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Exercises. - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'

From here.


It was a winter’s night – two winters, perhaps, or three, before my father died. He was abed, settled for the night; my duty, done. I stepped outside, lighting my pipe in the shelter of the old stone porch, pondering what to do: that tree had never been imagined, by them that planted it long before, to stand so long and grow so great, encroaching at last upon surround and even porch…. A problem for another year, that: not that night.

It was cold and clear and sharp as an astringent. Yarrow, meadowsweet, goldenseal … all gone, now, gone into the bright-searing cold. The night was hung on hooks in a butcher’s cold-room.

As sharp was the definition of the sky. The moon was full, haloed in ice, a two-and-twenty degree halo: impossibly remote in its deep, unfathomable, clear sky; and as if cut across by steel, one corner of the sky, coldly lucent, was filled with mackerel cirrocumulus: frazil sea ice abrading into pancake ice, through which the stars’ armada warily sailed.

Far and high, remote, uncaring, a pack in full cry, the geese gave tongue.

Edgware Road:

A West Country gentleman contemplates the Edgware Road

One doesn’t go too often up to town –

If one is wise – there’s Lord’s of course, and, then,

One’s club, one’s tailor, Trumper for a trim;

A chop at Rules, or Wilton’s for a feed;

No more than that. Westminster’s not so bad,

If one likes souks and Kasbahs, Marble Arch,

The Tyburn gallows, Marks & Spencers, trade …

As one does not. Things out of place are ill.

It wasn’t like that once, or so one hears.

Not all the shades of poets dead and gone:

Sir John, God save him; clever Eliot,

With all his shrewdness from that Western shore:

Can recreate the sense of place now dead.

Flyovers, Cricklewood, Burnt Oak, The Hyde:

They do not speak to me: I’m deaf; they, dumb,

To my ear soundless, inarticulate.

Sir John once caught its music, that of loss,

Change – and decay – in all around he saw;

Sly Mr Eliot, prophetic, set

All Asia and its demons, trafficking

With omens and chthonic deities,

In this one road, this mean and meagre street.

All very well for London, I suppose,

Where pageant-pomp and ceremony pass

Amidst the ragged and the half-believ’d,

The oddities that are imported wares;

But – thank you – I shall hold to what I know:

The village green, the High Street; parish church

And parish jumble; horses in the chalk,

Old henges, old cathedrals, dry-fly streams,

Spring lamb, dawn chorus, Evensong, real ale,

Spin bowling, Sumsion, Parry, Stanford, Howells,

The sheep upon the downs, the local Hunt,

Whist drives and cream teas topping up the funds

For choristers on outings or church roofs.

The wares of Edgware Road are bought too dear

Upon the edge of dodgy, unmapped shores:

Space liminal, to those who’d make a voyage,

And having no fixed home to call them home.

I have my mud. I’ll stick in that, I think.

The daily soundscape: a fairly typical weekday (when it’s not pissing down in floods)

The morning light is soundless, but it calls as surely. The dawn chorus: dunnock, blackcap, robin, wren, finches and tits, punctuated by an owl late to bed and answering challenge of rooks and jackdaws; poultry, cattle, sheep; the impertinent cock and the vigilance of dogs; the stable noises; the Shipping Forecast, the news briefing, the General Uplift inanity of the day, and then ‘Farming Today’. The drawn bath, bird and bee outwith the window, pheasant and peafowl, warbler and woodpigeon, and always duck and goose and hen; or weather and wind. The counterpoint of birdsong in hedgerow, wood, and arable, variant with yet unmindful finally of wind and weather, is heard under, mezzo piano, as bacon sizzles and eggs fry or are poached, toast browns, mushrooms dance in the heated pan, the kettle boils and roils. Up, then, and out, dogs too dignified quite to clamour.

The crunch of boot and paw upon the gravel of the surround; their susurration in lawn, and then in green lane and arable. Bees wild and bees tame, murmurous as the doves; peewit, whitethroat, yellowhammer, skylark. The yaffle in the wood: salty laughter, free, wild, uncaring. Farm machinery, one’s own and one’s neighbours’; if the wind and the day and the rota are right, as they too rarely are, the distant bell of Mattins in one parish or another. Ewes and cows. Returning, then: horses, cats, more dogs; the creak of leather; the sure hoof-beats as one rides out.

All is well at the home farm and all around. Had it not been, there should have been other sounds: swearing, of course, and that which prompted it, the death-rattle of machinery, the distressful cry of sow or ewe or cow with prolapse (in its way, the sound of Springtime), the frightened calling of calf or lamb or piglet that has wandered off to where it oughn’t be and can’t find its way back; the shrewishness of hack or hunter getting above itself (the draught horses never do: they needn’t, confident in their massy superiority).

All is well. If there’s a county match of major import, or a Test match, on comes the wireless. If not, my own muttered imprecations are the obbligato of the day’s budget of folly: the news, dire and drear, brought to me by Auntie and the Torygraph. Must I for any cause potter to the butcher’s, the greengrocer’s, the fruiterer’s? No? The Bristol, then, remains silent.

