What’s next?

President Josiah Bartlett, gettin’ things done

My housemates have done a lot of wonderful things to enhance my life and broaden my horizons (I like to think I’ve done the same for them), but one thing we can pretty much all agree on is the greatness of The West Wing. Josiah Bartlett is every wishy-washy liberal commie pinko like me’s dream president: authoritative yet grandfatherly, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and highly educated, yet also likeable and folksy. He combines the winsome appeal of Reagan with the apparently genuine concern for ethical government, and the man-of-the-soil credibility, that we associate with Jimmy Carter. Even Republicans respect him. His favourite thing to bark at his long-suffering and brilliant staff after a long day of solving diplomatic crises, saving the economy and stickin’ it to right wing nut jobs is “What’s next?”

So what is next?

I’ve finished my degree. I’m no longer enrolled at Exeter, though I’m still in Oxford. I’m currently unemployed and endeavouring to alter that circumstance. I have, suddenly, a lot of time on my hands to do things that had to be shelved for the past three years. Reading precisely what I want. Writing poetry and essays. Thinking about things (and then writing more about them.) Going places (within reason, since I’m not really earning.) Cooking more, and better, and learning about what I cook.

This blog was always meant to be about a college experience, and, lovely and stimulating though that experience has been, it’s now over.

A new experience, however, is emerging, which I would categorize as the young,-highly-educated-and-unemployed experience. A lot of people up and down the country are having it at the moment, and I’d like to be able to tap into a network of people who are all in the same boat. My own experience is only slightly different in that I’ve elected not to move back in with my parents (who are, after all, quite a long way away), and am instead living in a house in Oxford with four of my friends, who are still studying. I’m in an odd limbo between dependence and independent living, and it strikes me as an interesting phenomenon. One that could profitably be studied. Analysed, even. And, perhaps, written about.

I’ll shortly be starting a new blog. It will combine pieces on things that take my fancy with pieces on topical issues (education, job hunting, the process of Being a Grown-up), as well as book reviews, tales of travels, housemate foibles and days out (as always–that seems to have been my bread and butter on Ex/Elle), food and cookery writing, and some creative writing of my own (which, I promise, will never contain any references to vampires, unicorns or moonbeams. Ever.)

It’s been delightful writing this blog, and I’m so grateful to everyone who’s read it, followed it, commented on it, etc. I’m going to leave the site up, and will include a link to it on the new blog. A link to the new blog itself will be up here soon. I hope you come with me!

Re-visiting York: And there came raiders from the sea

I love York. Or, if you are of the belief that you cannot love anything on such a slight acquaintance, I at least really, really like it. Regular readers will remember that I was there in December with Half Pint, Darcy, the Duchess and Princi. Our time was limited then, and as my mother noted, we seemed to spend most of the day either in Minster Gate bookshop or eating things at Betty’s. I for one remain entirely unrepentant about the manner in which we occupied our time, but when my family asked if I’d like to go on holiday to York and the moors with them this year, I was pleased at the opportunity to see more of the city.

We took a train from Oxford two days after I graduated. Within sixty seconds of purchasing a coffee in a poorly designed cup at the station, I had distinguished myself by pouring perhaps half of the scalding liquid down my front. It instantly soaked through the unresisting bodice of my dress, at precisely the moment at which our train was announced. My mother, through some sort of pre-verbal communication with the bewildered coffee shop guy, secured a bottle of water for me, which I, in an advanced state of pain and irrationality, promptly poured down my front as well. We boarded the train like a sort of farcical freak show, all in a rush, and I set about trying to fix myself in the train’s bathroom. The scald was disappointingly mild. I am the sort of person who considers pain affronting, and if suffering is necessary, I prefer it to leave some kind of dramatic mark with which to impress people later. This was clearly not going to happen; the skin was red and angry and too painful for clothing, so I improvised a top from a pashmina, but it wasn’t even remotely likely to scar. Feeling both relieved and disappointed, I returned to my seat and passed the journey by napping fitfully and reading the first installment of the Gormenghast trilogy (which is my new major reading project).

