Notes from Town and Country
From Hazel, Highbury, 3 April 2020
It’s no secret that neither Gail nor I are entirely comfortable in the digital world, but stuck at home as we are I’m having to try to get to grips with all the untapped possibilities of my smartphone. I’m finding this something of a challenge as my communications are usually limited to calls of the ‘I’m on the bus now and should be back about 6.30’ variety. This week our kind neighbour joined me up to the street’s WhatsApp group and shortly after I found I was broadcasting the conversation I’d had with my husband at breakfast to the entire street and didn’t know how to stop it. This has unnerved me, but I’m told the world is full of puzzled children looking at pictures of disembodied knees and hands as grandparents attempt to have a conversation with them on FaceTime or Skype.
However, every cloud has a silver lining, and I’m finding that the home phone has suddenly come alive with calls from friends and family who have felt moved to get in touch. In normal times they would probably have emailed, but to me there’s nothing like the sound of the human voice, and these conversations are incredibly cheering. One of these was with our friend Christopher, sitting in the porch of his home in Herefordshire where, over the years, he has restored an old mill and created a large and wonderful garden.
Christopher is a retired actor and a great reader of poetry who has given a number of memorable readings at festivals and literary events. I shan’t forget his reading of poetry from the First World War as part of the centenary commemoration at Hereford Cathedral. Hearing his voice on the phone made me think afterwards how little poetry I read nowadays, where once I was truly excited by the appearance of a new volume from Philip Larkin or Sylvia Plath. We’ve got a touching piece coming up in which Victoria Neumark describes how her mother lived by Palgrave’s Golden Treasury and introduced her children to poetry through this classic anthology of lyrical verse, which has gone through many editions since it was first published in 1861. During the coming months I’m going to try to read a poem a day, and I think dusting off my late mother-in-law’s copy of the Golden Treasury (1954 edition), which will take me up as far as Eliot and Auden, seems a good way to start. I’ll let you know how I get on. In fact Christopher is thinking of creating an app where he reads a poem a day aloud to anyone who would like to hear it, and this seems to me an excellent idea. I hope by then I’ll have cracked my smartphone.
From Gail, Manaton, 3 April 2020
Up on Dartmoor it seems to have rained more or less non-stop since last November, and so our walks have been confined to the wooded valleys and sheltered footpaths around us. But last week the sun finally came out and soon we were off, up on to the open moor.
We began by a beautiful clump of beeches at Natsworthy Gate. Standing on the edge of the moor as they do, these trees bear the brunt of the prevailing weather and their trunks are covered in moss. The trees are not in leaf yet, but the buds are fattening and it won’t be long before the first pale green leaves emerge. From Natsworthy the land gradually rises and the path winds through yellow-flowering gorse, heather and whortleberry up on to high land. From the spur of the first ridge the sun catches the sparkle of streams running down through marsh and mire to the valley below.
Then on, up and up to the top of Hamel Down, a whale-backed hill that runs from the Bronze Age settlement of Grimspound to the moorland village of Widecombe. From here you can see Haytor and Hound Tor, the Teign estuary and the sea, and, to the west, the High Moor. Sheep were grazing amidst the dead bracken, and the skylarks were singing high above us, which put me in mind of Shelley’s ‘Ode to a Skylark’:
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.
Back at home we’ve been finding new ways to occupy ourselves when not at our desks. A lifelong Tintin fan, my husband decided to make a start on an old jigsaw puzzle of a scene from Hergé’s The Blue Lotus. As everyone knows, the world divides between those who love Tintin and those who prefer Asterix. I’m in the latter camp so I was soon off downstairs (we live in an upside-down house) to the shelves of children’s books to find Asterix in Britain and re-enter the world of the fierce little Gaul, Obelix and their British cousin Anticlimax as they resist the Romans. Whenever I reread an Asterix book I’m always reminded that the English translations were done by Anthea Bell, daughter of Adrian Bell whose memoirs ‒ Corduroy, Silver Ley and The Cherry Tree ‒ we’ve reissued as Slightly Foxed Editions. What a talented family they were.
And now comes news that Albert Uderzo, who drew the Asterix bande dessinée, has died ‒ not of coronavirus but simply of old age after a wonderfully creative life. I hope he and his co-author René Goscinny are now reunited in some Empyrean Gaulish village, ready once again to do battle with the Romans.
Like hundreds of other villages around the country ours has now set up a hotline for anyone who needs some shopping done, prescriptions collected, dogs walked or simply a chat to raise spirits. Most of the village is out at some point in the day for a walk, and we’re all getting used to dodging round each other when we go to collect our daily newspapers from the bus-stop. The only inhabitants who don’t seem to understand social distancing are our spaniels Chudleigh and Stanley . . .
PS Last week I asked if anyone could identify the strings of egg-laden translucent jelly we found in a stream. About fifty of you got in touch with us (thank you!) and the general consensus seems to be toad spawn.