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.

Binding weeds


On Sunday, and again this morning, with the temperature due to rise to 30 degrees Celsius, we are out early. A handful of dog walkers in the park as we pass, occasional runners putting the time in while it’s still manageable. This morning, the inevitable traffic but our contact with the main road is brief.

Up the steep road to the top Perrett’s Park entrance, where we catch sight of a notice inviting people to help cull the bindweed which takes root and spreads so disastrously. Going on to Arnos Vale, the Victorian cemetery, both cool and quiet at this time of the day, we’re newly aware of the extent to which bindweed has taken hold here too.


Bindweed. Convolvulus arvensis—with the same root, unsurprisingly, as ‘convoluted’, it does its mischief to other plants by winding itself, binding itself, round the host counter-clockwise. Geoffrey Grigson launches with gusto into its local names, my favourites including Billy-Clipper, Devil’s Guts, Fairies’ Winecups, Granny’s Nightcap, Robin-run-in-the-field and Gipsy’s Hat. ‘Every gardener knows it’, Grigson remarks, ‘and perhaps more blasphemy is expended on Devil’s Guts, Cornbine, Withwind, and Withywind than upon all the other weeds of Great Britain. Neither blasphemy, hoeing, nor selective weed killers have yet destroyed it.’ He adds, characteristically (and quite rightly), ‘One should speak kindly of its white and pink flowers, all the same.’[1]

William Curtis, in his late 18th century Flora Londinensis, ‘warned against the deception implicit in its representation’, asserting that, ‘Beautiful as this plant appears to the eye, experiences proves it to have a most pernicious tendency in agriculture’. Only eradication by the spade could destroy it: simply cutting it down wouldn’t do the trick.[2]

No political symbolism here, obviously. None at all.



Notes


[1] Geoffrey Grigson, An Englishman’s Flora (Oxford: Helicon, 1996), 287.

[2] Mark Laird, A Natural History of English Gardening (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 374, 376, 377.

Travels, not Keatsian

From 25 June to 6 August 1818, John Keats went walking with his friend Charles Brown, to the Lake District, Scotland, briefly to Northern Ireland and back to Scotland. 42 days, 642 miles. On 29 June, setting off at four in the morning, they climbed Skiddaw, the sixth highest summit in England, just north of Keswick in Cumbria : ‘I have an amazing partiality for mountains in the clouds.’

I myself have an amazing partiality for staying at home of late, walled in by books. Nevertheless we ventured, the Librarian and Harry the cat and I, as far as Somerset (and Dorset and Wiltshire: meandering roads), and stayed the night—actually three nights—in A Different Place, for the first time since Christmas 2019. Not quite a Keatsian trip but quietly impressive on its own terms, I thought.


Once there, we talked, ate, read, walked, drank a little wine. At the Chalke Valley History Festival, the Librarian and I mooched about and necked a salted caramel ice-cream while her parents went to see Tom Stoppard and his biographer, Hermione Lee, discourse before a rapt audience in a large tent. Slightly unsettled by our earlier view of combatants wielding sticks, apparently in their underwear (‘Look! People fighting in their pants!’), we stayed to watch Dan Snow, with a smattering of other historians and willing helpers, re-enact the Battle of Agincourt.

But the main business, apart from the company, was to see the sea, again for the first time in too long. It was a quiet stretch of coast—having no facilities—offering sea, sand, sea cabbage, occasional dog walkers, a distant angler, a wheeling gull or two, pebbles, mysterious flowers, mysterious stone circles.


As for literary connections—Keats aside—there was the village of Broad Chalke, familiar to John Aubrey, author of Brief Lives, and home to historical novelist and poet Maurice Hewlett (1861-1923), who lived in the Old Rectory. In 1904, recovering from a breakdown, Ford Madox Ford spent time at Winterborne Stoke, three miles from Stonehenge. He met and walked with W. H. Hudson, who had recommended that area as one to which Ford might escape from his situation in London. He later remembered standing for half an hour with Hudson watching a rookery near Broad Chalke. He saw a good deal of Hewlett too. At Christmas 1911, Ezra Pound also stayed with Hewlett, an occasion poignantly recalled—ghosts and shadows—as he sat in the military detention centre near Pisa:

and for that Christmas at Maurie Hewlett’s
Going out from Southampton
they passed the car by the dozen
     who would not have shown weight on a scale
               riding, riding
                     for Noel the green holly
     Noel, Noel, the green holly
     A dark night for the holly
          (80/515)

