SHE WALKS IN BEAUTY by Lord Byron

I was leafing through my very old school poetry book and came across this one, which I had long forgotten. It’s so gorgeous I had to post it here. I hope you enjoy it.

She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies,

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes,

Thus mellow’d to that tender light

Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,

Had half impair’d the nameless grace

Which waves in every raven tress,

Or softly lightens o’er her face,

Where thoughts serenely sweet express

How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek and o’er that brow

So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,

The smiles that win, the tints that glow

But tell of days in goodness spent,

A mind at peace with all below,

A heart whose love is innocent.

Quotes from A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell.

I first read this book when I was in my forties. It was hard going but I persevered. It was written in 1946, seventy odd years ago, and there will have been many, many changes in thinking since then. But as it’s the early philosophers that interest me, that doesn’t matter too much. Some of the sentences seem peculiar to me but I will leave them as they are.

I am beginning with a quote from Thales who lived, approximately, in 585 B.C. and was one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece. He believed that everything was made of water.

“According to Aristotle, he thought that water was the original substance, out of which all others were formed; and he maintained that the earth rests on water. Aristotle also says of him that he said the magnet has a soul in it, because it moves the iron; further, that all things are full of Gods.

The statement that everything is made of water is to be regarded as a scientific hypothesis, and by no means a foolish one. Twenty years ago (1926), the received view was that everything is made of hydrogen, which is two thirds water. The Greeks were rash in their hypotheses, but the Milesian school, at least, was prepared to test them empirically . . .

There are many legends about him, but I do not think more is known than the few facts I have mentioned.

The history of Sparta I found much more interesting, not least because of the movies made about it.

“When a child was born, the father brought him before the elders of his family to be examined: if he was healthy, he was given back to the father to be reared: if not, he was thrown into a deep pit of water. Children, from the first, were subjected to a severe hardening process, in some respects good – for example, they were not put in swaddling clothes (why is that good?). At the age of seven, boys were taken away from home and put in a boarding school, where they were divided into companies, each under the orders of one of their number, chosen for sense and courage.

. . . for the rest of their time they spent in learning how to obey, to away with pain, to endure labour, to overcome still in fight. They played naked together most of the time; after twelve years old, they wore no coats; they were always nasty and sluttish, and they never bathed except on certain days in the year. They slept on beds of straw, which in winter they mixed with thistle. They were taught to steal, and were punished if they were caught – not for stealing, but for stupidity.

Homosexual love, male if not female, was a recognized custom in Sparta, and had an acknowledged part in the education of adolescent boys.

There was little liberty at any stage in the life of a Spartan.”

There is no mention of women in these chapters. Were Spartan girls kept at home to cook and sew? I will try to find out, and I’ll have a look at Plato and Aristotle next.

I do not speak . . .

A golden heart that beats within

A gently undulating flame

That shimmers, sending light

To every cell and atom of my being.

In quiet dusk I close my eyes

To hear its words of wisdom

Advising when to write

And when to stop, suggesting

Words and lines. I do not speak

But listen, watching how it moves

And glows, always there, lighting up

The dark beneath my skin.

The Top Three!

Last week was a strange one for me with various family situations, now resolved. Today I resume my routine. This morning I was out for my walk along the river and I thought very hard about which three books I loved the most; I came up with these three. David Copperfield, Catch 22 and Redhead by the Side of the Road. Which surprised me a little as my favourite writer for some years now is Patrick de Witt.

I first read David Copperfield when I was at school and I’ve read it at least twice since; so many wonderful characters, so many quotes still in my head. There was Peggotty, who worked as cook and maid in his mother’s house until she agreed to marry Mr Barkis, who signalled his intentions with the phrase,”Barkis is willin’.” And the wonderful Mr Micawber who was always sure that “something will turn up” and his wife declaring that she “would never desert” Mr Micawber. I’m going to stop with quotes here or I’ll be writing all day! I will just mention David’s cousins who lived in an upturned boat on the beach in Yarmouth; the boy he met in school called Steerforth who was a bad ‘un and became involved with Rosa Dartle. I can’t leave out his Aunt Betsey who took him in and cared for him and called him “Trotwood”. David’s first wife, Dora, made very little impression on me but apparently she was based on Dicken’s real-life first love. There are many more I could include and many, many quotes but – enough!

