I am always a slow sort of mole. Heat brings me to a standstill. Last Sunday was so hot, I couldn’t even attend the call of rotting fruit and wilting vegetables in the kitchen. What I needed were winter landscapes and cold fiction. I scuttled off to the cellar, a muddle of Great Uncle Mole’s trunks and boxes and the odd bottle. I had to climb onto a couple of trunks on tip-paws to reach the box of special winter postcards on the top shelf. But oh dear me, I had just got hold of its edge when a small book, wedged between the box and an old tobacco jar, launched itself at me. Hit me on the snout, if truth be known, and bowled me over. The box of postcards followed
I might have cursed, but there was something calming about lying on my back in a cool sea of snowy peaks and glacial streetscapes. And when I noted the icy blue of the offending book and the word ‘Arctic’ in its title it my ignominious tumble began to feel less like a calamity and more like serendipity. Here was something I could get lost in, lying in my hammock between the shady willow trees. I have no willows, nor hammock, but such is the power of imagination that I was transported to the Edwardian coolness of the Uncle Ratty’s favourite riverside haunt in the old country even while my stocky little legs carried me under the blazing sun to the dark shadowy interior of my shed.
It was not until I was curled up in the old wicker chair and the whirr of the fan was sending a cooling breeze over my pelt that I really looked at the book. The first pages dealt with a scrum of summer travelers at Basel station, and the main characters were not setting off for the North Sea Passage, but Italy. I checked the title again ‘Arctic SUMMER’. Inertia prevented me from crawling back to the burrow. I read on.
E. M. Forster began writing this novel not long before the Great War. His main characters herald a new age, a new generation: motors, aeroplanes, telephones. ‘My era is to have no dawn’, one says to his mother. ‘It is to be a kind of Arctic Summer in which there will be time to get something really great done. Dawn implies twilight and we have decided to abolish them both.’ The war cry of another was tidiness. Now that there were no new countries to discover, the task was ‘to arrange the old’. Romance ‘was a relic of the age of tidiness’
Endless days frighten me just as much as heat. Everything exposed, all the time. Nothing nuanced. I have seen how beaming a floodlight onto scenes or characters I am writing dissolves them into nothingness. They need to hover on the periphery; they come into being in the twilight. And as for tidiness, it stifles all those odd juxtapositions that spark the germs of stories.
Muddles are tricky and often overwhelming, and movements in the shadows may make this moleheart miss a beat, but they a part and parcel of the endeavour.
Forster never finished the manuscript. He did read a few chapters in the early 1950s at Aldborough and then he said that was all he was going to read, ‘because now it goes off, at least I think so, and I don’t my voice to go out into the air while my heart is sinking.’