ON ‘THE ESSAY’
Why do I call these posts ‘globs’? Because I wish to dissociate myself from
the word ‘blogs’ – they are essays – but that’s a word distinctly out of fashion…
From September1968, at the beginning of my time of being what’s called a ‘teacher’, I taught briefly (though it seemed like forever) in Stopsley Comprehensive School on the outskirts of Luton, Bedfordshire, in the company of teachers mostly from out of the ark – you won’t survive unless you wack ’em to keep ’em in order.
Soon after I started teaching there, simplistic Old Parker, head of English, made a bonfire heap of old books he thought would never be used again; some I rescued to get the kids to use for chop-up poems; others I held on to for nostalgic reasons: one such was Junior Modern Essays, edited by Guy N Pocock who introduces it thus:-
Before you begin to read all the delightful things collected together in this little book, there is one point upon which you should be quite clear: What is an essay? Well, the term is a pretty wide one. Literally it means ‘an attempt’ – a shot at hitting the mark – a blow on the head of the literary nail that pins an idea into permanence.
An essaie with no claim other than to essay (very old-fashioned word) to define something of little importance, a whim from an afternoon in a sunny garden, the product of an unwanted visit by a crowd of people from a different planet, the memory of departed things… An essay is done quite lightly but it
…may be compressed or diffuse, terse or discursive, grave or gay – but in every instance it is a literary gadget – a cameo – a frog in amber – or whatever small, clear-cut, and finished object you care to compare it to…
It requires a certain kind of mood, or even a mind that has a particular habitual way of expressing itself – one that is content to start any project in the middle of things, content to finish anywhere that thinking & writing leads it, organically, off the cuff, unplanned, taking it easy, filling this page and then the next one. Not like a sonneteer or epic scribe who are constrained by cramping form or arduous story-line.
No teacher ever pointed this out to me; I just read a lot of essays for myself and modelled on what I found without thinking about it in the least.
When you have read a great number of essays you find that they all have this in common: the writer has chosen a single subject for the theme of each essay, and expressed their own thoughts about it in a style that is as pleasing and readable as may be. Sometimes the style is closely packed and brilliant, sometimes it is rambling and talkative – but you are always on the end of a string – a very short string at that – circling round the central idea.
It seems to me that the subject of an essay often chooses you but Pocock asserts that the ‘…essayist chooses a subject and says their say about it, gripping your interest at once, holding you to it till the end, and then letting go with a satisfying finish…’
It has been said that the essay, typified by those that appear in Junior Modern Essays (first published in 1927) is not an important literary form. Though ‘charming’ & ‘delicate to manage’ the ‘experts’ have decided that
…it is too simple to read, and, compared with the great works that require long sustained effort, too easy to write; the manner is too light; the matter too trivial, or at least too circumscribed, to allow [experts] to consider the form a great one. Well, it is true that most essays are simple to read – hence their vast popularity – and they do not need that power and concentration in the writer which the greater forms demand. The style, too, is often light, and in keeping with the subject. Yet deep and important subjects have been discussed in essays, and if this form is short, one must remember that much thought may be packed into a brilliant phrase.
This reminds me of the way haiku are dismissed as being a lesser cousin of the proper poem (sonnet or elegy etc), apparently light & simple, and, certainly, when you assume that anything goes, easy to write which is why so many people round the world have taken to writing them, copying the way of the ‘masters’, tossing them off until they get to the stage of being so bored that they feel the need to indulge in what they call ‘experiment’, completely ignoring the concept of non-dualism & right brain consciousness.
A brief chronology of essay-writing demonstrates its once singular popularity.
The essay as we know it is modern. There are no essays in Greek or Latin. Montaigne practically invented the form – he was born in 1533, and his essays were translated by Florio in 1603 – and ever since his day it has grown in popularity and in variety and scope. Francis Bacon was the first of English essayists – for though Geoffrey Chaucer and William Caxton hit upon something very near the essay, it was Bacon who first achieved the true essay form. After Bacon came a long procession of great essayists – Fuller and Dekker and Abraham Cowley, Addison, Steele, Swift, Dr. Johnson, Lamb, Hazlitt, De Quincey, Coleridge, Carlyle, Richard Jefferies, RL Stevenson, and a vast and widening circle of present-day essayists.
