Miss Villiers used to trill tunelessly when she wasn’t talking, and seemed to walk on her toes swinging her hands around as she went along. She was my form teacher when I was 13. One of the many random questions she frequently asked out of the blue and apropos of nothing at all spooked me slightly at the time, enough for it to be the only thing I remember her saying (so much for the expensive education!)
Miss Villiers asked us how we knew we were real. Hands flapping, she excitedly warmed to her theme, asking us each to imagine going alone into an empty sound-proofed room and closing the door. How did we know that anyone left outside really existed? Could it be that we didn’t really exist and they did? Maybe we didn’t really exist unless we were in someone else’s presence? What if we sang a song in the empty room – was the activity somehow invalidated because no-one had witnessed it?
I wonder what Miss Villiers would have made of mobile phones. They’ve melted the metaphorical walls of her horrible hollow room, and we can all be ‘validated’ 24/7 these days (even in company 😉 ).
Such musing arose from re-reading the essay ‘Back Again’ after half an hour’s stumbling guitar practice – I fell to wondering about ‘valid’ activities. For no good reason I can think of (except perhaps, that my Dad bought it for me – which is a very good reason now I think of it!), I have kept my guitar since my vain attempts to master the scale of C major when I had a few guitar lessons at school. I’m not particularly musical, and not in the least bit talented, but I’ve always loved the sound of classical guitar. A number of decades and strange quirks of fate later, I found myself at lessons again a few months ago, and have now almost mastered – I use the term very loosely – the lovely ‘Spanish Ballad’ (Anon, 17th Century). I find I relish the absorption in practice – the ‘walk’ up and down the strings to strengthen my fingers, and the sound of the tune emerging in spite of my clumsy beginner’s mistakes. But in the shadows lurks a sense that I should be doing something else, something useful, something productive – something valid.
I doubt whether my countryman grandfather had such nonsense in his head when he set off for a day’s fishing at the Shallow of the Chestnut Stream in Sinnington on a fine September day in 1922. In ‘Back Again’ he paints beautiful vignettes of nature (and even of the activity of fishing itself!) and is rewarded by his critics with heartily appreciative remarks – rightly so, I feel. Take his recollection of a close encounter with kingfishers some years before on a similar trip, for example:
…I never fish the Shallow now without remembering that moment of intense life and beauty – It was such a breathless affair! – as thrilling in its way as the stoop of a Falcon –
(Punctuationistas, please note – I probably agree with you, but that’s what he wrote a hundred years ago! 😉 )
TMP marvels at the fact that, apart from three years during the War, he fished at Sinnington “…every season for thirty eight years past, and it is rather singular that the Chestnut Tree Stream has altered so little in that time.”
When we visited Sinnington in September last year a hundred years after ‘Back Again’ was written, it still seemed barely changed – a time-capsule village around a green, along a stream, nestling against a slope of heather-dark moorland. I don’t know how many more seasons grandfather was able to go to fish in this idyllic spot. Change was coming. He travelled to Sinnington by train on the Thirsk & Malton Railway. This line had opened three years after his birth, but by the 1930s, passenger numbers had dwindled to about 35 a week, and the line slowly died – finally closing in 1953, three years after grandfather’s death. Five years’ after he wrote ‘Back Again’, he would become a father for the first time, at the age of fifty-six.
But let us return to ‘Back Again’ and revel in an enchanting description of the autumn foliage over the stream:
To-day the roof was golden in decay and flecked with spaces of blue. …Once I knocked one of the hanging boughs with my rod and a shower of leaves rustled down around and upon me – floating down the water like little fire-ships.
The day’s activity resulted in a catch “…nearly two spans in length; a most noble fish for those waters.” In fact, TMP was so proud of his trophy, he was tempted to leave a record of his triumph, as he and his school fellows had done in years gone by:
I wonder if two marks were cut into a rail near a stream in Yorkshire a hundred years ago – by a tall, slim man with a ruddy face, in his middle years, burdened with canvas bags bulging with fishing gear, and carrying a prize trout. If so, perhaps those marks remained for decades, slowly succumbing to lichen and moss, and the smoothing of hands, while the stream nearby flowed unchanging.