Low life

Up close and personal with Thomas Hardy

22 June 2019

9:00 AM

22 June 2019

9:00 AM

I walked in out of the rain, dripping, and sat down beside the fire on the primitive high-backed settle. ‘Is this OK?’ I said to the guardian. ‘Yes, you’re allowed to sit on the furniture, none of which is original,’ she said. She was a small woman in her fifties, radiating an attractive combination of reverence and humility. The log fire smoking quietly in the fireplace was a wonderful, essential touch, I thought. The slow tick of a grandfather clock and the rain squalling against the windows emphasised the silence of the cottage parlour. The cob walls, painted the colour of diluted pig’s blood, were a yard thick. There was also a dresser, an oil lamp, some plain old wooden chairs and a small round table. On the table was a violin. I consciously shut my mouth to prevent me from stupidly asking the guardian whether it was the actual violin Hardy had played as a child.

Instead (for this was why I had come here today), I tried to capture the scene his poem ‘The Self-Unseeing’ conjures in my mind and moves me every time I read it. In the poem, Hardy the poet is inspecting the ruins of this, his childhood home, from some point in the distant future. There, he points out, is the old stone floor, ‘Footworn and hollowed and thin’. And there is the ‘former door/ Where the dead feet walked in’. On which side of the fireplace had his beloved mother Jemima sat ‘Smiling into the fire’, I wondered? And where exactly, I wondered, had Hardy the child stood, ‘Bowing it higher and higher’? Hardy sees his family singing here in the parlour, and himself as an ecstatic child, playing his violin.

Then that last miraculous stanza, before which everything in me gives way:

Childlike, I danced in a dream;
Blessings emblazoned that day;
Everything glowed with a gleam;
Yet we were looking away!

If the guardian thought it odd that someone should pay £7.50 to plonk himself down in the parlour and look stricken, she didn’t show it. I was tempted to think that she recognised a co-religionist when she saw one and understood his need perfectly. In the thick silence, she didn’t intrude.

Then a rustle of wet anorak and a male voice. ‘Quite a nice cottage, this,’ it said. The wing of the settle obscured my head from the room. To someone entering the parlour from outside, I was just a pair of jeans and trainers stuck out in front of the fire. ‘No consistency on the brickwork, mind,’ the voice went on. ‘The headers and stretchers are all over the place. And when you look at those stairs, you can see how small they were back then. Like a lot of flaming midgets. No health and safety in them days. The wife nearly came a right cropper.’ ‘The brickwork was added later, to protect the cob,’ said the guardian. ‘And yes, people were on average shorter.’ Then the parlour’s strangely profound peace struck this man, or he had no further questions, and he fell silent.

Then the wife came in. She seemed to have recovered from her near accident on the stairs, and she had a question for the guardian concerning the future rather than the past. ‘Is the rain going to stop today?’ she said. ‘I’m sorry. I can’t predict that,’ said the guardian humbly. The silence in the parlour thickened again. Then the wife blurted out: ‘Where’s Brian gone?’ This was addressed not to the guardian but to her husband. ‘Gone to look at the outside privy,’ he said. ‘When you think about it, it’s not cold in here, is it?’ he added. Then that deep cottage silence again, this time a prolonged one.

Suddenly the wife said (she must have been reading one of the information panels): ‘They were keen churchgoers in those days, weren’t they? This went unanswered. Then she said: ‘Do you remember that time you took me into the graveyard to kiss me, Bill, and I laid on a slab and when I got up I had “Thy Will Be Done” printed on my back?’ They were still laughing when another man came in. Straight away he said to the guardian: ‘I read a book of his once. It was very stodgy. Can’t remember what it was called.’ Now they laughed at this.

Physically and mentally I was finished. Expended. But I’d finally made the pilgrimage that I’d been promising myself for 30 years. Sitting there on that settle, in my dripping ancient Barbour, I was mixing my atoms with Hardy’s dream. A squalid impertinence? Oh dear, yes. Madness? Of course. But I’d wanted it so badly. And now I had achieved it. At that moment you could have stuck a fork in me — I was done.

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