I am writing to the past. On Danes Drive, on the bridge, there was a dead squirrel lying for days on the parapet. One morning I watched a blue tit harvesting its fur, recycling it, seeing in the corpse only raw materials. A friend had recently volunteered to train in a crematorium; his first customer was someone he remembered from school. But this isn’t the past I’m writing to. This is the world we live in now. I want to write to you, there in the world that went before. Before we became estranged from our everyday lives. Ostranenie. The Russian Formalist critic, Viktor Shklovsky, pointed to the boredom of our everyday lives, how routine takes us for granted, robs us of our being. Yes. But it happens, sometimes, that events occur which are such a threat to our routine that we long for that past. So, I am writing to the past. Here in my flat in Glasgow. Out of the summer recesses, the damp dark corners, under carpets, skirting boards, behind bookcases, the moths have returned, fluttering around the room in search of mates and hungry only for that, since they have tired of gorging themselves, tired of eating their way through my books and jumpers, and I follow them, clapping, hopeful I’ll trap them in my applause, but it’s like clapping wrapping paper as they fold and unfold and flutter off again throughout the room, rising and falling, little gyroscopes of activity, whirring at intervals, little mopeds of blurred rapidity, mighty little warriors in their dusty cloaks, the stuff of ages on their mildewed paper hides. They are survivors. They have eaten their way through millennia in their Manilla envelope thithering. They are composed of long-lost texts: Homer’s Margites, which they ate lovingly, savouring every line but one: “Him, then, the Gods made neither a delver nor a ploughman, nor in any other way wise; he failed at every art.” They chewed their way through Shakespeare’s Cardenio, and Melville’s The Isle of the Cross; it is said they devoured in one sitting Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s screenplay on the Scottish pirate, American patriot, and Russian renegade John Paul Jones, passed up by Paramount because there wasn’t the budget for a costume drama and John Wayne wanted to play him as an Irishman; all the way back to the Great Library at Alexandria they had hopped, scuttled and eaten through all the greats.
Hello past. Hello world that was. Oh, you’d be so glad not to be here with me and happier still to be wherever you are: safely sat on the castle wall outside the Matthias Church, overlooking the Danube in the direction of Pest, forgetting for a moment your anxiety, the cost of the disappointing Goulash you ate earlier, re-reading a paragraph or two of Imre Kertész; or else, in a tram rattling down Ječná, anxiously wondering how to pay for your fare, clutching a handful of Czech coruna and still trying to work out why, last night in the Golden Tiger, when you ordered a Becherovka, the waiter brought you beer; or looking over Hólmgjógv to the gannet colony, the cacophony of hungry gullets, repeating to yourself “Súla” in Faroese, and then “Sùlaire” in Gaelic, see-sawing the two words on your tongue; then to a little shower of Manx Shearwaters, you’d say “Skrápur” and “Sgrabair”, and look far out to sea, perhaps trying to conjure up a past of untraceable searoads, erased by rising waves. But since you were only a falling ray of light lugging your dust through other people’s day-to-day, perhaps it doesn’t matter. What matters? What matters is that couple dancing in San Marco, he in his elegant summer suit, she in her simple grey dress; their glasses worn like hats, in the Italian style; or the two old men walking side by side in Murano (most likely dead now, since it was long ago), hands behind their backs, walking their lives through the narrow streets, where as children they ran together; what matters is the homeless man threatening the young lawyer outside the Inns of Court, shouting in her face, because he has nothing, and the old lady who intervened, producing a fiver from her handbag and offering it in her outstretched hand; what matters is the chalk boxes marked out on pavements which urge you forward, first in jumps, then to run, finally to give yourself a high-five for having made it to the end.