What may be said to be unique to essay-writing?
Every imaginable subject has been treated in the essay, and in every variety of style. But note this, that every essay worth the name, no matter what its subject, is quietly personal, almost confidential – for indeed each writer is letting you into a personal confidence.
That’s the essential thing then – something akin to the essence of haibun which could be seen as a kind of essaie + haiku. Perhaps Bashō (1644-94) was the first Japanese essayist…
‘Between you and me, this is what I think,’ [the essayist & Bashō] seem to be saying all the time. Your essays may be as terse as those of Bacon, gentlemanly as Addison’s, courtly as Temple’s, rhythmical as De Quincey’s, whimsical as some of Robert Lynd’s, paradoxical as those of GK Chesterton – but in every instance there is an intimacy that is almost conversational. You feel as you read that you know the writer in quiet mood; that there is a sharing of thoughts about things of interest – you are intended to be interested too, without bookishness or boredom.
Just the same for haibun!
What governed Guy N Pocock’s choice of essays?
All the essays chosen for this little book are modern. Most of the writers are still living. In our own day the variety of essays both in subject and style is so sweeping that one could make a hundred such books as this were the choice unrestricted. But in making this collection I have had to say to myself, ‘This is a book for young people. If they are to be interested it is no use giving them subjects such as ‘The Human Understanding’ or ‘The Persistence of Personality’ or ‘Relativity’. Give them good essays upon subjects about which they will care to read.’ And so the subjects I have chosen are – ships, and sailormen, and pirates, and travel, and sport, and playgoing, and cricket, and animals, and school stories, and naval training, and circuses, and such. If young people do not care about such subjects, well, they must indeed be hard to please. The style, again, must be such that young people can realize its excellence and grasp the meaning of what is written without undue worry. The language must be simple – not too many long and difficult words; the form of expression must be straightforward—not too much paradox or irony.
I think Guy N Pocock would have found me very hard to please: though in themselves the essays in his text are good examples, none of his chosen subjects would have had my brain tingling; on the other hand, I would have been roused by essays called The Human Understanding and The Persistence of Personality and distinctly alienated by his condescending parting advice:-
You must use your intelligence in reading any essay, and as I have been careful to select comparatively easy essays from the work of the more ‘difficult’ authors, you will find nothing to baffle you.
I found Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia captivating. It is numbered ‘10’ in my library which has grown in seventy years to a very respectable 4000 books. I recently had to complete some Plague Survey which asked me how often I visited a public library! I used a public library table to write essays at in the mid-sixties; visited the Library Theatre in Luton a couple of years running in the early 1970’s to supervise young kids doing rehearsed improvisations for public performance; but I haven’t borrowed a book from a library for 65 years. When you’ve a library of your own why would you go to a public library?
Opening my ancient Everyman Elia, dated May 1952, at random I came across DETACHED THOUGHTS ON BOOKS AND READING which starts with a very relevant quotation. I take it that this is where my passion for quotations (and probably for finding poems in other people’s writing) perhaps came from!
To mind the inside of a book is to entertain one’s self with the forced product of another man’s brain. Now I think a man of quality and breeding may be much amused with the natural sprouts of his own. (Lord Foppington in the Relapse.)
Charles Lamb begins:
An ingenious acquaintance of my own was so much struck with this bright sally of his Lordship, that he has left off reading altogether, to the great improvement of his originality. At the hazard of losing some credit on this head, I must confess that I dedicate no inconsiderable portion of my time to other people’s thoughts. I dream away my life in others’ speculations. I love to lose myself in other men’s minds. When I am not walking, I am reading; I cannot sit and think. Books think for me. I have no repugnances. Shaftesbury is not too genteel for me, nor Jonathan Wild too low. I can read anything which I call a book.
I built Lamb’s quaint arch style into the way I wrote essays at Kingston Grammar School and got good marks for my efforts!