Catch 22 I first read in my twenties and again, I’ve read it many times since. It makes me laugh so much. Sometimes I stand at the book case and open it at random . . . I could be standing there for a long time! And sometimes I remember various passages when I’m on a bus or a train and I have to keep myself from laughing out loud. The first chapter sets the tone; the chaplain appears at Yossarian’s hospital bedside and begins a conversation. Yossarian doesn’t realise he is the chaplain and thinks he’s another mad soldier but he is happy to continue the conversation:

“Oh, pretty good,” he answered. “I’ve got a slight pain in my liver and I haven’t been the most regular of fellows, I guess, but all in all, I must admit that I feel pretty good.”

“That’s good,” said the chaplain.

“Yes,” Yossarian said. “Yes, that is good.”

The conversation continues in this vein with many – that’s good, yes that is good, and that’s bad, yes that is bad – until Yossarian realises he’s talking to the chaplain and is disappointed that there is a sane reason for the visit.

And what about Major Major Major Major whose father marches along the hospital corridor and register’s his son’s birth in the name of Major Major, unbeknownst to his resting wife. And the episode where the soldiers are listening to a speech by one of the Generals and they begin to moan at the sight of the General’s bosomy nurse, started by Yossarian of course. Ah yes . . .

Finally, Redhead by the Side of the Road. I won’t say much about this book as I recently posted a review on it. Suffice to say, when I was reading it, I carried it about with me and had many conversations with the main character, Micah Mortimer. Happy days!

An excerpt from “Undermajordomo Minor” by Patrick de Witt

This is Patrick de Witt’s third novel, completely different from the previous two. It isn’t quite a fairy story; some of it is surreal, nightmarish, incredible, but all totally delicious. I was in awe of the author’s creativity and the wonderful dialogue and prose.

Mr Olderglough opened his eyes. “There were once were twenty souls in our employ here, boy. Can you imagine it? Coachmen, waiting maids, porters, a cook, a nurse. All gone now, alas.”

“I thought you’d said Agnes was the cook, sir?”

“Originally she was the chambermaid. When the cook left us, then did Agnes step forward, claiming a deft hand.”

“But it seems you take issue with her cooking, is that correct?”

“Not so far as she knows. But in my private mind, yes, I am unenthusiastic.”

“And why do you not speak with her about it, may I ask?”

“Because I dislike unpleasantness. Also there is the fact of my being somewhat afraid of her. And then, too, I’m not much interested in eating.” He looked at Lucy. “Are you?”

“I like to eat,” Lucy said.

“Is that right?” Mr Olderglough shook his head, as if to accommodate an eccentricity. “Personally, it never held much sway for me.”

Lucy said, “May I ask what became of the others?”

“Well, they’ve gone away, haven’t they?”

“But why have they, sit?”

“I suppose they thought it the wisest course of action, is all.”

Mr Olderglough looked wistfully about the room. “Twenty souls,” he said, “and here, what’s become of us? Well, we’ve got you in our company now, boy, and this heartens me, I can tell you that much.”

Lucy was not so heartened. He followed Mr Olderglough to the larder; the shelves were all but bare. There came from the corner the scratching of rodents, and now began a thumping, squabbling battle, a lengthy affair concluding with the agonized squeal of the defeated: high and sharp at its commencement, distantly windy at its resolution. Mr Olderglough wore a satisfied expression, as though the outcome were favourable to him. Drawing back his cascading forelock, he said. “I find the constant upkeep of the body woefully fatiguing, don’t you?”

An excerpt from the wonderful book – The Grapes of Wrath.

