Men of Kent, fruit, hops, women


Edward Gibbon (born 27 April, 1737, in Putney) wrote in his less famous work, the autobiography, ‘My family is originally derived from the country of Kent, whose inhabitants have maintained from the earliest antiquity a provincial character of civility, courage and freedom.’ In the southern district of the country, he added, ‘which borders on Sussex and the sea’, the Gibbons ‘were possessed of lands in the year one thousand three hundred and twenty-six; and the elder branch of the family, without much increase or diminution of property, still adheres to its native soil.’[1]

My own family derived mainly from Hampshire but I myself was born in Kent so I’ll take at face value this testimony from the author of damned, thick, square books. Peter Vansittart mentions that Edward the Confessor (termed in an early work by Ford Madox Ford ‘the wavering, prevaricating, and totally useless king’) was the patron saint of England until the Hundred Years’ War. ‘Then Edward III, in debt to Genoese bankers, replaced him with their patron, the more aggressive St George, who was not to escape the attention of the supreme English ironist, Gibbon: he dismissed George as a dishonest bacon contractor, loathed by Christian and pagan alike.’[2]

Kent seems not to figure largely in Gibbon’s later life, though. Oxford, Lausanne, yes, Paris and, of course, Italy, where it was, on the fifteenth of October 1764, ‘as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the City first started to my mind.’[3]

Dyce, William, 1806-1864; Pegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th 1858

(William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858: Tate)

Ford Madox Ford, Londoner, who lived in Kent and Sussex, would often quote what he claimed to have heard said of Sussex men by their Kentish detractors: ‘Oh, he comes from Sussex. He sucked in Sussex silliness with his mother’s milk, and has been silly ever since.’[4] He added that he didn’t know what those Sussex men had to say of the men of Kent.

In one of the most resonant scenes in the first volume of his Parade’s End tetralogy, place is specific and vital: ‘This, Tietjens thought, is England! A man and a maid walk through Kentish grass fields: the grass ripe for the scythe. The man honourable, clean, upright; the maid virtuous, clean, vigorous: he of good birth; she of birth quite as good; each filled with a too good breakfast that each could yet capably digest. Each come just from an admirably appointed establishment: a table surrounded by the best people: their promenade sanctioned, as it were, by the Church—two clergy—the State: two Government officials; by mothers, friends, old maids…. Each knew the names of birds that piped and grasses that bowed: chaffinch, greenfinch, yellow-ammer (not, my dear, hammer! ammer from the Middle High German for “finch”), garden warbler, Dartford warbler, pied-wagtail, known as “dishwasher.” (These charming local dialect names.) Marguerites over the grass, stretching in an infinite white blaze: grasses purple in a haze to the far distant hedgerow: cocksfoot, wild white clover, sainfoin, Italian rye grass (all technical names that the best people must know: the best grass mixture for permanent pasture on the Wealden loam).’[5] Another four or five more pages I must resist transcribing. . .

Though Ford himself was born in Merton (then a parish in Surrey), he may have inhaled a little Kentish enthusiasm from his beloved grandfather: ‘Although Madox Brown’s early years were spent mostly in France and Belgium, he retained affection, even an idealised loyalty for Kent, his mother’s and his wife’s English county of origin.’[6]

As Dickens’ Mr Jingle said, ‘Kent, sir—everybody knows Kent—apples, cherries, hops, and women.’[7] If those are not quite my abiding memories of the county, it may be because I left it at the age of two (my father was posted to Gibraltar), came back at five and left again at eight. Cocker spaniel, guinea pigs, cat, yes; but no fruit, no hops, no women, alas.

Men of Kent or Kentish men. This is traditionally decided by whether you come from east or west of the River Medway. I am, I have just confirmed, a man of Kent.

References

[1] Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2006), 43.

[2] Peter Vansittart, In Memory of England: A Novelist’s View of History (London: John Murray, 1998), 42; Ford Madox Ford, The Cinque Ports (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1900), 249.

[3] Gibbon, Memoirs, 143.

[4] Examples are in Ford Madox Ford, Cinque Ports, 33 fn.1; ‘Literary Portraits XXVI—Miss Amber Reeves and A Lady and her Husband’, Outlook, XXXIII (7 March 1914), 310-311, reprinted in Critical Essays, edited by Max Saunders and Richard Stang (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 134; A Mirror to France (London: Duckworth, 1926), 43; No Enemy (1929; edited by Paul Skinner, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 19.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 131-132.

[6] Angela Thirlwell, Into the Frame: The Four Loves of Ford Madox Brown (London: Chatto & Windus, 2010), 10.

[7] Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers (1836-37; edited by Mark Wormald, London: Penguin Books, 1999), 31.

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