Rabbits, posts, house-crickets

KW

(Kenneth Williams as Julius Caesar, seeing a dagger before him (‘Infamy, infamy. They’ve all got it in for me’), in Carry On Cleo (1964), via IMDB.)

July: formerly Quintilis, the month was renamed in honour of Julius Caesar, not long before his murder in 44 BC.

‘If the first of July it be rainy weather,
’twill rain more or less for four weeks together.’

The cat climbing onto my chest at around 04:30 wakes me enough to remember to pinch and—lightly!—punch a Librarian. There’s a mutual muttering of ‘white rabbits’, one of those ancient traditions that turns out to be not so very old. ‘Several correspondents’ in the Westminster Gazette in the spring of 1919 claiming that, with local variants, it was common in many parts of Great Britain, isn’t overwhelmingly convincing of great age.[1]

I don’t think of myself as superstitious. Lead me to the nearest ladder propped against a house front and I’ll walk under it; and I positively encourage black cats, whether crossing my path from the left or the right. But between the railway bridge at one end and the line of shops and the supermarket at the other, there’s a road that runs past a pub, an old church and the city farm – and has a row of bollards mounted on the pavement. Quite often, barely conscious of doing so, I touch each bollard as I pass. I think that responds to a half-buried memory of a story told about Samuel Johnson – where did I see that? I read an old Oxford World Classics paperback edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson years ago: it started falling apart, unsurprisingly given its huge length, and I later bought an Everyman hardback edition. Looking recently, I didn’t find it in either. I think now I must first have seen it referred to in The Book of Witches by Oliver Madox Hueffer (Ford’s brother), where he mentions ‘Dr Johnson’s idiosyncrasy for touching every post he passed upon his walks abroad’.[2] The passage in question concerns a man called Whyte, who described watching Johnson walk along the street:

I perceived him at a good distance working along with a peculiar solemnity of deportment, and an awkward sort of measured step. . . . Upon every post as he passed along, I could observe he deliberately laid his hand; but missing one of them, when he had got at some distance, he seemed suddenly to recollect himself, and immediately returning back, carefully performed the accustomed ceremony, and resuming his former course, not omitting one till he gained the crossing. This, Mr. Sheridan assured me . . . was his constant practice.[3]

Reynolds, Joshua, 1723-1792; Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

(Sir Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson: National Trust, Knole)

In six volumes, there’s space to gather in all manner of additional related material; in a one-volume edition, however bulky, something has to give. Johnson’s behaviour, anyway, seems to have been more indicative of obsessive compulsive disorder. I can at least take comfort in the fact that if I miss a post I don’t turn back.

Superstition. A widely held but irrational belief in supernatural influences, especially as bringing good or bad luck; omens, divination, sorcery; a deep-rooted but unfounded general belief (no jokes about contemporary political attitudes at this juncture, though, the situation being almost beyond a joke). But uses of it vary hugely. ‘Chance or free will?’ Sybille Bedford asked. ‘Which is it that we the irreligious, the superstitious ones, mean when we say, “in the lap of the gods?”’[4] In the view of Graham Greene’s assistant commissioner in It’s a Battlefield, ‘One had to choose certain superstitions by which to live; they were the nails in the shoes with which one gripped the rock. This was what a war threw up: a habit, a superstition, one more trick by which one got through the day.’[5] And Wyndham Lewis, characteristically combative, remarked in an early story, ‘The Cornac and His Wife’: ‘One of our greatest superstitions is that the plain man, being so “near to life,” is a great “realist.”’[6]

I tend to think of it as something quite mundane, homely, barely noticed or remarked, the almost automatic responses to those ladders or lines on the pavement. The word’s origins, whether from Middle English or Old French, seem to point back to Latin, ‘standing over’, suggestive of protection as much as threat but also a quite ordinary part of the landscape. Sarah Moss has her sisters Alethea (Ally) and May in the garden: ‘A magpie hops under the beech tree. Foolish superstition, Mamma says, but even so Ally finds herself casting around for another one to make two for joy. Maybe she can save this one until she sees another and count them as a pair, like carrying numbers in arithmetic. Carrying magpies.’[7]

White-birds

https://naturalhistoryofselborne.com/ )

The great naturalist Gilbert White mentions house-crickets in a domestic setting: ‘Whatever is moist they affect; and therefore often gnaw holes in wet woollen stockings and aprons that are hung to the fire: they are the housewife’s barometer, foretelling her when it will rain; and are prognostic sometimes, she thinks, of ill or good luck; of the death of a near relation, or the approach of an absent lover. By being the constant companions of her solitary hours they naturally become the objects of her superstition.’[8]

I think a somnolescent ‘white rabbits’ and occasional absent-minded post-touching probably keeps me on the safe side of ‘obsessive’ – in those contexts, anyway.

 

References

[1] Iona Opie and Moira Tatem, editors, A Dictionary of Superstitions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 192.

[2] Oliver Madox Hueffer, The Book of Witches (New York: The John McBride Co., 1909), 278.

[3] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, edited by G. B. Hill, revised and enlarged by L. F. Powell (Oxford, the Clarendon Press, 1934), I, 485, fn1. This and much more is referred to and discussed by Lawrence C. McHenry, Jr., in an article, ‘Samuel Johnson’s Tics and Gesticulations’, Journal of the History of Medicine, 22 (April 1967), 152-168.

[4] Sybille Bedford, Quicksands: A Memoir (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2005). Her 1963 novel is called A Favourite of the Gods.

[5] Graham Greene, It’s a Battlefield (1934; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983), 170.

[6] Wyndham Lewis, The Complete Wild Body, edited by Bernard Lafourcade (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1982), 102.

[7] Sarah Moss, Bodies of Light (London: Granta Books, 2015), 85.

[8] Gilbert White, The Illustrated History of Selborne (1789; London: Macmillan, 1984), 210.

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