York station is exceptionally nice. In general, you can assume that a major city’s train station and its environs are not of the most salubrious character; in York, such is not the case. The station is large and attractive, in a solid way, constructed of characteristic dark yellow brick and containing footbridges which arch over the rails from platform to platform with gratifying delicacy. We arrived in the early afternoon; the day was sunny, and as we set off for our B&B, the route taking us past the Royal York Hotel, over Lendal Bridge, and through the Museum Gardens, the city appeared bright, pretty and welcoming. I remembered my excitement the last time I’d been there, and also the coldness of that December compared with this July afternoon. Re-visiting places is an odd activity, if you think about it. Some places (like my grandparents’ village in Sussex) appear to exist in a kind of benevolent twilight zone, fundamentally unchanging. But most places are never the same way twice, and re-visiting is a kind of negotiating process, where you have to come to terms with your past experiences there while also bothering enough to have new ones. (It’s a theory, anyway.)

We hadn’t managed to do Jorvik, the recreated Viking centre, in the winter, so I was extremely insistent upon it this time around. Led by my mother, we booked tickets ahead of time and, when we showed up to the centre’s doors, were confronted by the arresting figure of a solid man with flowing locks and massive beard, dressed in what was clearly a reproduction Viking outfit. It was historically accurate, thank goodness–no horned helmets here–and surprisingly colourful, consisting of a red tunic and soft tan leather boots. Altogether it was a civilized looking ensemble. As it turned out, according to the display cases in the underground room you first enter, the Vikings were almost inconceivably well-connected people. Their trading networks were vast. In the dig at York, archaeologists have found the usual Frankish and Western European coins and goods, but also a cowrie shell, which suggests a North African connection, lapis lazuli from modern-day Uzbekistan, and fragments of garments made from silk that originated in Istanbul. These were neither primitive nor ignorant people.

The whole point of Jorvik, however, is not to brood philosophically, but to go on the ride. The centre opened in 1974 and features a rather 1970s (though it has apparently been recently updated) kind of fairground ride, where you are strapped into a blue space-age carriage and are ferried via electronic track around a reconstructed Viking village. The lighting is low, and the village is “populated” by mannequins whose resemblance to actual human beings is by no means great, but is sufficient to be disturbing. The carriages actually swivel towards some of the mannequins, and the recorded commentary engages in “conversation” with them. It’s partly endearingly goofy (“Hello, Gunni the Blacksmith! What are you doing?”) and partly terrifying (one of the mannequins turned its head slowly towards me as we approached, and blinked. I swallowed a wail of panic, only to be overcome when a voice behind us turned out to belong to an elderly Viking crone mannequin, who seemed keen to gossip in Old Norse.) The Jorvik ride is also famous for its smells, but the most off-putting thing about them is that they bear almost no resemblance to real smells. The scent of ordure (cow, pig, human) is recognisable; so is the scent of wood smoke, furs, fish, grease. The smell in Jorvik, or the combination of smells or however they do it, is none of these things. It smells filthy, but in a strangely chemical way, dark, bitter and gritty. Impossible to tell what actually constitutes the filth.

After the ride, there is still more to see in the way of artefact cases. I have a tricky time with artefacts; to understand them and appreciate them properly in their own context requires a particular type of imagination which I don’t possess naturally and which I frequently can’t be bothered to summon. But skeletons are a different thing entirely. In a case near the exit lay the skeleton of a young man which, as the staff member standing next to it was explaining, suggested a truly appalling death. He was a young soldier, probably 20, and had been attacked by two or three separate enemy soldiers. He suffered a blow to the leg which chipped the thigh bone–you can actually see it–and, unable to put any weight on his leg, he would probably have known that he was finished. What finally got him, discounting the various relatively minor wounds on his arms, was a blow to the back of the head which virtually decapitated him. But by that point he would have been bleeding freely, essentially hacked to death by a gang of enemy soldiers working together. “But,” said the Jorvik staff member pensively to the assembled and spellbound crowd, “the thing about this boy is that he was loved. The battlefield is thirty miles from York, but he’s buried here. Someone cared enough to bring him all the way back. And he wouldn’t have been a pretty sight. But somebody cared.” He tapped the glass of the display case and gazed tenderly at the gaping skull. “Yeah, this boy was loved.”

