backwards.  These are not emotions that lend themselves to calm, clear-eyed analysis of the contemporary events in light of the past.

But, in the end, I come back again, inevitably, to Auden.  ‘All I have is voice/ To undo the folded lie’.  Tomorrow I will write about Sgt. Arnold Loosemore, V.C.

24th June, 2016

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
‘I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,’
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

W.H. Auden, September 1, 1939