Going in circles

After a year or more of travelling no further than a couple of miles from home, whatever the shape and length of the walks, on closer nodding terms with the tulips than with other human animals, we broke out of the circle a few days ago and into. . . a circle. It was, though, a stone circle, more than that since Stanton Drew offers the third largest complex of standing stones in England, three circles, ‘the central “Great Circle” consisting almost entirely of fallen stones’, solid blocks of the local dolomitic conglomerate. As with the Rollright Stones in the Cotswolds, near Long Compton, a village on the borders of Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, ‘folklore decrees that the stones are uncountable.’[1]

The Bath antiquary John Wood claimed that he had counted the stones, ‘though the cloudburst that followed was attributed to his folly by the villagers.’[2]


Wood had added that those who did make the attempt ‘proceeded till they were either struck dead upon the spot, or with such an illness as soon carried them off.’ Quoting this, Janet and Colin Bord enlarge a little upon the ‘wedding legend’, the story traditionally associated with the stones, that they were a wedding party turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath. The wedding, on a Saturday, went on until the fiddler stopped at midnight, saying that he couldn’t play on the Sabbath. ‘But then a dark stranger appeared and continued the music, and the merry-makers danced faster and faster and could not stop. At dawn, the music ceased, and they saw that the fiddler was none other than the Devil. They could not run away from him, and he said that one day he would return and play to them again. Until that day comes, they stand, as still as stone, in a field at Stanton Drew.’[3]

The details vary in several versions, as Kingsley Palmer points out, noting that an alternative name for the stones is ‘The Fiddlers and the Maids’. ‘All however agree that it was punishment for breaking the sabbath which caused the tragedy, that it was the bride who insisted on continuing beyond the midnight hour and that the devil himself led the dance in the form of a fiddler. The legend obviously has strong moralistic overtones, and the role of the bride suggests its masculine origin’.[4]


When the famous antiquarian and biographer John Aubrey stayed with his grandmother in Compton Dando, he would visit Stanton Drew, which he referred to as ‘bigger than Stonehenge’. He claimed not to believe the story ‘that on her way to be married, a bride and the company she was with were all turned into these stones, which are grouped together, hard as marble and nine or ten feet high. One is called the bride’s stone, another the parson’s stone, another the cook’s. The stones are a dirty reddish colour and take a good polish. I cannot help wondering how they really came to be there, and why.’

Thirty years later, Aubrey went back ‘to see the stone monument there that I knew as a child. The stones stand in plough land.’ The corn was ready for harvest so his attempts to measure the stones were hampered. He recorded that the villagers broke the stones ‘with sledges because they encumber their fertile land. The stones have been diminishing fast these past few years. I must stop this if I can.’[5]

On a brisk and bright and breezy day, one pound per person entrance fee slipped into the honesty box, and we’re through the gate and into the field, with the River Chew beyond. It’s very atmospheric, or was when we were there, wind fanning through the grass, stones standing, leaning or fallen, some with small pools of rainwater in the shallow depressions, stone weathered into wildly varied colours, shades and textures.


The Great Circle, at 113 metres in diameter, is the second largest after Avebury, and has 26 surviving upright stones. Recent research, outlined on the English Heritage site, states that there were nine concentric rings of wooden posts inside the great circle, each standing several metres tall. Similar timber circles such as Woodhenge are known elsewhere, but this is apparently the largest and most complex timber monument known in the British Isles. There would have been a large, deep circular ditch around the stones, 6 or 7 metres wide and about 135 metres in diameter. The site may date back around 4500 years.

https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stanton-drew-circles-and-cove/history/

Hardly the ends of the earth for us, but a few miles—and a few thousand years—beyond our own recent circle. Modest progress but progress, after all.


Notes


[1] Images of Prehistory, text by Peter Fowler, photographs by Mick Sharp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 124.

[2] Julian Cope, The Modern Antiquarian: A Pre-Millennial Odyssey through Megalithic Britain (London: Thorson 1998), 222.

[3] Janet & Colin Bord, Mysterious Britain (London: Paladin Books, 1975), 29.

[4] Kingsley Palmer, The Folklore of Somerset (London: Batsford, 1976), 74, 75. The story is also retold in Sybil Marshall, Everyman’s Book of English Folk Tales (London: Dent, 1981).

[5] Ruth Scurr, John Aubrey: My Own Life (London: Chatto & Windus, 2015), 26, 155.

