You might think during these mostly silent days, punctuated by the occasional plaintive wail of an ambulance echoing down Second Avenue, that it would be a fertile period to slow down and reflect; to be inward looking and use this time to seek resolutions on what to do when the pandemic is over. It is the Chinese year of the rat, one I say resentfully that is supposed to be my year, yet it is the most tempestuous start to any I can remember. In early February I slipped into England, arriving at Heathrow hours before storm Ciara rushed in, trampling over gardens, snapped down fences and belligerently pushed over trees. I took a photograph leaning out of the window just before dawn when the storm was at its height, shooting into its blackness, worrying that the windows elderly wooden frame would break as a rush of air was sucked into the room and the house shivered, its doors and frame complaining at the intrusion. And now at the end of March back in New York I am in the eye of another storm, insidious, invisible and complicated. Yet on days like this the sun is shining weakly and there is a suburban complacency in the City, lunches and dinners cooked at home and until recently, each evening I was able to take a walk in Central Park which seems painted in watercolor tones this time of year and wears the weak, northern, thorny palette of grey’s and browns which I love so much.
I’ve discovered how to stream British TV programs from the not so distant past; Grand Designs and Antique Roadshows, at first glance shows that have nothing in common; the first explores the building of radical modern homes and the second is all about explorations of the past through objects brought under the scrutiny of experts in the antiques field. Both offer comfort as they are both nostalgic and optimistic in their own way, but I increasingly realize provide cynical insight into our desires.
The premise behind Grand Designs is that the presenter follows the life of a new building or construction from the project beginning until the final reveal. Whatever the scenario, similar patterns and dramas unfolds, money typically runs out, being England – there are extreme weather events (normally rain and flooding) leading to costly delays, unplanned and seemingly absurd regulations, contractors quitting but the end result is the unfolding of a new beautiful space, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t and sometimes I want to shout at the television.
Antiques Roadshow is something to watch more for people than objects under scrutiny, nothing beats that clash of English civility and naked greed as the guests agonize in poorly concealed anticipation of the valuation. While Experts delight in their knowledge and build a sense of drama on this intimate stage, (and many are truly brilliant in their abilities; to read five hundred year old Japanese markings on the underside of a vase is not untypical) the excitement or disappointment on the faces of the owners is tangible. There will be a small audience gathered around, grey haired and elderly, inevitably reminding me of my parents, who look on in amazement when a genuine treasure is found. In the English show the reaction of the owner is predictable, suddenly aware of the consequences of being on TV, the response is usually that old cliche “of course I would never sell, but how much for insurance purposes?” While in the American version it’s become common now for the owner to cry, a profound difference during the Warholian moment of fame that says everything about these two cultures.
But doing the time of Covid 19 I’m forced to ask myself, what is the point of ownership, until we have a cure for this (and the next one) why treasure possessions? On a video call last night with friends in New Orleans Carmen asked, do you think this is survival of the fittest? This reference to Darwin being much on my mind as I was at the same time remembering during AIDS right wing thugs saying that it was nature’s, or even hypocritically “Gods”, revenge. In today’s newspaper a columnist was hinting that we should all expose ourselves to the virus and just allow the strongest immune systems win. Years ago, when I lived in Shrewsbury, I would often walk past the house Charles Darwin was born in on the Mount, a surprisingly modest low lying white property, and visited the school he went to. Later in life I would see reminders of him in obscure places, South Africa, Chile and Argentina, Australia and I was always thrilled to walk in a small park dedicated to him and see plants brought from other corners of the world through his own and later voyages.
Other than watching old television shows, this voluntary confinement allowed me to read more than usual and this included finishing the final book in Hilary Mantels Cromwell trilogy. A little overlong, as others have commented, but it allowed me the luxury of drifting off into my own thoughts while scaling its mountains of dialogue and then returning with envy to its valleys of lyricism. I sat on a rocking chair on our terrace finding myself drawn in and out of her world until I realized it was harder and harder to read the page and then looked up to see the sky fading from blue to black and the soft light windows in the buildings around me letting me know it is time to go in. Would they recognize us, Darwin and Cromwell, to whom a viral outbreak and financial collapse such as this might seem trivial? I try to imagine their world view, Darwin’s journeys in cramped spaces were measured in years not weeks or months and the fear of illness and immediate death was ever present and for Cromwell it was the fragility of an insult or rumor that could spell his downfall. I imagine they would be appalled at us; we who are furious if our flight is an hour late, or it is a twenty minute wait for a restaurant table, they will probably tell us that we need this break in our lives so we can re-evaluate what progress means.