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An eclogue - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
wemyss
wemyss
An eclogue


 

I saw a pair of great tits some days ago.

 

(Massingham Major, you are a dirty-minded boy, and if you snigger again, you will do five hundred lines.)

 

The squeaking-wheel song of Parus major is always gladsome, a precursor to interesting scenes at the bird table.  On this occasion, however, what hearing and seeing the two greenery-yallery Paridæ first called up in me was a memory from last year’s early Springtide: a ærial near-collision.  A very young squirrel – native red, I am rejoiced to say – was leaping from one tree trunk to another, adjacent, just as a great tit was exploding outwards in flight from the second tree.  You never saw a more indignant bird or a more startled squirrel in your life.

 

On the same day as saw my observation of old teacher-teacher and his mate, I was meditating upon the threat that the Varroa mite poses to bees.  It is estimated that some 95 per cent. of British hives are facing Varroa infestation: a fact of great, although commonly unrealised, import to everyone who eats fruit and veg. (i.e., everyone save John Cushnie).  Varroa delenda est.

 

Yet, bar economic consequences in the market garden, these are not matters that occupy the minds of most.  Why in the blue-green world, most people – even, alas, most countrymen in these thin and piping times – ask, why in the blue-green world would anyone care about tits (Fenton Tertius, you will attend upon the headmaster in his study after this division, you filthy-minded creature) and finches and bees?

 

And then, of course, I trotted – or cantered – off to Cheltenham.

 

Barn Lane, Chapel Lane, the Hay; and then the sagging gate, the rutted drive, the small, trim house that comes to life but once or twice in a year....  The lengthy family habit of acquiring boltholes in unexpected places stands one in good stead – or steadings – when travelling.  The fact that the place is as draughty as it is ancient, the fact that in order to have a warm bath one needs must pour hot water from the kettle into the elderly bath-tub, is little more inconvenient than paying through the nose for inferior hotel rooms in the Cheltenham madness and overcrowding.  Yet for every race-goer who piles into his ancient Bristol, crosses half the Scrumpy Belt, and goes to earth in hereditary acres, there are thousands who suffer gladly the slings and arrows of rail travel, the incompetence of hoteliers, and the crush of their fellows, simply for the sake of Cheltenham and the Gold Cup.

 

Why?

 

George Gissing gets to the heart of the matter in The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft – a book that has always been, and yearly increasingly is, one of the works that has most shaped me.  (Would it not be wonderful if Peter Ackroyd, or better still, perhaps, Stephen Fry, were to annotate a new edition?)  My copy is a slim, cobby volume, printed on the same thin, parchmenty paper as a psalter is, bound in green wash-leather, and, like The Compleat Angler, rarely leaves the circle of my arm’s reach; for it is a book that solaces, and can be taken up with pleasure and profit at any moment and in any circumstance.

 

There is as much difference, said Johnson, between a lettered and an unlettered man as between the living and the dead; and, in a way, it was no extravagance.  Think merely how one’s view of common things is affected by literary association.  What were honey to me if I knew nothing of Hymettus and Hybla?—if my mind had no stores of poetry, no memories of romance?  Suppose me town-pent, the name might bring with it some pleasantness of rustic odour; but of what poor significance even that, if the country were to me mere grass and corn and vegetables, as to the man who has never read nor wished to read.  For the Poet is indeed a Maker: above the world of sense, trodden by hidebound humanity, he builds that world of his own whereto is summoned the unfettered spirit. 

 

And here is the unifying thread revealed, that links, in a great chain, bees and tits and horses and man.

 

Those who went to the trouble of going to Cheltenham and those who but watched it as tiny images flickering upon glass may well have placed their wagers on the races.  Yet those who had a flutter on Cappa Bleu, those who had a bit on Denman or Kauto Star, or, loyally, on Barbers Shop (HMQ’s runner), were doing more than gambling, and indeed were primarily doing something more and greater: they were participating, at however many removes, in something ancient, of the earth, earthy.  For what is the magic of racing?  In what does it inhere?  Surely not simply or solely in betting and matching horse against horse.  Rather, it is a celebration of our ancient companion, his speed and his strength, our first mastery and long partnership.  What matters at Cheltenham and at Aintree, as at such flat racing courses as Goodwood and Newmarket, is the scent of earth and green stuff, the creak and smell of leather, the sharp tang of the horse, and the thunder in the earth as the field sweeps past.  Why, after all, are so many of the best books and poems and paintings concerned with the natural order and our place in it?  Why else is so much of the best writing concerned with bees and farms, with angling and stalking and shooting and hunting, with horse, horn, and hound?  It would be a rash man indeed who suggested that the interests of the urban and suburban mind have created a body of letters to rival River Bank and the Wild Wood, cidering with Rosie, angling with Walton and Cotton, hunting with Flurry Knox’s hounds or shooting at Aussolas, or farming and beekeeping with Varro, Columella, Vergil, Cobbett, and Adrian Bell.  Simply to mention the Georgics is to make the argument certain, without so much as mentioning Hesiod.   And in the visual arts, and in music, is there anything urban or non-rural to set beside, say, Constable, or Delius – save, perhaps, the town canvases of Vermeer?

 

Arcady, like Death its denizen with us, is all around us, if we – stalled beasts who want to be set forth – but see it.  Forth, then, with Dan Geoffrey upon the heye wey:

 

Forth, pilgrim, forth! Forth, beste, out of thy stal!
Know thy contree, look up, thank God of all;
Hold the heye wey, and lat thy gost thee lede;
And trouthe thee shal delivere, it is no drede.

 

Crossposted at my Telegraph blog: http://my.telegraph.co.uk/gmwwemyss/blog/2009/03/14/an_eclogue.

 

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3 comments or Leave a comment
Comments
fpb From: fpb Date: March 14th, 2009 10:45 pm (UTC) (Link)

Massingham Major responds...

...please, sir, it would never occur to me to insinuate that you are interested in girls' breasts.
tudorpot From: tudorpot Date: March 14th, 2009 11:14 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Massingham Major responds...

nods, my first thought
tudorpot From: tudorpot Date: March 14th, 2009 11:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
Your bolt hole sounds delightful- well aside from the hot water issues. I'd love to go to the races, haven't been for dogs ages.
3 comments or Leave a comment