One of the things that fascinates me is to come across things written
in the margins of books. They create in a minimal but very real
way the presence and character of the person who wrote them.
Once, in a second-hand book shop, looking for something on life
at the beginning of the century, I came across THE HOME NOTES
BOOK OF BEAUTY (1914). I would have put it back on the shelf
had it not been for the immaculate handwriting on some of the pages
- joined-up writing which my grandmother used to do so well with
a dip pen and black ink, all upstrokes at the same angle.
A House Blessing
The beauty of the house is Order.
The Blessing of the house is contentment.
The glory of the house is hospitality.
The crown of the house is Godliness.
Later in pencil: Equal parts of lemon juice
and milk is good for red hands. On a page devoted to The
Fashionable Figure there was a long note on constipation. Obviously
copied from another source it had such phrases as constipation
can never be cured with aperients and Mucous is the guardian of
Some of the entries related to household management: Keep
receipts for a period of six years - that being the limit of time
at which payment of debts can be claimed while others were
just strange: Hat in hand, one can go through
the whole country. Is she intent on begging or is she saying that
with well groomed hair you can face up to anyone, anywhere
Another time I was staying in a run down hotel which was old-fashioned
enough to have books in the sitting room. I found an anthology THE
POET'S QUAIR whose margins were covered in notes. The book had
been owned by five people all of whom were in S4. Betty Dopward,
Jill Unwin (red ink), Sheila King (very neat),Kim Duffy (backhand)
and Isobel Robertson (obviously the one who nicked it from school
since her name was the only one not crossed out). Having been both
a teacher and a pupil I could guess the circumstances of the scribbled
notes. I could almost hear the teacher and see the pupil condensing
and writing beside the poem.
The sonnet deals with love, death, time, war,
On the next page
The Elizabethan age was the summer of history
Beside the ballad 'Get up and Bar the Door' the one word -
I see the boredom of the last period of the day in Yeats' 'Among
School Children'. Was it Betty or Sheila or Kim or Isobel or Jill
who painstakingly pencilled in each O of the text so that the page
looked like it had been hit with grape shot. Beside 'Sailing to
Byzantium' is jotted a sum 66 + 66 with no answer. Beside 'Wilde
Swans at Coole' a note says of poor Yeats
He is growing old and losing the happiness
of life and does not have any feelings about anything.
Thomas Hardy gets one word written beside his name -
and T.S.Eliot gets two
In 'Morte d'Arthur' against the line 'They sleep, the men I love'
is an attempt to spell euphemism which peters out into a series
of m-like squiggles and the observation
they kicked the bucket
Most frustrating is the entry beside' The Twa Corbies' -
This knight has had a good life because he
used to go and...
What was the distraction at this point - the bell ? A good looking
window cleaner ? Or the first big flakes of snow which might lead
to the school closing early ? Whatever it was the secret of how
to achieve the good life has been lost forever.