With that on our minds, we went to the Minster. It’s an appropriate place to go after Jorvik, since both make use of layers upon layers of history. The Undercroft (crypt) museum of the Minster is brilliantly, lucidly designed and makes it very clear how much building has been done on the site: it began as a Roman fort, but a Norman missionary church was built partly on the same site, and the current Gothic minster also shares foundations with some of the Roman buildings. That evening, though, we didn’t go the museum, just wandered round the cathedral. It is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen–and I’ve seen a lot of churches in the past month, partly as a result of the Assisi tour. The architecture, magisterial though it is (and the Chapter House, which was built in the twelfth century with no central supporting column, but is still standing and in excellent nick, is about the most impressive construction I can think of) has been written about by other people. The memorials are what surprise me. There are so many of them, memorials for every war, every campaign, all the way back to the Indian mutinies and beyond. There are memorials for individuals who died tragic deaths, young captains and lieutenants. One who drowned accidentally in the Ouse. Another was taken captive by Greek brigands in 1871, held for ten days, and then killed, for uncertain reasons. The memorial tablet is detailed–it would have been expensive: “He refused to purchase his own safety with the lives of others”, it reads, in part. Nearly a paragraph is engraved in the stone. A third monument details the life and achievements of a worthy gentleman:

His virtues were equal to his descent;

By abilities he was formed for publick,

By inclination determined to private life…

He was in religion exemplary, in senate impartial,

In friendship sincere, in domestick relation

The best husband, the most indulgent father.

His justly afflicted son, Thomas Lord Malton, to transmit the memory of so great worth to future times, erected this monument.

Morbid it may be, but I could not help hoping, as most people must from time to time, to die as deeply beloved as both the massacred Viking boy and Lord Malton clearly were.

On our way over Lendal Bridge the next day, I noticed a sign on the bridge tower. It read, in part, “In 1677, the predecessors to The York Waterworks Plc received the rights to lease the building in perpetuity, at the rate of one peppercorn per year.” This, as I pointed out to my mother, is precisely the reason why no full-blood American can take Britain completely seriously. (Another reason, of course, is the plethora of villages with names like Giggleswick, Ugthorpe and Nether Poppleton. I jest not.)

Do fidem

I graduated on Monday.

What the hell, you guys. This was not supposed to happen, like, ever. I was meant to come to Oxford and be ridiculously happy and make friends and learn things and never, ever leave. All of those things happened, but now it turns out I have to leave.

Well, sort of. I’m still living in town next year. But I won’t be a student again for a while to come, and I sure as shootin’ won’t ever be an undergraduate again. This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to me, but it turns out that it is really quite surprising.

The morning I graduated, I woke up so nervous that I felt sick. I’m still not sure why. It might have been motivated by a subconscious fear that my family would do something American and gauche, like cheer at a wildly inappropriate moment, or it might have had to do with the fact that I knew perfectly well what the day would entail: inhumane amounts of clothing experienced simultaneously with extreme heat, stress, uncertainty about where to go and what to do, and a general inclination of circumstances towards the unenjoyable. Actually, most things turned out fine. I had already pre-ordered the BA gown and hood, which is lined with white fur, from Walter’s, the shop where I’d bought both my commoner’s gown in first year and my scholar’s gown after Mods results. I’d completely forgotten about the problem of subfusc when I was packing up my house earlier this month, and had therefore put mine in storage, which forced me to buy an entirely new skirt, shoes and black ribbon for the graduation ceremony. But apart from that, which I’d taken care of before getting to Oxford, all of the regalia proved unproblematic. The woman at Walter’s, whom I’d spoken to on the phone, leaned to me conspiratorially as I left: “I’ve given you a nice hood,” she said in an undertone. (And she had.)

