Nigel Jarrett is a former newspaperman and a double prizewinner as a fiction writer: the Rhys Davies Award for short fiction and, in 2016, the inaugural Templar Shorts award. His first story collection, Funderland, published by Parthian, was praised by the Guardian, the Independent, the Times and many others, and was longlisted for the Edge Hill Prize. His debut poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool, also from Parthian, was described by Agenda poetry magazine as ‘a virtuoso performance’. Jarrett’s first novel, Slowly Burning (GG Books) was published in 2016, as was his second story collection, Who Killed Emil Kreisler? (Cultured Llama Publishing). Templar is about to publish his three-story pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy. Based in Monmouthshire, Jarrett writes for Jazz Journal, the Wales Arts Review, Arts Scene in Wales, Slightly Foxed, Acumen poetry magazine, and several others. His poetry, fiction, and essays appear widely. For many years he was a daily newspaper music critic, and now freelances in that capacity. When he can find time, he swims.
Every so often I receive an email from a website called Chessworld.net. It says, ‘Nigel, we’ve missed you at Chessworld.’ They certainly have. I’ve gone missing. They’ve lost me.
I like to think that the people – real human beings – running the site have relegated me to a folder of chess players who have similarly gone AWOL, but who might be tempted to switch to a ‘live’ folder and take up the game again, like returning prodigals.
I never respond but I do wonder about Tafadzwa, a player from Malawi with whom I was paired for my first game on the worldwide web. That’s what Chessworld.net is: a means of playing the game remotely. I think you used to be able to do it by phone, but that took ages. Chess on the internet is instantaneous, which is probably what made me leave Tafadzwa floating in a swarm of megabytes: work – as a writer – and other commitments meant I might take days over one move, whereas Tafadzwa, clearly transfixed by the computer screen and probably a grandmaster-in-waiting, responded within hours, possibly minutes or seconds.
Since the emails expressing regret at my absence never mention Tafadzwa, I assume he (she) regarded me as a lost cause and has now been linked with some other opponent, perhaps on the outskirts of Helsinki (‘Hello, Tapio, your next game is with Tafadzwa, from Liwande, in Malawi.’) I think I was on my sixth move, an early and back-pedalling Knight to Queen’s Rook 3, when I left Tafadzwa virtually dangling from the edge of the virtual chess board. .
I’m no doubt politically incorrect in visualising her (him) as a brightly-dressed five-year-old prodigy, surrounded by other brightly-dressed prodigies, sitting in the corrugated tin shack that serves as their village school and community centre, where their teacher, wearing a white shirt and tie despite the heat and with sweat patches under his arm the shape of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is nominally in charge of the second-hand computer he acquired for them three months before. I’ve clearly forgotten to be PC when writing about playing chess on a PC.
Probably still with only a dial-up connection to the internet, Tafadzwa nonetheless managed to respond to my moves thirty times faster than I made them. And if it’s impossible to get a radio, let alone a computer, to work in a Malawian outpost so described without attaching it via a belt to a fixed bicycle pedalled to a searing wattage by the teacher and his colleagues, my excuse for imagining the scene thus is that Tafadzwas everywhere deserve to have a computer with superfast broadband so that they can put it about me in my leisurely European domicile and take me down a peg or three.
The point about those emails is that only when I receive them do I remember that I’d forgotten about them. At least I know what they’re getting at: my tardiness. I suppose I’ll keep receiving them after I’m dead. I wish I could apologise to Tafadzwa for leaving him (her) suspended. Then again, perhaps she (he) is Professor Tafadzwa Makalamba of the Mzuzu Bible College; not an eight-year-old chess prodigy at all but an academic simply wishing to improve his (her) game while taking time off from translating the Biblia Sacra Vulgata into the Nyakyusa-Ngonde dialect.
These speculations are yet another way of keeping my brain working. Renewing an acquaintance with chess was another, As I had spent many years failing to see more than three moves ahead, I thought that if I could increase that to four or even five my brain had yet to fulfil its potential at a time when it was supposed to be running down at the rate of a million dead brain cells per hour.
