Monday, February 27, 2006

Out of print - pity!

Of bygone days

Gaze at the screen of your laptop, text a friend a quick message on your mobile phone, park your car in an underground car park, turn on the TV, walk into a shopping mall – be constantly reminded that you live in the modern age – the most modern age, but remember it was not always thus.

In days of yore, olden days, days of old - life was different – it went at a different lick, as they say (sorry, used to say) – and was a foreign country where things were done differently.

Try to imagine life without electricity – street lights- neon signs – traffic lights – without computers – without TV – what would we do in the evenings?

Port out- starboard home – instead of “Window or aisle?”  Deck quoits not in-flight movies – dining at the Captain’s table – not pre-packed dinners!

Books on our shelves like ‘The Weekend Book’, first published by Random House in 1955 – not that long ago – with sections on all manner of things.

What great weekends to be had – setting forth early, a well shod party – prepared for all and any eventuality – a downpour of rain – a grazed knee – unidentified flora and fauna all around.

Picnickers ready to greet travelers, landowners, gamekeepers, rustics, landed gentry, maidens, sprig-muslin dressed – out in all weathers – aware of differences in stately homes and farm buildings, public houses and hotels, porticos, Regency and Georgian,  “the Babel of styles which characterized the reign of Queen Victoria.”

Children recognizing a pied wagtail, and calling it a trotty wagtail, polly wash-dish or Devil’s Bird, and knowing it as ‘a duodecimo editions of the magpie, both in its plumage and the inconsequence of its ways’.

It went without saying that if it was January, the farmers would be carting muck and ploughing; March, sowing oats and barley; April, planting potatoes and spring wheat; May, sowing turnips and swedes and so on and so forth till year end – December, when they would be carting muck and ploughing once again.

Even small boys could look at cultivated fields and divine forage crops like kale and clover, lucerne and vetches, from grain-crops like wheat, oats, barley and rye – would know what a water-vole or a stoat looked like, or could tell a Fresian from a Jersey, a shortwool Oxford or Dorset from a longwool Leicester, Lincoln or Wensleydale.

Children enjoyed the taste of a Cox’s Orange Pippin, a Laxton Superb, or a Newton Wonder.  They knew that no season is dead; that weeds are merely flowers out of place; that the gold under the hedgerows is the groundsel; the tiny white stars are chickweed; and that hazel catkins picked now  – in January – will soon treble their length and be spilling gold dust in a warm room.

Voyaging aunts and uncles knew the signs of the coming weather – and having sayings to foretell it – would say to the younger members of their party cheerfully:

          ‘Between one and two.
          See what the day will do.’

Or if the morning was wet, they would cheer up the children in their midst by saying,

‘Rain before seven,
Fine before eleven.’

Or warn that,

          ‘Mackerel skies and mares’ tails
          Make great ships carry low sails.’

If the weather did persist and a room somewhere had to be sought, the party might have played the game of Telegrams, and from a twelve letter word like CHIMNEY-PIECE would come up with the telegram that read:-

Churchill Has Influenza, Malenkov Neuralgia, Eden Yellow fever, Please Inform Eisenhower (signed) Conference Executive.

Time to eat, and cook has remembered that ‘however witty the talk, however shady the garden, however original the cottage and its furnishings, it won’t be by these things alone that the weekend will be judged, but also by the food you offer.

Think how delicious and mouth watering are sandwiches filled with cream cheese and grated walnut, English Cheddar with slivers of green pepper and chopped pimiento, minced corn beef and mustard butter; and later, coming home hungry after a long walk to oxtail with haricot beans, Irish Stew or Lancashire Hot-pot, Red cabbage with chestnuts or Veal matelote, and to finish off , a banana whip or an apple muesli.

After dinner, the children would play games, while the mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, friends and neighbours would while away the remaining hours in talk of this or that; devour wit and argument, discuss a turkey and a chine, know instinctively that a lady must never sing a song that is of a decidedly masculine character; and, following advice in The Ladies’ Pocket Book of Etiquette (1840), decide against that anti-English dance, the waltz.

In conversation, following Sir Walter Scott, each would know that,
               ‘Conversation is but carving
               Give no more to every guest
               Than he is able to digest
               And that each may have his due,
               Let your neighbour carve for you.’

Moving now to farewells, the adults of the party would comfortably observe the niceties of the handshake; the high-official (body erect, rapid, short shake); the mortmain (the flat hand introduced into your palm); the digital (one finger held out- much used by the clergy); the shakus rusticus (betokening rude health, warm heart, and distance from the Metropolis); and perhaps worst of all these, the pisces (the damp palm like a dead fish).

Excusing the vigour of the children, they would say, ‘Caroline’s still got to learn there are things one doesn’t say’, or ‘has just been promoted to grown up dinner’, or ‘has never been able to resist a moustache’.

And finally, in a letter of thanks for the whole experience of a glorious weekend in your company, they would have written, ‘Back in my little flat in town, I realize how right my doctor was when he said I should enjoy life again after a complete change.  Thank you a thousand times for that change’.  The past is indeed a foreign country.
                 Robert L. Fielding



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