I have decided to address you as you. Dear Reader seems far too old-fashioned and although my own dialect offers a suitable plural, I find that yous is too impersonal, too broad-ranging to imply intimacy when I speak to you; you, there in your room, in your little pocket of silence, with all the world behind you momentarily held at bay as you read these words, stepping over my errors lightly, hesitant at the odd expression that doesn’t quite strike you as correct, but which, nonetheless, is aimed at you; yes — you in the rattling train, trying to secure a space for yourself amongst countless others (though the pockets of the world are empty); you, eating olives and drinking fino in a café in Cordoba, near the Guadalquivir, where bats and swallows rise up from the underside of the bridge to crush with incisors or vice-like beaks the plump bodies of moths in flight, as you reflect for a moment on the briefness of life and the vastness of time — but only for a moment — and in the fading warmth of evening, in its fading light, tourists (not entirely unlike yourself) pass in a steady, boisterous stream; that too, you reflect, is life, is the tumult of being here, and you, at that pavement table with your olives and fino, enjoy the illusion that you are apart from all of that, however it strikes you at this or that precise moment. And, anyway — for me here — you are somehow free of time, free of my perception of it, wherever it is you are: beyond the north wind, or not yet in sight of the near shore of that island that in German is called Die Toteninsel, or which the French call L’Îsle des Morts, and in Gaelic is known as Tìr nan Òg, and which I know as the island of Phusis, long and dark, squeezed amongst its diminishing lines of longitude and latitude, in that place whose inhabitants never age because there is no more time left than the time of story-telling.
I am writing to the past because the present is no longer certain and the future cannot be entered into lightly. Today in a garden on Norse road a man was playing the piano. Opposite the tenement where I live, a young boy and his father draw on the window with coloured pens: an ambulance, a postman in a blue mask, a man playing a piano in his garden. A little further away, on Airthrey Avenue, the chalk archaeology of the street the rain nearly washed away can still be seen: Dinosteps, Take a Selfie, Kangaroo Jumps, Sing a Song, Put a Stone Here if You Hate Lockdown. Ring-a-ring-a-roses, and we all fall down. The day before yesterday I saw a woman leaning against a wall and coughing, her daughter trying to help her to stand. I kept on walking, one hand over my mask, my head turned the other way. I am writing to the past because we are living in a Hiatus: although the summer is the brightest and clearest since childhood and being alive — well, it was never like this, days lost in the jaws of bats, choked into the swallows' gullets. Again and again the narrow streets mash us, even though, like moths, there is barely a meal in us.
Those fat moths you were watching are like the stories I want to tell, stories that waver and go off course, like the moth migrations, the origin myth, telling how (hatched in an ageing yak’s fleece) the moths were transported out of their homeland during that time known as the moth-ravages, when the teeth of bats and the beaks of swallows closed upon them so much so that free movement was no longer possible, and what of their voyage to the sun, what of the moon-dance and those other rituals of non-arrival? What of those who died in the cedar woods? Or those others who fell in the lavender fields? All is fluttering starlight imprecision, a movement from pinpoint to pinpoint, directionless, filled with the frustration of having no meaningful destination, which anyway may or may not be a delusion, but endings don’t always resolve in the bat’s jaws, or in the swallow's gullet; sometimes, a moth more or less gets out. And long before the emergence of butterflies, it was moths who led the way, Homeric in their nocturnal flights. But who wants to write of the dark? Who wants to follow their faltering path; their night time journeys? Once they were revered. In fashion, they gave their silk to emperors, asking only in return an old jumper, an old wool-coat, a book or two, until clothing emperors and ladies earned them no respect; and this is why the cinnabar moth revolted and is now found only in its anarchist black and red cape, and why others fly in daylight in hope of being written into epics, but the moth-hating lovers of butterflies in their delicate finery still ignore them.