In Margin Released JBPriestley, in whose mind I am quite happy to lose myself (only to find my own mind in his pages), says that
…he’s too conventional for the avant garde, too experimental for Aunt Edna; too extraverted for the introverts, too introverted for the out & out extraverts; lowbrow to highbrows, highbrow to lowbrows. I succeeded with the essay form just when it was dying… Already in the early twenties the essay as a form had dropped behind the times, but then I was behind them too. Half of me was still living in the years 1910-14 when I was growing up and first trying to write. One part of me perhaps going down deepest, will always belong to those years…’
Now there’s a thing! I finished school at the end of 1954. At least one deep part of me has always belonged to that year – I still think of myself as 15. In my day we were still asked to write literary essays though we were never instructed how to do it. I have no idea how my contemporaries fared but I taught myself by choosing to model on Charles Lamb, Robert Lynd, Jefferies, Belloc, Carlyle, George Bourne and so on. I had consumed much of their writing by the time I left school. The only prize I ever won was the RCSherriff Essay Prize 1954. My prize essay was on the subject of ‘Holidays’, I remember the moment when, at the prize presentation, Sherriff, old boy of the school and author of that great play Journey’s End, asked me if I was an expert on holidays: I had no reply to offer and now have no recollection of the essay’s content but I know I was thinking that the essay, which will certainly have had nothing to do with the abstract concept of ‘holiday’, was certainly inferior to others I had written; I thought his question was a bit mechanical – a word I would not have used then!
Ten years later I wrote a mighty long essay while I was training for teacherdom comparing Journey’s End with Henry V and thirty years after that I regularly taught Journey’s End as an A Level text. Sometime around 1990, at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, there was a splendid performance of the play at the start of which we were warned to hold on to our seats during its final moments – the theatre felt as though it were being blown up as the German onslaught descended on the trench dugout where the play’s action had taken place.
JBPriestley’s book of essays called Open House was first published in 1927 when Priestley was 33. I think back to myself at that age (1970) which he describes as being ‘late in the day’, a phrase I’m only just beginning to understand the sense of at the age of 82. I had just embarked on the daily task of teaching and imagined that I had got it sorted, that I had made up my mind on how it should be done. Although, to start with, the systematic application of my ASNell-inspired beliefs was sorely taxed by challenging young people who had been brainwashed in the opposite direction, I have never wavered from the idea that we are all potential perpetual ponderers and that the task of any teacher is simply to arrange things so that learners would become determined to pick things up for themselves in their own way & in their own time, much as I now realise I had been doing in my own DIY way since the beginning of time.
The essay ‘Doubting It’ revolves around the idea that he lacked a suitably ‘pigeon-holed’ vision of things. I think that this is a skilful ironical pretence on Priestley’s part but the urge does have a place in one’s intellectual life just as it had in mine!
If only I could make up my mind about everything once and for all, strike a mental attitude and never relax from it, set up my own little universe and never catch even a glimpse of any other, I should be more at ease, more confident as a man and more successful as a scribbler. Instead of prattling on week after week, trusting that a bright patch of words here and there will excuse the poor threadbare coat, I should be putting every one in his place, be assured, witty, profound, and all…
My own driving-force for many years, I seem to remember, was to attempt to elaborate a water-tight view of the world but it was not till one autumn afternoon in 1964 in Farnley, Yorkshire, that, though I wouldn’t have called it this then, I became aware of a meta-strategy for beginning to be able to confidently put the ideas that had come to me into some at least provisional sort of order. The notion of ‘meta-strategy’ has served me well. I have written about this elsewhere – see https://colinblundell.com/2019/02/20/my-deschooling/
I think I already had an other-than-conscious-mini-meta-strategy when I made my first attempt on Proust in 1959. Being an inveterate hoarder, I still have a carefully preserved set of typed quotations from Swann’s Way the tenor of which I clearly approved and which will in turn have influenced the way I think to this day.
