Longer ago than I want to think about I looked forward to everything Ian McEwan got published. I used my student grant to buy his books as soon as they went into paperback. The Cement Garden uncomfortably echoed living in a flat in Southampton while I was at university there, the hot empty cull-de-sac street and the smell of something that wouldn’t go away layered over the smell of life driving past on the dual-carriageway at the end of the road and the unhealthy relationship I was in at the time.
One of my favourite things he wrote I don’t think anyone has heard of now. Solid Geometry. It was about a man who inherits a notebook written by his great-great grandfather, who had disappeared; the reader learns how to do it. The one in the story you understand, not, oh, you know. Not, ok?
Reading it, there was a phrase which stuck in my head, about how energy can’t just disappear, as we know from Year Three Physics. It becomes something else, movement becomes heat in friction or kinetic energy from something small is absorbed by something bigger, but it’s still there. It doesn’t just go away. Except, we believe, when something dies. In the same way McEwan was speculating about the ‘fine dust blowing all over Cheapside’, the way we breath the atoms of everyone who ever lived, good, bad, or ugly, Saxon carters, Cumbrian tranters, Prince Rupert’s cavaliers and the sourest Puritans, all alike, around us all forever. This fine dust.
I absorbed quite a lot of it at the Sir John Soane museum last week in a visit I’d moronically put off for 20-odd years. And when I walked past the pop-up cafe nearby in Lincolns Inn Fields, at last free of the fear of spontaneous combustion that haunted me for years after having to read Bleak House at school, there they were, characters from a Lautrec painting, kitchen staff on their break, lounging in the shade of the trees in poses and light straight from the post-Impressionist handbook, or at least the one used by Pissarro or Bonnard. Here they are. I think they’re probably the best phone photo I’ve ever taken.