On a strike day, the Librarian sets off early, bound for picket line and rally, one of millions currently defending their livelihoods, pay, pensions, conditions—not to mention the future of school and university education, the National Health Service, transport systems, emergency services and social care, just about everything that a civilised society requires, come to think of it.
Foot soldier in a different campaign, I peer at online newspaper archives—The Folkestone Herald! The North Star! The Gloucester Journal!—and mutely interrogate the pages of Suetonius, biographies of Liberal statesmen and the Catholic Encyclopedia or run a cyber-finger down columns of common First World War acronyms and abbreviations. Then: how many serving soldiers had that surname? Ah, 5,762. But perhaps—recurring hopefully to Olive Schreiner—‘there is another method’.
I think sometimes of old volumes of letters I’ve read, or old biographies: ‘Cannot trace’, ‘Not yet identified’. That was then; this . . . Isn’t everything online? No. Aren’t all archives freely accessible? No. Can’t you translate anything from one language to another on one of those whizzbang websites? No (especially if he makes it up).
‘I am making quite good progress with that book’, Ford Madox Ford wrote to his friend Charles Masterman, the Liberal politician and head of the British propaganda department, in October 1914. I use the same cautious terms. Since this is not a leap year—no leaping!—it’s already the last day of February as I sit trying to work out which cousin of which daughter of which Lady This or Lady That married the right man (right for me, never mind for her). The ennobled families of England (and, often, Scotland; less often the other countries that make up, for the moment, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) breed, or bred, like rabbits, it occurs to me once more, if not for the exact same reasons as the poor. Bloodlines, money, influence, money, land, money. Clearly a genealogist would be handy since, as far back as I can recall, the interconnections of families have given me a headache. I can cope with straightforward cousins adequately but as soon as ‘second’ or ‘third’ or ‘removed’, even, on occasion, ‘by marriage’, swim before my eyes, darkness descends.
Apart from a genealogist, what else might help? Who or what would be useful? My provisional list features a few gaps or weaker links that may well be filled by fellow-editors or other colleagues and would include: someone with a better grasp of colloquial French than mine; a fluent Welsh speaker and, ideally, a Flemish one too; a classical scholar; an expert on Catholic doctrine, texts and rituals; a Biblical scholar, to be on the safe side; a couple of military historians, specialising in the First World War, plus one conversant with the minutiae of domestic British politics of the period, including a detailed knowledge of the career of David Lloyd George, ‘Dai Bach’; an expert on the topography of London; ditto Sussex; ditto Kent (again, to be on the safe side). In reserve, an expert on pigs and potatoes; scholar of dialect and slang, particularly of Sussex and Kent; and one or two historians of the London newspaper and periodical press.
(James Boswell by Joshua Reynolds, 1785: National Portrait Gallery)
On a good day, of course, I am—or attempt or aspire to be—all or most, or at least some, of these things myself – to a degree. Happy things, degrees, as James Boswell knew. ‘21 November 1762. Since I came up [to London], I have begun to acquire a composed genteel character very different from a rattling uncultivated one which for some time past I have been fond of. I have discovered that we may be in some degree whatever character we choose.’ And here he is a little later in the land of Rembrandt and Vermeer: ‘Tissot [a medical doctor] said mankind were all mad and differed only in degrees.’
Not always happy things, of course, as C. L. R. James perceived: ‘To the extent that a historical parallel is suggestive, to that very degree it is dangerous.’ And talk of dangerous degrees recalls Alexandra Harris on the beginning of what historians call the Little Ice Age. ‘The start was the worst of it; there was never again such prolonged rain, frost, and drought as in the years of the Great Famine of 1315-18. But the altered climate forced long-term changes in English farming. Though the average annual temperature fell by only a degree Celsius, it was a critical degree.’
How is our patient, Earth, today? Alas, doctor, situation critical.
Post! Bank statement for the Ford Madox Society. The London Review of Books. The Times Literary Supplement. And – a bellringing journal? My grasp of campanology is feeble, consisting almost entirely of The Nine Tailors, Dorothy Sayers’ 1934 novel, which takes its title from the saying that ‘nine tailors make a man’, a reference to the number of strokes at the beginning of the tolling for the dead (it was six for the death of a woman). In Akenfield, Ronald Blythe described it as three times three for a man, three times two for a woman; then the years of the dead person’s age would be tolled. He added that the practice continued up to the Second World War, ‘when all the bells of England were silenced. It was never revived.’
A wrongly delivered bellringing journal, then, but the address is a very local one and can be slipped into the afternoon walk. And so it is—a detour through the park first to avoid the adjacent road, which often requires walking in the road because of all the antisocial dimwits that leave their cars on the narrow pavement. Still, even in the park, you have to avoid, in addition to cyclists, those people on those damned scooters to whom no rules apply: ‘E-twats’ is the technical term. But I exit the park close to the crossing lights, nip up the facing road and find the number. A notice is prominent in the small front garden: SOLD. The house looks dark but not empty. Should I knock – or would that risk involving me in an H. P. Lovecraft story? Discretion, valour, all that jazz. I stuff it through the letterbox, not without difficulty, and retreat.
It’s not always, though, a matter of retreat. ‘Quite an adventure for you’, the Librarian observes, as we return from Bath. ‘Going on a train. Going into shops. And a café.’
Indeed. ‘It is not grace but patience’, Guy Davenport observed, ‘that gets most of us through the world.’
And our cherry tree is blossoming.
 Olive Schreiner. The Story of an African Farm (1883), v.
 Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763, edited by Frederick A. Pottle (London: William Heinemann, 1950), 47.
 Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764, edited by Frederick A. Pottle (London: William Heinemann, 1952), 256.
 C. L. R. James, Beyond a Boundary (1963; London: Vintage, 2019), 205.
 Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 66.
 Ronald Blythe, Akenfield (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), 84.
 Letter to Hugh Kenner, 8 October 1965: Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), I, 732.