According to my notes, what mainly activated Proust’s mind was his ‘belief in the philosophic richness and the beauty of the book I was reading, and my desire to appropriate these to myself …’ That seemed so important to me: what have I been doing ever since but ‘appropriate’ the ‘richness’ of other people’s ideas with the intention (always acknowledging the source) of welding them into the texture of my own thinking? I wrote then that when Proust finds opinions expressed in books that he has previously worked out for himself, ‘…then it was suddenly revealed to me that my own humble existence and the Realms of Truth were less widely separated than I had supposed….. and in my new-found confidence and joy, I wept upon the printed page…’
I don’t think I’ve ever really shed tears over a book but I have often been severely moved by what I’ve read. When Proust searched his mind for the source of such joy he says ‘…I can hear the echo of great spaces traversed…’ Such was the case when I first read a simple piece of advice he himself offered – ‘…always try to keep a patch of sky above your life…’ and, without being conscious of it, chose to follow his determination ‘…that, when I grew up, I would never copy the foolish example of other men, but that even in Paris on fine spring days, instead of paying calls and listening to silly talk, I would make excursions into the country to see the first hawthorn-trees in bloom…’
Never to copy the foolish example of other people, avoiding what Gurdjieff calls ‘associationism’ like the plague.
Priestley approaches what I understand as mock lamentation:
…If only I could put together, from even the oddest materials, some kind of neat, waterproof little universe of my own, which I could push into people’s faces on every occasion when I wrote or spoke, I should become a person of some importance. People would remark: “You know, that fellow’s got something to say”. Only the other night an American, who was either unusually callous or under the impression that I was a thoughtful dry-goods merchant, said to me: “I can’t read your belles-lettres writers. They don’t seem to me to have anything to say…” And, of course, he was right about some of us. I know only too well that I have nothing to say. I may assume, for trade purposes, a dogmatic manner now and then, but actually I have fewer hard-and-fast opinions than the ordinary stockbroker or tea planter, and do not know my own mind as well as they do. Heaven knows that I have tried, yes, for years, to settle everything, religion, philosophy, politics, economics, and what not, and have done with it; so that I could be ready for any emergency, and instruct everybody, and say the same thing over and over again but more brightly each time; until at last people recognized me as the leader of one school of thought, and the university extension lecturers, and after them the literary historians, gave my attitude a label and, out of their love of labels, devoted much time and space to my message and influence…
And, of course, Priestley is even here expressing an opinion, saying plenty in an ironical rather than a dogmatic kind of way; being the thoughtful person he was, I cannot think he would have wanted ‘hard-and-fast opinions’ especially those of a stockbroker (who would?); saying ‘the same thing over and over again’ would have been anathema to him and he certainly wouldn’t want to be labelled in the easy way adopted by those who set themselves up as the kind of experts who labelled him variously as ‘too lowbrow’ and too highbrow’: ‘…here’s the label, think no more…’ He continues with what I choose to think of as mock lamentation:-
…try as I may, I cannot strike an attitude and keep to it rigidly; I cannot arrange my opinions and then pigeon-hole them. I forget what my attitude is and then either strike another one or do without, just go mentally lounging about, as it were, settling nothing for anybody. My opinions, instead of being there, neat and handy, ready for me at any hour of day or night, are never the same size and shape for two weeks together; some swell terrifically, others flow into one another, and others again dwindle and dwindle until they finally disappear.
The very lack of pigeon-holes and the consequent shape-shifting of ideas are what make Priestley’s essays so varied and interesting.
I have read all the books, stacks and stacks of them; I have thought and thought; I have argued in all manner of places with all manner of people. But it has always been the same, for just when I think I have settled everything, once for all, and see exactly where we all stand, doubts of every kind come creeping in, eating through walls and ceilings and floors, and very soon my fine structure, in which I had meant to pass the rest of my intellectual life, is a tattered little ruin in the mist.
It takes a stout intellectual individual to be able to engage in such ironical complexities. A useful preliminary to essay to say something for yourself is to have read all (all?) the books to assimilate ideas and so on. Priestley says, tongue in cheek, that searching for a scapegoat to blame for his assumed lack of certainty he sometimes wonders
…whether I ought not to blame my elders, the admired writers of my youth. If they had been a little less cocksure, might not I have achieved a little more certainty? It is true that their unfailing confidence, their freedom from any kind of doubt whatever, showed me at what to aim, the road to travel; but I cannot help thinking that it was they who prevented me from arriving anywhere. They were all so sure.
