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.


[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.

Backing the inevitable

(Henri Rousseau, Surprised!, National Gallery)

As the Chinese Year of the Ox prepares to shuffle off in favour of the Year of the Tiger, more locally I have the Year of the Back – or no, that’s too downbeat, even for me. Say: the Month of the Back. Or, as I noted in my sporadically-kept diary, ‘The Back is back.’ Following in what has, unfortunately, become an irregular traditional practice—2013, 2015, 2019 and 2020—I am devoting twenty minutes each morning to putting my socks on. A schooling in patience, so to speak.

Initially, the cat looked suspicious and a little bewildered to have the Librarian preparing and serving his food—that bowl on the floor being just too far away for me—but is becoming reconciled. As is she. Probably. Perhaps.

When it comes to the serious work, though, the problem is that, like a bad toothache, a wrecked back tends to occupy the mind and resents any incursions by such brittle beasts as research or writing. But I can read more rovingly, so I do that: Mary Gaitskill, C. L. R. James, Annie Ernaux, Jane Gardam – and Byron’s Don Juan. Writing to poet-publisher James Laughlin in 1993, Guy Davenport told him: ‘I’ve been rereading (for the whatevereth time) Don Juan, which may be the funniest poem in English—certainly the greatest stylistic tour de force. It’s proof enough that God doesn’t read our books that Byron didn’t get to finish it. Juan was to have become a ranting Methodist in Yorkshire.’[1] Nearly sixty years earlier, W. H. Auden had, at the age of twenty-nine:

Just read Don Juan and I found it fine.
I read it on the boat to Reykjavik
Except when eating or asleep or sick.[2]

I remembered a brief exchange with the poet and artist David Jones that William Blissett recorded:

 ‘“Bugger old age.” 
“Is that your final word today?” 

Jones lived to—almost—seventy-nine. In the half-century since his death, of course, our expectations are a little greater. (Or were, until the recent downturn, often the sign of governments with fatally wrong priorities.)

Still, physically at least, deterioration is written into everybody’s contract. A quotation was long lodged in my head from Henry Miller, which I had trouble finding, not least because, it transpires, I had the word order slightly wrong. I’m reminded now that ‘We resist only what is inevitable’ is from Miller’s 1957 Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, one of those statements that seems to shunt the reader or listener straight to the opposite or corollary statement, here, that we don’t resist what is not inevitable—and which, arguably, might be changed or averted through resistance. That would accord with the view of Miller famously presented by George Orwell in ‘Inside the Whale’, which begins and ends with Miller, to whom Orwell ascribes ‘a sort of mystical acceptance of thing-as-it-is.’ Orwell then runs through just what such acceptance includes in the mid-twentieth century—concentration camps, Hitler, Stalin, press censorship, political murders and the rest—but argues that Miller’s general attitude, nevertheless, is ‘“Let’s swallow it whole”’.[4]

(David Jones, from The Book of Jonah
https://www.artwales.com/exhibition-mtg-en.php?locationID=184 )

Inevitability, then, most famously that of death and taxes, according to Benjamin Franklin, though my Oxford Dictionary of Quotations points to Daniel Defoe as precedent, more or less. For the rich, of course, in this country and surely many others, paying tax seems to be optional if you have that sort of moral threshold, that sort of accountant and offshore accounts already set up – but no government, however supine or conflicted, has yet managed to legislate against the Grim Reaper or to arrange loopholes for its friends.

