Tuesday, December 17, 2019

On The Spaciousness of Life

So Harold Wilson Day comes round again, now the fiftieth anniversary of Mr Wilson’s appointment by Her Majesty as Prime Minister. I can remember the day, and this is odd because 16th October 1964 is as distant in time from me (as I now am) as 16th October 1914 was from me (as I then was). Even then, the first year of the Great War seemed impossibly distant, a separate age in which men and customs were hardly recognizable. Half a century was far wider than the widest ocean. I could not have begun, as a 12-year-old boy at a boarding prep school on the edge of Dartmoor, to imagine my present self, the country and the world I live in or the things I would have done and seen. The distance is vast in both directions. Life is not short at all. It is astonishingly long.

Peter Hitchens's Blog, 16th October 2014

The above quotation, merely a passing remark by Peter Hitchens, is perhaps the only reference I've ever encountered to something that has struck me for as long as I can remember-- the extraordinary spaciousness and the sheer length of life.

It's true that some lives, tragically, are very short. None of my own five children ever saw the light of day. Untold millions have died in infancy, and in early childhood.

But even as soon as a person emerges from early childhood, life has already spanned an extraordinary number of days, hours, moments, experiences.

It's a commonplace that, when a person looks back at their childhood, it often seems like one never-ending summer's day. I remember, when I was a child, my own past seemed to stretch behind me like a glimmering landscape. Nor can I smile indulgently at this thought, from my perspective today. A child has already lived a long time.

And I had a lively sense of this even as a child. It's hard to put into words, but I can remember frequently being surprised by the thought: "What? There's more?". Life felt like a bag which magically had no bottom.

What else did I expect? Obviously, I knew that the average lifespan extended way beyond what I had already experienced. It's not that I expected to die in my sleep before I reached my teens. It was more a surprise at the abundance of life than the length of it.

One memory in particular occurs to me, in this regard. I could have been anything from three to seven years old, I guess. It was a Saturday morning-- at least, it was a morning with no school.

There was some kind of cartoon on the television which was rather exotic or unusual. Perhaps it was a foreign cartoon, or one based on some work of literature of folklore. It seemed to go on and on, and it jarred me out of my sense of routine. I was sitting on the backboard of the couch, and people were coming and going. Nobody was in a hurry and the morning, just like the cartoon, seemed to stretch on endlessly.

I had a very strong sense, at that moment, of the indeterminacy of family life. What is the purpose of a family? Well, just to be, it seemed. School was for learning, and the hospital was where you went when you were sick, and buses were for getting somewhere, but home-- home was just home.

New stuff kept happening-- stuff that was not expected, or scheduled, or similar to what had happened in the past. Life continued to overflow, to cascade over my existing categories.

This sense of the abundance of life, its overflow, is captured with uncanny accuracy in Louis MacNeice's famous poem, "Snow", especially the middle verse:

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it

Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion

A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes—
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands—
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

"More of it than we think". Indeed! It's the unthinkability of life that intrigues me and captivates me. It's impossible to survey it, or to get it into one mental frame. Indeed, only a vanishingly tiny fraction of it can be fitted into one's mind at any given time.

I wrote this blog post, many years ago, in an effort to convey something of this sense-- I simply listed many of my own experiences, big and small. It was one of my more well-received posts, in the early years of this blog. (Even my wife liked it, and she can be an exacting critic of my writing.)

I think television and advertising are particularly effective at conveying this sense. One of the reasons I love situation comedies is because they make hay out of life's variety-- especially its mundane variety. (The first example that occurs to me is an episode of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads in which the two title characters are trying to avoid hearing the result of an England football game, before they watch it on the television.)

But I still feel like I haven't expressed the wonder and strangeness of the thing. Like all great themes, it is impossible to exhaust it.

I like to think of everything that an ordinary human life encompasses. We have all been sick; we have all gone through fads and phases; we have all built model airplanes, or model towns, or model something-or-others; we have all jumped in puddles as children; we have all experienced infatuations; we have all had to wait unreasonable amounts of time in airports, or government offices, or hospitals; we have all woken up from bad dreams; we have all had tricks played on us; we have all been down dark alleys; and so on, and so on, for this list could be extended forever...

And what is true of an individual life is even more true of human life, seen as a whole. The famous motto of the News of the World, "All human life is there", has always thrilled me. So have the oft-quoted words of John Dryden, on The Canterbury Tales: "Here is God's plenty."

Perhaps the best way to experience "God's plenty" is to browse a bookshelf, especially in  a second-hand bookshop. Here is a book about stamp collecting, here, an anthology of amusing epitaphs; here, a critical work on the plays of Samuel Beckett; here, The Book of Mormon; here, a collection of political cartoons from the nineteen-eighties; here, a book of golfing anecdotes.

This rejoicing in the abundance of life is one of the reasons I am a traditionalist, and a nationalist, and a social conservative. Life is bewitchingly diverse even at its most monotonous. But why should we let it become more monotonous? Why should we not strive to preserve the differences?

National differences, for instance. National differences give rise to an endless range of other differences; national cuisine, national humour, national literature, national sports, national habits, national politics, and (once again) so on, and so on, and so on. What beautiful words, "and so on!" Eroding national differences made be done in the name of greater diversity within that nation-- but, as many people have pointed out, the diversity between nations, which seems a more meaningful diversity, is reduced.

Fifty million people, when divided into a multiplicity of languages and cultures and political systems, enrich the world more than fifty million people living the same way of life. A house is made bigger, more spacious, by being broken into rooms.

Then there is the difference between men and women. How many poems, songs stories, jokes, dances, customs, and so on, have been generated by this difference? Given this, how can anyone wish to diminish the difference between men and women? Even when it is a matter of correcting an inequity, is it so unreasonable to ask whether the correction might bring more loss than gain into the world-- into the drama and colour and variety of life?

Then there are traditions; Christmas, Halloween, sporting events, general elections, April Fool's Day, Guy Fawkes Day, Thanksgiving-- these also throw additional flavour into the mix of life, creating associations and atmospheres all their own. This is why I am such a fervent advocate of traditions. I think they make life bigger, wider, more spacious.

But enough. My theme has defeated me. The spaciousness of life is a subject too spacious for my keyboard.


  1. Séamus, I accidentally spammed your comment-- studiply trying to moderate comments on a smartphone, on a cold day, while holding shopping. Here it is from my email:

    "The first half of your post ties in with something I've been reading reflectively. St Columbanus' surviving Latin poetry (not actually a large amount) contains these themes - naturally enough for a monk,but somehow it seems fresh.

    also: Casibus innumeris decurrunt temporary vitae
    Omnia praetereunt,menses volvuntur in annis (from a 25 line poem)
    In countless ways life's seasons disappear
    They all pass by,the months complete a year

    Translated by Tomás O'Fiaich,I think

    I'd never encountered that before, thanks! It certainly fits with the theme!

  2. Spam is my dearest friend. Not sure that I'd hear from that many people otherwise. Never met him

  3. One film that has a really fine quality of spaciousness is The Forbidden Garden. Warmly recommended. Merry Christmas!!

  4. The Garden of the Finzi Continis.

  5. What is the full title of film as I cannot find any trace of it?

    1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Garden_of_the_Finzi-Continis_(film)