Me and the Kid pre-ceremony

Me and the Kid pre-ceremony

We were meant to show up at the lodge and leave our hoods in the rector’s lodgings, before attending a briefing by the Dean of Degrees on how to behave during the ceremony. I met both Darcy and the lawyer in the quad, with their respective families, and although I quickly lost track of the lawyer (finding him again later), Darcy and I went off to the dean’s meeting together. Our Dean of Degrees is one of the modern language tutors, who frequents chapel for the music, so although I’ve never met him officially, his was a familiar face. His duty in this instance is to present us to the Proctors and the Vice-Chancellor formally, to ask them to admit us to the degrees which we’ve worked for. There’s some onus on you as a student, as well; you have to bow at certain points, as a mark of respect, and you have to respond “Do fidem” (“I swear”) to the injunction to uphold the “statutes, privileges, customs and liberties of the University”. This question is posed in Latin, and, as the Dean warned us, it did not sound like a question. Consequently, there is a lot of bleating and mumbling as people try to work out whether their turn to assent has come or not. I think the graduating group of Exeter B.A.s did better than most. We were certainly an improvement on the two hapless men receiving one of the Masters degrees, whose incompetence so greatly surpassed the norm that it even flustered the officials.

There were, I admit, a couple of tricky moments. One of them was the point at which the Vice-Chancellor told us to applaud our families, who were all sitting in the uncomfortable, closely-spaced, high-banked seats of the Sheldonian, watching the ceremonies. He reminded us, pertinently, that we would not have succeeded without them. This is quite true, and it made me feel a bit weepy. (I could see, even from several hundred feet away, that my dad had already succumbed to the same impulse.) When we sat again, I pinched my wrist to deflect the weepiness, and watched the blue-and-rust mural of unidentifiable semi-pagan figures and painted clouds on the ceiling, waiting for the hot prickling sensation behind my eyeballs to disappear.

It is a very diverting ceiling.

It is a very diverting ceiling.

After you say “Do fidem”, you are marched out of the side doors of the Sheldonian and into the Divinity Schools (a massive room in the Bodleian, where they filmed the infirmary in the Harry Potter films). All of our hoods were somehow moved into this room while we were inside, and the ritual is to don the hood before being paraded back through the Sheldonian, three by three, like a weird triumphal procession. I found my labeled bag without apparent difficulty, fastened the hood properly, and cast around for Darcy. He was standing by the window, hoodless. “Someone’s stolen mine,” he said with peculiar calm–so I waited, with the lawyer, for the Development Office minions to find a spare. As a result, we ended up the last three in the procession. “At least our parents will know which ones we are,” I pointed out.

The lawyer, whom I’ve known since freshers week, stood on my right; Darcy, on my left. “It feels rather appropriate to graduate with you,” the lawyer said. “End as you began, after all.” End as you began, and as you continued, I thought: with your friends. The doors opened. We walked in, and through, and bowed to the Vice-Chancellor, and out. We had degrees. We could officially put “B.A. (Oxon.)” after our names. We were really, truly finished.

 

But I’m not finished here.

I know I started this as an Oxford blog, but it’s become more than that–a travelogue, a sort of incubator for opinion pieces and sketches of places, people, events, a record of thoughts and doings–and I want to keep doing it. In the fall, it will move to a different website, and I’ll keep you all updated on that as it progresses. (I’ll also include a link to the new site here, when it moves.) Meanwhile, the summer beckons: I’m in York at the moment with my parents, which is a good chance to revisit a city I loved six months ago, and a further trip seems to be in the offing in August. Keep coming back, and I’ll keep feeding you!

AMURICA F*CK YEAH

I called my parents this evening (well, okay, they called me and I missed the call, and then I called them and they missed the call and eventually the Powers That Be got bored of messing with us). After a couple of minutes chatting about my little brother’s social graces (much better than mine as a high school freshman, i.e. he has friends) and my cousin’s awesome music camp where they got a bunch of teenagers to produce a credible Mozart Requiem at the end of the week, my dad casually said, “And of course  we’ve been doing gardening and housework all day for the 4th of July.” And I remembered that, again, I would miss the most quintessentially ‘Murican holiday of all time by being in England. I’ve been missing the 4th of July for years now; since at least the summer of 2010. When people ask me about it, I say that I don’t want to go back–not now, not ever–and that’s true, as far as it goes. I don’t want to live in the States, I don’t want to have a career or start a family or build my life there. But I started my life there, and that does make a difference. Sometimes, especially in the summer, there are things that I miss about America. We do a lot of things pretty poorly, but some things we get right. To wit:

Oreos. I swear they’re smaller here.

