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soft chaos, brittle glory:
autumn in England
We arrived back home in London at the beginning of September, dragging behind us suitcases and a muddied sense of relief after three months on the road. We came up the street, passing scaffolding that encased what felt like every fourth house. Attics were being converted, basements dug out, modest extensions ventured. The people of Inderwick Road were digging in.
Outside our flat, the first thing we noticed was exposed brickwork that the pale branches of the buddleia should have obscured. As we came closer, peering over the low wall that encloses our small but densely populated front garden, we saw that the buddleia, along with half our other plants, had been hacked back to bare stumps, almost to the ground. One half of the garden was as we had left it; verdant, tall, punctuated with flowers, while the other looked like some sticks shoved into a small dark patch of London clay. The overall effect was as if someone with long hair had impulsively decided to shave their head, then halfway through caught sight of their reflection and thought: oh shit.
We discovered that while we had been away, our landlady had come to check on the property, and subsequently dispatched her octogenarian workman to “tidy things up a bit.” There was no logic, or consultation. Just an inarticulate anxiety at observing something that did not accord with a certain version of good housekeeping, followed by the brute exercise of power and a vague intention to come back later and finish the job. It was the wrong time of year to be cutting anything back, let alone so radically. Now half our garden was dead. It was autumn in 2022, and we had come back to England.
A few days later, on the 5th of September, the UK gets a new prime minister. She and her chancellor embark on a rapid program of tax cuts derived, it seems, from faith that such things will always be good, no matter the circumstances, and that actions performed under the sanction of neoliberalism’s greater lights are beyond reproach. The market promptly tanks. In the days that follow, as the humiliation begins to flow through these two politicians like embalming fluid, you can see them trying to work out how they can protect their faith from its consequences, how they can keep their beautiful abstractions unsullied by the mess they have engendered in the real world.
One of the scaffolding-clad houses on our street belongs to our neighbour. He died shortly before we moved in at the start of 2019, so really I suppose he was never actually our neighbour. The house remained empty throughout the pandemic but now, finally, new owners are moving in, or at least they will once their extensive renovation is complete.
Although we never met our dead neighbour, I feel I’ve come to know him in an oblique way through the signs he left behind and the gossip of our living neighbours. On the outer wall of his house – in the garden, away from the street – he had mounted decorative plates, a lantern, and, in a nod to his Venetian heritage, a thin, tin impression of a gondola’s bow and a relief carved into pale stone of the winged lion of Saint Mark the Evangelist. The Venetians claimed Saint Mark as their patron after nicking what was alleged to be his corpse from Alexandria in the 9th century and smuggling it back to the lagoon city hidden in a barrel of pork fat. The Venetians claimed that the Evangelist’s corpse bestowed divine protection (and license) on the city, and his remains also acted as a kind of rhetorical and spiritual ballast against Rome (whose authority Venice chafed against) and its cult of St. Peter. You have an apostle in a casket? Well, so do we!
I’m reminded of this kind of magical thinking by the release on September 28th of This England, a TV series by Michael Winterbottom about the response of Boris Johnson’s government to the pandemic. In profile, Kenneth Branagh looks just about right as Johnson, but from front on the prosthetics cease to cohere, and Branagh’s eyes, which have none of the insecurity that sits beneath Boris Johnson’s performance of himself, give the game away. Accordingly the camera seems to try to avoid catching Branagh from the front except when it absolutely has to. This turns out to work well for the character; always on the move, barrelling away from scrutiny.
It feels both too soon and too late to be watching this. There’s horror and grief at the depictions of what people went through, along with a strange satisfaction in seeing dramatised the vast negligence that one instinctively felt was occurring in government at the time. What were they thinking? That they would somehow be spared the disaster that was clearly unfolding in Italy? That’s not for us, they seemed to say. It couldn’t possibly go that way here. We’re English! Inhabitants of fate’s favoured island! Behold all our saints in all our caskets.
As the dates appear on the screen, you become conscious of replaying the sub-narrative of your own experience through those weeks and months. It comes back with a clarity that surprises you. You’d become habituated to thinking of that time as a blur, but it’s not, really. You can even remember the height of the recently hacked reeds in Stationer’s Park the day Johnson went into hospital, how startlingly bright and clear the evenings were that April. The infinity loop arrangement of the tape cordoning off the park benches.
Now, thanks to the ongoing drought, our back garden is in as nearly a sorry state as the front. With a hosepipe ban in place, we troop with the watering can back and forth to the outside tap, which juts out of the wall beneath our kitchen window. Looking out the window at dusk, we often used to see a lone, tiny bat, a pipistrelle, darting through the oncoming dark in the blunt canyon formed by the gap between the side of our house and the side of our dead neighbour’s. The bat was always alone, and probably misguidedly I always thought of it as being the same bat, ‘our’ bat, who clearly found easy pickings in that place. We haven’t seen it since we got back, but filling up the watering can I glance upward and, tucked behind the drainpipe, tangled in thick nets of spiderweb, I can see its leathery little skeleton.
