Mayday (‘The Milkmaids’ Garland’): Studio of Francis Hayman. English Heritage: Marble Hill House, Twickenham.
‘To Westminster, in the way meeting many milkmaids with their garlands upon their pails, dancing with a fiddler before them, and saw pretty Nelly standing at her lodgings door in Drury lane in her smock-sleeves and bodice, looking upon one – she seemed a mighty pretty creature.’ Samuel Pepys makes a Mayday note, 1667.
(Nell Gwynn by Sir Peter Lely)
May Day! Or, given the state we’re in: Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Although—newsflash—the cavalry will not be coming. It’s up to us, which may be good news or bad, depending on your perspective.
The cavalry often didn’t arrive in the past, or almost not. ‘And suppose the cavalry had not been able to ford that river? They almost did not, almost, almost. It is in the region of Almost that the blood sings.’ So Anthony Burgess, alluding, surely, to the conversation between his most admired author, James Joyce, and one of the best writers on that author, Frank Budgen, to whom Joyce is reading:
“After he woke me up last night same dream or was it? Wait. Open hallway. Street of harlots. Remember. Haroun al Raschid. I am almosting it. That man led me, spoke . . .”
“Almosting!” I said.
“Yes,” said Joyce. “That’s all in the Protean character of the thing. Everything changes: land, water, dog, time of day. Parts of speech change, too. Adverb becomes verb.”
The settled conviction that the cavalry were, and would continue to be, the trump card in the British land army was slow to recede; and sceptics were regarded with wariness or hostility. Barbara Tuchman recorded that, ‘In the Russo-Japanese War an English observer, the future General Sir Ian Hamilton, reported that the only thing the cavalry could do in the face of entrenched machine guns was to cook rice for the infantry, causing the War Office to wonder if his months in the Orient had not affected his mind.’ In the event, of course, ‘The first and last British cavalry charge on the western front took place at Audreques on 24 August 1914.’
By the Second World War, the cavalry had fled the scene but heroes were still in evidence, riding—or sailing—to the rescue: ‘There was high drama in May 1941 when a parachute mine went through the roof of the London Palladium, and hung entangled and unexploded in the flies. The Naval officer who successfully defused the mine (since these were sea-mines they were the responsibility of the Navy) was given free tickets to the Palladium for life.’
The envy of his colleagues, no doubt. Elsewhere on the cultural spectrum, ‘The Tate Gallery was hit in September, October and December, and again once a month from January to May 1941, but the only painting damaged was Richard Wilson’s Destruction of the Children of Niobe, which had been brought to London to be cleaned. The British Museum suffered damage to the Pediment Hall in November, and much more serious damage in May 1941, when 150,000 books in the Library were destroyed.’
In fact, the cavalry occasionally call here, to take away a few boxes of books, sift them for items of personal interest, then pass the rest on to Good Causes. Against such occasional and partial thinning, logic demands that we set occasions like this last weekend, when the Librarian, glimpsing a few days off on the horizon, made a compelling argument for the whole of the 2018 Women’s Prize shortlist.
A few rogue titles have evidently slipped in here: there’s probably a reasonable explanation for that but I’m unable to access it just at the moment.
 Anthony Burgess, Napoleon Symphony (London, Jonathan Cape, 1974), 24.
 Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of ‘Ulysses’ and other writings, enlarged edition (1934; London: Oxford University Press, 1972), 55. Joyce is reading from the third chapter of Ulysses, ‘Proteus’.
 Barbara Tuchman, in The Guns of August (1962; edited by Margaret MacMillan, New York: Library of America, 2012), 214.
 Mark Girouard, Life in the English Country House (London: Penguin Books, 1980), 289.
 Robert Hewison, Under Siege: Literary Life in London, 1939-45 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 29.