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.

Gilbert White of Selborne

Skylark

(Skylark: https://findingnature.co.uk/animal/skylark/ )

In Great Trade Route, Ford Madox Ford, recalling a visit to a New Jersey truck farm in the company of William Carlos Williams, commented on the behaviour of a snipe which was distracting the men from the nest to protect its young, an example of what Gilbert White famously termed storgé, using the Greek word for familial or ‘natural’ affection, one of the four Greek terms for ‘love’, along with philia, agape and eros: all were discussed in C. S. Lewis’s book, The Four Loves (1960).[1]

Ford often mentioned Gilbert White of Selborne (born 18 July 1720), the ‘parson-naturalist’, in both fictional and non-fictional contexts. In Parade’s End, White crops up in the first volume, Some Do Not. . .  as Christopher Tietjens spars with Valentine Wannop on their night-ride.

Gilbert-White

(Gilbert White)

‘He said:
“Where do you get your absurd Latin nomenclature from? Isn’t it phalæna …
She had answered:
“From White . . . The Natural History of Selborne is the only natural history I ever read….
“He’s the last English writer that could write,” said Tietjens.
“He calls the downs ‘those majestic and amusing mountains,’” she said. “Where do you get your dreadful Latin pronunciation from? Phal i i na! To rhyme with Dinah!”
“It’s ‘sublime and amusing mountains,’ not ‘majestic and amusing,’” Tietjens said. “I got my Latin pronunciation, like all public schoolboys of to-day, from the German.”’[2]

Later, in the third volume, A Man Could Stand Up—, Tietjens is in the trenches, where his Sergeant enthusiastically praises the skylark’s ‘Won’erful trust in yumanity! Won’erful hinstinck set in the fethered brest by the Halmighty!’

Tietjens says ‘mildly’ that he thinks the Sergeant has ‘got his natural history wrong. He must divide the males from the females. The females sat on the nest through obstinate attachment to their eggs; the males obstinately soared above the nests in order to pour out abuse at other male skylarks in the vicinity.’

‘“Gilbert White of Selbourne,” he said to the Sergeant, “called the behaviour of the female STORGE: a good word for it.” But, as for trust in humanity, the Sergeant might take it that larks never gave us a thought. We were part of the landscape and if what destroyed their nests whilst they sat on them was a bit of H[igh].E[xplosive]. shell or the coulter of a plough it was all one to them.’

The sergeant is highly sceptical of such sentiments:

‘“Ju ’eer what the orfcer said, Corporal,” the one said to the other. Wottever’ll ’e say next! Skylarks not trust ’uman beens in battles! Cor!”
The other grunted and, mournfully, the voices died out.’

Later in the same volume, Ford recurs to White in Valentine’s own reflections – Ford uses the image or allusion echoed in the thoughts of multiple characters to frequently brilliant effect:

‘Her mother was too cunning for them. With the cunning that makes the mother wild-duck tumble apparently broken-winged just under your feet to decoy you away from her little things. STORGE, Gilbert White calls it!’[3]

White-The-Wakes

(The Wakes, Gilbert White’s house:
http://gilbertwhiteshouse.org.uk/?venue=gilbert-whites-house)

In The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception, 1798-1984, a superb, rich study of how technological developments since the eighteenth century have affected the ways in which we interpret the world, Don Gifford wrote of how, for Samuel Johnson and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the ambition to be generally well read, that is, to have a reasonable grasp of all that was being published and made available, ‘was within reach’, and that a community of those sharing that distinction or at least that ambition was ‘at least imagined to be a given among educated men and women.’ His footnote mentions the assumption evident in Gilbert White’s letters that his correspondents shared his acquaintance with Dryden, Pope, Addison, Swift, Gray, Johnson, Hume, Gibbon, Sterne – as well as with the Bible, Virgil, Homer, Horace, the Koran, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton. By the mid-80s (when he was writing this book), Gifford adds, ‘the idea of being well read and of belonging to such a community is a joke we have politely learned not to mention except with a shrug of self-deprecation.’

Of course, White’s acquaintance with Pope was not only with the man’s work: he was presented with a copy of Pope’s six-volume translation of the Iliad by the poet himself, when graduating with distinction from Oriel College, Oxford, in 1743.[4]

White’s fascinating and deceptively simple work has embedded itself in English culture in numerous contexts. His genius, as Ronald Blythe remarks, was ‘to revolutionise the study of natural history by noting what exactly lay outside his own back-door.’[5] In his first letter to the Honourable Daines Barrington in June 1769, White wrote, ‘I see you are a gentleman of great candour, and one that will make allowances; especially where the writer professes to be an out-door naturalist, one that takes his observations from the subject itself, and not from the writings of others’ (Selborne 104). He produced hundreds of pages, records of looking and listening and remembering and wondering. Birds, plants, insects, weather, animals, not least the human. ‘My musical friend, at whose house I am now visiting, has tried all the owls that are his near neighbours with a pitch-pipe set at concert-pitch, and finds they all hoot in B flat. He will examine the nightingales next spring’ (Selborne 127).

White's_Selborne_1813_title_page

The local as the universal. A hundred and eighty years after White’s death, William Carlos Williams would note that the poet’s business was ‘to write particularly, as a physician works, upon a patient, in the particular to discover the universal.’ He quoted the line of John Dewey’s that he had come upon by chance, ‘The local is the only universal, upon that all else builds’, commenting elsewhere that, ‘in proportion as a man has bestirred himself to become awake to his own locality he will perceive more and more of what is disclosed and find himself in a position to make the necessary translations.’[6] Williams in Rutherford; Thoreau in Concord; White in Selborne.

Don Gifford points out that, ‘In effect, White’s perspective differs radically from our own because he had no a priori basis for distinguishing between trivial and significant things.’ So, in addition to seeing with his own eyes, White ‘had to see cumulatively, a second order of seeing’. He tells the story of Henry Thoreau reducing Ellery Channing to tears when the two men went out into the woods together: Channing knew so little about what to record that he returned with an empty notebook, desperate and frustrated.[7]

White’s journals were published in 1931 and, Alexandra Harris comments, ‘his work was tirelessly reissued over the next decade.’ But then, in addition to being valued for his ‘timeless qualities’, White was ‘also being used as someone relevant to the present time precisely because the world he knew was disappearing.’[8]

When we read those writers detailing the current decline or disappearance of so much British wildlife, through environmental damage, farming practices and government policies, the parallels hardly need stressing.

On the matter of White’s journals, let your fingers do the running, to this superb resource:
http://naturalhistoryofselborne.com/

House and garden, café and shop?
http://www.gilbertwhiteshouse.org.uk/

 

 
References

[1] Ford Madox Ford, Great Trade Route (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937), 184; Gilbert White, The Illustrated History of Selborne (London: Macmillan, 1984), 114, 133-134.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 163-164.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, A Man Could Stand Up— (1926; edited by Sara Haslam, Manchester: Carcanet, 2011), 63, 64, 65, 201.

[4] Don Gifford, The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), 158 and n., 5.

[5] Ronald Blythe, Aftermath: Selected Writings 1960-2010, edited by Peter Tolhurst (Norwich: Black Dog Books, 2010), 226.

[6] William Carlos Williams, The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams (New York: New Directions, 1967), 391; Selected Essays (New York: New Directions, 1969), 28.

[7] Gifford, Farther Shore, 10, 11.

[8] Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (London: Thames & Hudson 2010), 171, 173.