Rooms That Have Had Their Part

Joanna Kavenna


Photo by melburnian.

For a while I worked as a temp, writing in the evening or whenever I could during the day. I was sent to a series of grey-drab, concrete offices, where I passed the hours typing out letters for jowly depressives, weathering their fits of bile, barely earning enough to pay my rent.

I remember those brief, unsatisfying periods of tenure as a series of rooms. Rooms jaundiced by bad lighting, so you wondered, what is ague, and could we have it? Rooms that hummed, a hum you couldn’t quite identify, or that seemed in the end to come from your own head. Rooms with high windows so you only saw the free birds weaving tactlessly across the sky. Rooms like a fairy tale, where everyone seemed to sleep, and yet, they spoke. Rooms where you thought the delicate gossamer strand that connects you to the world of certainties, measured opinions, received normality, might just snap – forever.

A fine and almost forgotten poet, Charlotte Mew, wrote on ‘rooms that have had their part/ In the steady slowing down of the heart.’ The heart slowed, yet, perversely, the clock slowed too. The hands of clocks on grey partitions seemed to stall, while you waited – willing Time to resume again. When you were there, stranded at your desk, typing out generic phrases, discoursing madly on pencils with your neighbour, you longed for the hours to vanish, and yet, when the day ended, when the sky boiled into one more livid sunset, you felt sick with longing, fury, frustration. You walked in a dire and futile rage to the underground, and you went home panicking – another day!

The whole temping experience made me dislike the modernists as well, or some of them. It made me lose faith in those post-Nietzscheans who condemned the ‘ordinary man’ (or woman), who decried ‘the masses’ and assumed the masses all felt and thought the same. Often, as I waited in some random flock of people, I thought about Ezra Pound’s seedy protégée, Richard Aldington, who stood in central London and wrote:

The Masses at Piccadilly
Are sordid and sweaty
We suspect them of vices
Like marriage and business
We know they are ignorant
Of Hokkei and Rufinus

Or Amy Lowell, ‘imagist’, who added:

Fools! It is always the dead who breed!
The little people are ignorant
They chatter and swarm
They gnaw like rats . . .

I ranted my way home each night – as I stood with my kind, as we swarmed into a mass, as we breathed in unison, like ladybirds in a cluster, related and merged organic matter, as I stood and swayed – I hated Aldington, Lowell, felt that had they not been so utterly dead I would have found them and beaten them to the ground, a futile fantasy of vengeance on the long dead, but I thought, how easy, how glorious, to set yourself against the masses, when you have been saved by wealth or accident, how easy to denounce the Others –

Others to you, perpetually unknowable –

But when you are the masses, sordid in your seamlessness, sweating from proximity to others, trapped in the little business of earning a wage –

Well, then! You rant . . .

The irony of this condition is that each day you pass through such furies, such protests, you grit your teeth, you want to fall to the ground, you’re like an angry child, you weep because someone has stolen your coffee cup and you teeter all the time on the brink of complete psychosis. Meanwhile you discern this madness in the eyes of others – you come to realize the entire city is, essentially, mad –

And yet you sleep, in your unhomely home, you wake to the ritual whine of planes, the old grey buildings polished by the dawn, you are calm, even optimistic, and you begin again. You rise, you eat breakfast, as if the whole thing is entirely reasonable, you dress with practised efficiency, you are sane at least until 10 a.m. Then – again – someone bores you, someone snaps their pencil in your face, someone speaks for hours, then further hours, on the phone, so you want to run from the building and never go back again. Swiftly, you dwindle.

Perhaps this was what made Aldington, Lowell so uneasy, confronted by the crowds. Perhaps they were worried that one day their sordid sweaty masses would just lose their wits entirely, run amok, that the city would engulf itself –

Aldington and all his pals, hemmed into a corner, clutching the complete works of Rufinus . . .

The fantasy consoles you for a moment, one long tick of the clock –

Then you begin again –


For more about the author, including critical perspectives and in-depth biographies, visit the British Council’s web pages on
Joanna Kavenna
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