Dear Jon . . . (#20) Re: Reading, Time and Tide

‘The leader of the troop unlocked his word-hoard;
the distinguished one delivered his answer:’
Beowulf (trans Seamus Heaney)

Dear Jon,

It’s true, I talk a lot about re-reading. One of the reasons I prefer to buy a book than take it out from a library is because the thought occurs that I might want to re-read such a such a book. But it is more talk than action. I very rarely re-read books. This truth is documented. Records – those held in the Archives, walled up in a secret underground facility near Ultima Thule – suggest that the last book I actually re-read was Lawrence Durrell’s Tunc (1968) in April 2015. So not recently. Because, no, apparently 2015 isn’t recent anymore. Time flies.

And the problem is time, and how there isn’t enough of it. To re-read something, except for a very express purpose, seems a monumental extravagance and distraction. Apart from that, there is very much a grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side syndrome with reading. And there are so many new things to read (Butor’s Mobile (1962), Lessing’s The Good Terrorist (1986), Wolfram Von Eshenbach’s Parzival (!?!?!), and so little time with which to read it. And there seems to be less time recently. My experience of time is very tied up with my mental health, which has been at a slight ebb recently. Time becomes far more elastic than normal. It becomes the enemy, rather than simply itself. It is both slow and fast. Time is slow because you are slow. Everything takes ages. I have been reading this book (Conversation in the Cathedral – which is great, actually) forever, or doing this washing up (is it really the same washing up?), or writing in this document, or cooking this meal, or tidying this room, or hoovering this floor, or planning this day (can it really be the same day?)   forever. Each task stretches itself through the hours. Each task is like a rough attempt to fulfil an earlier failed attempt. Each task is a pencilling in onto time – made with a 9H pencil. Faint, ineffective. Each task is an escape from another task that isn’t going so well, and while you assure yourself that there is a method in your madness, if there is, it is a method severely lacking (you tell yourself that before you can do x you must put together a theatrical production to establish the truth of y (wherin you’ll capture the conscience of the king) and by this point several acts of the play have passed, and so time is thoroughly out of joint). Time is fast because it passes fast. At the beginning of a day it imposes: before you are the hours you must fill with the slow tasks. At the end of the day it mocks: these were hours you filled with so little. Or even, what did you even do? And of course, with this an extensive literature, a Meforshim of criticism and scrutiny – entirely unconvinced and negative, written in dark ink, forming a blacker and blacker palimpsest. And so it goes, time after time. And so this blog post gets later and later, etc. And the to-do list buries me, and then itself. 

Usually, as you know, I try to account for my time. As you also know, I have never been especially good at it. My notes are frequently unfinished, imprecise, half-remembered. Time slips away, and out toward the end of an evening, the end of the week, the end of the month. Or indeed, recently, for me, the end of the year – my birthday being but a few days ago. I’ve been told that I have note everything I do down, rate it for achievement, for closeness to others, for enjoyment (each out of ten). I’ve been told to note down any negative thoughts, any negative feelings in the mind or the body, that occur during these doings. 

Two challenges (among many others) while writing: (1) the time that writing takes, and (2) knowing when something is done. A beautiful term from Ye Olde English is ‘word-hoard’ – a store of words, a vocabulary. A lot of writing is the creation of a word-hoard – something that has its own vocabulary, language, set of symbols. It’s a fashioning, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, and then going through commentaries from yourself and others and commenting on those comments, and then a reworking, a polishing, almost religiously until the whole thing tires, until the thing is dull for you, but shines (hopefully, hopefully) for others. You take time to make the thing is decipherable. You take the thing, and you bury it – that’s what you do with hoards. You bury them, and hope that it will be found and treasured by others. And this process takes time: the making, refining, the submitting, the waiting.

Walk around Leamington, as I did yesterday, and you’ll see – near the war memorial, and upon the slopes in the Jephson Gardens – that crocuses and snowdrops have put colour in among the green. Spring is coming to town. That which is buried is bursting into bloom. Near to me, St Mark’s chimes the hour, counting the time down to the resurrection of the dead. In Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931), the word ‘hoard’ is important – Jinny talks several times about breaking into her ‘hoard of life’. Jinny says how ‘Days and days are to come; winter days, summer days; we have scarcely broken into our hoard.’ Let the record show that I have 13 stories out, and that by the end of the week I hope this to get up to 15. Let the record show that the flowers are in bloom in Leamington. May the word-hoards be unlocked, and the locks themselves unscrewed from them, for both of us. 

This was on time (well, the post wasn’t, but you know). Maybe you do yours on space. Or not.

Yours in untimely fashion,



That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?

– T.S. Eliot