Rugs shaken out and beaten in the hot bright sunshine. Pots watered, dishes dried, facts checked in a long piece almost ready for submission. A small cutworm has bitten through the stems of two new pak choi seedlings and, well, that is nature at work and nothing to be done but accept it.
Government funding has been cut for the housemate’s work on community healthcare — so much wasted training, so much hope deflated. The financial fiend breathing down my neck again and some of you know what that feels like. But we shall come through.
Something that stirred my imagination so — the experience of holding up a sea shell to my ear as a child and hearing the pounding roar of waves, whispering tides, the song of the ocean even though the sea was so far away. At times too, it seemed to me that I was listening to the roaring and pounding of my own blood stream, my own heart beat. In reality, what I heard was ‘expended vibrations’ in the air around me. Via woods lot, this remarkable passage on Walter Benjamin listening to the century around him:
Walter Benjamin played with the notion that shells contain worldly echoes, writing in the 1930s about his childhood around 1900: “Like a mollusk in its shell, I held my abode in the nineteenth century, which now lies hollow before me like an empty shell.” Imagining he could hold that century to his ear, he asked, “What do I hear?” answering,
the brief clatter of the anthracite as it falls from the coal shuttle into a cast-iron stove, the dull pop of the flame as it ignites in the gas mantle, and the clinking of the lampshade on its brass ring when a vehicle passes by on the street. And other sounds as well, like the jingling of the basket of keys, or the ringing of the two bells at the front and back steps.
Reading that, I feel a faint nostalgia for sounds I never knew but which my grandmother or her mother would have known and taken for granted. As a small child on a forest reserve, I remember waking in the morning to the urgency of the kettle whistling a fine white jet of steam (Polly put the kettle on); echoes of Ravel’s Bolero on the BBC World Service calling from London, that snatch of music sent out across the Empire on tinny radiograms; the mournful cry of the fish eagle from the river below the bungalow; men’s solid gumboots thudding on pinewood floors and the painted cement of the door step; a slow hiss from the old paraffin fridge in the scullery; thin silvery chimes from the longcase grandfather clock in the passage; the clink of heavy glass milk bottles taken out of the fridge and put down on a table covered with green oilcloth. Sounds I shall not hear again, many of them vanished along with the sweet greasy smell of Brylcream, the taste of Milk of Magnesia or cod liver oil on Thursday nights, that click of a black telephone handset as it was manually dialled, the scratchy jump on a vinyl LP recording of Bob Dylan singing Mr Tambourine Man. All gone. Other sounds, smells and beloved familiar sights fill my waking moments now, and these too will be swallowed up by historical progress.
A belated biography on Charles Jackson, the author of The Lost Weekend, a talented alcoholic who sadly killed himself at the age of 65 in 1958. After giving us a synonym for that disastrous alcoholic binge that begins on Friday and sometimes only ends when you wake up in a strange hotel room a week or two later, with no idea what has been going on, Jackson recorded the experience and middle America identified immediately. Most alcoholics have been there or will get there in time. The ‘lost weekend’ that everyone else remembers with clarity and terror. The lost weekender, on the other hand, recalls the massive mother of all hangovers, but just until the onset of the next lost weekend. And predictably, Jackson’s success as a writer led only to more relapses, impulse buys, a disastrous marriage and bad decisions.
Jackson, on the other hand, spiraled deeper and deeper into ruinous alcoholism. “The Lost Weekend” became celebrated largely for its frankness about what it meant to be an alcoholic: We see Don Birnam progress, over the five days of his binge, from stealing and lying to urinating in his pants and seeing terrifying hallucinations. The novel is set in October 1936, and in November of that year Jackson announced that he was quitting alcohol for good. Remarkably, he succeeded, at least for several years. Sober, he made the fateful choice to marry a woman, Rhoda, and began to play the ill-fitting role of a bourgeois paterfamilias, raising two daughters in Orford, a small town in New Hampshire. The marriage seems to have been an unhappy one for both partners: Mr. Bailey tells us that Jackson cursed ” ‘the perversity of the Fates’ for having arranged the union of a man ‘who so badly needs to be loved’ and a woman ‘who is unable to give it.’ “
If Jackson’s story were a Hollywood screenplay, the publication of “The Lost Weekend” would be the redemptive turning point, rewarding his sorrows and putting the seal on his sobriety. Unfortunately, as Mr. Bailey shows in rich detail, the sudden success of the novel only led to new kinds of problems. Some of these were financial: He spent his windfall on a mansion and a lot of art and furniture, and for years afterward he would be broke and in debt to the IRS. A stint working as a screenwriter at MGM gave him a taste for Hollywood glamour, for hobnobbing with Katharine Hepburn and Judy Garland, that he was thereafter unable to recapture. Worst of all, having become so publicly associated with alcoholism—and a favorite speaker on the AA circuit—Jackson struggled to show that he was not a case study but a real writer, that “The Lost Weekend” was not a fluke. Mr. Bailey makes clear, that is just what it was.