May Day, jay day


Our local Victorian cemetery is pretty quiet, certainly early on a Saturday—Mayday—morning. Good walking, orchestral birdsong. The sparrows en route are noisy, even clamorous in two or three specific bushes, but it’s chatter, sociability. Some of the cemetery birdsong smacks more of performance.

At one point, the Librarian and I conduct a highly technical ornithological exchange.

—What’s that bird up there?
—Where? Oh, just a pigeon, isn’t it?
—Is it? I thought there was something about the beak.
—Oh yes, looks like a finch.
—I thought perhaps a jay.
Tiring of this, the bird launches itself into space.
—Oh yes! You can see now. Beautiful colours. It is a jay.

In Ford Madox Ford’s 1923 novel, The Marsden Case, the narrator is found ‘gazing through a plate-glass window set in granite at a blue straw hat trimmed with jay’s wings pointing backwards so that it resembled a helmet of Mercury’.[1] ‘The jay, the “British Bird of Paradise”, displaying his vari-coloured feathers at a spring-time gathering’, W. H. Hudson wrote in one of his catalogues of the birds which ‘give most delight to the aesthetic sense’.[2]


(Benjamin Haughton, Jay:  Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services)

Ford was a great admirer of—and well acquainted with—Hudson, who devoted a great deal of time in his later years to combatting the barbaric treatment of birds, which slaughtered hundreds of thousands and drove many species to extinction. ‘Rare visitors were shot on sight. In May 1870 a flock of forty golden orioles, arriving in woods near Penzance, was quickly wiped out: “everyone in the place was up and after them.”’ This ‘spirit of destruction prevailed everywhere’, in town and country and ‘running through all classes.’ Fashionable women wore hats ‘trimmed with gulls’ wings or the plumes of great crested grebes, or a ball dress set off by a spray of goldfinches or robins.’ Hudson was closely involved with the founding in the late 1880s of the Society for the Protection of Birds, which was incorporated by Royal charter in 1904.[3]


‘The wilderness is near as well as dear to every man’, Henry Thoreau wrote, ‘The very uprightness of the pines and maples asserts the ancient rectitude and vigor of nature. Our lives need the relief of such a background, where the pine flourishes and the jay still screams.’[4]

As well it might.



Notes


[1] Ford Madox Ford, The Marsden Case (London: Duckworth, 1923), 22-23.

[2] Hudson, Birds and Man, (1901); see  Ruth Tomalin, W. H. Hudson: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 150.

[3] Tomalin, 144, 145, 146-149; RSPB website: https://www.rspb.org.uk/

[4] Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (New York: Crowell, 1961; Apollo, 1966; Library of America edition, 1985), 138.

Variable speeds


Feeling a little odd is not, it transpires, down to the cat beginning the day by licking my eyebrows; rather, a recurrence of an old trouble, a touch of positional vertigo, a common enough problem of the inner ear but no less unsettling for that. It will, or should, pass off. In the meantime, I try not to look up – or down – or move my head too quickly or stretch my neck or bend or twist. . . Best to sit and read or stand and think about sitting to read. So the morning goes, with exaggerated care taken not to drop the soap in the shower or get too inventive coming downstairs. 

On the plus side, I’m two Pfizer doses in – and, the other morning, took what I believe to have been my first solo walk in more than a year; not the Daily Walk but a brisk sortie to another park – the one with the rosemary bushes, so I could pick a few sprigs for the asparagus, rosemary and tomato tart (Anna Jones’ recipe) I was making for lunch. It was early, the air felt wonderfully fresh, there was barely any noise except birdsong, the distant slamming of a car door and, until I went home by a slightly different route, passing the park at the end of our road, I saw no people at all. Then, scattered across the slopes, there were dog walkers and two or three runners.

So here I am now among the women: Mary Butts and Nathalie Blondel (biographer of Butts and editor of her journals); Olive Garnett; Juliet Soskice, Ford Madox Ford’s sister; Stella Bowen; and Selina Hastings’ biography of Sybille Bedford.

(Mary Butts in 1919)

Just as time, in this pandemic, seems to move at two utterly different speeds—like lightning and barely at all—and the past is both a fingertip away and impossibly remote, so it is with the theoretical sharing of the experience of the pandemic. The early rhetorical booming about how we were all in it together (painfully reminiscent of the early days of Tory austerity policies) was quickly recognised as nonsense, even in the context of England alone. Now we look at the appalling footage from India, the funeral pyres, the staggering numbers of new infections and people dying for want of oxygen. We have all experienced a pandemic but in such widely differing ways and in such wildly differing circumstances that the statement is practically meaningless. And to write about it? Feasible but – very difficult, yes.