By luncheon, or slightly after if the cricket demands my attention, the back of the day’s non-intellectual work is broken. The chink and clink and sweet, pouring sound of plate and fork and drink; and, if worth it, the lunchtime concert on Radio 3 – but only after the weather forecast on Radio 4.

The library now, still, deeply silent, the natural world all but unheard through windows; instead, the measured, ticking clock, and the inescapable faint hum of the dire computer. The click of keys.

Out of doors once more: the rural sounds of wind and weather, tractor and beast. The daily, slow conversations, the exchange of observation and expectation upon the land and the land’s life, parish affairs, the local XI, the world as it hurtles to ruin. At the edge of hearing, perhaps, the laughter of boys in summer, the noise of sport or coarse fishing or a surreptitious splash in cool chalk-stream waters. Tomorrow, perhaps, I too shall add a sound to the waters, that of line whispering, rod singing in air, fly dropping almost unheard upon the stream – and perhaps, perhaps in the morning airs, the cloop of the fly taken, the play of rod and reel like a faint and far echo of the guns being run out at Trafalgar, and the splash of the landed trout.

The kettle calls. Tea – nowadays, alas, accompanied by the faint white noise of electronics and the clatter of mouse and key. A nap, perhaps.

And now the ancient Bristol starts, sweet as a nut, and the door closes with the settled sound of a full vault, and the tyres sing their shanty as one goes haring about for someplace on the rota with Evensong: Stanford in G, with luck; Darke; Parry….

Home now, and jingle and snort and champ of evening stables.  The wireless again, for a time; the incessance of the rattling keyboard; perhaps something decent – rara avis – on iPlayer from dear senile Auntie Beeb. The whuff and snore of dogs. At last, the filling glass. The sizzle of the dinner, the grateful cork, the swirl of brandy and the bubble of coffee. The computerised survey of the days ahead. Music, anything from the Kingsmen-choristers, Tabs though they be, to Bellowhead or the Wurzels or the LSO. The nightsounds of field and wood, now: beasts settling in, a nightingale, owls. The pleasant sound of crisp, clean, lavender-smelling bedclothes; a night breeze; at last, on the verge of sleep, ‘Sailing By’ and the late Shipping Forecast: Wight, Portland, Plymouth, Biscay, Trafalgar…. The Queen, the pips, the fading away.

The rest is dreams.

A room with wide views:

Gibbon and Gibbons: the library, in its subaqueous light. Latinists and limewood. The windows, diamond-paned and faintly green, pleasantly distorting the world without to dreamlands. Hunting scenes, cricketing scenes, landscapes, a Stubbs: those squat Low Country peasants, tapestried in rural jollification, are long banished to less obtrusive places. Ancestors and oaks (John Varley, bless him); and good fortune, always, in that this library, providentially, was never filled with unread and unreadable books bought by the ell as a sort of superior wallpaper. It remains as it has been a working library, a place of some small scholarship, books long since escaped from the most generous confines of the bookcases, stacked Babel-like on floors and flat surfaces: remote places described, regimental histories, philosophers and biographic harlots cheek by jowl. The clock ticks in grave and measured pace, time timeless here. No Olympian riot of disporting gods, nor maidenly redaction of such Greek orgies by gentle Angelica, looks down upon the faded carpets and time-patinate desks, the myriad books and overstuffed furniture: only the chaste plasterwork between the crossing beams, severe as Athenian Stuart’s reaction against the brothers Adam, confidently Georgian as the elder and the younger Wood desired. Law-calf and modern cover speak in different accents the same tongue, great riches in a little room; and this room, at least, is vaster than all the world without.

And yet it is also infinitely small and intimate, the cosmos in a kernel, the hazelnut that is all that is made. Amidst these tall, narrow windows is a family churchyard. Stonework and architecture and hydrology, a great-grandfather’s, the mysteries of masonry taken not as a means of enrichment but as enriching an understanding, the unmercenary pursuit of knowledge from a caught fancy. My father’s traces: metals and armour and farriery, the history of an art of chivalry and use; and warfare and history, Hansard and Namier and further back to Sumption and Ross, the wars in France and the jars of York and Lancaster. Gardening and soil, and painting the results: my grandmother lives on. And my grandfather: horses and hounds and Hunts, geese and goats, forestry, coppicing, agriculture; the treatise upon horsemanship of an earlier Gervase was not infrequently before him, for quarrel and instruction alike (and debate with Xenophon), as that earlier Gervase’s The English Huswife was often cackled at by his wife my grandmother, whose own avatar, Old Mrs Knox of Aussolas, is on the shelf given over to Somerville and Ross. My mother is here also, mystics and patristics, meaty theology, and for her as for the others, her own MSS, hers a long conversation over several centuries of unsundered time, time interpenetrate as at Little Gidding, time meaningless in the communion of saints, her lifelong chat upon the page with Dame Julian and with Margery Kempe. Her father’s, some of these books were, and he is here, in commentary and sermon, summa and laws of ecclesiastical polity and sound divinity, Jewel and Hooker, Herbert, Andrewes, and Donne, adumbrating the Caroline flower of Taylor and Ken. Mr Eliot watches from a nearby shelf, in his own solstitio brumali, a pilgrim Magus; and Honest Izaak watches his godly protégés with confident approval. Here are Alec Clifton-Taylor and Pevsner, and Sir John and his Shell guides with his poems; here, Pragnell, soothing them into amity, and not so far away, Vitruvius and Palladio, looking at what they had wrought, all unintending. John Stow and Anthony à Wood record their antiquities, and marginalia in all these record the engagement of great-aunts and great-great-grandfathers with the long unending story. My world, our world, is here, as much as in the muniment room, and richer far. This is the record of our minds and hearts, what we loved; and what survives of us – Larkin also is upon these shelves – is love.