Some say they came with Genghis Khan or the Roman legions, hidden in the seams of leather saddle-bags, secreted in grain, secretive in damp wool sacks, in the hems of wool skirts, in prayer mats and hair nets lining copper helmets, or gathered in the fabric of elegant furniture. Pests. Yes. But pests who clothed Quin Shi Huang, burner of books; he it was who conceived the idea of the Terracotta warriors because he did not want to pass alone, so took to his death 8000 men clad in clay armour, 520 horses, 130 chariots, unknown quantities of acrobats and musicians, an assortment of officials, but no writers, no useless literature, no peddlers of palaver, and (since he was used to living underground in secret passageways) he sought refuge from the day-to-day, sending young boys and girls abroad to find the elixir of everlasting life; so it was that this great unifier, this ancient Mao Zedong, denied the moths a meal, working his death in abundant terracotta, until they grew thin and pale and, like the young who went in search of the elixir never to return, tired of silkless pits and unwooled mausoleums, hopping back to the people, to the poor, to feed amongst them in their damp and meagre and inhospitable homes. Everyone sees a little of themselves in this tale: some enact greatness in the face of death; others huddle in darkness all their lives.
And how should we moderns die but surrounded by terracotta mobile phones and laptops and pizza boxes, the walls of our terracotta mausoleum papered with bills and final demands, accompanied by 8000 B-list celebrities and 150 beautiful young people who are InsertBrandHere-famous, 1000 civil servants and 500 plain-suited politicians, 250 Fact Checkers (count them) and a few dozen opinion columnists; what all of this reminds us of is our quest for permanence, or the lack of it in our everyday lives – we, who throw away our disposable day-to-day, who recycle our faith in survival, who populate the world with our fear of death, who build monuments, design stamps, add portraiture to bank notes, roll out red carpets for fur and trinkets, who — through such crafted hero projects —want to be remembered, want to be buried in grand marble graves with three thumbs-up, want to be hosted for eternity on devices made of minerals and plastics and aluminosilicates dug out of the earth by children, liked liked liked – yes, that more than anything is what we want, to be liked, to have a sense of our worth, or for the world to have it on our behalf. If we are to reach the other shore, the shore of Die Toteninsel, of L’Îsle des Morts, to arrive at Tìr nan Òg, or by Cal-Mac ferry to Phusis, we at least hope to do so having left some monument behind. But memory erodes, as sure as any made thing.
I see you in your kitchen, sorting spices into little jars, peeling jack fruit, dicing tofu, pulling apart mozzarella and layering it with basil and tomatoes, and out through the summer window that blethering blackbird is busy in the tree which only partially overhangs your kitchen and the summer is Spanish yellow and Mediterranean blue and there is music playing in the next room, a jazzed-up fugue, the mathematics of Bach, made irregular by French fingers, so that this is a moment of permanence which will erode as sure as anything, except that I’ve held it a while here, on this page, held onto it because I need these islands of the dead to make sense of the flow, the torrent, the thrumming numbness of it all which at times is unbearable and at others is its own relief. In the Twentieth Century, where I was born, across the continent of Europe, there was a style of writing that I much admire: little leaves. Few enough to flutter over your path of a morning. Feuilletons. Scraps, amounting to little more than the last fluttering of a moth on the window sill, but enough to tantalise, to stir the mind from its usual business. In art too there is the quodlibet: objects placed together for the viewer; objects seemingly chosen at random, and Latin for Whatever Pleases You; or familiar pieces set together in music, all fighting for your attention. And it was there too, in the Twentieth Century, that I fell in love with palaver, with plotless wanderings, with aimless blethers, and realised that in directionless wandering much is accomplished; and I read once that the word clue comes from the Old English clew which was a ball of thread that might help you out of a labyrinth, such as Ariadne’s thread which Theseus followed to escape the Minotaur’s labyrinth; but here, in this Twenty-first Century, what threads should we follow, and where is it we think we are going? Forwards? Back — and, if so, to what?
Written by Gregor Addison. Photograph by Ian Barr.