A new national poll concludes that 40% of those surveyed thought the Tories were corrupt – presumably the other 60% were either Tories or that very prevalent breed of contemporary voters: the ones who really and truly Don’t Know, and, very often, don’t care either. The Prime Minister may or may not have said ‘no more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands’. The two points that most struck me were, firstly, how very plausible it was that Johnson would have said it, or something very like it, given what we know of him; and secondly, bodies were already piled in their scores of thousands, many of those deaths directly attributable to his government’s policies, particularly being too damned slow to lock down and too damned quick to come out of lockdown.

Future historians will surely have a whale of a time looking back at the state we’re now in and the last few years that led us here. Will they be able to believe their eyes?

Pursuing those projects


In a letter to poet and publisher James Laughlin, on 28 March 1995, Guy Davenport wrote about poet and publisher Jonathan Williams who, when he came to town (Lexington, Kentucky, in Davenport’s case), required a royal court, with about thirty people invited to dinner afterwards. ‘Whereas I am a hermit’, Davenport added. ‘Bonnie Jean [his partner] and I consider more than four people in a room to be a replay of the French Revolution.’[1]

Some people wouldn’t turn a hair at this, of course, whereas I’m thinking: ‘Four people? How could you stand so many in a room?’ Though this might be so even without a pandemic.

I’m wondering now, on average grey days, whether we shall ever be wholly ‘without a pandemic’. I suspect not, though it’s difficult to envisage precisely what that ‘not without’ will look like. Like flu but a little worse? Invisible but some people always keeping their distance, stepping off paths, wearing masks? Some people themselves invisible because they will never – never – reappear in cinemas, theatres, restaurants, shops? People as ghosts, as revenants, as faces glimpsed or voices almost overheard?


In the aftermath of the First World War, Ford Madox Ford asked his friend Isabel Paterson if ‘in the case of certain dead people you cannot feel that they are indeed gone from this world?’ He added that ‘in my case the world daily becomes more and more peopled with such revenants and less and less with those who still walk this earth.’[2] Though Ford rarely alludes to it, the Spanish influenza pandemic killed more people than had died in the war itself. Far fewer people have died in the current pandemic than in 1918-1919 but there will still be a sense, I suspect, in which, once things move back a little—or a lot—towards what is usually termed ‘normal life’, the things familiar to us before Covid-19 hit will seem more substantial somehow, even more real, than whatever replaces them.

I feel no desperate need to go to the pub or a football match, or get on a plane somewhere, anywhere. To see, and walk beside, the sea, yes, and to reunite with a few—a very few—people. For the most part, my nostalgia—nostos, the journey home—is for quite mundane things, particular streets to walk on, particular buildings to look at again, hardly even that, just to pass by, barely remarking them. But, even given the singular nature of this pandemic, and a year like no other in my lifetime, I still know that, once that street corner and that building are there in front of me, something won’t quite jell, somehow the thing envisaged and the thing confronted will refuse to come together. Some other image will then arise: some other stretch of undistinguished street, some patch of sand, an obscure lane, the corner of a terrace, some scruffy path beside a canal. Which will be fine: the mild dissatisfaction, the readjustment, the readiness to try again. It will serve as ‘normal’ enough. 

‘The ambiguous human condition means tirelessly trying to take control of things’, Sarah Bakewell wrote, with Simone de Beauvoir in mind. ‘We have to do two near-impossible things at once: understand ourselves as limited by circumstances, and yet continue to pursue our projects as though we are truly in control.’[3]

As though, as though. My current condition is, I surmise, very ambiguous – but certainly human.

Notes


[1] Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, edited by W. C. Bamberger,  (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 196.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Last Post (1928; edited by Paul Skinner, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 5.

[3] Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being & Apricot Cocktails (London: Chatto & Windus, 2016), 226.

Ashes, sawdust, felled trees


In 1976, 3 March was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Western Lent, named for the custom of sprinkling on the heads of penitents the ashes of consecrated palms left over from Palm Sunday. In a letter of this date, Hugh Kenner wrote to Guy Davenport: ‘The enclosed clippings may amuse. And did I mention the sermon on hell in an Irish church last month, in the midst of which a choir boy was noticed to be on fire? Sleeve too near a candle apparently.’[1]

Dear Hugh – ‘was noticed’.

