Present in the past

Ah, “the gloopy ear, the screaming banshee moments.” (Mrs S.) My mama had them; I used to have them, too. And wish, now, that I could have them all back, only to have my wee childers again, back in my arms. For they are transformed, after less than twenty years.

Among my correspondents there are several mothers; one in particular (Mrs B), blest with a bag of small daughters, at least four of them I think, “growing like weeds.” I fear, sometimes, that she may be a Saint, for there is something about Saints that a sinner (such as I) finds rather terrifying. A reminder of how far I am from Heaven, perhaps.

And among her anomalies (in the field of the innumerable), is an ability to appreciate the present as the past, the past as the present, the future in the now. Though perhaps many, especially women, can do this.

She told me for instance of a moment looking upon her youngest, frightfully misbehaving. Suddenly, instead of shrieking at the sniffling, mischievous child, she became strangely calm. There came the vivid sense that she has this little one, now and not forever. Life will move on.

It was, as she described it, a nostalgia for the present. The wee child may one day have childers of her own; but then she won’t be wee any more. Take her in your arms now; hold onto the moment with all your heart. For in this moment you have returned — paradoxically, to the forever.


Some years ago in London — the middle of the Great Wen — I found myself standing in the future. Truly, I was standing in my old neighbourhood at Vauxhall. A quarter century had already slipped by, from the time when I had lived there. I had hesitated to return, knowing I would not find what I had left. I was right to hesitate.

For many things were changed, in that neighbourhood, which had not much changed the hundred years before: for instance the very streets of tenant-owned workmen’s cottages, a few dating back to the time before Victoria was Queen. And the independent baker, and butcher, and costermonger, who had served these people, as their predecessors had, through generations; and the “cafe” (one syllable) in the market of Wilcox Road, serving “beans egg and spam.” I knew they would be gone.

All my old neighbours would be gone, too, for the Borough of Lambeth had expropriated, then obliterated all these beautiful small houses — to build geometric anthills for the New Socialist Man. And the shops to serve them, were now avatar franchise operations. The old corner bakery and its “scone rounds” (fresh and warm, by six in the morning), to me almost a shrine, lost as the chapels after Henry VIII. Food now plasticized and dispensed from a miniature supermarket; a travel agent (inconceivable before), with big posters, offering the relief of brief translocation to some beach in Spain. I wanted to weep for the horrible evil that had been done to these people — to “my people,” as I remembered them — as I searched for decaying fragments of what had once been. There was no sense of “coming home”; only my own overbearing, righteous indignation.

Then walking to, and along the Thames Embankment, images of those old neighbours flashed into mind; and I could say a little Ave for each as in memory they fluttered by. Each, who would now be decades older; the old ones, probably dead. The living scattered as refugees by the progressive demons, now beyond tracking down. How I had wished to find the old pub, and in it the recognized; the hope of reunions.

The Sun, he was blazing that day.

I wandered to the threshold of the Tate Modern. (“Huh? What is this?”) … And all around the gleaming millennial monuments from the Age of Blair. … (I having stepped out of the shy Age Before Thatcher.)

Brother Sun, unBritishly blazing: on fresh metal and glass, and dappling the waves of that Strong Brown God, still flowing (“till I end my song”). And on all these shining young: so many. …

(“I had not thought death had undone so many.”)


We have little visions in our lives; I had one then. It was, “I am standing in the future.” It was, more completely, “I, Tiresias, have come back from the dead, and now I am standing in the future.” Of course I cannot hope to understand it, for I am from some former time. The world has moved, and buried all my kin, and now I am a Wraith. The living pass by, and do not see me. They could be walking through me.

And not the many changes, but Time itself, is the mystery within this mystery: time present and time past; time future. And all these shining young, once unconceived, now living in a variation of the “present perfect” that no grammarian can describe, and poets only try for. Look upon all these now living: Do they not know?

What a fool I had been, not to have known, then, in the present of the past, the past of the future. But only God can give this grace: to know that we are not elsewhere, but here. And the gift to cherish it.