Yorkshire Post - YP Magazine
Bruegel got it
I was going to start this week’s column with the phrase
“it was an ordinary day…” and I was going to carry on by extolling the pleasures and enjoyments of the, well, ordinariness of the aforementioned ordinary day. I would write about a day when nothing happened, when nobody did anything very much and later, if you tried to remember that day, you wouldn’t be able to because it was a blank in your diary, an empty space on your calendar, a gap in your life.
Except I couldn’t. The more I thought about these days of nothingness, they would always end up being days of somethingness. Not epoch-making days of course, but days that were full of day-to-day minutes and unremarkable hours that still rang with a kind of miniature significance.
As I wrote the piece, I tried to pick a day from the last seven that was the most ordinary, and I found that even on seemingly anonymous days, things that were outside the orbit of ordinariness seemed to happen. On one of the days a bottle of milk leaked all over the place; on another day a squirrel tried to steal nuts from the bird feeder. One day I found a pound on the floor, another day I fell down a few stairs with a percussive bumping sound. One day I found a huge leaf, another day I was catapulted from bed by cramp, another day I found a ring of toadstools growing on my mother-in-law’s lawn. Not huge events, I agree, but enough to inflate the day beyond the ordinary.
So perhaps it’s safe to say that no days are ordinary but most days aren’t extraordinary. There should perhaps be a third category, like Premium Economy on a plane between economy and first class; you could call it Premium Ordinary.
One way to insert the Premium Ordinary into a day is to look at it historically. Take today, for example: November
20. In 1805 Beethoven’s Fidelio, the only opera he wrote, premiered in Vienna, and the Second Treaty of Paris was signed ten years later. On that day, someone might have fallen down some stairs at home and someone else might have found a toadstool ring on a patch of grass. As the huge events are taking place, the small events are happening. The great painter Bruegel pictured that juxtaposition in his work Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, where the boy who flew so close to the sun that his wings melted has fallen into the sea and nobody is taking any notice; someone is ploughing, someone else is gazing up at the sky. It’s a big day for poor old Icarus, of course, but it’s just a run-of-themill time for everybody else.
So I could start the column with “It wasn’t an ordinary day…” because they never are, and thank goodness for that. It was a Premium
calls in the emergency services, there’s a beautifully judged scene in which his elderly neighbour, Alice, is torn between trying to comfort him and wanting to keep her distance for fear of becoming ill. Unable to invite him into her house when he calls round, she offers to put some cookies on a plate for him. “Don’t do that, even if I wash it I’d have to touch it to give it back to you,” says Matt. In the end, they compromise with tin foil.
The Fell may run to only 180 pages, but all of lockdown life is here, from everyday negotiations over simple things like offering someone a plate of biscuits, to major philosophical questions around rights and responsibilities. If and when the dust finally settles on the Covid era, a handful of the many books it has inspired will eventually solidify into a sort of pandemic canon. It’s perhaps not the kind of accolade that authors dream of, but this humane, thoughtful reflection on the experience of the last 18 months surely merits a place on any such list.