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And did Spinoza sit in Warwick Square…?

By Sandor P Vaci

The magic of life is the way the day progresses relentlessly from the first light to darkness, each hour governed by what we need to accomplish, have we failed in our tasks, can they be put off to the next day, but always assuming dawn will follow night. We exist without a moment’s hesitation that another day will come. Those who die though dawn is a forlorn hope. Such thoughts come to mind as I sit in the magic of Warwick Square Garden at the west end where the sight of St Gabriel’s spire promises a gate to eternity for those who have lived an unblemished life [1]. Rain leaves its footprint in pearls clinging to the guillotined blades of grass in tiny bright sparks once the sun pokes out from behind the clouds. My favoured spot is by the ancient cherry tree that arouses such contemplation, for as dusk descends it is transformed from a living organism into an abstract silhouette. There is magic in this Garden, but we also need to find it in ourselves.

But then how can there be magic in the mundane of everyday existence, magic is the beyond, the something that cannot be planned, it has that ethereal quality which takes us into another existence, if only for moments. Being alive is itself magical as we are just a composite of different elements from Mendeleev’s table that created the human brain, the most complex entity in the universe, hence anything our brains command has been created by magic, not out of a black top hat but of evolution. We are, all of us, the fortunate beneficiaries, the survivors of the fittest, who went on to produce progeny. Amen. No, not amen yet for when we pass away as human entities our molecules and certainly the atoms survive and become part of something or someone else. I have always had the fantasy that three atoms in my body came from Julius Caesar. How they found their way to me would, even in my fantasy land, require several volumes of an encyclopaedia but it is a heart-warming thought. Why Julius Caesar and not Nero I have never explained to myself and rather leave it at that. Whether iron or copper atoms or more likely carbon is not of importance for once they made up Caesar. Whatever, I walk around with these precious nuclei.

A few years ago, I had an encounter with a minute insect that crawled up on my windscreen. I was so touched by the intimacy of looking up at its belly that I dashed home writing a short piece calling him Tinsey. Since then, even the tiniest creature is welcome to make its way amongst the jungle of hairs on my arms. I never ever harm them, in fact admire them for having the courage to live in constant danger; their only chance of survival is to fly off, but some do not even have wings. The best tactic for them is not being noticed. Their legs are so slender that a human hair would be a tree trunk next to them. In me, luckily for them, they find a guardian angel if only for moments. For some reason, that only an ethnologist could explain, ladybirds have started landing on my corduroy trousers. With their romantic wing covers tucked down they struggle to climb over the wales, flirtingly a transparent wing sticks out. I try to usher them to some place to fly off for their own safety, but they just clamber off into the grass however much I try to be a gentleman to a lady.

My plan is to sit near the cherry tree and observe the whole period of dusk that begins as the sun tips under the horizon but still lighting up the sky until it becomes pitch dark. So far, the wet weather, cold and other excuses have prevented me from doing this. England being so far north enjoys a long dusk while near the Equator the sun just disappears in a flash before any chance for introspection. I am well equipped for long stays. I carry a cushion for my concentration must not be compromised by a sore bottom. My angular legs I cross and recross as the blood circulation is disrupted by their severe geometry. The triangulation in such posture is to steady the body, keep it upright for the observant head. The universe surrounds me, the meaning of life stares back as the globe darkens with thin pink clouds still lit up by the last rays of the dozing sun, a little like on Tinsey’s tummy.

Still, I will not be beaten by the dark. I have ordered miner’s lamps that fit on the head. Once I manage to pull the straps in place, find the button there is a beam strong enough to outshine the moon. Now I can read the current book of interest (as it happens English social modes in the 18th and 19th centuries). The heavy leather jacket keeps me warm, there is no shivering. The heavenly arboretum surrounds me, beautifully kept by the busy gardeners, while I immerse myself in cultural history. I am on my own while windows from the palatial terraces stare down on me. Such paradise should only be sampled in short bursts; at any moment I can go into the warmth of our home, have a meal, sip a glass of vino, pick up another book to read. At such times eternity does not sound such a bad idea but only if all those I love would keep me company in it.