Highways. You can’t really do a good road trip in England. It just doesn’t have the same feel to it as this:

The Extraterrestrial Highway–more UFO sightings than anywhere else in the country.

Milkshakes. English shops sell something called “milkshake”. It’s essentially flavoured milk, a sad, pathetic shade of what it claims to be. I particularly miss the ones from Chaps, a downtown Charlottesville institution.

County fairs. Their combination of livestock, quilting and jam exhibitions, healthful snacks such as cotton candy and funnel cake, stomach-dropping rides, all in the dying heat of a late-summer evening…that constitutes my childhood, in some ways.

Heat haze. Where the blacktop meets the horizon and it looks like water.

Flipflops. Every day from April to October.

Ceiling fans. They’re beautiful, they create a delicious breeze, and the low humming sound the blades make is the most comforting in the world.

The Blue Ridge Mountains. Just…unghh.

Sometimes I get really bored of how flat Oxford is.

Guitars being plucked. Like this:

Bandanas are cool. Srsly.

The University of Virginia. Especially the Lawn. And all the frat houses on Rugby Road, which are the most gorgeous big old red-brick neo-Palladian things.

Coffee. Look, I am sorry, but screw instant granules.

Thunderstorms. They just don’t seem to exist in England, and I miss the way the world feels scrubbed and fresh after they pass over.

School buses. Obvi.

Wilderness. In Virginia, you can drive for fifteen minutes and be in the middle of East Jesus Nowhere. In most of England, you can be pretty sure there’s a tea shop somewhere nearby. Which is often a good thing, but sometimes you want to be in East Jesus Nowhere, and uncertain of how you’re going to find civilization again.

Cheez Whiz. GET ON BOARD, REST OF THE WORLD.

The sheer ingenuity of this awful, awful creation must be acknowledged.

Accents. Simply watch O Brother, Where Art Thou?. People actually talk like that. (Not everywhere, of course.)

Summer nights that are warm enough not to need a jumper when you sit outside.

Whitetail deer. Everywhere.

Baseball. Watched on TV on aforementioned warm nights, with a beer. Your team always loses.

Football. Watched in freezing, windy, bright-blue-sky conditions, with a beer. Your team always loses.

Diners (and their cheeseburgers).

Flexible Flyer little red wagons (a brand name which, now that I think about it, sounds like a burlesque act).

Fireworks.

Macy’s 4th of July firework display, NYC

A castle on a cloud

There’s a world in my head which is exactly like the real, everyday world, except it’s only the good bits. I am far too easily irritated–or not even irritated, just discouraged–by things that aren’t done properly. (It’s a family trait. My brother used to come home from school in a cloud of enraged misery because, oh, let’s say, a band concert that he was meant to be playing in was disorganized and underprepared. It’s the kind of thing that just happens in life, but we’re not the kind of people who can just shrug it off, or rather, we can but we need to have a mighty good bitch about it first.)

Consequently, whenever I see things done well, or whenever there’s a lovely day, or evening, or a good meal, or a wonderful conversation, they often go into a little file in my head, marked “Perfect World” (well, not actually, but sort of). If, for argument’s sake, there’s a heaven, and if it’s unique to each of us, these are the things that will go into mine.

Here’s my newsflash: I have found the Perfect World’s village shop.