Cheshire cottages:

It could be any country lane in this part of the country: cottages where once the labouring poor and the fiercely respectable hung on and now the middle classes, anxious, keep the Aga flying. The cottages are vernacular, the materials particular, local; they have a matronly shapeliness of form. Moorland is none so far away, and the Peak District, here on the edge of Cheshire, all but the Alderley Edge of Cheshire, between Peaks and Plain.

It could be any country lane in this part of the country. But it is not.

Macclesfield and Manchester, rail and canal that made them, encroach just beyond this tight horizon; the Iron Gates are closed and the age of iron and lead and brass has blasted all things: hard-faced footballers, overpaid and under-evolved, and their orange-skinned, hair-teased WAGs; soap actors from here to Stockport, pop-stars from Poynton to here; bores and boors of golf club and twee shop: all these encroach. This is a place besieged, its bands drowned out, its Nonconformist conscience sold, its Church compromised, its grit sinking into oozing ground.

This is the last of England, fading, gone.

Breakfast: the full English:

Sausages, popping and brash, boldly Cumberland or unctuously Oxonian, sage Lincolnshire or caseless, Aberdonian Lorne; streaky rashers, properly crisped at the last; eggs fried and eggs poached, rumbled, buttered, all new and brown and large as charity; tomato sliced and exquisitely grilled; devilled kidneys; kedgeree’s bite; mushrooms sizzling from the pan’s hot dripping; toast with unsalted butter, Oxford marmalade or Dundee or three fruits, or jam of soft fruits all compound; a guid Scots parritch; muffins oozing butter; clotted cream; gammon fried and firm brown trout, bannock or scone, faggots or black pudding; Ceylon tea and the sharp cleanness of apple juice that might almost have made a cider; pheasant or grouse or woodcock, if there’s any going begging. Britain on the table, and a good day’s work ahead.

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9 comments or Leave a comment
tekalynn From: tekalynn Date: June 13th, 2012 09:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 14th, 2012 06:09 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you.

And do say of you spot anything wanting improvement, please.
kestrelsparhawk From: kestrelsparhawk Date: June 14th, 2012 01:50 am (UTC) (Link)
omg, your writing is so lush and whatever the opposite of skin deep is. I feel as though I were walking in that place, and being served that breakfast.... which to my horror sounds delicious, to the point where even my imagination feels overfed. (Not in a bad way; just as though I would eat everything, and then BE SO SORRY, even if my next job were mucking out the stables and weeding the vegetables.) I've been yearning for Washington State, and now I'm feeling as though I really do have to produce something, even though it's nearly as young as England is old -- as a treat, my mother used to drive us through Port Ludlow (I believe it was Ludlow; it's been many years and oh blast now googling's in my future) to let us look at the old, old houses -- mid-Victorian era. even the midwest was a shock, when my ex drove me to see the oldest houses in Iowa -- built in the 1830s, some of them.Reading your prose makes me feel as though I live in a world which floats above the earth.

so thank you for the pleasure, and I will now ponder how to describe a place which, when I was growing up, was still more than half wilderness uncut. Old, but beyond living memory, so not quite friendly to humans.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 14th, 2012 06:12 pm (UTC) (Link)

Rural life does aid in burning off the calories, I find.

I shd be vy interested as ever to see what you turn out for this. (I'd occasion recently to observe that my constituency was created in 1295. It really is true that a trip of a thousand miles seems to an American, quite near, and a distance of a thousand years, to a Briton, quite recent.)
From: optasia Date: June 14th, 2012 02:29 am (UTC) (Link)
You are so brilliant at description. You made me feel I was there in all of them.

"The crunch of boot and paw upon the gravel of the surround." I could hear that so clearly.

I think Sky and Breakfast: the full English were my favorites.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 14th, 2012 06:15 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you.

You're not so bad yourself (Azkaban comes to mind, despair like a blanket, wasn't it?).
From: optasia Date: June 14th, 2012 06:54 pm (UTC) (Link)


Thank you. That comes from my favorite of the drabbles I have written and it warms my heart that you remembered.
From: el_staplador Date: June 17th, 2012 04:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
I am wildly jealous of your library - both the room and its contents. And yes, Stanford in G...

May I borrow these exercises?
wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 17th, 2012 10:04 pm (UTC) (Link)

Yes, of course.

That's what they're there for.
9 comments or Leave a comment