We holiday on the Kent Coast: a repost from the beaches of Dover, Folkestone and surrounds today.

Felix says his lucky number is 13.

He feels the whole unlucky thing is simply superstition gone mad. He says 13 makes him feel at home.

Maddie  has a penchant for 21. At first she says it is the age where one can have a lot of independence. Then she changes her mind, and says it’s lilting and it sounds nice and musical.

Phil and I like thirty-nine.

About six months ago, we discovered John Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps.

This is a vodka martini of a book: an action-hero’s tale written in 1915, just before the first world war robbed us of an innocence we never recognised until it was gone.

Its hero, Richard Hannay, has made all his money in South Africa, and relocates to London in search of a sparkling social life which never materialises. He finds an existence of dinner parties and matchmaking hostesses unbearably stultifying.

And then a man turns up in his flat claiming to be dead already.

Hannay is a bored, thwarted adventurer, and he finds that instead of dreading the cataclysmic series of events which are remorselessly set in motion by this confession, he is exhilarated and refreshed by what tumbles into his life.

The Thirty Nine Steps really exist somewhere on the Kent coast, and we spend a lot of time down there.

The first murder victim of the novel leaves behind a notebook with details of a spy’s departure. Thirty nine steps: High tide, 10:17. And identifying the steps is the key to thwarting fiendish pre-war espionage.

Consequently, any set of steps by the sea at the Kent coast render one of our number silent.

The rest of us chatter whilst Phil is totally quiet, preoccupied with a monitoring exercise. Twenty seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine…

Recently, we reached the bottom of the steps nearest our house and he broke silence. “Thirty Nine!” he exclaimed triumphantly.

I was impressed. And a little bit elated. “Thirty nine steps? “I inquired incredulously. “Really? You’re not joking?”

His lopsided grin joined his shoulders in a placatory shrug. “Well….Forty two. Almost right.”

We are still looking.

When all is comfortable and mundane, there are those who long for something to happen. It’s there in the poetry of the pilots who defended our shores during the wars.

Two notable ones were, essentially, fighting someone else’s war.

The first is an American who died at the age of 19. John Magee enlisted, aged 18, through the Canadian Air Force to join the Battle of Britain.

On September 3 1941 he climbed in his Spitfire to 30,000 feet. And while he was up there he had an experience which gave birth to a poem. It writes of  dancing the skies, chasing the shouting wind and flinging his little plane through halls of air. It is ecstasy in words.

The second pilot’s words were written by WB Yeats, about a first World War pilot, Major Robert Gregory. In it, he gives his old friend words. Those that he fights, he does not hate; those that he guards he does not love. He tells us:

A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Last time I was by the sea it rained torrentially. I took the dog, put on his lead, picked up the brolly and headed out into the teeth of the gale.

“Are you sure the umbrella will stand it?” called Phil after me, and I said Yes, of course it was, this wasn’t Force 12,  for petessake.

I made it to the top of the clifftop steps- about one minute away- before the big black beast of a brolly was inside out.

The dog and I headed down the cliff, buffeted by wind and slapped by raindrops. The black sea roared and a wall of sound engulfed us and we were consumed entirely by the wildest of moments.

We arrived back home drenched and delighted. The spectre of the mundane had been banished. Adversity had whipped us both into a better frame of mind, and we were jovial.

Every pearl needs sand to achieve perfection. And I wonder if humans need adversity. For in adversity, we must drop everything, and handle the extraordinary, whatever the cost.

Hannay was liberated by a man who declared he was dead. Our pilots found the knife-edge danger of wartime flight peerless: many never found its equal again.

And maybe every now and then, we are required to drop everything to face adversity: a gale, or a power cut, or a snow fall.

Who knows when we will be asked to side-step the mundane?

For reference:

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

— William Butler Yeats, 1919

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

— John Gillespie Magee, Jr


37 thoughts on “Mundane

  1. Kate, it’s true. Adversity brings heightened adrenalin, and the excitement is there. I’m speaking of 3 occasions within the last 20 years when I’ve experienced it. Three times of trauma when all else became nothing. Of course, the outcome was good in each case. If it had been otherwise – who knows?