My old school pal Godfrey Brangham is a serious chess player, who can do what the Fischers and Kasparovs can do without blinking and remember a whole game, his moves and his opponent’s, from start to finish. I can recite to myself Yeats’s Sailing To Byzantium after learning it a year ago and refreshing my memory every few weeks, usually in bed and on the borders of sleep. Ditto several other poems, including the awkward Binsey Poplars by Gerard Manley Hopkins (‘When we, even when we mean/to mend her we end her’).
I started keeping a ‘remembrance notebook’ years ago. I was never much good at it, often forgetting that I’d promised myself to make an entry every few days. It began as a working title for things I wanted to set down as a hedge against the possibility or likelihood of forgetting: the immediate present becoming the retrievable past. The word ‘remembrance’ also has connotations of self-aggrandisement, the idea that one should be remembered, like the war dead.
One thing I’ll never forget is that I never went to war, though my country’s infantry seems always to have been tramping across some foreign terrain or other in my name during my lifetime. An anti-war friend of mine once confessed that he’d never offer a lift to a hitch-hiking soldier. I sympathised but I’m not a pacifist; that’s to say, I’ve never bother to give pacifism or my attraction to it a thought. Another friend, provocative to a fault, thought that registering as a conscientious objector was more brave than running full tilt at a machine-gun post. I can still remember all these controversial views.
My grandfathers, I recall, never went to war, because they were coalminers. Time was when I could locate my paternal grandfather’s virtually unmarked grave (at least there was no gravestone, just a metal marker with a number on it); now I neither visit it nor wonder if it is still traceable in the long grass. Out of sight, out of mind.
Keeping my brain working is imperative at my age, which is why I started a blog (www.NigelJarrett.wordpress.com) so that (a) everything I can currently remember is recorded; and (b) when I can’t even recall the permanently remembered, someone else might let me know what I made of what I could still, against the mass immolation of my brain cells, bring immediately to mind.
Is this important? It’s important.
The past is what we have, secure if ever open to interpretation and significance. The present is always uncertain, though often and mostly gratifying. The future is wholly unknowable, yet a vacuum awaiting infinite possibility.
The past, too, is the almost instantaneous transformation of the present, minute by minute, second by second. Nothing lasts in the present; it’s continuously filing into the background, into storage – if we’re lucky. Into the past we pour our present joys and travails. I can see that some would wish to forget the past, or diminish its importance.
We used to live near Mady Gerrard, who had survived Auschwitz as a young girl and took part in the forced march to Bergen-Belsen, where she was liberated by the British. She eventually fetched up in New York, Her childhood skill as a knitter in Hungary served her well, because she became one of America’s leading knitwear designers, making clothes for Mrs Pat Nixon, Dionne Warwick, Susan Hampshire and others, including an ancient silent movie star, Celeste Holm, who flew to New York from her home in Florida, or LA, to be measured and fitted out.
I wrote a story about that, called El Cid, the title a reference to another episode of mis-remembering, the (fictional) Celeste arriving in Manhattan, meeting my fictionalised former neighbour, now a film buff, and claiming to have been in line for a leading part in an earlier, pre-talkie version of the film that’s also the title of my story. She’d forgotten, had Celeste, and had also claimed to have been considered for a part in a film directed by D. W. Griffith.
Anyway, Mady wrote an autobiography, in which her experience in the concentration camps constituted barely one-third of her memoir. When readers queried this, she said her life was about survival and that had lasted longer than her incarceration, and needed to be celebrated at far greater length. Just over sixty years after she was freed from Belsen she met the British officer who had been on hand to open the gates. She saw his picture in the Daily Telegraph, illustrating a piece about Holocaust Day, and as it was of him as a young officer, she recognised it and got in touch. He didn’t know her but she remembered him.
The internet enables us to lose people we never met. It’s a digital loss in cyberpsace. I have lost chess-playing Tafadzwa as completely as she (he) has lost me. I might even get an El Cid story out of that. Writing is a means of not forgetting, even though, like Iris Murdoch, one might eventually forget that one ever wrote anything. One might even forget that one used to remember, not knowing what remembering is – or, for that matter, forgetting.