Compton tea room

credit: siteweave.blogspot.com

It’s in Compton, West Sussex. It’s actually a village shop/tea room (which probably explains much of my attraction.) The first half of it is the shop, with a magazine rack that contains not only four different magazines on field sports (two of which had virtually identical headlines, something along the lines of “Find and train the perfect gun dog!”), but also the Literary Review (with a cover article on Oscar Wilde biographies) and Private Eye. Along with chocolates, biscuits and crisps, the shop stocks a small but well-thought-out inventory of essentials: proper cheeses, local sausages and eggs, lavender and honey (also locally sourced), yoghurts both normal and Greek, esoteric juices (pear and raspberry) as well as apple and orange, two pestos, Nutella, sauces–basically, it’s everything that might at some point crop up in a recipe and make you think, “Oh, I need that, but I think we’ve run out.” They also sell fresh vegetables, and probably fruit in the summer, and baking essentials. Nothing is excessive, but nothing is missing. It is literally perfect.

Credit: livelifelovecake.com

Credit: livelifelovecake.com

The tea room is in an annexed room on the side, six or seven tables and a window overlooking the village square, pub (an extremely picturesque Coach and Horses) and old well. They sell soup (parsnip and red chilli today, which was well worth it) with cheese scones, jacket potatoes, sausage rolls, baguettes and the like, with tea and coffee, and of course a vast array of homemade sweets: lemon sponge, coffee sponge, chocolate sponge, Victoria sponge (I do love a sponge cake, me), sweet and savoury scones, flapjacks, tiffin slices and chocolate caramel shortbreads.

Also, it’s run by local ladies and they are just the best. The very phrase “local ladies” sums them up. You know what I mean. Efficient service, fabulous cooking, friendly faces.

There is definitely a place for Compton Village Shop and Tea Rooms in my little heaven.

Easter

Well, happy Easter, little chicks! I hope you did have a happy Easter, and not a dreary cold one. The weather has scuppered not only any chances of getting a pre-tan, but also any chances of me being able to wear a cute sundress, which is like the grown-up version of getting really excited about your new Easter bonnet. Actually, when I was younger, my parents did put me in Easter bonnets. They were usually straw hats with a blue or pink or yellow ribbon round the brim, and I liked them very much until the age of about eight, when I started to rebel against the whole notion. This coincided with my wholesale rejection of dresses, which made it harder for my mother to dress me for Easter as she would have liked, in white tights, white sandals, and taffeta-and-tulle confections. We used to have confrontations about what I was going to wear for Easter; I would protest violently that God didn’t care what I wore, and wail with rage when told that yesterday’s corduroys were not acceptable church-going attire. These contretemps became more frequent, and generally more focused on the hideously inappropriate quantity of leg displayed by my chosen garments, as I got older, and continued throughout my teenage years.

My mother, if she reads this, will therefore be pleased to know that it was so cold in the parish church yesterday that I wore an extremely warm and modest navy blue jumper. I doubt we shall ever reach an agreement on the merits of taffeta and tulle.

We were slightly late arriving, and thus slipped into a seat at the back without much thought. It was only after we were well and truly wedged into the pew that I noticed the small child in the pew in front of us, who was sitting on his mother’s lap, drawing with a pencil on the service booklet. He was probably a year old or eighteen months, with a shock of black hair, a plump rosy face, and a cheeky, gap-toothed, utterly irresistible smile. He had wriggled round and was gazing at us with every appearance of great delight, turning now and then to make an addition to his drawing. I smiled back and made a few faces at him, which he found greatly amusing; he giggled and crowed and stared some more. This went on for quite a while, as the service was a long one, and as it wore on, the child–whom I suspected wasn’t used to church–began to get both bored and confident. It’s a dangerous combination for a toddler: they’re old enough to verbalize, but young enough to completely lack self-consciousness. “Daddy!” he demanded, as one of the former colonels of whom Harting has many made his way slowly through the prayers at the front of the chancel. “Daddy! Hug! Daddy! Hug! Hug, Daddy!” The colonel droned gamely on (or possibly he was too deaf to hear, I’m not sure which.) The child’s father picked him up; he grinned at me over the man’s shoulder, and stuck a finger in his mouth. Eventually he was returned to his mother, in whose arms he wriggled for a bit, until the point of consecration (in a Eucharist or communion service, this is where the priest blesses the bread). At this pivotal moment, the child gazed upwards and said, loudly and clearly, “Tit!”

