Gammon and spinach. Ha!

Millais, John Everett, 1829-1896; Autumn Leaves

(John Everett Millais, Autumn Leaves, 1856: Manchester Art Gallery)

Autumn Leaves. Autumn, on the contrary, now definitely arrives in a flurry of contradictory weather, though, really, we need to borrow the American term, ‘fall’.

‘Let us stop this war’, Edmund Blunden wrote, ‘and walk along to Beaucourt before the leaves fall. I smell autumn again.’[1]

‘But, my Marguerite, how strange it all is!’, Colette wrote to her friend Marguerite Moreno, ‘I have the fleeting confidence of people who fall out of a clock tower and for a moment sail through the air in a comfortable fairy-world, feeling no pain anywhere . . . ’[2]

‘What are the chances’, the Librarians wonders aloud, ‘of an adult standing up and saying: This Brexit business was a terrible, terrible idea, which everyone surely realises by now, if they didn’t know already. So let’s just scrap the whole thing.’ Not good, I think, the chances are not so good. I recall the note I came across a few days ago, from a William Faulkner novel: ‘They all talked at once, their voices insistent and contradictory and impatient, making of unreality a possibility, then a probability, then an incontrovertible fact, as people will when their desires become words.’[3]

Magpie

I was also remembering the magpies in the park last week. It began with an evident squabble between two birds, who kept fluttering a few feet off the ground, jabbing at one another and coming to earth again: a couple of minutes later, they were racing around above my head, one obviously pursuer and one pursued but keeping only inches apart, however abruptly the lines of their flight paths veered and soared. But the most striking thing was the way in which the dispute spread and the speed at which it did so: at least two more pairs were scuffling with one another almost immediately, while more and more magpies kept arriving, then gathered in groups of three or four in the branches of surrounding trees. And all the while, their distinctive chatter, more than twenty of them by the end, scattered over four or five locations. They all had something to shout about, they all insisted on outshouting others and weren’t above getting physical if they disagreed.

Doctor-maggotty

I stood on the path for a good ten minutes, thinking: magpie Brexit? In Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan, the local doctor is a magpie by the name of Dr Maggotty. He has the disconcerting habit of shouting ‘Gammon!’ or ‘Spinach!’ and, ultimately, ‘Gammon and spinach! Ha ha HA!’ Why does that last ejaculation oddly suggest a sly commentary on our current political woes?

Still, I’ve always liked magpies and been impressed by their acumen, as well as the wealth of folklore and superstition associated with them. Patrick White’s biographer reveals that, by the end of his second year at university, White realised that he didn’t have ‘a scholar’s mind’ and wouldn’t get a brilliant degree. ‘This discovery hurt him at first’, Marr writes, ‘and he was nagged by a sense of intellectual inadequacy until he came to see that he had another kind of intelligence, a “magpie mind” that found ideas as he needed them and seized any image that caught his eye.’[4]

Magpies-Bagpipe

Then, very recently, in the Jonathan Williams festschrift I was reading, I came across the writer and folklorist Gary Carden’s remark that, over the years, he had ‘often searched for a fitting icon or symbol’ for Williams. Carden focused on Williams’ ability to perceive talent and to spot what others missed. ‘Finally, I can pick my icon’, Carden announced. ‘Jonathan is a magpie!’ He wrote of watching a magpie stalking through a landfill site and extracting something that caught his eye, to carry home and give it ‘a choice setting’, while Williams, he added, did much the same thing, having ‘waded through the wreckage of our culture’, sometimes finding ‘the real thing’.[5]

Indeed, Williams published his first book of essays under the title of The Magpie’s Bagpipe (1982) – and the avian theme continued with his second essay collection, Blackbird Dust (2000).

‘Gammon and spinach! Ha ha HA!’ Hold that thought. I am certainly holding that thought.

 
References

[1] Edmund Blunden, Undertones of War (1928; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), 90.

[2] Letter of 11 June 1925: Letters from Colette, selected and translated by Robert Phelps (London: Virago Press, 1982), 90.

[3] William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929), in Novels 1926-1929, edited by Joseph Blotner and Noel Polk (New York: Library of America, 2006), 967.

[4] David Marr, Patrick White: A Life (London: Vintage, 1992), 128.

[5] Gary Carden, ‘The Bard of Scaly Mountain’, in Jeffery Beam and Richard Owens, editors, Jonathan Williams: The Lord of Orchards, (Westport: Prospecta Press, 2017), 49.

 

 

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