This is always such a strange and exciting time, when the book you've been working on for half a decade is finally about to come out. A few reviews appear; you dread them, you slaver over them, you get more and more nervous of what might come next. And you are invited to write all sorts of odd things.
I am really pleased this time to be writing something for London's Big Issue - not out yet (well I only just finished writing it this afternoon). It's a little fellow, at 360 words, but it gave me a lot of fun. The starting point was: what might Montaigne do for us if we could make him king for a day?
In the writing of it, the idea changed somewhat, since Montaigne would never have done anything as ostentatious as letting himself be crowned king. One of his best-known remarks is, "on the loftiest throne in the world we are still sitting only on our own rump". Still, it made a great starting point for wondering what he would think of our world in general if he could see it.
Before I could get on to anything more significant (poverty, war, eco-catastrophe), the first thing that came to my mind was the snow currently covering so much of the northern hemisphere.
First off, I think Montaigne would have been amused by the fuss we are making of this snow, at least in my own country. Britain is not accustomed to this, so it has gone into full melodrama mode. Montaigne was never melodramatic.
At the same time, he would have been surprised that so many people around the world were able to know about each other’s snow simultaneously, and even to see it photographed from space. Sceptic though he was about technology, I think Montaigne would have been excited to see these beautiful extraterrestrial views.
Excited - but not astounded. He and his contemporaries were familiar with the idea of the earth seen from space, not in practice but in principle. They read ancient writers who imagined such things all the time. The protagonist of Cicero's Dream of Scipio was whisked up beyond the stars to enjoy a view of distant earth. One of Montaigne’s favourites, Seneca, urged his followers to visualise great stretches of space, as well as of time. And the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (whom, unfortunately, Montaigne didn’t read) wondered in his notebook what it would be like to be “raised up to the heavens” and to “look down upon human affairs in all their motley diversity”.
For these writers, the idea was not just to provoke a sense of wonder, still less to indulge scientific curiosity or foretell the weather. It was to remind themselves that, however insurmountable their personal problems seemed, they would look very small on a cosmic scale. Each of us is just a speck in the landscape, and it all passes soon enough, so we may as well relax.
I don’t think many of us feel so comforted by this exhilharating perspective, when we see satellite photos today. Perhaps familiarity has just killed the trick: we have seen so many images like this before. But there may be some magic left, after all. I did feel something almost verging on comfort, when I saw today’s image of Britain neatly covered in snow.
Some of the pleasure comes from the picture’s sheer beauty, but it also moves me to think that this same snow that lies outside my door, slushy and inconvenient and anything but cosmic, can look so shared from the perspective of space. Our country has been scattered with this snow elegantly and uniformly, as if by a giant fist with a sugar-dusting sieve. Not just this country, but this continent, and this hemisphere. We are small enough to be powdered up and patted down, with casual ease.
So, if I go outside now, slip in the slush and land on my bum with an undignified flop, at least I can take these two comforting thoughts from Montaigne and his predecessors:
1. I am an insignificant speck of human powder in a beautiful landscape.
2. Yet, no matter where I land, it will be very definitely on my own rump.
London’s weekly railway news #214
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