Endings, anyway. As Annie Ernaux has it, ‘The time that lies ahead of me grows shorter. There will inevitably be a last book, as there is always a last lover, a last spring, but no sign by which to know them.’[5] And D. H. Lawrence wrote to Catherine Carswell, ‘One can tell what will happen, more or less. Some things one knows inwardly, and infallibly. But the how and the why are left to the conjunction of circumstances.’[6]

Lawrence, in fact, dwelt often on inevitability. ‘This is England. One meaning blots out another. So the mines were blotting out the halls. It was inevitable. When the great landowners started the mines, and made new fortunes, they started also their own obliteration from the English countryside. One meaning blots out another.’ And: ‘It had taken Constance a long time to accept the inevitable. The old England was doomed to be blotted out, with a terrifying absoluteness, by a new and gruesome England. It was inevitable.’[7]

This, perhaps, has a distant relative in Aldous Huxley’s pronouncement in a letter to his brother Julian a few months before the Armistice in 1918: ‘Whatever happens, we may be sure it will be for the worst. I dread the inevitable acceleration of American world domination which will be the ultimate result of it all. It was a thing that had got to come in time, but this will hasten its arrival by a century.’[8]

Patrick White’s Voss remarks that: ‘Human behaviour is a series of lunges, of which, it is sometimes sensed, the direction is inevitable.’[9] A little more positively, perhaps, ‘And yes’, Katherine Mansfield wrote to William Gerhardi in March 1922, ‘that is what I tried to convey in The Garden Party. The diversity of life and how we try to fit in everything, Death included. That is bewildering for a person of Laura’s age. She feels things ought to happen differently. First one and then another. But life isn’t like that. We haven’t the ordering of it. Laura says, “But all these things must not happen at once.” And Life answers, “Why not? How are they divided from each other?” And they do all happen, it is inevitable. And it seems to me there is beauty in that inevitability.’[10]

(Ferdinand Brütt, Gartenfest (1900)

There is, lastly—or firstly—the consciously literary. Ford Madox Ford wrote, in a piece on Joseph Conrad, of ‘the great faculty of this author – that he can make an end seem inevitable, in every instance, the only possible end.’[11]

More than a decade later, and returning to the subject—and the writer—at greater length, Ford wrote of ‘all that is behind the mystic word “justification.” Before everything a story must convey a sense of inevitability: that which happens in it must seem to be the only thing that could have happened. Of course a character may cry, “If I had then acted differently how different everything would now be.” The problem of the author is to make his then action the only action that character could have taken. It must be inevitable, because of his character, because of his ancestry, because of past illness or on account of the gradual coming together of the thousand small circumstances by which Destiny, who is inscrutable and august, will push us into one certain predicament.’[12]

‘One certain predicament.’ There’s a neat summary. My current predicament is, though, gradually easing. Of course, that’s a subjective assessment. Subjective? ‘This word has made considerable progress in England during the year you have been away’, Edward Fitzgerald wrote to his friend Frederick Tennyson (7 June 1840), ‘so that people begin to fancy they understand what it means.’[13]

I fancy it means that I no longer have to read Don Juan while lying on the bedroom floor.


[1] W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 146.

[2] Letter to Lord Byron, in W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, Letters from Iceland (London: Faber and Faber, 1937), 18.

[3] William Blissett, The Long Conversation: A Memoir of David Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 108.

[4] George Orwell, A Patriot After All: 1940-1941, edited by Peter Davison, revised and updated edition (London: Secker and Warburg, 2000), 86-115.

[5] Annie Ernaux, A Girl’s Story, translated by Alison L. Strayer (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020), 17.

[6] Letters of D. H. Lawrence III, October 1916–June 1921, edited by James T. Boulton and Andrew Robertson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 24.

[7] D. H. Lawrence, The First and Second Lady Chatterley Novels, edited by Dieter Mehl and Christa Jansohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 366.

[8] Aldous Huxley, Letters of Aldous Huxley, edited by Grover Smith (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), 160.

[9] Patrick White, Voss (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1957), 16-17.

[10] Katherine Mansfield, Selected Letters, edited by Vincent O’Sullivan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 250.

[11] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Joseph Conrad’, English Review (December 1911), 82.

[12] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 204.

[13] The Letters of Edward Fitzgerald, edited by Alfred McKinley Terhune and Annabelle Burdick Terhune, four volumes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), I, 250.