  2. Oh Kate you’ve made my YEAR quoting that blissy Magee poem!! 😀

    Adversity and adrenaline brings life into its sharpest focus. Part of the texture of being!

  3. I am in tears at 4:30am because of these poems and the way you wove this piece. Two of my very favorites. I actually memorized the Yeats poem at age 10.

    And yes. Adversity makes us who we are. Not totally, but it can make or break us, give us pause, and cause us to appreciate everything that’s good about living.

  4. A very thoughtful post and the poetry is absolutely on target. I get two distinct feelings from reading this, first, a melancholy as to the absurdness of war and second, a feeling of deja vu with the counting of steps. I have done this at a steep cliff going down to a beach and now I’ll always think back and wonder if it was 39 steps I counted.

    Adversity and the ability to handle the extraordinary is what being human is all about, we may not know who we really are until we face challenges.

    As James Lane Allen tells us, “Adversity does not build character, it reveals it.”

    1. That is so true: pardon my lateness in answering, Lou, not very organised today; but I read your final words and it was as if you had written the conclusion to this post. Wonderful.

  5. Whether or not we need adversity, your post offers a way to meet it. Next time a storm strikes in my life, I will remember your umbrella and the irrelevance of trying to protect oneself when there is also an option to just walk straight into the calamity, and even–this sounds so radical!–to enjoy it. Or at least to be be awed rather than intimidated, or paralyzed by fear.

    I do remember some extreme circumstances that put me into an altered state (the emergency required several sleepless days), one that I felt I could not possibly survive–yet I did, with the help of strangers who I recognized, in that altered state, as angels disguised as ordinary human beings. Who’s to say that the mundane interpretation of reality is the truest?

  6. A wonderful post, Kate, which I read as we experience the first inch of snow in our first true snowstorm of the season. Not adversity, but still an adventure for those out in it today. I really appreciate the poems, especially the Yeat’s. I’ll be back here to read it again, I know.

  7. I know that I shall meet my fate always sqeezes my heart in pity for a young man, to die before his time

    The 39 steps, scary the first time, then you re-read and become involved, unravelling without the fear.

  8. I’ve had a few “close calls” in life . . . standing on the edge of a precipice does make one feel alive.

    I’m with Felix . . . #13 ALL the WAY! 😉

  9. What thoughtful considerations. I had not previously read the entire Magee poem, but now I better understand the context behind why President Reagan quoted it in his moving speech following the 1986 Challenger disaster. I thought the words were beautiful, but now that you’ve shared these stories, I’m very moved. Debra

  10. I first read the Magee poem as a child when I looked at the flying magazines my brother had. I think I memorized it at the time but couldn’t recite all of it now so it is nice to see it printed in full once in awhile.

  11. The poems are beautiful. So are the images of Phil and you looking for the 39 steps, you with your umbrella inside out. Phases of adversity do bring extraordinary insights into our lives, into ourselves. In a strange way, they can also shift you back towards an innocence lost, as you begin to treasure the little moments that make up life. As always, the intricately bound threads of your post astound me.

  12. Those two poems reflect, to me, the absolute essence of flying, the joy, the freedom and the wonder! Thank you for posting them, Kate.

    I echo what Nancy says. Close shaves with certain death cause such an adrenalin rush that you look at life with different eyes!

  13. I love the movie ’39 steps’ but haven’t read the book. Life would be very dull without adversity, I think – I enjoy a good crisis – haha – gets the adrenaline running and distracts a person from the mundane things of life which can drive you nuts.

    1. Do you know, Gabrielle, you make an excellent point: the only time I am any good is in a crisis. People stop looking at my ironing pile and start focusing on what needs to be done to get us out of this mess ;-D

  14. Oh, I love that Magee sonnet! It pops up often, a line here or there, and is always appropriate. Adversity does seem to build character in many people. I like what Hemingway said about life breaking all of us, and how some of us are then stronger at the broken spots.

  15. Dear Kate,
    I visited your posting about the 39 steps and read the poems and was left breathless. I’d read the poem by the American airman before. I wonder–did he live through the war?

    I read the book and saw the movie for the 39 steps. Also saw the PBS rendition, which seemed somewhat silly to me. The screenwriter missed the mark.

    I’m here today–3/14/12–because of reading Penny’s blog. I’d miss this posting of yours in January.


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