The Cotswolds

After months of isolation, I’m staggering after the social contacts of the past few days, although it’s a good feeling so stagger is probably the wrong word. My head is full of stories about new people I’ve met and images of elegant eighteenth century Bath and the Cotswolds.

I’ve been sniffy about the Cotswolds; the limestone hills felt bare and the tourist trail, Bourton-on-the-Water and Stow-on-the-Wold overrated and I was alienated by the lurking presence of royalty in the south and east, with the vast open professional horse country and the threatening presence of the air force bases.

I’ve nibbled at the area many times; to William Morris’s Kelmscott in the east, his beautiful Thames retreat with the story of  Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s opaque relationship with Morris’s wife, which moves me in contradictory ways, admiration for Morris’s ability to rise above conventional Victorian morality and dislike for the idea of women as muses and the narcissism of the creative bemused. And visits to my mother’s house in her brief life at Stonehouse near Stroud, from where I made long meaningless under-researched trips to the Forest of Dean on tortuous nausea-inducing buses.

But now, more systematic and armed with Pevsner, I’ve seen the small intimate, at times almost Italianate ravines, with their mill buildings, weavers and clothiers houses, as reminders of the once intensive economic activity, with associations to the East India Company, an important customer for the village where I stayed, and the mute memory of eighteenth and nineteenth century hardship underlying the creative idyll.

It makes me feel whole, like a real English person when scattered memories from way back are rearranged into a new larger more complex whole.

I want to go back and learn more.

100 years of quarantine

Saturday, 12 June 2021

My eighth day in the UK and frustratingly I am still in quarantine. The testing firm’s interest in my fate seems to have cooled considerably after coffering my sixty pounds. I have still not heard from them although  they did at least provide me with an opportunity yesterday to think about the meaning of life for a peaceful half an hour as I listened to the reassuring English burr on their non-answer facility.

It’s frustrating but I am at least living in a pleasant flat in the grounds of a biggish house, with a substantial garden and  a view across the River Avon and the canal to the edges of Bath. And I have walked through the fine old village of Bathford on my permitted excursions to post my tests and admired the home of the inventor of a bagless vacuum cleaner as well as learning to recognise periwinkles.

I have loads of books to read, Albert Vigoleis Thelen’s Die Insel des zweitens Gesichts in German and English. My German is not good enough to enjoy reading just the German version but it works well for me to read a page in English and then read the same page in German.

I also have Jean Giono’s Le hussard sur le toit , only in French as my French reading ability is better than my German. And Swedish represented by Rudolf Värnlund’s Vandrare till Intet, published by Bokförlaget Röda Rummet in Uppsala.

And on the non-fiction side, I have three volumes of Pevsner, the two volumes for Gloucestershire, one for the Cotswolds and one for flatter parts of the county and the Forest of Dean, and the Dorset volume in case I get down there later. And then there’s my teach yourself Bengali and a tome on the German economy in my Kindle waiting for my attention, as well as a few sheaves of paper copies on political history and a book by David Harvey.

I am equipped to keep ennui at bay for a lifetime of quarantine.

To enhance my feeling of being in the West Country, I started my quarantine reading with Walter Raymond’s “Love and Quiet Life, Somerset Idylls”  (1901 I believe). Walter Raymond can be described as a South Somerset Thomas Hardy although he has not enjoyed the same renown (nor is his authorship up to the standard of Hardy’s). His memory has been kept alive by a few enthusiasts who have reproduced older editions (my copy has fine stamps from a public library in Boston, Mass). Reading Raymond made me think about the Somerset dialect. I learn from Wikipedia’s article on West Country dialects that the Somerset dialect, despite more recently being made the butt of jokes about the back of rural beyond, has fine origins in West Saxon, the variant of old English in which much literature was written, including apparently Beowulf. Fascinating to a language nerd like me are the references back to the Germanic languages so that the dialect’s “I be, thee bist, he/she be, we be, thee ‘rt and they be” are almost closer to Modern Saxon than to Standard English. The dialect’s use of gendered “he” or “she” when referring to inanimate objects also has a Germanic touch (“Put ‘ee over there”) as does the frequent use of the prefix “a” to denote the past participle (“If I’d know’d, I ooden never a-went”). It’s not the same usage as German but I think it has a Germanic feel to it.

I remember encountering some of these features when I moved to Somerset from Sussex in 1958, also the ghostly remnants of the second person singular, the use of a “th” sound when addressing another person (It was only later, of course, when I’d lost my linguistic virginity that I integrated these shreds of experience into a broader picture).

I’m now looking forward with some excitement to spending a few days in the Cotswolds, where there is much to see and do but I will write about that in another post.

At the Roman city of Bath

I often feel slightly melancholic when I leave Sweden for England. I’ve never fully understood this feeling but it must have to do with switching cultures, dropping the Swedish for a while and reconnecting the English David Kendall.

Assimilating a new culture as an adult is a complicated process. I’m fascinated by the range of responses from others in this situation from those who more or less switch cultures without angst to those who struggle.  For me it’s been important to develop my Englishness, not to become a historic “hobby” Englishman in suspended animation since 1973. But also to learn how to obtain nutrition from the literary and cultural environment in Sweden. Over time, I’ve found an Anglo-Scandinavian niche, made easier by the historic and linguistic links. It’s been important for me to accept that there is no way back, that the English life that I could have had never was and never will be, that I am irretrievably bicultural (or 1.5 perhaps…), which, in fact, is deeply satisfying in its own way.

This time my melancholic mood has been overlaid by euphoria at the release from the long tunnel of social isolation, that there is a life after covid.

I am now at an Air bnb outside Bath in west England. A visually appealing city with buildings almost consistently of warm oolite limestone, which has been referred to as the most Italian of the English cities. I am just east of the city half way up the slope of a long valley through which the railway, the canal and the River Avon all pass.

Bath was on the outskirts of the area where I lived as a teenager so I have many scattered associations from way back. The fine riverside environment and the harmonious buildings made an impression on me then even though my thoughts were mainly occupied by second-hand Duane Eddy records, and the acquisition of various items of not-so-tasteful clothing as aids for whatever libidinal extravaganzas I had in mind.

I am looking forward to walking along the canal into the city and tidying up my impressions. But first I have to complete my (at least) five day quarantine period. I am dreading the self-tests that I have to do. If anybody can sabotage these and get a string of inconclusive results, then I’m probably that person. I have Olympic level dyspraxia.

I hope they let me out soon anyway as my thin grasp of the circadian rhythm is already in tatters, having taken to my bed exhausted at 7.30 pm and woken up at 1.30 am. And now I am dowsing myself with blue light, which is all wrong but writing calms me down. As soon as I can get to the shop, I shall buy a candle, a nightcap with a tassel and a quill and ink so that I can write at night (and sabotage my eyesight instead of my sleep, at least achieving fair parity of maltreatment of my various organs….).