Habits – not the monkish kind


I was thinking about habits—not the monkish kind—but order, repetition, the almost unthinking, hardly a novelty in a plague time, when the Librarian and I wear ruts in the park that trace out our daily walks there. I’m aware, for instance, that I hear tunes in my head to accompany various tasks or movements: unscrewing the top of the coffeemaker to clean it and walking up or down stairs, I hear thirteen notes. On the stairs, this corresponds to the theme tune of The Archers—I don’t listen to the programme but anyone in this country who ever listens to the radio recognises that theme tune, as they do EastEnders, whether they watch the television programme or not—or a riff in the Kinks’ Autumn Almanac or, worryingly, ‘Me and My Teddy Bear’.

Habit, custom, ritual? The last is more ceremonial, usually religious, though it need not be, An often repeated series of actions will qualify—which brings me to the cat, just lately. Breakfast dish; back door; dish again; back door again; check that the dish is empty; stroll upstairs to lie on the Librarian until she gets up.

The back door is part of the deal. Having no catflap, the arrangement is that, if the cat asks for the door to be opened – I open it. Sitting at the table, eating breakfast, reading, in sub-zero temperatures or with a drifting rain, the arrangement holds. He doesn’t actually step outside unless there’s warmth and sunshine – but a deal’s a deal.

Habit, though: positives and negatives. ‘Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit’, Henry Adams wrote, who would not quite qualify as a Man with No Regrets.[1] And, once established, a habit sticks: ‘A habit or an attitude of mind is the hardest thing to change, whatever tricks or suppressions you may play with its projection’, Mary Butts wrote.[2] Some habits are worse than others or, rather, harder to break. Ronald Duncan wrote of ‘the worst and most dangerous of all mental diseases—the habit of seeing things as we wish them to be, not as they are.’ He liked the formulation so much that he used it again twenty years later, just a little amplified.[3] The narrator of Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman wryly observes that ‘The habit of sardonic contemplation is the hardest habit of all to break.’[4]


Some habits become stylistic tics, artistic signatures, as Guy Davenport remarked of Picasso: ‘throughout his career his habit of combining full face and profile became a stylistic trademark—prompting Henri Rousseau’s perfectly accurate observation, “You and I, M. Picasso, are the two greatest living painters, I in the modern manner, you in the Egyptian,” the full-face eye in a face seen sideways being the rule in Egyptian drawing.’[5] Penelope Fitzgerald alluded to ‘the insight of long habit, so much more reliable than love’.[6]

Born in Paris and moving to London at the age of twenty-three, W. L. George published his novel The Making of an Englishman, centred on the Anglicising of a Frenchman, in 1914. ‘I believe silence is England’s secret’, George’s narrator says, ‘and I bore many a snub before I acquired the habit.’[7] Reviewing this ‘atrocious’ book, Ford Madox Ford wrote: ‘if I were an Englishman, I should try to kick Mr George sixty times round Leicester Square for writing it.’ Like his review, George had, Ford concluded, ‘his tongue in his cheek’, concluding: ‘He is a wicked man.’ George was, in fact, a friend of his, part of the English Review circle, and writing about George’s novel gave Ford an opportunity for several digs at English national traits as he had come to regard them, not least the inarticulacy of ‘the English gentleman’.[8]

Sixty years ago, Richard Cassell suggested that Ford developed ‘a theory of style from the English habit of avoiding direct speech.’[9] The Inheritors, written in collaboration with Conrad (but mostly by Ford), begins:

“Ideas,” she said. “Oh, as for ideas—”
“Well?” I hazarded, “as for ideas—?”[10]


A little over twenty years later, with Conrad so recently dead, Ford wrote: ‘If you listen to two Englishmen communicating by means of words, for you can hardly call it conversing, you will find that their speeches are little more than this: A. says, “What sort of a fellow is … you know!” B. replies, “Oh, he’s a sort of a …” and A. exclaims, “Ah, I always thought so….” This is caused partly by sheer lack of vocabulary, partly by dislike for uttering any definite statement at all. For anything that you say you may be called to account.’[11] 

These days – I don’t know. Calling to account seems to have gone right out of fashion in this country – and several others. In any case, for the foreseeable future, my Englishness will continue to carve deeper ruts on the park walks and limit itself to broken sentences should any stranger be so reckless as to approach me.


Notes


[1] Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1918; New York: The Modern Library, 1931), 249.

[2] Mary Butts, ‘Traps for Unbelievers’, in Ashe of Rings and Other Writings (New York: McPherson & Company, 1998), 317.

[3] Ronald Duncan, Journal of a Husbandman (London: Faber 1944), 212; see All Men Are Islands: An Autobiography (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1964), 8: ‘the worst and most dangerous of all mental diseases which is the habit of seeing things as we would wish them to be and an inability to see things as they are.’

[4] Angela Carter, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972; London: Penguin Books, 2011), 245.

[5] Guy Davenport, Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature (Washington: Counterpoint, 1998), 68.

[6] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower (1995; London: Everyman, 2001), 301.

[7] W. L. George, The Making of an Englishman (London: Constable, 1914), 72.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Literary Portraits—XXI. Mr W. L. George and “The Making of an Englishman”, Outlook, XXXIII (31 January 1914), 143.

[9] Richard A. Cassell, Ford Madox Ford: A Study of His Novels (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1961), 68.

[10] Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad, The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story (1901; Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), 5.

[11] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 135-136.

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