Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Thoughts on a ramble through time and anniversaries and kalendars and such

Why do we remember dates? It's such an arbitrary kind of thing. The day of the week changes every year. We age by the moment, not just by the calendar. Sometimes we mark things we weren't there for, and don't remember at all. What's it all about?

I've no answers, but today has three curious remembrances. The first is the 90th birthday of my late Nan's little brother Uncle Joe. He is the middle of three siblings left alive from that generation, and doing well, by all accounts. Birthdays happen every year - although the birth happens only the once, thank heavens. For my great-grandmother, Uncle Joe was her 10th child, and, by the oddest coincidence, the second to be born on the 16th of June (his eldest brother Uncle Percy was the other). I marvel at that generation - born the children of illiterate Italian immigrants in Battersea ("economic migrants", the sort of people Mrs May and Mr Farage would turn away now if they could), they grew up often cold, usually hungry, and sometimes chased down the street for being different (there are a few photos left of some of them as teenagers, with their jet black hair, and olive complexions, grounds, it would seem, for envy, from the mousey-haired, scabby, locals). Despite that start in life, all but one of those who survived childhood made at least "threescore year and ten", and the one who didn't, the youngest, had Down's Syndrome and despite her family being assured she wouldn't see 21, lived to be 54. And of the other ten, four have made their tenth decade, and a fifth, if he's spared, may join their ranks next year. Numbers, dates, times, ages. To some people they mean nothing. They fascinate me.

And then today was one of the election days for the Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford. I don't know its history, but the nice lady in charge of the election said "well, the money was bequeathed this way centuries ago, so that's how we've got to do it", and it is a most remarkable thing - every Oxford graduate can vote, now, anywhere in the world, electronically. The registered electorate has gone up from 300 in 2009 to 4,000 now. The Professor serves for five years, and has to deliver the occasional lecture, and is generally a good egg. The outgoing professor is Sir Geoffrey Hill. Since 1708, luminaries like John Keble, Matthew Arnold, W H Auden, Robert Graves, Seamus Heaney and James Fenton have served their time, too (just to name people I've heard of). Today we had our second chance to elect a woman. The first time was in 2009, and the woman won, but it seems had been a bit of a naughtypop, in spreading scurril that made the leading contender withdraw, and then withdrew herself. I spoilt my ballot paper back then, by voting for the chap who'd withdrawn (he'd got a Nobel Prize, for heaven's sake, for a Trinity [Cambridge] man that is like a bell to Pavlov's dog).

Barking mad, of course, but what fun to be free, every five years, to elect someone to a public office in the university where one is a member for life!

And then there's our wedding anniversary - eight years today. Now, that can't be re-done. The Home Office is trying its best to get it undone, but not by direct assault, by starvation. They won't win, but it's telling that they don't have the balls to fight the fight. Apparently, to remain married to a foreigner in this country, you must be making at least £18,600 a year. They don't cancel your marriage, they just cancel your spouse's right to live, or work, in this country. It's subtle, and clever, and almost certainly illegal. But the only people who can afford to challenge it in the courts, don't need to.

Eight years ago, I never expected the biggest threat to our marriage to be the Home Secretary. I thought it was me. But somehow I have earnt toleration. Since then our lives have been embellished by plants, indoors and out, and Cleopatra and Ruby (likewise) and it is quite impossible to imagine any other life. He has even learnt to call Barton "Headington" - what is more English than snobbery?

I type here at the desk I've had for thirty-five years, looked down on by Three Wise Monkeys I've had for longer, and next to me a ficus plant I've had at least twenty years, and on top of the kitchen cupboard opposite, my grandmother's teapot, that I've had twenty-nine years, the wooden macaw I brought back from Brasil in 2006, the aspidistra that was my 45th birthday present from my husband of now eight years ...

Dates, and times, and numbers, I know they don't matter to everyone. But they matter to me.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
June 2015


  1. I share a birthday with Prince Charles, so the BBC always plays the National Anthem for me. Or so I told my children......

  2. I share a birthday with Louis XIV. I use the date and his birth year, together with mine, on the rare occasions I do the lottery and I tend not to win anything. I'm afraid I don't know if France even had a National Anthem in Louis' days.
    I often told children Ode to Joy was written for me. At the time Richard would have been about four, as a student I used to practise shooting what was to become his favourite weir in a canoe I'd christened Schiller.