Reflections walking up the High Street


I was thinking walking up the High Street today how irrelevant everything seemed, how washed out and meaningless the daily routine, not only of my life but the lives of those I passed. While of course this is just my mood at that time, nonetheless the people I passed did not interest me. A parade of images, a sign advertising free neutering for cats in the petshop, goldfish in an aquarium, a young girl on a fold-up scooter. Strange new vegetables in a recently opened grocer specialising in Bangladeshi and Pakistani produce. A girl with a navel piercing. The same £15-off shoes on a rack outside Clarks that have been there since just after Christmas. The same routine, walking up the High Street to return my library books.

What is worse than not being just elsewhere, is having no desire to be elsewhere. The idea of packing up and going off to find some new life in new surroundings with new people, preferably in a foreign land, just seems like a whole load of hassle now, lot of effort to pull out the intravenous tubes of a fixed location you've lived in for some years, and I was wondering walking up the High Street what would it take to bring that about, am I going to have to rely on a disaster of some sort to provide a bit of motivation. I have often seen myself in spontaneous daydreams arriving back home to find a burnt-out shell and my scorched possessions looted, and standing there smiling thinking freedom at last. But I wouldn't really want it to come about that way, I would hope perhaps to find some small thing I might actually want to do, and in the process of doing it find myself led out into some other way of life, other people, other places.

The reason I can't just up and do it, besides lack of money, is because I have lost a lot of will to actually do anything at all and so I tend to rely on fate to show me the way. Well maybe sometimes you just have to drift until you hit something solid. But usually as I am about to write off my entire life as a meaningless irrelevance I find myself looking at some of the things I have done, or that have happened to me, or people I have met, without me ever intending for any of those things to come about, and I can't fail to see some sort of pattern. So I say to myself, it just eludes me right now, that's all.

And I arrive at the library and hand in my books. In the library they've got a temporary exhibit of a great leather-bound ledger of names handwritten in fine English calligraphy of those people, mostly men, from this borough who died in the Great War. Open to just one set of facing pages under glass, it is the thickness of the book that comes across. Not many people bother looking at it. Imagine a speeded-up film of library-goers milling around, checking out their books and dragging kids as fast blurs, that one still person peering into the glass at the wooden stand is me. I've seen graves in local graveyards, many of them the wives and children of those fallen in Flanders, the headstones all higgledy-piggledy as they subside into the earth at different angles, unattended and forgotten, probably just waiting to be bulldozed into a corner to make way for a new supermarket. Hard to relate to that time, yet it must mean something or else Wilfred Owen's poems wouldn't be so powerfully affecting.

Everyone reads Wilfred Owen, more people should read Edward Thomas, as he contrasts what life was like before and so brings out the tragedy that was to come in the twittering of the birds, the peaceful country lanes echoing with the sense of something irrevocable impending. His poetic muse appeared suddenly after writing much inconsequential prose work, and after he seemed to have given up hope of it ever appearing. His poems, about 140 in total, came in a two-year flood just after he was kitted out in an ill-fitting uniform in which he was photographed looking awkward before being sent to France, where he was to die, but not before he set down these beautiful poems. When I read Edward Thomas I feel I am reading someone fundamentally akin to myself. Tears have streamed down my cheeks numerous times reading his 'Collected Poems'.

I have an edition I love, published by Faber & Faber on 1945 warstock paper, letterpress of course, set in Perpetua, which suits his work well. I scoured the secondhand bookshops of London for it many years ago, some books you want to read in a certain type of edition and a modern paperback just will not do. The boards are light-faded, the pages are cut unevenly, but that just adds to its charm. I don't even want to look at these poems on the web, this is a work for reading sitting under trees on sunny days or late at night with the window open listening to a thunderstorm. There is a quality of melancholy in his work that is so alive it reaches anyone capable of responding to it in such a way as to tell them they're alive, they're living and breathing beings, and this is what life is about, its tragedy is to move us to become more human, to ignore that is to become less human. I can't imagine he would have been able to write those poems on Prozac, since to touch people deeply you have to be in touch with your own deep feelings, all of them. You can't selectively filter out despair without affecting the quality of your joy, which will no longer be full-bodied, no longer defined in your humanity, but rather in a lab as a functioning state that passes without complaint.