Tapping the glass


(Ernest Board, ‘The discovery of the barometer: Torricelli experimenting in the Alps’, 1643: Wellcome Collection.)

Alluding to the still-controversial matter of Edward Jenner’s experiments, Lord Byron in 1818 observed:

But vaccination certainly has been
    A kind antithesis to Congreve’s rockets,
With which the Doctor paid off an old pox,
By borrowing a new one from an ox.

The Congreve rocket, the editors note, was used at the Battle of Leipzig (1813), producing sufficient noise and glare to frighten and confuse the French.[1]

Fright and confusion have been much in evidence lately, not least in connection with vaccination rather than the Congreve rocket. But then Jenner’s use of cowpox germs led to resistance on religious grounds, people refusing to be treated with ‘substances originating from God’s lowlier creatures’ and when vaccination was made compulsory in 1853, this ‘led to protest marches and vehement opposition from those who demanded freedom of choice.’[2]

The rain, currently exercising its freedom of choice, appears to positively enjoy being rain and doing the things rain does. ‘How dark/ seems the whole country we enter’, the poet Keith Douglas wrote, ‘Now it rains,/ the trees like ominous old men are shaking.’[3] In her novel set in late 15th century Somerset, Samantha Harvey’s narrator observes that: ‘In the village at this time of year we had only one way of telling the weather: if you can see the ridge, you know it’s going to rain; if you can’t, it’s already raining.’[4]

Wet or dry, the last week or two has seen me out for the most part on my own, sticking mainly to the lower paths in the park because my back was noticeably resentful of hills and acutely keen to tell me so. The Librarian has been walking later and alone, for longer and on an altogether higher plane. Aware that I was missing some lines from the handful of poems committed to memory, I’ve taken to carrying a paperback in my pocket so I can prompt myself. My memory seems more and more to resemble the version proposed by Mr Sherlock Holmes to a sceptical Dr John Watson early in A Study in Scarlet, the brain as a kind of attic with limited space, so that: ‘“Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before.”’[5]


I’m reasonably discreet but a woman with a child in a pushchair may have flinched a little to hear as she passed me that ‘John Macdonald found a corpse, put it under the sofa,/ Waited till it came to life, and hit it with a poker’. Describing the same circular route as myself, though in the contrary direction, she may have been in time to catch the last run through: ‘It’s no go the Herring Board, it’s no go the Bible,/ All we want is a packet of fags when our hands are idle.’ The last lines of MacNeice’s poem seem painfully apt: ‘The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall for ever,/ But if you break the bloody glass you won’t hold up the weather.’[6]

In my sunnier moments, it also prompts the thought of how many houses used to have barometers—I must have come across dozens—and how relatively few do so now. It’s hardly surprising: they were for use not ornament and the Met Office forecasts are increasingly accurate. There’s also this new-fangled thing called the internet.


(North east view of Selbourne, from The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne by Gilbert White © The British Library Board)

The naturalist Gilbert White, at whose house barometers and thermometers ‘were much-prized members of the household’—and who was ‘assiduous’ in his readings and recordings—wrote of house-crickets that: ‘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.’[7]

Pressure rising, pressure falling. We don’t, I suppose, really need to tap the glass of a barometer these days. Farce or tragedy or tragicomedy, it’s being played out before our eyes—quite enlightening, no doubt, for those in the habit of thinking that we had only the one plague to contend with.

Writing little more than a year before his death, Byron had a word about barometers:

The London winter’s ended in July,
    Sometimes a little later. I don’t err
In this: whatever other blunders lie
    Upon my shoulders, here I must aver
My Muse a glass of weatherology;
    For Parliament is our barometer:
Let radicals its other acts attack,
Its sessions form our only almanac.[8]

If Parliament is our barometer now, I think it’s safe to say that the weather prospects are not encouraging.


Notes

[1] Lord Byron, ‘Canto I’, Don Juan, edited by T. G. Steffan, E. Steffan and W. W. Pratt (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 78, 580n. On the proof, Byron’s friend, John Cam Hobhouse wrote: ‘Mon cher ne touchez pas à la petite Verole [smallpox]’: ‘Appendix’, 757.

[2] See: https://www.jenner.ac.uk/about/edward-jenner (accessed 8 January 2022)

[3] Keith Douglas, last lines of ‘Soissons’ (1940): The Complete Poems of Keith Douglas, edited by Desmond Graham (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 47. Soissons is a commune in Hauts-de-France, roughly 100 kilometres north-east of Paris.

[4] Samantha Harvey, The Western Wind (London: Jonathan Cape, 2018), 91.

[5] Arthur Conan Doyle, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels, edited with notes by Leslie S. Klinger (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company 2006), 34.

[6] Louis MacNeice, ‘Bagpipe Music’, Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 95, 96.

[7] Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English  Skies (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 209; Gilbert White, The Illustrated History of Selborne (London: Macmillan, 1984), 210.

[8] Byron, ‘Canto XIII’, Don Juan 453.

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