But, of course, since what we see in others is a mirror of ourselves, Priestley must in fact already have had something akin to their ‘certainty’ to be able to identify it and assert that he hasn’t got it! And then he kids us along… One has to go into a meta-position to understand his irony.
The only certainty is, of course, in having the guts just to get on with it! I was certainly not alienated by Proust, though it was another thirty-five years before I conquered the whole of Remembrance of Things Past, reading some of it in Samarkand!
What chimes with me in other people’s writing has to be because I recognise something of myself in it. When a found poem leaps off a page at me from a page of prose it has to be the result of my recognising something of myself in the words.In another essay, ‘Ideas in April’, from Open House, there’s a good example of ‘just getting on with it’, Priestley has a nice bit of analysis with a deft certainty:-
There are, I suppose, three common attitudes towards… new knowledge. One large class of persons  only acquire knowledge, ideas, early in life, and after that, having little or no intellectual curiosity, regard all new discoveries and theories as so much play or wild gibbering, of less importance than politics in Guatemala or a new way of painting the Parisian face. Then  there are the people who run from one new theory to another, from William James to Bergson, Bergson to Croce, and so forth, who may be seen lapping up Vitalism or Relativity or Psycho-Analysis or Behaviourism with equal enthusiasm, who believe that the latest ‘ism will remould life and that the fashionable theorist alone will save the world [‘tramps’ in Gurdjieff terms, Enneagram 7’s]. They contrive to turn science and philosophy into milliners’ shops, where they can always be discovered feverishly trying on the last theory. It is very doubtful if these people ever apply the new knowledge they acquire to life at all, if they ever see its implications. The third type of mind  always does this, and recoils in horror from what it sees. This type must not be confused with the first, from which it differs because it has genuine intellectual curiosity and cannot ignore the challenge of a new idea [‘Good Housekeeper’ in Gurdjieff terms].
Then, though Priestley doesn’t attribute the label to them, there are also the ‘Hasnamusses’ – agents provocateurs, violent ‘anarchists in the cellar and a tiger on the hearthrug’ with ‘anger in their voices and the mingled light and shadow of courage and despair in their eyes’, holding on savagely to the old familiar ways.
Priestley says he’s ‘something of an odd mixture’, wavering between opposing attitudes, one part of his mind plays
…the cheerful curious busybody among new ideas, the other part deeply resenting their chill intrusion, their corroding touch. But these two parts, having to live together, are gradually settling down to compose an attitude different from either of the previous ones, an attitude compounded of curiosity and an easy scepticism.
During Plaguetime, schools having been closed for a couple of months (mid-June 2020), the Power Possessors are agonising over the idea that children are falling behind in their education. What they are really concerned about is that they won’t have enough reasonably brain-washed wage slavery fodder next year. They could, of course, just cancel a year and carry on afterwards instead of requiring teachers to talk at double the usual speed in order to make up for ‘lost time’. I wonder what I would have missed by taking a year out of school – not much probably though I suppose I was self-motivated, a luxury not in many satchels of schoolkids nowadays. As it was, I dropped all the science subjects at the beginning of the second school year to join a class of six to ‘do’ Ancient Greek; when Geography was dropped in the third year to cover the supposed arduousness of such a study, Bunter Brown assured me that I could learn all I needed to know of that subject in a couple of weeks – quite right! I do not believe I missed anything of any consequence.
In his brilliant novel It’s an Old Country, Priestley has a curious old character living in a basement, substantial foundation of Being, Dr Firmius, who is writing a masterpiece advocating something that could perhaps be brought forward in time for those being plagued with non-schooling. He says:-
“…I believe that men and women in their forties – not all of course, but some – should spend a year at a special kind of university. You understand about the ordinary universities, Mr. Adamson. You teach in one yourself. They offer young people various sorts of knowledge that will enable them to acquire degrees, preparing them for all manner of professions and gainful pursuits.”
“I know all about that of course,” Tom told him rather grimly, “I ought to by this time. But what about your special kind of university?”
“It will be concerned entirely with culture and wisdom.”
