Dickens, C. The Voyage of the Beagle. Chapter xxi.
A yacht now, with every luxury of life, can circumnavigate the globe. Besides the vast improvements in ships and naval resources, the whole western shores of America are thrown open, and Australia has become the capital of a rising continent. How different are the circumstances to a man shipwrecked at the present day in the Pacific, to what they were in the time of Cook! Since his voyage a hemisphere has been added to the civilised world
I hear an army charging upon the land,/ And the thunder of horses plunging, foam about their knees:/ Arrogant, in black armour, behind them stand,/ Disdaining the reins, with fluttering whips, the charioteers.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/ Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/ The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.
The man is at the head of the queue for the AstraZeneca jab. I’m number two. It’s for the second vaccine. He’s older than me – probably 70s – and sits squat in the plastic chair that’s too small for his bulky frame. He grips firm to a wooden walking stick placed squarely between his legs.
He’s called in. I follow soon after, go to a curtained area where a nurse will jab me [‘…which arm do you prefer?’]. Another nurse comes in and says: My gentleman only had his first dose three weeks ago.
‘Oh, that’s too soon. It has to be 12 weeks, 8 minimum. Unless it’s for work or something. Why does he want it early?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You’d better ask the doctor then. It’s too soon.’
I’m jabbed and leave, to wait for the regulated 15 minutes under a pop-up awning in the car park. I’m reading [Augustus by John Williams] when I raise my head to see the bulky man with his wooden stick limping towards a silver Jeep Patriot. He drives away, jab-less I guess.
A sticker on the rear window – There’s only one Jeep.
These flint stones, small, able to be held easily in the palm of one hand, were collected on the south coast of England perhaps in the 1990s. For someone obsessed with time and memory I regret I cannot be more precise. Nevertheless, I did pick them from a beach, and they fitted nicely. At this [undefined and undefinable] time, I was inspired by HM and others like. Some decades later, the flints rest in my Australian garden, and shared.
‘Were you to live three thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that the sole life which one can lose is that which you are living at the moment; and furthermore, that you can have no other life except the one you lose. This means that the longest life and the shortest amount to the same thing. For the passing minute is everyone’s equal possession, but what has once gone by is not ours…the sole thing of which anyone can be deprived is the present; since this is all you own, and nobody can lose what is not theirs.’
Marcus Aurelius [121-180 BCE] – Meditations, translated M.Staniforth [with variations by J.Pitt], Penguin Books, 2004, p.16-17.
Note: I live and write in Australia. This country, for better or worse, has not had to deal with the enduring tragedy the pandemic has wrought in much of the rest of the world. Indeed, Australia has isolated itself, while its nearest neighbour, Indonesia, is now gripped by a catastrophic outbreak. So much so that Australians have the time to ponder which vaccine to have, and whether they ought to have any vaccine altogether. There is complacency among politicians and the public, for this is a democracy of shallow debate.
This is the night mail crossing the Border, Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor, The shop at the corner, the girl next door.
Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb: The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time.
Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,
Snorting noisily as she passes Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.
Birds turn their heads as she approaches, Stare from bushes at her blank-faced coaches.
Sheep-dogs cannot turn her course; They slumber on with paws across.
In the farm she passes no one wakes, But a jug in a bedroom gently shakes.
Dawn freshens, Her climb is done. Down towards Glasgow she descends, Towards the steam tugs yelping down a glade of cranes Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen. All Scotland waits for her: In dark glens, beside pale-green lochs Men long for news.
Letters of thanks, letters from banks, Letters of joy from girl and boy, Receipted bills and invitations To inspect new stock or to visit relations, And applications for situations, And timid lovers’ declarations, And gossip, gossip from all the nations, News circumstantial, news financial, Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in, Letters with faces scrawled on the margin, Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts, Letters to Scotland from the South of France, Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands Written on paper of every hue, The pink, the violet, the white and the blue, The chatty, the catty, the boring, the adoring, The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring, Clever, stupid, short and long, The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.
Thousands are still asleep, Dreaming of terrifying monsters Or of friendly tea beside the band in Cranston’s or Crawford’s:
Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh, Asleep in granite Aberdeen, They continue their dreams, But shall wake soon and hope for letters, And none will hear the postman’s knock Without a quickening of the heart, For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?
On clear nights, whenever I have the chance, I like to look at the sky. At stars whose names I know not; the Southern Cross whose location continues to perplex; at planets whose orbits remain a mystery to me. To look with thrilling hope I may spot a shooting star or, and for this I have an app, the International Space Station blinking as it chases through the blackness. The disorder of the night sky with its clumps of what I suppose are galaxies seems to mirror the state of my mind, even though I know there is a beautiful symmetry to it all, a mathematical code so simple it has eluded us for centuries.
When the Moon is bright and full, or nearly so, I reflect on those who have travelled there, walked the surface, left mementos of home. Yet the one I think of most is the one who never landed. I think of Michael Collins who, as his companions cavorted for the first time on lunar soil [no woman’s ever been] was the loneliest person in the world as he flew round the dark side.
What’s it like to be truly alone? I was seven when Armstrong and Aldrin walked the Moon like it was a Sunday stroll. I remember being at school, herded to come and watch a TV that had been set up outside under cover on a warm concrete floor. I was transfixed, unable to look away even though others near were bored, fidgeting, being told to shush by the teachers, some of whom, too, were impatient to return to their lunch. I though was drawn to the picture box with its doors opened wide, the first time a TV had been switched on at school, even though the pictures it displayed were like shadows.
On opening a Penguin copy of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet  that’s been unopened on my shelves for years, opened today as I am near finishing Sentimental Education and speculating on what next to read.
On the title page this inscription:
To … The Marx Bros. films & this book are all I need to survive in this stupid, humorless world…and sex, yes, I can’t forget sex. I hope you like it. The book that is, not sex. Well I hope you like sex too, for that matter. Enough of this. I really must be going…Hello, Hello, Hello! Love …
All capitals by the way. Inside a bookmark inserted at p.49. This advertises a New York bookstore Bookshelf – we sell new and used paperbacks. Address for any American readers out there: 135 Windsor Place, Brooklyn, NY 11215.
I don’t remember if I bought this book in New York – which would have been 2000 – or in the UK. Spelling of humorless suggests inscriber was American. Either way, this Flaubert has well travelled since 1978.