On Autumn and the desirability of awakening

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At the start of each new season I always find myself thinking, this is it. This is my favourite season. Autumn this year is no different. The hips on the rose covering our garden shed roof are surely redder and more numerous than ever before, the grapes are fat and black on their vine and, beyond it all, the trees are such a dizzying patchwork of colours that I wish I could paint.

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I’m lucky to live here in such a beautiful and quiet place – and I only feel luckier when I catch the end of the nine o’ clock news on Radio 4 or scan the BBC news website. I say “catch” and “scan” because, I am ashamed to say, quite often nowadays the news seems to carry more misery and suffering than I can bear to let in. I suspect it was ever thus and it’s a symptom of my increasing age. I used to think I could do anything, change anything, fight anything – and I was going to do it too. Oh, I was a passionate child! Where did all of that go? I don’t remember ushering it out of the door and waving it goodbye. It must have seeped away all by itself while I was looking elsewhere, engaged with my own small life.

A relative, not from this country, said once: ‘It’s such a bubble where you live. No-one here has any idea what the rest of the world is really like.’ I wasn’t affronted. I wasn’t even surprised. His country is frequently in the news for all the wrong reasons: politics, terrorism, human rights, health – you name it – this country has all the bases covered. However, it was also the birthplace of the poet-philosopher, Iqbal.

The pageant of Nature is a fathomless ocean of beauty,

If eyes were to see every drop has in it tumultuous beauty.

It is ever present in the mirror like sheen of morning sky,

And the dusk of the evening and the flower spangled twilight.

Rivulets gushing down the hills and free-flowing rivers have it,

It is there in the city, the wilderness, the deserted places and in

man’s abode.

The soul, however, yearns for something, missing,

Otherwise why should it toll the knell of sorrow in this desert?

Even the open display of beauty keeps it restless,

It lives like a fish out of water.

It was dawn and yearningly I looked around searching for a

beautiful sight,

I saw a single ray of the sun wandering in the heavens.

I will be collyrium and would integrate with the human eye,

And make visible all that night had hidden from view.

Were the entranced at all keen to become conscious?

Were the asleep desirous of awakening?

Those beautiful words come from Bāng-i Darā (The Call of the Marching Bell). Of course, I like them for their enchanting images of the natural world but it’s more than that. With their insertion of Mankind into the poem, they remind me more successfully than any news outlet can of what my brain wants me to forget. Nature is illuminated by the morning sun but, for the poet, a question mark remains over whether Mankind will share a similar enlightenment (Were the entranced at all keen to become conscious? Were the asleep desirous of awakening?). It’s salutary to realise that this poem, written over one hundred years ago, still has no answer. The sun still rises, the seasons still change, nature, against many odds, is still glorious and we – at least the adult “we” – still sleepwalk on, all of us blind to the world outside our own bubbles and oblivious to what might be waiting beyond even nature’s magnificence.


In diaries, there is life*

Last week, sorting through the junk in the loft, I found my old diaries. Not all of them: the earliest are marooned under the floorboards in the bathroom of the house I grew up in after my father nailed down the loose board I accessed my hidey-hole through and I was too embarrassed, in my ten-year old way, to tell him what he’d imprisoned down there. Of the rest, parts are thankfully illegible, some pages – oh, the dramatic shame of it – appear to be tear-stained and almost the whole lot makes me cringe. The egotism of being fifteen (They [my parents] haven’t said so but I am the problem in this house….), the scorching certainty of a nineteen year-old that this one boy is the only boy in the world for her (I’ll never meet anyone like him again. This was my chance and I’ve seen him walk away in the arms of another girl….), the terror of being twenty-two and leaving university for a job in a city I didn’t want to be in (The noise, the people, the people, the noise! Is this it for ever? How did I come to this?) and then, more happily, a whole series of travel diaries. Glancing through them takes me back to my first African safari, much of it done in an ex-WWII army lorry, my first trip to India, only two days after 9/11, and to many different places in Europe – some of which I was lucky enough to visit as a result of a very enjoyable job in the city that my twenty-two year-old self had hated so much. I was eight when I started my diary, inspired by a child’s version of Anne Frank’s diary. Hers is still one of my favourites – not just because of the literary brilliance her words hint at (what a wordsmith she could have become!) but more because of the zestful way she lived – and recorded – life. But there are other diaries too. There are literary giants: Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Samuel Pepys and Alan Bennet (these are in no particular order apart from the one in which the names occurred to me); and then there are those where the individual’s relative lack of fame makes the literary dialogue between the private self and the page no less valuable. Two in particular occur to me. The first is Olive’s Diary, written by a 16 year-old English girl at school in Paris in 1914. Recovered and serialised on the web by a journalist, Rob McGibbon, who’d been given the diary some years earlier, it tells the story, in her own words, of the last six weeks of her life. Tucked into its final pages are newspaper cuttings announcing her sudden death. In some ways, it is the tragedy of another young life cut so awfully short that provides the pathos but, in another, it is her joyous descriptions of Paris and her homesickness that make it so effortless to identify with her. The reader could be her…. she could be the reader; those experiences that all of us share to some degree or other evoke a tenderness and a sympathy that is not easily forgotten. The second is the Red Leather Diary, a seventy-five year old diary rescued from a one-way trip to a New York dump by Lily Koppel, a young journalist. The author, Florence Wolfson, proved still to be alive and, together, the two women used the diary to produce an enchanting memoir of life as lived by a privileged young woman in 1930s Manhattan. Much of the joy and fascination in the book comes from Florence Wolfson’s own reactions to meeting her younger self. The literary and artistic aspirations she’d held were, by and large, unmet despite the promise the diary suggested (she’s acquainted and, in some cases, has affairs with soon-to-be-famous poets, authors and actresses) but the sense of a life lived is undimmed. And that has to be one of the chief standard bearers, flag waving wildly in the wind, for diary-writing. We – that is, any of us who choose to do so, whether literary giants or not – write diaries to prove to ourselves that we were here, that we lived and loved in the best way we knew how. *Original quotation: In chaos, there is fertility –  Anaïs Nin.