Leg trouble


Near the top of the hill, I pause.

‘Is it bad?’ the Librarian asks with well-worn concern, referring to my left ankle and lower leg, which have been behaving peculiarly in recent weeks. Ankle arthritis, we’ve decided.

But: ‘No’, I say, ‘higher up, seems to be my hip.’

‘Oh’, she says, clearly envisaging a whole new trajectory of complaint.

‘It’ll get easier, I expect.’ Do I believe this? Of course not. But it may. In any case, walking and its attendant ingredients here, trees, dogs, squirrels, the magpies, the children yelling in the school playground, the sudden panoramic view over Bristol that opens up suddenly on our left-hand side as the path sweeps round to run beneath close branches, all distract attention from a mere hip.

Trouble with legs. I remember the Reverend Francis Kilvert: ‘I preached in some discomfort for although the Vicar had assured me the pulpit would be almost up to my chin it was scarcely above my waist and in order to see to read my sermon I was obliged to crouch down in it and stick one leg out behind.’[1] At least he had two: the writer Colette’s father, an ex-captain of the select Zouave infantry, born in Toulon and trained at Saint-Cyr, had lost his left leg in Italy in 1859.[2] I recall too Theresa Whistler’s account, in her biography of Walter de la Mare, of a surgeon named Kidd offering his solution to the writer’s insomnia: ‘an eccentric Irish hypnotist named Leahy, who had a hot temper and a false leg, which proved a disadvantage. Climbing to his patient’s room, sporting a Leander tie [rowing club] and a little drunk, he would succeed in inducing slumber, and would then descend – step, thump, step, thump. Before he had reached the ground floor the nurse was speeding down to recall him. “The bloody man!” he would explode, and rushed up again, bursting in on the patient: “You bloody well go to sleep!”’[3]

In the First World War, those men unable to distinguish left from right were given a hay band and a straw band to tie round each leg. The drill instructor would call out ‘Hay, straw’ instead of left, right. On the back of the envelope of one of his letters to Edward Chapman, the poet and composer Ivor Gurney wrote: ‘Would you like a hay band or a straw – ? I’ve finished with mine.’[4]

Benjamin Robert Haydon, The Mock Election (Royal Collections Trust)

It’s often noticed that artists have trouble with hands – but often enough there are leg problems too. Alethea Hayter wrote of Benjamin Haydon’s inconveniently small studio—‘and he could never get far enough away really to see the effect of the whole picture, and his defective eyesight produced the errors of proportion—particularly the shortness of leg—which give a fatally ludicrous look to so many of his heroic figures.’[5] And, while artists often sketch their own hands, legs come into it too. On Valentine’s Day, 1938, David Jones writes to Harman Grisewood: ‘I think if I could only get not having the worst type of nerves and could work at painting or writing (Bugger—O did not know this had a drawing on the back—it is my leg. I drew it as a study for a thing I’m doing—bugger! I want it, but can’t write this letter over again—well, I shall have to send it as it is and do my leg again if I want it) I should be quite happy alone always.’[6]

At home, I download ankle arthritis exercises and sternly ignore any promptings from the hip. What a trouper. . .

Notes


[1] Entry for Wednesday 4 October 1871: Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, Three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969), Volume Two (23 August 1871—13 May 1874), 53.

[2] Colette, Earthly Paradise: An autobiography drawn from her lifetime writing by Robert Phelps (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), 15.

[3] Theresa Whistler, The Life of Walter de la Mare: Imagination of the Heart (London: Duckworth, 2003), 344.

[4] Letter of early 1915: Stars in a Dark Night: The Letters of Ivor Gurney to the Chapman Family, edited by Anthony Boden (Gloucester: Alan Sutton, 1986), 17 fn.

[5] Alethea Hayter, A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (London: Faber and Faber, 1965), 59.

[6] René Hague, editor, Dai Greatcoat: A self-portrait of David Jones in his letters (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 84.

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