On disillusionment

On one Saturday morning shopping trip to Guildford when I was 14, while my parents spent ages in Debenham’s, I went into a secondhand bookshop and bought, for about 75 pence, a Penguin Modern Classics copy of Little Herr Friedemann and Other Stories by Thomas Mann. The only story I half-remember from it is a very short one called ‘Disillusionment’, about the narrator’s random encounter with a man who recounted the sadness of his life. No wonder my favourite band at the time, and for a good period after, was Joy Division (I bought Closer from Woolie’s the same day).

Disillusionment has been my watchword since, or rather, it has been an acceptance of the fact that I’m always likely to be disillusioned – hope for the best but expect the worst and somehow enjoy the sense of disillusionment as a means to self-improvement if at all possible. When I was young, there was, of course, next to no emotional health support for children and young people, but I’m not sure it would’ve been welcome either. I was sent to see the psychologist at Kingston Hospital twice, when I was 10 and when I was 17, to no real end on either occasion. Miserable sods like I was in my mid- to late-teens recognised each other by ‘the weight on their shoulders’, their wedge hair and secondhand overcoats – in my case, a late-Sixties Burton’s one I inherited from my dad, which I absolutely loved and still wore in my university days on the north coast of Ireland until it presumably fell off my back of its own accord.

If you’re wondering at this point where I’m going with this post, then so am I. The state of the UK now, under this most clapped-out and uncaring government, is at its worst since the days of that trip to Guildford. The despair they are inflicting is insidious, infectious and deadly – they’re even reviving the coal industry which their forebears used all manner of state-inflicted violence and subversion to kill off. Finding glimmers of light among it all is far from easy.

I’ve been much less active on social media, because that too is infinitely deflating. However, thanks to a Tweet by Roy Marshall, I’ve read a 2020 interview, available here, with Jane Hirshfield, a poet whose output I’ve warmed to slowly. (My favourite collection of hers is probably The October Palace, 1994, which contains as high a count of poems which I really like as any collection I’ve ever read.) Just the first sentence of her response to the interviewer’s second question alone is extraordinary: ‘Beauty unweights the iron bell of abyss, letting a person hear that even that iron bell, lifted from ground-level, can make a sound our human ears thirst to know.’ Hirshfield has followed a Zen path since the early Seventies, so it’s no wonder that her gnomic utterances sometimes sound intensely profound.

Being able to rise above pessimism and sorrow, and be sufficiently within the moment to appreciate fleeting beauty and be at one with it, is a gift; and one that, as Hirshfield has written about, informs the best, most resonant haiku. In some ways, I wish I still wrote haiku with the same level of productivity that I managed 10 or 20 years ago; but these days they very rarely form in my mind, and I’m old and weary enough to know that forcing them out would be utterly self-defeating.

Running still helps. I have a new route which includes a circuit around the lakes at Orgreave – yes, that one – whose avian inhabitants currently include one of my favourite birds, wigeon, Eurasian Wigeon to be precise, and their fantastic whistling. In Birds Britannica (Chatto and Windus, 2005), Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey say that, ‘The bird’s name [. . .] is partly imitative of the sound, and a large gathering in full voice is one of the classic sounds of the British winter and must rank among the most evocative vocalisations by any of our birds.’ The OED disputes that etymology, but nobody could reasonably dispute the second assertion of that sentence. They are also beautiful birds to look at, especially the males, with their chestnut and yellow heads and pink breasts. A haiku by Martin Lucas, first published in Shamrock in 2007 and which John Barlow and included in Wing Beats a year later, contains not just a powerful picture of the birds’ movement but also an innate lyrical music not often encountered in haiku these days:

rising tide
all the wigeon
backsliding upriver

13 thoughts on “On disillusionment

  1. I think it might be possible to dispense with illusion (especially regarding one’s poetry) without being DISillusioned, though I’m not entirely sure. I’d like to think it is so. There’s a great Thurber cartoon about feeling disenchanted, another word I’m particularly fond of, and it’s also funny. Humour might be at least a temporary antidote to disillusionment….

  2. Yes, to the disillusionment (sometimes closer to despair) but also the running and the birds and, really, just the outdoors. Inside my head isn’t really somewhere I want to be any more for too long. Beautifully articulated, Matthew, and yes to Jane Hirshfield too.

    1. Yes, Lizzie
      I agree about not wanting to be inside my head for too long. I’m doing lots of gardening and conservation/environmental work. Even in the snow. I have a strong urge to be outside in nature. Look after yourself x

      1. Ah, Ali, you are kind. And you look after yourself too. I love the snow, even when it is so heavy and grey. Matthew struck something of a chord with some of us, didn’t he?! And on an unrelated note, I don’t think that wretched mine will go ahead in the end.

  3. Thank you, Matthew. I’m right there in the same boat with you… is it a lifeboat or are we on the deck of the Titanic?

    Disillusioned with the lack of progress in publishing my second novel… and with this revolting government too. And Putin. And the climate crisis…

    Just travelling on a delayed train from Cumbria where in a heroic act of rebellion, my mother’s elderly neighbour is having solar panels fitted to her roof! Something to give us hope ☀️

  4. Oh mate, it’s been such a year.

    When you say re Haiku “I’m old and weary enough to know that forcing them out would be utterly self-defeating” is that not the sound of hard-won experience? To my mind, it’s exactly why your voice is one I want to continue hearing. For that (rather selfish reason) I don’t want to see you “backsliding upriver” and giving up on the next collection.

    1. Cheers, Mat. It certainly has. Thanks, as ever, for your encouragement – back atcha and all that. I really enjoyed your blog post yesterday, by the way – I always admire how you manage to be both insightful and entertaining simultaneously, which is rare gift – and your Mary Evans poem too. Thanks again.

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