What else matters? That we carry on into the future, based on the presumption that we did so in the past. Hello past. The adventures you’ve had! Do you remember the time Carl Friedrich von Ledebour sat under that tree in the Altai Mountains; it was the autumn of 1833 — a particularly beautiful autumn — and autumn is such a beautiful time in the Altai Mountains; the white-capped pinnacles of Kazhakstan rose from their valleys and in distant Verniy (later to be renamed Almaty: the apple city, or city full of apples), people went about their daily routines. Looking up, Carl Friedrich saw an apple — round, large and red-tinged — Alma-Ata, the father of apples, whose progeny are many, whose seed has populated the world. The red leaves of autumn had thrown their colour across the apple’s golden side and, as it dropped, it seemed a shaft of flickering sunlight, a droplet of blood. As Heracles in the Garden of the Hesperides had stood before the golden-auburn apple, as Aphrodite pressed forward Helen of Troy into the arms of Paris of Troy, her eye fixed upon the apple Kalliste, von Ledebour shuddered — his Adam’s apple stuck in his throat. What would Newton have done then? Would he have stared gravely, his gaze drawn to the nest of autumn leaves where his beautiful prize lay? Would he have run through his head the Latin word for apple, the Latin word for evil, so close, so linked in his mind from a Christian childhood? Von Ledebour felt as though he were falling, then with Germanic determination stood, strode forward a few measured steps, and bent to lift the apple from the abundance of apples that lay upon the earth. He drew it to his lips. He was unsure at first but desperate to bite down, to savour the sun-drenched crispness. But instead, he held it to the light and turned it on his moving fingers. It was a thing of beauty. And without realising, he took a bite from its flesh, the earthy crunch, the sound of boots on compacted ice, a gravedigger’s shovel biting into frozen ground, his chin wet with the pale apple juice. Once, long before, glaciations had shaved away the flora and fauna of Northern Europe like a barber’s straight razor on a leather strop. Seeds transported in a bird’s crop, deposited in clots of guano, rose to colour the places with orbs of red, gold and green. But here, the teardrop pip left the sun-dried centre of the apple and fell into von Ledebour’s hand. He looked at it. Frigg’s messenger, disguised as a crow, had dropped an apple into the lap of King Rerir, as he prayed on a mound to Odin; it made him fertile. In Sir Isaac Newton’s imagination, at the fall of one apple, an orchard flourished: Belle de Boskoop, Cox Pomona, Braeburn, Envy and Sugarbee. Tart apples from Tartu. Von Ledebour saw only the apple pip, alone in his open hand. What matters? What matters is that life goes on in wonder.
From Applefields, I can see across a city in Lockdown. Nearby are the psychiatric wards of the hospital. Here and there, on the sloping fields, in twos and threes, are: a mother and child, with a friend and her lap dog; three girls in summer dresses drinking orange juice in the shade; an old man with a stick struggling against the incline, conscious of the greater effort time inflicts; a heart specialist taking his lunchtime stroll; two nurses from ICU, their faces bruised and a clear red line across the top of the nose, walking close together, as though all forward movement depended on the other; a man in his fifties, reading a book in Gaelic, eating an apple, and looking up now and then at the white towers bright in sunlight, the distant Kilpatrick hills that might as well be the Altai Mountains, since he cannot go there. Applefields has become my point of reference to the world. This is where I come to anchor myself beneath a silver birch: set apart from the world that seems to move around me with ease, as though I wasn’t there. But all the time, at home, the moths are rising and perhaps if you were here, you would band together with me and together we would drive out those collapsible paper devils; we’d rattle pots and pans, we’d classify them as one of the four pests, put up posters, take up positions in public squares and public parks to rally the people against them, offer awards for those who could kill the most, and like Mao’s purges (Mao, who saw in himself a kind of modern day Quin Shi Huang) we’d send out the people to take up arms against nature itself. The Nanyang Girl’s Rifle Team would come down Dumbarton Road, stravaiging and traipsing and galumphing, rifles at the ready, and who would fall in the crossfire, in the moth-carnage, in the great slaughter? Come out of the comfort of the past. Join me — socially distanced, mind; I’ve blue throwaway gloves and masks with skulls on.
Archaeology of the street: rainbows fixed in their permanence, faded rainbows, side-by-side with BLACK LIVES MATTER; a chance meeting — the postman in his blue gloves — leaving a package on the pavement, then retreating to a safe distance; bears at windows; cats accepting their rightful inheritance of gardens and of walls, one guarding a tree, its own tree; few people at bus-stops, and very few on buses, except at rush-hour (few wearing masks); a queue for methadone outside the chemist, blue masks under unshaved chins; the distant memory of applause; flaneurs grimly setting out on familiar circuits, their thoughts grimly setting out on familiar circuits; old women with shopping bags, moving slowly along the pavement, a few feet at a time; cyclists like returning bees, black and yellow, a-buzz with purposeful intent; blue lights like a mood change, a new aurora-borealis reflecting off windows, closed blinds, distorting superside bus advertising, a melting ice-flow, colouring passengers like comic-book Picts, splashing garden hedgerows, bus shelters, rippling down the shuttered fronts of shops; sirens' unbecoming music while you, an-Odysseus, tied to the couch, long to be eased.
Written by Gregor Addison. Photograph by Ian Barr.