It seems that serendipity, fate or good luck – call it what you will – is taking us to live under the shadow of a stone cross, in a hamlet called La Croix St-Jacques. How disturbing and dislocating this moving thing is – the uncertainty, the turning of one’s house into a shiny, non- comfy place to show to people, the ‘not knowingness’ about the one thing that is the security of our lives. It sometimes feels as if the ground of one’s being is being taken away.
There are similarities with this other bothersome thing – growing old. Of course this is the final dislocation and how badly we/I prepare for it. My head races on and behind lags the body that started to learn about itself last year in the Troisieme Etage. I am lucky that time is teaching me to come to terms with these things that seem so difficult.
And the Croix?
Well we found this little house advertised on an ex-pat website by someone wanting to help her sister-in-law who had been trying to sell for three years. The photograph was encouragingly red and welcoming – the house itself standing at the junction of two roads and the cross, nearly as tall as the roof, at the end of the small triangle. The price was exactly the same as the money we had put into an emergency savings account. We started to negotiate and find that, even before we sell our own house, we could buy this little one, and a field across the road from it, and start to make it into a proper home before we had to move into it. Whether to do this or not has exercised us for weeks but now we have made the decision to go with the flow and the buying process, quite long and complicated in France, has now started. I found that Auden had precipitated my thinking about crosses – one of my favourite quotes from him is the verse:
“We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.”
The tags for the quote online are pertinently enough: change, fear, poetry.
So as I try to turn this whole episode into something that is positive rather than sad and to learn to let go and welcome change, I find the ‘croix’ to be very helpful and the poetry is certainly something that enables this process. I am not very good at meditating – tending to fall into deep, peaceful sleep as I get into it – but the meditation that is writing and thinking is always there. It has been focused for some time now on a long poem/set of poems that I am writing about Sri Lanka based on the history of a young man, Robert Knox, taken captive in the seventeenth century by the King of Kandy.
So I have had exciting times in my head this week. I found a book called ‘Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox and the Making of a Myth’. It is the first recent reference to Robert Knox that I have come across and tells the story of Daniel Defoe and the myth of Robinson Crusoe. I was aware of the speculation that Robinson Crusoe was connected to the experience of Robert Knox and his nearly twenty years as a captive in Ceylon but Katherine Frank traces a range of links – not just the two editions of ‘The Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon’ and ‘The Autobiography appended to the book that he wrote after his escape and return to England, but also later voyages of Robert Knox and letters that he wrote at the time and the inclusion of bits of The Historical Relation.
Defoe includes several pages of Knox, summarised but no way re-written in ‘Captain Singleton. A Pirate Classic’. The plagiarized test starts:
This passage, when I related it to a friend of mine, after my return from those rambles, agreed so well with his relation of what happened to one Mr. Knox, an English captain, who some time ago was decoyed on shore by these people, that it could not but be very much to my satisfaction to think what mischief we had all escaped; and I think it cannot but be very profitable to record the other story (which is but short) with my own, to show whoever reads this what it was I avoided, and prevent their falling into the like, if they have to do with the perfidious people of Ceylon. Defoe, Daniel. Captain Singleton (p. 162).
The character of Defoe is determinedly upbeat and optimistic – even in the face of imprisonment in Newdgate Prison and multiple business failures and penury. His fame came from his late turn to novel writing and Robinson Crusoe became one of the most translated and read books in the world. There is no evidence that he actually met Knox – but they may have used the same Coffee House, he may have attended lectures at The Royal Society or met Knox – that is clear is that he read The Historical Relation. It was not just interesting to read all this but it made me feel that my interest in Knox – which is partly an attempt to tell my own Historical Relationship with the island – was in a wider context and took me much more deeply into the world that Knox returned to after his escape. Katherine Frank does a good job of bringing Knox to life and the inclusion of ‘extra’ information has been very helpful. I particularly liked his bits of later writing that seem to include a nostalgia for Ceylon, the simplicity of the way of living there and the people that resonates well with me. My own journal writing and poems from that time are about to undergo some rigorous reading!
Crosses, escapes, pirates and writing – all coming together in a kind of collage that is becoming some kind of new beginning that I feel able to look forward to now.