This page from The Grapes of Wrath has stayed with me for forty years at least. I could feel the heat, smell the dust, see the insects going about their business, and most of all, the land turtle, star of the scene.

The sun lay on the grass and warmed it, and in the shade under the grass the insects moved, ants and ant lions to set traps for them, grasshoppers to jump into the air and flick their yellow wings for a second, sow bugs like little armadillos, plodding restlessly on many tender feet. And over the grass at the roadside a land turtle crawled, turning aside for nothing, dragging its high-domed shell over the grass. His hard legs and yellow-nailed feet threshed slowly through the grass, not really walking, but boosting and dragging his shell along. The barley beards slid off his shell, and the clover burrs fell on him and rolled to the ground. His horny beak was partly open, and his fierce, humorous eyes, under brows like finger-nails, stared straight ahead. He came over the grass leaving a beaten trail behind him, and the hill, which was the highway embankment, reared up ahead of him. For a moment he stopped, his head held high. He blinked and looked up and down. At last he started to climb the embankment. Front clawed feet reached forward but did not touch. The hind feet kicked his shell along and the horny head protruded as far as the neck could stretch . . .

For a moment the turtle rested. A red ant ran into the shell, into the soft skin inside the shell, and suddenly head and legs snapped in, and the armoured tail clamped in sideways. The red ant was crushed between body and legs . . . For a long moment the turtle lay still, and then the neck crept out and the old humorous frowning eyes looked about and the legs and tail came out . . .

Now the going was easy, and all the legs worked, and the shell boosted along, waggling from side to side. A sedan driven by a forty-year old woman approached. She saw the turtle and swung to the right, off the highway, the wheels screamed and a cloud of dust boiled up. Two wheels lifted for a moment and then settled. The car skidded back onto the road, and went on, but more slowly. The turtle had jerked back into its shell, but now it hurried on, for the highway was burning hot.

And now a light truck approached, and as it came near, the driver saw the turtle and swerved to hit it. His front wheel struck the edge of the shell, flipped the turtle like a tiddly-wink, spun it like a coin, and rolled it off the highway . . . Lying on its back, the turtle was tight in its shell for a long time. But at last its legs waved in the air, reaching for something to pull it over. Its front foot caught a piece of quartz and little by little the shell pulled over and flopped upright. The wild oat head fell out and three of the spearhead seeds stuck in the ground. And as the turtle crawled on down the embankment its shell dragged dirt over the seeds. The turtle entered a dust road and jerked itself along, drawing a wavy shallow trench in the dust with its shell. The old humorous eyes looked ahead, and the horny beak opened a little. His yellow toe-nails slipped a fraction in the dust.

Isn’t this wonderful? I left out a few bits – it’s very long, but unforgettable – for me anyway. Steinbeck rocks!

Final part of “Myrtle” from We All Die in the End.

Silas Bell followed Myrtle into the sitting-room; he opened his case and handed her the catalogue and set a laptop on the table.

            “Fresh outside today, Madam,” he said, sitting down when she did. “Bracing. Very warm in here though.”

            Myrtle turned the pages and the pictures slid past her eyes. She could feel him watching her.

            “Page sixteen, Madam,” he suggested.

            “I thought, since you’re getting a cat you might like a basket. There’s a really nice wicker-work model, well lined with cotton. It’s just the thing for cats these sharp nights. You can’t be too – “

            “Yes.” Myrtle looked up at him. “A basket.”

            “Wonderful!”

            Silas Bell opened his laptop and typed into it very quickly. 

            “You’ve made a good choice, madam. I thought you would like that one.”

            “Name?” he said, fingers poised.

            “Oh – Smith – Myrtle Smith.”

            “Well now.” Silas Bell beamed at her.

            “My dearest aunt was called Myrtle, dead now I’m afraid. Lovely name I’ve always thought – lovely, and you don’t hear it much these days.”

            Myrtle watched him as he put in her address and the details of the cat basket.

            “Phone number, Miss Smith?”

