Time, Arnold Bennett, and my flu

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Well. Coming out of a five-day haze of flu and dizziness, brainscatter and just uselessness, to say nothing of a kind of pernicious, achy, systemic exhaustion. Welcome to what I am referring to locally as ‘Mlle B’s virus’ – one of those London viruses that isn’t quite a flu, isn’t quite a cold, and knocks you out for days.

So having lost a week, and of course consequently accrued a week’s worth of things-not-done, I’ve been thinking about time. (And Things.) (And Energy, frankly: where does it come from, and how can I get it?) Here are two items I’ve stumbled across in my aimless, fretful clicking.

First, maybe time for a rethink of good old Arnold Bennett. (When’s the last time you thought about Arnold Bennett?) This is from the beginning of his How to Live on 24 Hours a Day – a book I certainly feel I could do with reading all of, if I had the time.  It’s coming over very fresh for 102 years old.

Philosophers have explained space. They have not explained time. It is the inexplicable raw material of everything. With it, all is possible; without it, nothing. The supply of time is truly a daily miracle, an affair genuinely astonishing when one examines it. You wake up in the morning, and lo! your purse is magically filled with twenty-four hours of the unmanufactured tissue of the universe of your life! It is yours. It is the most precious of possessions. A highly singular commodity, showered upon you in a manner as singular as the commodity itself!

For remark! No one can take it from you. It is unstealable. And no one receives either more or less than you receive.

Talk about an ideal democracy! In the realm of time there is no aristocracy of wealth, and no aristocracy of intellect. Genius is never rewarded by even an extra hour a day. And there is no punishment. Waste your infinitely precious commodity as much as you will, and the supply will never be withheld from you. No mysterious power will say:–“This man is a fool, if not a knave. He does not deserve time; he shall be cut off at the meter.” It is more certain than consols, and payment of income is not affected by Sundays. Moreover, you cannot draw on the future. Impossible to get into debt! You can only waste the passing moment. You cannot waste to-morrow; it is kept for you. You cannot waste the next hour; it is kept for you.

I said the affair was a miracle. Is it not?

You have to live on this twenty-four hours of daily time. Out of it you have to spin health, pleasure, money, content, respect, and the evolution of your immortal soul. Its right use, its most effective use, is a matter of the highest urgency and of the most thrilling actuality. All depends on that. Your happiness–the elusive prize that you are all clutching for, my friends!–depends on that. Strange that the newspapers, so enterprising and up-to-date as they are, are not full of “How to live on a given income of time,” instead of “How to live on a given income of money”! Money is far commoner than time. When one reflects, one perceives that money is just about the commonest thing there is. It encumbers the earth in gross heaps.

If one can’t contrive to live on a certain income of money, one earns a little more–or steals it, or advertises for it. One doesn’t necessarily muddle one’s life because one can’t quite manage on a thousand pounds a year; one braces the muscles and makes it guineas, and balances the budget. But if one cannot arrange that an income of twenty-four hours a day shall exactly cover all proper items of expenditure, one does muddle one’s life definitely. The supply of time, though gloriously regular, is cruelly restricted.

Arnold Bennett by Oliver Herford, 'Confessions of a Caricaturist': click image

Now, this is very true, and in places actually rather thrilling. A fresh bank balance of time every morning! (But it isn’t like you can get up late and then have a splurge: this is where both the analogy and human nature break down.) Still, the overall message is sufficiently stark to be believable.

This morning, rallying to the extent of not feeling dizzy, I’ve been going through my inbox, and actually answering some emails. I got to the one called  ‘Inside the May Issue of Poetry Magazine’ (which I hope I will get to see; it looks like a cracking issue, but whatever the problems is with my subscription seems never quite to have resolved itself…) and clicked on ‘A Nest of Quiet: A Notebook’, by Anna Kamienska, a Polish poet who died in 1986. I was reading along through her gnomic and revealing aphorisms and observations, and then came across this:

Misfortune, personal disaster stops our inner time short. Objective time moves on—but we spin in place like straws in water.

Clearly, the two observations occur in completely different registers; Poland in midcentury doesn’t compare with Edwardian London literary life; but this doesn’t stop them both from being equally true. And, where in the context of her notebook Kamienska is speaking of a different scale of disaster – the death of her husband, the dregs of a life, as it were – what she says is equally true of my flu, and indeed in some senses of the entire period since 2008, frankly. A good idea, like Time, can shrink and expand to fit the exigency.

And on that note, have a lovely bank holiday weekend! I think there might be some light struggling through the cloud. I’m going to struggle out for some good old Floradix and a coffee, & take Mlle B her lunch at work, and then probably crawl back into bed.

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