Dr. Firmius’s tone was serious but not solemn, and he twinkled away as usual. “It will try to rescue men and women in their forties – often a desperate age – from emptiness and despair. My book, which already is much too long, I’m afraid, will offer a kind of ground plan for such a university – what it will teach, how it will teach, and who should be its teachers – so on and so forth – and perhaps too much so on and too much so forth…”
How could one design a package for the very young in order to present them with ‘culture & wisdom’ instead of computers & factual drivel? Were I writing a book such as Dr Firmius describes, I might well recommend to start with a catalogue of sources coming from the pen of every author mentioned in this essay – the reading to start NOW.
Somewhere or other Carl Jung, a friend whose work Priestley promoted in England from 1946, suggested that there’s a distinct shift in one’s life pattern at the age of 40 – up till then one was ‘just doing research’. The link with Dr Firmius is surely pretty certain.
I was 40 in 1977 when I first read Ouspensky’s The Fourth Way – that was without doubt a turning point in my life; however, all the previous research became useful. I like to think I happen by sheer chance to have built a university out of life. I’m not specially proud of it – it just happens to be the case. Within its walls I can easily be bowled over by an essay like the following. Were I intent on setting up a Dr Firmius University, I would use it to gauge the likely entry level for potential students: those who finished a careful reading close to tears would be automatically in the top class; those who shrugged their shoulders would have to spend some time sitting by a lake with me for a chat.
THE INN OF THE SIX ANGLERS from Open House – A Book of Essays (1927)
This morning, for the first time in my life, I wished that I was an angler, a real angler, not one of those fellows (as the fat man said last night) ‘who’ll fish for an hour and then want to go and pick blackberries…’ As we rode away from the inn and left the lake idly lapping behind, with all six anglers happy on its bosom, I told myself that I had missed my chance of happiness in old age by not fishing steadily through all my youth. Perhaps, however, it was really the inn that did it, the inn and the lake together. There is no resisting an inn that is small and quaint and good, a place that is shelter and fire and food and drink and a fantastic journey’s end all in one. Nor is there anything in nature more enchanting than a lake. Rivers I have loved, and with them the restless sea, so magical and yet so melancholy, perhaps because it seems the symbol of our desires; but it is those lovely lapping sheets of water, neither seas nor rivers yet having the charm of both with something added, some touch of quiet, peace, soul’s ease, that really possess my heart. You travel over leagues of hulking and stubborn land, then suddenly turn a corner and find a space where there is no earth but only a delicate mirroring of the sky and that faintest rise and fall of waters, the lap-lap-lap along the little curving shore. Where else can you find such exquisite beauty and tranquillity? May I end my days by a lake, one of earth’s little windows, where blue daylight and cloud and setting suns and stars go drifting by to the tiny tune of the water. There is no mention of a lake in Wordsworth’s strangely magical lines:
The silence that is in the starry sky
The sleep that is among the lonely hills,
but I will wager that they were written by some lake-side, for there is in them the lake spirit, the quiet enchantment, the heart’s ease.
It may, then, have been the inn and the lake that made me wistful of angling. All yesterday we were travelling north through Central Wales, a lovely country, filled with an antique simplicity and kindness, that few people seem to know. I had heard of this lake and was determined to go there and, if possible, spend the night by its side. It is the one virtue of a motor-car that it can gratify such whims. We rushed north, then, and saw the hills grow in majesty and the sky darken over our heads. Where we stopped for tea there was some talk of a landslide, a road washed away by a recent storm, along the way we wished to travel, but by this time we were determined to see our lake or perish. (It is this spirit alone that saves the soul of the motorist, who would otherwise be a mere beast.) We discovered some kind of road on the map and were very soon bumping along it. The next two or three hours were Homeric. I was at the wheel and, you may be sure, innumerable smoking-rooms will find me at that wheel again, will have to travel with me down that road. I have now a story that is a fit companion for that other story of mine, that account of how I once changed down to low gear with a screwdriver, when every thing began to break in the middle of a Buckinghamshire hill.
