RAGS ON THE BUSHESFrom The London Chronicles : Augustus in a Fool's Paradise, in which the author draws on his experiences at work and play, keeps the truth to himself but lets it be refracted in narration
I faced the dawn in an all night café near my apartment with the vagrants and vice workers. I felt I was a bit of both. Nobody spoke. It was a communion of sinners, I thought, wallowing in my own unhappiness until I began to enjoy it. I smiled passively to the familiars and they nodded and turned away. We had sticky croissants and milky coffee in common. There wasn’t a choice.
I saw the dawn rise above Edenham. The tower block which is infallible for suicides. It was strange that despite the smog and run-down estates the daybreak could be light and airy, even beautiful. A pink glow to warm the cockles. The first trickle of night workers having their fry-up before bed was settling into the café. I wandered out forgetting to pay, and nobody noticed.
At the height of the IRA violence in
I made a dialectic of statements pronounced by
The synthesis was an exchange on television between John Hume and Ian Paisley at the end of some loggerheads. Hume, ‘I’ll sleep on it’.
On a beautiful day in July 1982 I had taken a lunchtime sandwich to
Somehow it was inadequate. I had been looking forward to the music. Deckchairs 25p. The concert was routinely attended by pensioners, nannies with prams, early lunchers from offices in
‘Journal 1852. Only today I was reading the story in Apuleius. The fourth test which Venus set Psyche was to fetch the casket from Persephone, and told him the danger on the road consists in a large measure of meeting sights that moved one to compassion. They hold one up, and back… That is perfectly right. For distractions are a danger, and dangers are a distraction. The ordinary man dreads and avoids them, and though he passes for the strong one, striding forth etc, he’s no better than your average cuckold, and fails Venus’s test…
‘The courageous few are not afraid to meet the danger. On the other hand, they fear the compassion that will distract them, knowing that faced by it they are at their weakest. The test hinges on their hesitation. How to go back and go on? But for them there isn’t a choice. The trial by compassion is a matter of going back to go on.’
I got on my bike and returned to
The following Easter I met Ernie, a teacher who befriended me in the days of the school lunch project. We met on and off in the Heroes of Alma pub in Maida Vale. His son, who had joined the army against his wishes because he couldn’t pass examinations, was with him. The permanent scars on his fresh face were officially described as ‘facial trauma due to social unrest in Northern Ireland’.
I re-read the Kierkegaard in order to understand it better. It sent me to check the translation. The more recent (and secular one) excludes the sentence about ‘the strong’ one ‘striding forth’ being ‘the cuckold’, but rectifies the gender confusions. Psyche, the soul of man, is female.
‘Let’s face it’, said the surgeon in the Royal Free Hospital to Ernie. ‘And, I suppose, Andrew has’, he joked helplessly, hopelessly. The boy’s wrecked looks were the rags on the bushes.
I took to cycling in graveyards, the ideal circuit for a thoughtful ride. I got to know all the cemeteries of North London. I wore a cycling mask. In Kensal Green cemetery I came across the grave of Sophia Peabody Hawthorne (d. 1870), wife of Nathaniel. It appeared to be empty. According to the tombstone, the Holy Sisters of Hawthorne, New York, founded by her daughter Rose (1902) to care for the dying, had the remains reburied in Sleepy Hollow, Concord, with Nathaniel’s (d. 1860). I looked it up in Hendon Library. ‘It was a great love story’, said Willard Rawling, author of The Hawthorne Concordat. ‘We know from the one thousand and five hundred letters that she wrote to him. Separated in death. Now reunited for all eternity.’
It must have been a close marriage. But did they ever meet? Sophia, though ‘greatly enamoured of her husband’s work’ (unlike Edgar Allan Poe, who found it spooky), didn’t bring his books on her travels, except The Scarlet Letter (a manuscript copy). It was dedicated to her. Such distancings made me want to weep, and laugh.
I remembered the clergyman in the Nathaniel Hawthorne story in Twice Told Tales, who one Sunday put on a black veil to preach, disconcerting his congregation. Some thought it was hiding from them, others that it was a perverse way of saying he had nothing to hide. Nobody asked him why. As he persisted in wearing it, his flock became demented into thinking he was the devil incarnate.
I settled for putting the skeleton of a dead bird on Mrs Hawthorne’s grave. I used superglue. It was a gratuitous act.