Normally I sleep well and am alert as soon as I wake. I like getting up early, so it was dark when I went downstairs. I like this time of day: it's quiet and peaceful, with no one about. Every morning I do some exercises and every other morning I go for a brisk walk-run. Today I just did my exercises, which are like old friends: bending, stretching, skipping, running on the spot, cycling with my legs in the air. Then I made some Lavazza arabica coffee and wholemeal toast, which I ate watching the TV news.
After I could stand hearing about death, destruction and dispossession no longer, I read a chapter from one of my current library books, Rob Cowen's Common Ground. This is a thrilling, poetic book about our links with the landscape, about those forgotten edge-land places on the border of town and country which are steeped in history and teem with flora and fauna and are full of magic — if we had but the eyes to see. I'm using Amazon less and less (which I'm happy with: look how they treat their staff, look how they avoid paying tax) and borrowing library books more and more. I belong to two county libraries — Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire — and you can reserve and renew books online. It's very convenient. Nottinghamshire lets you have 24 books at a time and charges 25p for reservations; in Lincolnshire there's no limit to the number of books and reservations are free. Britain's public library system is one of the best things we have, along with the National Health Service, and it must be fought for and protected. Sadly the long-term health of both is far from certain.
Later in the morning I drove to Waitrose where, if you spend £10 or more, you can get a free newspaper. I came back with bread, milk, cheese, yoghurt, ice cream, frozen berries, fresh tomatoes, cans of tomatoes, cans of soup, sausages, coffee and the Saturday Guardian. After a simple lunch of muesli and an apple, I did the quick crossword on the last page of the Guardian Review, then leafed backwards through the section. After reading about the art of Joseph Beuys and the childhood of Alfred Brendel, the 100th birthday of Vogue magazine and the sleaziness of the London rock 'n' roll scene in the 1960s, I arrived at the lead article — a posthumous piece by the Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2014 and died last autumn, aged 67. That's only six years older than I am.
This made me think of all the recent deaths of people in their 60s and early 70s. There seem to have been so many of them lately: David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Lemmy from Motörhead, Cilla Black — and, just this second, I see that Terry Wogan has gone. Not to mention all the thousands of unknown, uncelebrated, ordinary people like you or me. (Not that I think any one of us is ordinary in the least — no, not at all.) I considered my own mortality, as I do quite frequently. I thought about how common cancer is, particularly among the older population. I reviewed the lifestyle factors which may contribute to causing cancer in later life. And I resolved to continue to live as healthily as I could, to maintain an exercise programme and a balanced diet. But do past destructive lifestyle choices still take their toll on the body despite current healthy regimes?
I became aware with a sudden blinding clarity how essential it was to live each moment as fully, as deeply and as productively as possible — as if each moment was one's last. We have only one life, a life of great tragedy and suffering, yet also one of great joy and beauty. Both polarities are necessary to life, are inescapable parts of the complete picture. You can't have joy without sorrow, beauty without ugliness. Therefore we should try to embrace both, the all, the whole. Like children do unconsciously, to some extent. As Dan Chelotti writes in his poem, Compost: There is magic in decay. Later in the poem his young daughter, Selma, on seeing a dead snake on the path, guts spewing out, Belly up and still nerve-twitching / The ghost of some passing / Bicycle or horse, reacts like this: Pretty!
In his article, Henning Mankell writes how consoling books (especially familiar ones), music and art are to him. Each day he reads, listens to a piece of music and contemplates a picture. I turn to my Spotify list and select Mahler's First Symphony. I must play more classical music, concentrate on it rather than just use it as background wallpaper. I must listen to more Mahler, make my way through all the symphonies. Mahler believed that a symphony could contain the whole world. This first symphony is a delight — fairly traditional, yes, and influenced strongly, I think, by Beethoven. The first movement recalls Beethoven's Pastoral and evokes spring's awakening, complete with bird calls. The whole work is saturated with folk song; the third movement, a funeral march, is a take on the Frère Jacques tune.
Then I turn to a painting. Mankell says that two of his favourite artists are Daumier and Caravaggio. Daumier I know little about, but Caravaggio is one of my favourites too. I bring up on the computer screen one of his most famous pictures, Supper at Emmaus, which is in London's National Gallery.
Caravaggio was a difficult character and led a colourful life. He was driven, argumentative, swaggering, self-destructive. He was constantly involved in fights and once killed a young man in a brawl. He died under mysterious circumstances in Porto Ercole in Tuscany. He was not in his 60s or 70s, but only 38 years of age.
Saturday 30 January 2016