Thoughts at the end of a long year

Cricket is back, and I don’t know how I feel about that.

In the depths of South Africa’s strong lockdown, I remember wishing that there was some cricket to watch – it felt as though a leisurely Test match would help pass the time.

England is in South Africa for some T20 and ODI men’s matches. Ordinarily this would be an occasion of joy and interest, a sign of things getting back to normal.

Instead it feels that the matches just underscore how very peculiar things are.

The T20 at Newlands on November 27 was played in front of an empty stadium. I felt as though I was watching two different matches.

On the screen, the batsman hit a mighty six, straight into the stands. In my head was the memory of a roar from the crowd, a man reaching up to catch the ball (and not spilling a drop of his beer!) and throwing it cheerfully back to the fielder.

On the screen was a forlorn figure, the fielder trudging up the stand to fetch the ball, just as he would have done as a schoolboy.

The thing is sport is a collective endeavour: the players and the crowd together are the warm heart of humanity, loving and hating and hoping and despairing and eating and drinking and hugging and Mexican waving.

This is what the Covid pandemic has taken from us, or from the ones of us who are still alive and plodding our way through days that feel flat and long and tired.

I have been lighting two candles every night since March. As I do it, I think of all the other people who are having a hard time in the Covid. I am so much better off than them, I think, with gratitude and the certain knowledge that I have done nothing to deserve it.

No one I know and love has died, we have weathered the financial storm, we are not going hungry, we are not health workers on the front line. All we have to do is wear masks and organise small, cautious, open-air social gatherings with people we know well and can set the rules about what to do about cutlery and crockery. Summer is here and we can even go out for a beer or two to the local pubs where we can sit outside. (I am aware there are those who think even these activities are too risky – this article is a good articulation of the position our family has taken: Confessions of a Pandemic Risk-Taker

So, if things are sort-of-just-okay in this corner of Cape Town, why am I having terrible dreams? Why have I been unable to settle to my sewing and handwork? Why does everything feel like such an effort?

The cricket made me understand. We are all living and working and playing in a small circle of light while all around darkness and loneliness and isolation loom.

In times like these, I turn to poetry. And two poems come to mind. Nobody can express anguish quite like TS Eliot. Phrases from his Preludes keep going through my mind. They are about a different time and place, but the mood is exactly right for now. Part four goes like this:

His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o’clock;…

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

I will keep lighting my candles, thinking of the gentle things that we all miss. Because what else can we do now except hope? And that’s the second poem that keeps coming to mind. It’s hand-written in a book I have been keeping for years, where I copy down things that strike me. It is about a man and his cat.

My Cat and I (Alan Mathews)

When the clock uncovers me

and the day lies mean and flat.

I wrap myself in solitude

and breakfast with my cat.

High on kitchen stools we perch,

metabolism thin,

and ponder on the fates that move

the world of mice and men.

He understands me well, my cat.

He makes no smart replies.

Instinctive wisdom lies behind

his tranquil slitted eyes.

The monstrous tensions of our race

somehow he comprehends

and how life great simplicities

evade his giant friends.

So with his furred contentment

he absorbs my edge of pain,

assuring with a rounded purr

that good will rise again.

Restored, I pat him ‘au revoir’;

he bumps me with his head.

I hustle out to earn a bob.

He strolls to find a bed.

I have carried that poem with me for thirty years, and I didn’t write down the source publication*.  I hope you find it as sustaining as I do. Cricket matches will again be full to the brim with people drinking beer and catching sixes. Good will rise again. Until then, wear a mask and take as few risks as you can.

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* January 2021 update: I have made some progress on tracking down the source of the Alan Mathews poem. A search on Twitter led me to the Facebook page of poet Robyn J Black, who mentioned Alan Mathews in a post. I contacted Robyn, and she sent me this information: “Yes that is a poem by Alan Mathews, a long-time member of the Goulburn Valley Writers Group Inc., former founder and editor of Tamba magazine and award winning poet and short story writer. Alan was from Orrvale and Shepparton, Vic. Aust. and passed away a couple of years ago. He was a gentle and gentlemanly soul, and an exquisite writer. We miss him. ‘My Cat and I’ was printed in ‘Categories’ and in Alan’s book ‘Blackbird Singing’”. Blackbird Singing is listed in the Australian national book catalogue as published by Little River Press (which cannot be found online) and this article in a local newspaper about Mathews says that Blackbird Singing is self-published. I continue to search for the copyright holder!

February 2021 update: Robyn Black has contacted me. She writes: “Alan Mathews’ widow, Bev Mathews, has advised she gives permission for Alan’s poem to be used and she said he would be tickled pink to know you mentioned him and TS Eliot in the same blog.” Copyright permission obtained at last!

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