Clear, dry days draw us back to Arnos Vale, our local Victorian garden cemetery, one of the city’s wonders. The last few visits there, though, have been a bit disconcerting: unfamiliar gaps and bare slopes and sightlines where before were dense gatherings of trees. Then, too, we can often hear the melancholy sound of chainsaws.

Guy Davenport wrote of two entwined trees, an apple and a pear, which had stood near his home for over fifty years. They were cut down by a developer, ‘in full bloom, with a power saw, the whining growl of which is surely the language of devils at their business, which is to cancel creation.’[2]

‘My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled’, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote,

Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
   Of a fresh and following folded rank
         Not spared, not one
         That dandled a sandalled
   Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering
   weed-winding bank.[3]


The situation at Arnos Vale is quite other. Not, like the felled trees mourned by Hopkins or Davenport, due to rapacious developers, nor like those in so many present or recent cases of misguided (or not wholly disinterested) councils or the disastrous vandalism inextricable from hugely expensive vanity projects. The Arnos Vale trees have fallen prey to Chalara ash dieback, a fungal disease affecting ash trees in many locations across the country, an infection frequently fatal once contracted. At Arnos Vale they have been dealing with it since 2017 and, tragically, they have almost total infection across this beautiful 45-acre site.
https://arnosvale.org.uk/ash-dieback-faqs/#:~:text=If%20you%20have%20recently%20visited,total%20infection%20across%20the%20site.

The cemetery was, in fact, rescued from development, more than thirty years ago, when the private owner of the site announced plans to clear and commercially develop a large part of it. Local individuals and other citizens, Bristol city council and well wishers from around the world campaigned and worked together to rescue and preserve it for future generations. Still a working cemetery, it also offers a paradise for walkers with or without dogs, nature lovers, curious children, people in need of quiet, of ‘a green thought in a green shade.’[4]


They will plant other trees there. The gaps will be filled, the spaces will narrow and we’ll go on walking along the paths. If we could change governments or perceived priorities or media shortcomings or UK laws, we’d do that. Since we can’t, we’ll have to settle for making a donation every so often, to help the work that’s being done there. Where better, after all, could we walk?

Notes


[1] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1611.

[2] Guy Davenport, ‘Shaker Light’, in The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), 59.

[3] ‘Binsey Poplars (felled 1879)’, Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, fourth edition, revised and enlarged, edited by W. H. Gardner and N. H. Mackenzie (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 78.

[4] Andrew Marvell, ‘The Garden’, in The Complete Poems, edited by Elizabeth Story Donno (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985), 101.

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.

Rosemary and rue


We walk back from the frosty cemetery, my jacket pocket stuffed with sprigs of rosemary, courtesy of the bush—one of two—in the park we cut through on the way. The original Latin phrase (ros marinus) translates as ‘sea dew’. Put soon into a jar of water, it lasts surprisingly well.

‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance—pray you, love, remember’, poor Ophelia says to Laertes (Hamlet, IV, v). ‘And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.’

There is, I suspect, little danger of our failing to remember the events of the past week. In our country, record numbers of Covid-19 cases seemingly every day, and the hospitals, especially in London, in crisis. In the United States, a record number of daily deaths from the same cause – and, ah, what seems rather like an attempted coup. Astonishing scenes from the Capitol, which apparently surprised even some of those who knew something very like it was on the cards – let alone the ones who pretended that it hadn’t been coming down the track for the past four years. Clearly, I don’t know enough about American politics to understand why the man who incited all this—and incited or effectively authorised so much more—isn’t already behind bars, along with a good many other members of his entourage, past and present. ‘The cradle of democracy’, I’ve seen the United States referred to as several times recently (not always ironically). If that’s so, the child has been sickening for some time now and, for all the hopeful signs, the prognosis must be in doubt.

Here, luckily, no Conservative politician is acquainted with Donald Trump; nor do they even recognise the name. The thumbs-up, the golden elevator, the smarming and sucking up and toadying – never happened. Reality can be so misleading.

In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (IV, iv), Perdita (which means lost, suitably enough, though she is found again) offers ‘flowers’ to the disguised Polixenes and Camillo: ‘Reverend sirs,/ For you there’s rosemary and rue. These keep/ Seeming and savour all the winter long.’ ‘Rue’, of course, offers puns a-plenty but its Old High German root, I see, meant ‘mourning’.

Let’s hope for sufficient doses—and effective distribution—of rosemary and rue.