A giant claw-digger gnaws at the structure like a stop-motion tyrannosaur as it devours this block of flats. The geometry of its numerous parallel floors is disrupted by the torn open rooms and the cranial lumps of grey concrete which hang disordered from metal threads. This magnificent broken tooth of a building is falling apart, the walls break as easily as ancient bones dug from the earth. Someone chose that wallpaper, that carpet. Surely they never imagined this day when the whole thing would be exposed to the air before it falls away into a pile of rubble, to be gathered, transported, and dumped, somewhere.
The ghost of this notion is what makes a novel like Howards End so odd. It really is a book about the meaning of house ownership. What’s so clever is that it maps onto this rather modish and shallow notion all manner of other anxieties. How can we connect with the people around us if we are constantly in the bustle of flux? How can we see our lives for what they really are if we only understand our values materially in pounds, shillings and pence? What is the relationship between our sense of ourselves and our sense of place? Without roots in the earth, what hope is there of our growing?
And month by month the roads smelt more strongly of petrol, and were more difficult to cross, and human beings heard each other speak with greater difficulty, breathed less of the air, and saw less of the sky. Nature withdrew: the leaves were falling by midsummer; the sun shone through dirt with an admired obscurity.
The novel isn’t hopeful for the triumph of England. It ends with the cold comfort of a rural idyll, a broken family, and an observation: ‘”All the same, London’s creeping.” She pointed over the meadow—over eight or nine meadows, but at the end of them was a red rust […]. And London is only part of something else, I’m afraid. Life’s going to be melted down, all over the world.”‘ The crisis of modernity is not new. We know from the Romantics that at the very onset of the industrial transformation we have been rightly suspicious of the mechanisation of modern life.
Today is a beautiful day. Winter has been holding on, but the sun was doing its best, even though the tilt of the Earth puts it a few thousand miles further away than mid-summer. It is one of those days that is filled with the warming promise of the months to come, that says ‘Days will lengthen. Winter will end. The turning world will go green.’ Perhaps it is over-cautiousness on my part, but it was too nice not to try a run outside. I made my way up to the Heath, and after my weeks inside pacing the cells, I felt my diaphragm pulling deeply at the sun-filled air.
Here silence stands like heat.
Here leaves unnoticed thicken,
Hidden weeds flower, waters quicken […]
Here is unfenced existence:
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.
I’d always thought, in Larkin’s poem ‘Here’, that at its close he was talking about the sun, but perhaps the point of it is that he is talking about himself.
This general sense of well-being was only slightly punctured by the sight of a council block being torn down (I can think of at least five estates near me that are being ripped to the ground as I write). I finished at the gym so I could machine my way to an appropriate level of exertion with a lesser risk of injury (marathons!).
What I saw when I pulled up at the council’s local gym on such a beautiful day was this. Every treadmill was occupied. They were arranged in a neat line facing outside towards the busy high street. Except for the treadmill users, the gym was completely empty. Perhaps they were like me? They were training for marathons etc. They were here to enhance some activity that would take place elsewhere. But all of these machines were occupied by walkers. The walkers on the machines in this awful, scruffy, dirty gym, were happy to pay to walk, using electricity, and watch the world pass before them like goldfish in a bowl. All of them watched, transfixed by the sunny day that they weren’t in.
|My reflection in a puddle at the end of the street.
Experiences like this inculcate a kind of rootlessness, a forgetfulness, a negation of place. The belt that they are walking on revolves as endlessly as poor ‘Jaws’ does in his bowl ever since he was brought home in a plastic bag from the fairground. So it’s not so so much the lack of impression, but the complete absence of one. Unthinkingness, a willing renunciation of self to refocus and remind oneself of one’s place in the world is not the same as the anaesthetised boredom brought about by looking at a timer, seeing how many calories you’ve burned in the last hour, checking your incline, wondering if you’re going to get a static shock when you touch the machine. (This is a wonderful metaphor – you only build up static electricity precisely because you are not earthed).
Around the same time that Howards End was published, philosopher brother of the urban chameleon Henry James, William, worried over our fast-developing cultural myopia.
Life is always worth living, if one have such responsive sensibilities. But we of the highly educated classes (so called) have most of us got far, far away from Nature. We are trained to seek the choice, the rare, the exquisite exclusively, and to overlook the common. We are stuffed with abstract conceptions, and glib with verbalities and verbosities; and in the culture of these higher functions the peculiar sources of joy connected with our simpler functions often dry up, and we grow stone-blind and insensible to life’s more elementary and general goods and joys.
William James – On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings
But it seems to me to be saying something not dissimilar to Forster’s Maurice or Hardy’s Jude: structures of society are not natural ones. Both protagonists in those novels suffer when caught between the seemingly granite walls of their society’s moral order. So unnatural indeed, that the protagonists of both novels walk all the way out of the world to effect an escape. One, to that undiscovered country; the other finds happiness in the pagan greenwood with a man of the earth. Both novels say that society is not natural to us. It exists apart from us. As Nietzsche reminds us: in the world ‘there are no moral phenomena, only moral interpretations of it.’ Society and its morality are not designed to meet or satisfy our desires in any real ways. Instead, it creates a whole different set of structures with complex systems of exchange that are adept at reproducing themselves, rather than meeting the demands of its users. If you expect to find in society’s structures a framework that fits the mutabilities of our ontogeny, you probably won’t (is what James, Hardy and Forster all argue).
What use is a machine that encourages you not to go outside and be in the world? ‘Nature’ isn’t a sick patient that we have to go out and visit. It is what made our bodies. It is that which makes it possible for you to read this. So much of modernity seems to want us to not quite understand this simple observation. We are like James’s rarefied and urbane men, grown ‘stone-blind and insensible to life’s more elementary and general goods and joys.’ We conspire against ourselves in making potentially rewarding experiences into mundane and tedious ones.
The real Howards End, called Rooksnest – the house near Stevenage where Forster grew up – just like the block of flats in Blackheath, was torn down. ‘London’ crept to its doors and consumed it. But in the novel, the place is immortalised as a true spiritual home, all the more so for being a reminder of the mutability and ephemerality, not just of divinely endowed homesteads with roots that burrow deep into the past, but of us, too.