It must have become stuck and then starved to death. Stupidly, sentimentally, I feel culpable — as if our three-month absence from the flat has allowed this to happen. If we’d been there, I might have heard it fluttering and cut it free.
As we settle back in I find myself returning to the Parkland Walk, which I trudged more or less daily during the lockdowns. Somehow the habit’s stuck. Summer’s green is giving way to autumn’s gold, the oaks and hawthorns the first to go. The dry seed heads of the understory rattle against each other, the stalks now pale as straw, their life fled back into the earth, or released onto the wind. As October wears on, on both sides of the path the dark earth is replaced with a pattern of reds, and browns, and golds, a soft chaos of discarded leaves. I listen to the chat of the other walkers, or, from time to time, scroll the news on my phone as I walk.
Now that the pandemic has lost its totalising power, we have returned to the more diffuse sense of crisis those of us in the west have been more accustomed to in the twenty-first century. War, economic stagnation, planetary catastrophe, famine, the virus that hasn’t actually gone anywhere, all now compete on a level playing field in the free market of attention. In England, even as the prime minister’s plans (for such, I suppose, we must call them) unravel, the human cost of them becomes clearer. The country she is dragging over a cliff edge is already on its knees. One in five of the UK’s population now lives in relative poverty. The health service, already stretched to breaking point, fears a crisis as a population stuck indoors in some of the worst and most expensive housing stock in Europe cough and splutter through the winter to come. People are already being forced to choose between heating their homes and putting food on the table. Food bank charities report being unable to find enough food to meet the demand of the increasing numbers of people knocking on their doors.
The title of This England is taken from Richard II, specifically from John of Gaunt’s speech decrying the decline of the country under the wayward monarch of the title. In Benedict Andrews’ 2009 production for the Sydney Theatre Company, for the bulk of the play Richard sat downstage, practically on top of the audience, as a slow hail of gold fell and blanketed the stage; a mesmerising glory as it fell, but once it had landed resembling filings from some great ornament that had gone missing, been forgotten. Or great piles of autumn leaves.
At the Cornelia Parker retrospective at the Tate Britain, I walk into a room lit only by a single, dim bulb. In the air around it, debris — each item suspended from an imperceptible thread — radiates outward as if from the force of an explosion. A jumble of shadows are thrown across the floor and the bare wall. Planks of wood, a fan, a bicycle wheel. It’s jagged, and hard. Playful, in its way, but unapproachable. What else should one expect from an explosion?
After we leave the exhibition, we walk back towards the parliamentary district, through the beautiful narrow park that abuts the Palace of Westminster. The Thames is high today, and quick-flowing, and everywhere people are taking advantage of the sunlight, pausing just to stand, faces upturned on the street corner, enjoying every day like this that still remains to us before the dark of winter comes. Parliament Square is crammed with protesters. Today it’s a large group of Orthodox Jews politely holding banners as they campaign against the 2022 Schools Bill. The bells of Westminster Abbey, where Richard II is buried, begin to ring, and the sound, unchanged over centuries, seems to peel back time as can casually and unexpectedly happen in this country when you are walking home from an exhibition.
While Venice might have used Saint Mark to bolster its authority, kings like Richard II could go straight to God. “Not all the water in the rough, rude sea / Can wash the balm off from an anointed king”, Shakespeare has him say. Crowned and anointed at the age of ten, his belief in his own divine sanction was unshakeable, and grew into an intense need for and expectation of worship from those around him. Trapped inside his self-image, he pursued increasingly reckless policies until he was eventually forcibly overthrown because there were, of course, limits to his power. Having been deposed, he calls for a mirror and then throws it to the ground, shattering it rather than continue to look upon a reflection shorn of its majesty. “A brittle glory shineth in this face.” I think of how when a mirror cracks the splinters radiate outwards from a central point — an explosion frozen in glass.
In Shakespeare’s play, Richard is violently murdered, but the real Richard is thought to have starved to death in captivity.
On the 20th of October, after forty-two days in office, the prime minister announces she is resigning. Johnson, like a golem fashioned from expired feta, emerges from his Dominican holiday to re-contest the leadership he had been forced from just three months earlier.
In the unseasonably mild weather, stunned plants hedge their bets, both dropping their leaves and putting out new ones. In our butchered front garden, new life cautiously, timorously stirs. Buds break. The days shorten. In the parks, gusts of wind explode neat stacks of autumn leaves. They crunch underfoot on the bone-dry, drought-struck earth. Brittle glory.
Next door, in our dead neighbour’s house, the renovation work goes on.
KIT BROOKMAN is an editor of The Signal House Edition.
RACHEL RODRIGUES is a British Indian artist, who was born and grew up in North London. This year she was featured as a Rising Star by Saatchi Art, and in 2020 was shortlisted for the Ashurst Emerging Artist prize. Her paintings offer a commentary on the mind, addressing what we can make sense of psychologically but also the feelings we can’t quite place, our unconscious, automatic thought patterns and behaviours. She builds on art historical themes of emotion, but with a new insight informed by our present day understanding of mental health. WEBSITE | INSTAGRAM
(Image credit: Seven Sisters Road, by Rachel Rodrigues, oil on paper, by kind permission of the artist)