A Christmas card, from a small corner of Cambridge
So here we are. I don’t need to tell you that it’s been a troubling year in so many ways. Though as I have said before, compared with too many people, we personally are very fortunately placed — staying healthy (thanks for asking), no small children or very aged relatives to be deeply anxious about, in funds, well-housed, delightful walking on our doorstep (if you have to be locked down in a city, central Cambridge is one of the better options), and indeed with some gently lovely countryside still accessible not many minutes away. Friends and relations are there frequently on Zoom and FaceTime. The thing we miss most is being able to travel, and in particular to meet up in person with The Daughter who lives abroad. The weeks do drag, and the sameness can be enervating. But we mustn’t, and (mostly) don’t, complain. There is, in the circumstances, still much to be grateful for. But there is no question but that it is going to be a long, long, winter.
The last months have certainly concentrated the mind on what really matters. Family and being in closer contact with nature seem to be very high on most people’s list: they certainly have been on ours.
Have any philosophers recently been writing particularly well on lockdown themes? I don’t know. But I wouldn’t entirely bet on it, given philosophers’ propensities for daftness of one sort or another. I was struck the other day by David Papineau’s report of Bernard Suits’s pretentious The Grasshopper (a book I gave up on very quickly): “The overall argument of the book is that in utopia, where humans have all their material needs satisfied at the push of a button, what we would do would be play games, and therefore playing games is the ideal of human activity. Freed from all the necessities of having to do things we don’t want to do in order to get the material means of life, we’d do nothing but play games.” How profoundly silly is that? Not to say philistine. To be sure, some people sometimes enjoy games. But many of us, me for one (and actually most of the people of near my generation that I know well), have more or less zero interest in sports or games. And the idea of doing nothing but play games would fill us with horror — apart from spending time with family and friends, there are so many books to read, so much great music to listen to again, art to see, theatre to go to, wonderful countryside to be explored, new cities, new countries, to visit, … Given the alternatives, spending time on games has very little appeal.
As I said, so many books to read. And re-read. Indeed, I mostly seem to have been re-reading since lockdown. But this is the season when all those lists of Books of the Year are published, depressingly emphasizing how few recent books have come our way. I certainly won’t be adding to those lists of obscure titles you mostly have never head of. Of books which were published this year, I’ve in fact most enjoyed two that very many others have equally enjoyed and recommended: Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet and (quite in a league of its own) Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. I had just previously re-read with huge enjoyment the first two books in Mantel’s trilogy: but this final part is stunningly good.
On my desk too, dipped into at random times, have been some of Alice Oswald’s books of poetry. I do not find her at all easy or comfortable to read. But her work is deep and challenging and rewarding.
No concerts to go to. Wigmore Hall’s series of streamed concerts has included some wonderful occasions, most recently Mitsuko Uchida’s playing of two Schubert sonatas. Initially, being able to see so many concerts online in lockdown seemed terrific: but lately, I’ve been feeling that they somehow emphasized what we were missing by not being able to go to a live performance shared with an audience. Others have said the same.
Of CDs released in recent months, I’ve kept coming back to Supraphon’s boxed set of the Smetana Quartet playing the Beethoven quartets (recorded between 1976 and 1985), playing of the greatest humanity and insight. The tradition of Czech string quartets is indeed extraordinary.
A lot of reading and listening, then, in lockdown, while cautiously staying very close to home and trying to stay well. And on we will go, let’s hope, for more months like this. But still, the Tuscan wine selections for the holidays are looking very promising; we take our consolations where we can …!
With all good wishes for Christmas and for an eventually much better New Year. And stay well.