I was sitting at the traffic lights the other day on the corner of Riddiford Street watching the cars pouring first one way through that intersection, and then another, and I was overwhelmed by the triviality of now. For some reason I remembered a photo I had seen on the internet of that same intersection taken around 1910.
And I thought: imagine all of the people who have gone through this intersection in the one hundred years since that picture was taken. Imagine all of the people who had sat in the spot I was sitting in waiting for a gap in the traffic, or for the lights to change thinking about whatever was fleetingly of interest to them.
It wasn’t a profound thought but it somewhat depressed me.
Look at the girls with their straw boaters standing on the street corner as the tram goes by.
We can imagine the sound of the tram clattering past, the hooves of the butcher’s horse heading up Rintoul Street. Where did life take those girls? Because life has certainly finished with them, it is a sad thought, but this is what life is made up of on the whole. It is sitting at the lights and drumming your fingers on the steering wheel.
A couple of weeks ago a teacher at school brought in a pile of biographies of famous actors and dancers and I picked up a little cloth bound hardback about Ivor Novello. I picked it up because the name rang a small bell in my head, and because I like cloth bound, hard back books. The book was published in 1951 and it seems that Mr. Novello died at around the same time, because Noel Coward’s foreward had to be altered at the last minute (“I am too shattered by the death… to write an estimate of his work or his personality”).
Now that I have read something about Novello I am not sure why I faintly recalled his name. He was a star of the British stage primarily, but he was in some movies (I have never heard of any of them), and he wrote music (usually for his plays). The solitary thing that he did that I have heard of is the song Keep the Home Fires Burning (1915). I fear that in 2010 he remains in popular culture as little more than a disregarded and outdated dusty biography on the $1.00 table at a second hand book store.
The story of Ivor Novello is simply the story of a phenomenon…. There is nobody in the English speaking world who has not heard of Ivor Novello.
Ivor Novello is acknowledged to be one of the giants of the English stage today. His plays, his writings and his music will live for a very long time to come, and a tribute to the man, his work and his influence has been long overdue.
Peter Noble, Ivor Novello – Man of the Theatre
Which reminded me of this very famous poem by Shelley.
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Yesterday, between visits to the hospital to be with Cathy and Rosamund, I took my Year 13 Classics class on a trip to the Classics Museum at Victoria University. We have been studying Greek vases out of a text book for about a month now, and here was the opportunity to listen to an expert talk about actual Greek vases and to pass them about and hold them. It was extraordinary.
Each of those objects was between 2600 and 2100 years old. At one point the lady who was explaining the vessels to us drew our attention to a spot just under the handle of a jug we were examining, and there was the slight trace of the potter’s thumb print. He must have picked the pot up before it was properly dry. I imagine he cursed himself before deciding he wasn’t going to waste his work and then going on to paint and fire it. Between the moment the thumb print was made and some 18 year old students rubbing it with their gloved hands and taking pictures on their cellphones lies more than 2000 years, and so much change that it makes comprehending this gulf impossible.
But of course, studying anitquity has the opposite effect too. It opens up vast distances and exposes us to seemingly alien beliefs and practices, while at the same time making us realise how similar we are to those people who passed so long ago. It is hard not to feel the connection and closeness of humanity regardless of the passing of millenia when you look at the little children’s toys, or read the sad transcription of a grief stricken parent on a child’s tomb. Or when you look at the little pots that were used by women for their makeup and moisturiser, or read the fragment of papyrus that is nothing more glorified than a tax statement, or look at all the fancy jugs, and bowls and cups that they had for their drinking parties.
Eleanor routinely tells me with great enthusiasm that she will soon be four, and then she will be five, and then – great excitement – she will be able to go to school. She is very keen to go to school, and I suppose I am sort of looking forward to it, but I tell her “don’t grow up too fast”. I find it a difficult emotional balance wanting to see Eleanor grow up and not wanting each moment to pass.
Of course letting each moment pass leads you on to more of life, more things that fill the heart up. Like meeting Rosamund. Neither Cathy or I will forget the moment the surgeon lifted Rosamund up from behind the curtain and we saw that little girl all balled up and balling covered in creamy, white vernix. It is certainly folly to seek immortality, to pile up attempts at monuments or biographies. We had better instead think of the potter’s thumb print. The power of the triviality of now. It concentrates me on the people here with me, and the love I feel for them, and shrugs off the burden of time for a while.