The road dwindled to a mere tattered length of tape threading itself through the hills. There were great holes everywhere, and at times the steering-wheel was nothing better than a rattling useless ring of metal. The hills piled themselves all round us, great screens of slaty rock threatened to overwhelm our trumpery shivering craft, and the narrow bitten track went twisting this way and that, offering steeper gradients every five minutes. And now the mere drizzle, which had accompanied us for the last hour or two, darkened into a torrential downpour, blotting out everything but the next few yards of road. I had to open the windscreen because it was impossible to see through it. Big drops would hit me in the eye, so that at times I saw nothing at all. The track got worse, the rain fell more heavily, the car rattled and roared and leaped and bumped, and we laughed and shouted to one another, being now in that state of curious and half-sickening exaltation which visits us when sudden death is apparently just round the corner. But as the nightmare track lengthened out and the rain still fell in sheets, completely drenching us, smashing through hood and cap and coat, we settled down to the grim business of getting anywhere at all. At last there came a long descent and a slackening of the rain. We swerved down through a misty fissure into a grey and ghostly place, where we heard, once the car had achieved its easy hum again, the faint noise of water. We were in a hollow in the mountains, a hollow almost entirely filled with the dim grey sheen of water. Here then was the lake. Another ten minutes of twisting and turning and we were shaking ourselves, like dogs from a pool, in front of a low building that seemed nothing more than three brown cottages joined together. This was the inn.
There never was a better journey’s end. A Pimlico boarding-house would have seemed paradisal after that shattering ride, but here was a place in a million. We seemed to have rattled and bumped our way clean through this modern world into another and more lovable age, where ‘they fleet the time carelessly’. It was not long before we were snug and dry, sipping sherry in front of the fire. We caught vague glimpses of elderly men, anglers apparently, for the place was full of rods and baskets of trout. Then came dinner in a low lamplit room. There was no nonsense about little tables and simpering maids handing round snippets of food. We found ourselves at a long table with all the other guests, and all the other guests were six jovial old anglers, the oldest and most jovial at the head of the table. The dishes, vast tureens of soup and joints of mutton, were placed in front of these two, who cut and carved and cracked their jokes. The dinner was good, made up of clean, honest, abundant food, and the company was even better. I have not had such a strange and satisfying meal for years. It was just as if one had somehow contrived to merge The Compleat Angler and Pickwick Papers. Outside, mist gathered on the lake, so remote that it might have been in the heart of another continent, and darkness fell on the hills. Inside, in the kindly and mellow lamplight, we sat snug, and ate and drank and listened, still half-dazed, still with the rain and wind in our ears, like people in a dream.
I saw it all in the clear light of morning, a morning of thinning mist and faint sunlight on the lake, when the mouth watered for the fried trout and bacon that the two oldest anglers handed round. It was only this morning. Yet, as I look back upon last night, it still seems like a dream. The journey, the place itself, the inn, the six old anglers – the whole experience is more like the memory of some happy chapter in a leisurely old-fashioned tale than a piece of reality. I can hardly believe that that valley and lake are on the map, that in some directory of hotels that inn may be found. It seems as if that remote place had slipped through some little crack in time, so that the years had rushed by without avail, leaving it brimmed with its old-fashioned spirit of leisure and courtesy and kindness. Its guests, the six old anglers, were not quite of this world. They were, or had been, I believe, schoolmasters, doctors, musicians, but one could only see them as anglers, living for ever at this inn, for ever strolling down to the boats in the morning and returning with their trout in the evening to carve the mutton and exchange their long and leisurely stories (like those that hold up our older novels for whole chapters) round that lamplit board. One of them, the one who mastered the joint, had been going there for at least forty years, and the others seemed to remember the place twenty or thirty years ago. Not that they did not know other places too, for they exchanged reminiscences about them, remote little lochs in Scotland, unknown Irish rivers, wherever there were trout and salmon to be had. They always gave one another all the facts, precise directions for finding places, the names of all the inns and innkeepers and gillies, and talked on as if life lasted a thousand years, kindly years of sunlight and mist and lapping water and leaping fish and golden hours about the dinner-table. They showed me, in the jazz pattern of our years, this silver thread of peaceful and quiet days that old Isaac Walton knew so long ago; so that I too would be an angler at last, and find my way again to that inn, this time to be one of their confraternity, and then perhaps I too could quietly angle my way out of time altogether. Yet even now it is all so unreal that I have a feeling that I could not find that lake and that inn again, and I am sure that by the time I am old and grey they will have vanished for ever.