On another afternoon I attempted to witness the whole process of dusking, a Joycean attempt at word invention though he calls it sundown, but the dropping temperature stifled my plan. I settled onto a bench at just the right angle facing the cherry tree, on the left some large shrubs, already in black outline partly blocked the view of St Gabriel’s. In the distance an elegant row of buildings invited my view into a vanishing point where the sun, still on fire so bright it burnt the eyes, was taking its last gasp of the day. But back to the cherry tree for a closer look. The branches made up the never to be repeated composition. The fallen leaves have been gathered into a loose skirt around the trunk hiding the black blobs of roots that always gives me a feeling of devils’ skulls peering down into Hades. Yes, Hades just beneath this civilised wealthy urbanity. The tree was becoming bare but next year’s buds were already sprouting. The tree does not have doubts that dawn will come, spring will be warm, rain will fall, days will become longer, birds will carry the cherry seeds far and wide.

Part of my fantasizing is that suddenly on the bench there is a rustling of clothes that could not be from modern fabrics. Turning I see Spinoza, yes the philosopher from Judaism cum Holland cum Spain cum Portugal, with a curious smile and occasional cough sitting next to me pointing at the arboretum: ‘I would warn you that I do not attribute to nature either beauty or deformity, order or confusion. Only in relation to our imagination can things be called beautiful or ugly, well-ordered or confused’ [2]. However much I try to immerse myself in dusk there is no escaping from the self’s musings whispered by Baruch.

Keeping myself warm was failing even after doing ten press-ups against the back of the bench but that only gave my body a brief respite. Dusk was far from over, Etiénne de Silhouette [3] has not yet materialised, there was too much light about. I had to face it, my aging body could not risk being frozen, I packed up, nodded to the cherry tree and left to return on another evening for observation of dusking, the full works.

This Sunday evening, unexpectedly, the temperature had risen to eight degrees so I could sit down on a bench at four pm and watch over the Garden for a whole hour as the gothic details on the church tower disappeared in the evening gloom leaving just the outline of the spire. But not quite, as the streetlight interfered and gave the almost black stonework the faintest pink shade. I transferred my attention to the plane tree that was shedding its last leaves, occasionally one would be dislodged from its branch gently floating or spiralling down like a helicopter to the ground titillating on the way or perhaps I saw a bird? Of course not, no chance that a real avian would risk itself at night. The plane tree is the cantilever champion stretching its branches out twenty metres or even more. To my architect’s mind the stress at the point where the branch meets the trunk must be extreme, but nature meets the challenge. Other trees around shoot their branches vertically requiring less strain. The huge plane tree trunk is bobbly, was there someone hiding behind occasionally sticking his/her (careful with gender) head out watching the strange phenomenon of this man sitting alone with his legs crossed simply staring up. This looked so real that I got up to investigate who it was and of course my imagination played games yet again. 

Since then though December has remembered that it is a winter month; to be true to itself it has lowered the temperature so much, even if mild for Russians, but not in the temperate climate of England. Here we do not have the padded boots, heavy fur coats and hats. I can retreat inside and once in the warmth can rely on the close observations I stored in my memory to continue my account of what I had seen. The streetlight that takes centre stage is situated in the gap of landscaping standing guard to St Gabriel.  Once it may have been gas lit but then there are no rods to lean the ladder against so perhaps not. There are also tropical palms now carefully wrapped in plastic sheeting to protect against frost, the care though has hidden the delicacy of its leaves. Then there is the enticing marble nude, alas only with one arm left, that is also covered so no joy for onlookers in the winter months.

I always hope that a fox looking for a last meal will appear, turning its head in my direction then nonchalantly disappear to its well-hidden den. Perhaps it would be coming from Downing Street fed up with all the chatter and partying (there have been sightings of such visitors in the seat of government). Come to think of it I have seen one in our street with no shrubs to crawl under. The foxes are the true street wise inhabitants of London. The other evening I met a lady on the path who said that she has sighted foxes twice. Here was reverse misogyny, foxes flirting with ladies but not with gentlemen.

However much I try to immerse myself in the Garden the sky above is crisscrossed by airline vapour trails of Boeing jets that have arrived from over the ocean. Then, there is the occasional thumping of twin-engine military helicopters that were designed to carry troops but the only battle I am aware of is to defeat the epidemic. Better retire into phantasy land where everything is possible, meet anyone, creatures can appear or not, the universe can be touched for real.

[1] Much elaborated by James Joyce’s in his Portrait of a Man as a Young Artist.

[2] Letter XV to Oldenburg 20 November 1665.

[3] Controller-General of Finances (1709-1767) under Louis XV, his name lent the optical effect.

© Sandor P Vaci

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