Summa: diary (July 14-21, 2022)

July 14. 9.30 am: I handed in my departmental keys: one for the School’s office, the other for my former staff office. As when selling house, handing-over keys signifies that you no longer belong there; it’s time to move out and move on. There was a group of Korean visitors in the double gallery, one of whom could play the grand piano there rather well. Now that the university’s work-at-home protocol has come to an end, Dr Watkins (our part-time Secretary and one of the pillars of the department) was once again ensconced in the main office. (There’s always something unusually reassuring about her presence.) She did a remarkable job of keeping both the students and the staff on the same page during that long period of the pandemic, when we were all operating remotely. Elsewhere, the Edward Davies Building was like a landlocked Marie Celeste once again.

July 16. 8.00 am: What goes on in the lives of those that I meet casually while walking along the Promenade? What have they walked away from? And to what will they return? Below the surface smile, the courteous reciprocation of a ‘good morning!’, and jaunty pace, a dark and unsettled undertow may be moving. Suffering is both a state of being and the consequence of a dispiriting variety of causes: heartbreak, betrayal, profound disappointment, unrequited love, rejection, unjust deserts, lack of recognition, a sense of failure, self recrimination, loneliness, grief, illness, pain, debilitating tiredness, lack of direction, loss of hope, a sense of futility, fear, anxiety, depression, an absence of confidence, self loathing, neglect, abuse, inconsolable sadness, guilt, remorse, and despair, among other afflictions. Each of us has endured one or more of them, temporarily; others have experienced several together, and for a very long time; while still others have been so utterly overwhelmed by one or more of these possessing demons that they’ve either never recovered or perished. Life is not equitable, and often cruel and inexplicable.

July 18. ‘The Big Heat’ (to reference the Fritz Lang film of 1953) arrived. I managed to fit in a dental appointment and a neighbourhood conference about a building project, before the rising temperature drove me indoors for the remainder of the day. It peaked at 34°C (as measured by the BBC weather app) around 3.00 pm. Some of my computer equipment was almost too hot to touch by the evening. During the day I wrote individualised emails of appreciation, as I said my bespoke goodbyes to each of the School’s staff. One ought to speak the ‘good stuff’ to folk while they’re still alive to hear it, rather than in eulogies only. It’s said of the dying: whereas their family and friends lose them; they, by contrast, lose everyone. And I’ll miss all of my colleagues. Over the years, every one of them has made a unique and invaluable contribution to the School, and my own experience of working there. They’ve been my supporters, through thick and thin. I’m consoled by the realisation that as we ‘oldies’ retire, a space is made for a new generation of academics to occupy.

July 19. Heatwave: Day 2. During the two-month long heatwave of 1976 (to which this current one is being compared), I and some of my school friends walked over the mountain and down into a ravine known locally as ‘Death Valley’, because many sheep had fallen from its sides to their death. That day, the temperature in the ravine was around 76°F (24°C) — which is the hottest we’d ever been in our part of the world. But, back then, heatwaves weren’t indicative of an impending planetary disaster. We pitched our tents at the base of the ravine, close to the stream, heated up our tins of Heinz baked beans and sausages, and watched as dark clouds gathered. A torrential thunderstorm ensued. My tent had neither a ground sheet nor water-stop protection. So I lay there all through the night in a sodden sleeping bag until sunrise, when I walked back to my home like a bedraggled trooper returning from the Front.

John Harvey, Tabernacle (July 1976) (1990) acrylic on board, 24 × 24 cm.

Having resolved the administration of my digital world (online accounts, email addresses and archives, documents, and memberships), I pulled-open the draws of my filing cabinet and stared-down paperwork going back to the mid-1980s. The cabinet is the physical progenitor of the folder and file structure that, analogically, serves to organise our material on computers. I delighted in tearing into the archives of my past life with a view to consigning most of it to the paper shredder. (If only some other parts of our personal history could be disposed of and forgotten quite as effectively.)

July 20. A relative coolness has descended. Old bank statements, expenses remittances, cheque-book stubs, invoices, tickets, memos, legal correspondence, personal letters, notifications of medical appoinments, newspaper cuttings, and birthday cards, combine to tell their own story about one’s life. I’m been surprised by how many moments had been forgotten over the years. A number made me pause for thought, and remember with either regret or rejoice. It’s friends whom I recall most vividly and miss most dearly. Some whose hands had written kindly are now no longer here. I read again their thoughts in their voices (still alive in my head). The excerpt from The Guardian article (below), which featured some of those departments who’d done particularly well in that year’s Higher Education league tables (groan), includes a short interview that I gave on behalf of the School of Art. What I said then is as true today; and, I hope, will remain so in the future. These values are part of its DNA.

Harriet Swain, ‘We Are Phenomenally Approachable’, The Guardian, 8 June 201o, 3.

This was the last day of trading for the Pelican bakery on Northgate, Aberystwyth. I’d not frequented the shop that often in the past, because my wife makes her own bread. Nevertheless, it was our place-to-go for freshly-baked croissants and apple and cinnamon buns. Whenever I took the 7.30 am train, I’d pass the shop on the way to the station. They’d have been baking for at least an hour already. The delicious smell of Doug’s, Lynette’s, and Megan’s bread would fill my nostils long before I’d got to their door.

July 21. Tax returns, insurance statements, pension plans, royalty statements, and solicitors’ correspondence. Oh, for a simpler life uncluttered by detritus of past endeavours. When my parents died, over 30 years ago, I (as the only child) was responsible for sorting through and disposing of their own paper-trail, and putting their affairs in order. Death had descended prematurely, and without warning in my father’s case. My mother was always very organised and a consummate administrator; she’d been personal secretary to the manager of the local branch of Prudential Assurance for some part of her life. But she kept everything. I can’t remember how many black bin-liners of Mam and Dad’s paper-based domestic history I filled. There and then I vowed never to bequeath my the job of clearing up after me on this scale. Thus, my early-retirement clear-out represents stage one of a drive towards administrative slenderness and death-readiness. (Look out, Michael Landy!)

Love is an energy

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