            “Oh . . . no . . . I don’t – “

            “Well, you’re just right, so you are, they can take over your life.”

            He put away the laptop and the catalogue. Myrtle’s heart jumped – he’d be gone in a minute – should she ask him to have a cup of tea? What could she say? Would you like tea? What about a cup of tea? She stood up and so did he. She tried the words in her head but before she could speak he was holding her hand, shaking it up and down.

            “Delighted, Miss Smith, Miss Myrtle Smith.”

            He pressed her hand harder; his eyes and teeth shone at her.

            “Would this day week be convenient for delivery? About twelve?”

            Myrtle nodded slowly.

            He bowed from the waist and then he left. Myrtle stood at the window, hands clasped together. She had forgotten to take off her old lilac fleece but it didn’t matter.

*

            The hailstones hurt her face and her fingers were frozen from holding up the hood of the raincoat. If she could just put on her gloves, but her hands were too wet. She had to lean into the wind to walk forward, her breath catching. The sea was black and white and grey and the hailstones fell in silently.

            “I wish I was,” Myrtle sang, “in Carrick-fer-er-gus . . .  “

            It was almost dark in the sitting-room when she got home and she turned on the lamps, but it was warm and quiet and she stood still for a minute, savouring the comfort of it. In the kitchen she unpacked the tins – Liver and Bacon, the label said. The cat in the picture was pale yellow with green pointed eyes. Myrtle balanced the tins against the others and put the kettle on.

            He’d be here soon. In a minute she’d go upstairs and comb out her hair, put on the black dress and redden her lips.

            She dipped her biscuits and curled her toes in the warm socks. Rain hissed in the chimney and the window shook – she’d have to jam it with newspaper, and she would, in a minute. She folded her hands on her stomach, the heat of the tea still in her throat. Her eyes closed, the fire burned, the wind rattled at the window. She could call the cat Bunty – or Bella – or Sammy . . .

            The knock at the door frightened her. She sat up looking straight ahead. It was him! She’d have to get up and open the door; she’d have to talk. There was a louder knock; he’d be cold out there, waiting . . . Myrtle stood up and thought briefly about the black dress. She looked at her thick, tennis socks.

            “Good morning, Madam, Miss Smith. What a day, what a day.”

            Silas Bell tried to smile, fighting the wind. There was a parcel at his feet and he picked it up and darted inside. The rain shone on his black hair.

            “Cosy in here, Miss Smith, great altogether.”

            Myrtle stared at the floor.

            “And here’s your lovely basket. I got the best one there was, the very latest.”

He unwrapped the plastic covering and pushed the basket towards Myrtle. It was dark brown; the lining was blue and padded like a dressing-gown.

            “Well.” Silas Bell stood up.

            “Where had you thought of putting it?”

            Myrtle breathed loudly; her shoulders were high, her fingers moving.

            “Over here in the corner? Or not?”

            “Just . . . it’ll do . . . just – “

            “No, no, we must find a place for the little kitty. It might be better in the kitchen – more heat there at night you know. It holds the heat from the cooker and that. Is it through here?”

            He elbowed the kitchen door open. Myrtle put out her hand to stop him but he was already in, looking at the tins of cat food, his eyebrows high on his head.

            “What?” He turned to her, swinging the basket.

            “Have you got the cat already?”

            Myrtle lifted the Trout and Tuna and hit him very hard on the side of the head. He dropped quietly at her feet, his face saying, oh . . . his legs were sprawled out, there was a smudge of blood at his temple and she wondered if he was dead but then he made a sound and moved his hands. She curled his legs neatly and pushed him into the corner.

            I’ll tell him he slipped, she thought, splashing water on the floor, he slipped on the water and banged his head.

            She rolled up a bit of newspaper and stuck it into the rattling window-frame. The black car parked at the kerb shone in the rain. Myrtle looked at it for a minute, shrugged and sat down.

Myrtle is one of nineteen stories from the interlinked collection: We All Die in the End available on Kindle and in paperback from Amazon.