The chancel was totally silent. Reverend Vicar, who was miles away up at the other end, carried on, apparently oblivious. Interestingly, everyone else ignored it too. This became more impressive as the child carried on: “Tit, Mummy! Mummy! Tit!” I don’t know whether he was still breastfeeding, or had just landed on an inadvertent word and didn’t understand what it meant. As if it mattered. I was practically blue from trying to stop inappropriate gigglesnorts leaking out of my nose. The boy next to me was pinching the bridge of his nose; his eyes were shut, but his shoulders were shaking with similar attempts at suppression. The Revered Ancestor seemed not to have noticed anything, and was gazing solemnly at his shoes. “Mummeeeee! Tit!” the child cried triumphantly.

I honestly don’t know how she shut him up, but she did (not, however, by acquiescing to his request), and the rest of the service continued normally. The whole incident, however, is vastly improved by the Revered Ancestor’s comment afterwards: “Did you see the old chap in the pew in front? Sitting with the couple and the little boy? Yes? That’s my good friend, Barry, Lord Ashbourne.” Twenty years from now the little boy will probably be Baron Ashbourne, and if we have any luck, I’ll end up teaching him or something and will be able to tell him precisely what a cheeky little monkey he was.

(Also, Oxford won the boat race in the afternoon. VICTORY TO THE DESERVING!)

Ne’er a clout

I’ve never known quite what that saying means: “Cast ne’er a clout/Til May be out.” It could mean “Don’t take off your woolens until the end of the month of May,” or it could mean “Don’t take off your woolens until the May flower has blossomed.” Either way, it is a wise counselor that urges one not to forsake one’s woolens, and the twenty-first century man or woman ignores it at his/her own peril, especially now. It is unseasonably, and unreasonably (hey, a rhyme!), cold. Temperatures have not risen above a very few degrees Celsius for over a week. Crushing quantities of snow in the north and in Scotland have been destroying livestock and power lines, and rendering roads impassable. For sheep farmers, it couldn’t have come at a worse time: lambing season is in full swing, and they have animals dying.

Here in the south there has been no snow, but the wind is bitter and the sky grey; morning, noon and evening, all alike, raw and unkind weather. I went for a walk with the neighbours the other day, up the hill and a little way along the path to Buriton. The fields were sullen and brown, the marks of tractor wheels hardened in the soil by chill so that you could feel the pattern of them through your boots as you walked. The bits of flint and chalk that stud the ground in this part of the world looked like bones. The Revered Ancestress and I took the dogs on Harting Down today, and the sun peeped out just a bit as we were coming back, shedding a light at first watery but slowly strengthening. It didn’t last long. The wind is simply evil; clouds scudded swiftly back across the sky.

All of this horrible weather means that it’s absolutely imperative I have a good book to curl up with once I’ve done revising for the day. (Television is also a nice anaesthetic, but unless I watch iPlayer with laptop and headphones, I’m restricted to what the R.A.s want to see. Which isn’t to say that Countryfile isn’t immensely relaxing–it totally is–but so is Mock the Week, and I don’t feel right exposing my grandparents’ tender sensibilities to Frankie Boyle.) I finished Doctor Thorne the other night. A contemporary reviewer got it right, I think, when he said that it was too long. The trials of Frank and Mary’s love are not sufficient, on their own, to support a three-volume length; two would have been enough, and as it is one begins to tire of the reiterations of a situation that’s already been fully explained. Still, it’s diverting, which is the main thing. I’ve made a tentative start on Andrew Marr’s The Making of Modern Britain, which covers the period 1901-1945. Technically, it does have a narrative, but the rough outlines of that narrative are reasonably familiar, and there’s so much more I need to know about this nation’s politics and history. Marr’s a master of the fascinating detail (Henry James was at Kipling’s wedding; also, George III had fifty-six grandchildren, of whom–before Victoria was born–none were legitimate), and he can write an epithet as well as any man living (Victoria’s father is the “fat, garlicky, sadistic fifty-year-old Duke of Kent”). In the absence of a big fat Dickens novel, this may be as cheering a tome as any for bad weather.