Sunday, May 29, 2011

Tweeds & foulards & button-downs, & schoolboy-good gray flannels

The sound-quality of anguish has nothing to do with its volume. This is as true in a Mozart opera as in an interrogation centre .. I had to call on an Italian farmer very early and found him in his kitchen brewing coffee and inspecting his mousetraps. These were not sprung traps but pieces of thick paper spread with birdlime. On this particular morning there was a mouse stuck to a sheet of paper on the floor outside his larder, its ineffectual scrabbles of the night clearly legible in the dense glue surrounding it. As the farmer chatted about what the hail had done to his vines the previous afternoon he scrumpled up the paper, glue, mouse and all, and tossed the ball into the fire. I had not been paying much attention to what he was doing and from the mouse's necessary immobility had assumed it dead.

But then from the fireplace as the ball of paper caught there came a tiny appalling scream. I don't believe the farmer noticed it at all: it was less than the momentary squeak of steam from a damp log, the breath of a lobster in a restaurant kitchen. That minute bellow of unhelped pain still rings in my inner ear, set off by the finches ..

Our mother's baby half-brother wore tweeds and foulards and button-downs when staying with us, and sat on the floor with me to join me with crayons. One day, he drew for me a turtle, which I readily recognised from some rudimentary schooling; I doubt I'd ever seen a real turtle. He then drew a lantern on the turtle's shell, and I laughed in unforgotten delight at his magical interference with nature. He said to me, Oh, you mustn't laugh; the turtle doesn't think he's funny. I remember this man, who gave his heart to me. A note I crayonned to him was posted some time ago.

He went off and died, because he couldn't live with himself. We were told it was an auto accident; they were comprehensible enough. He looked a great deal like a contemporary of his, shown here. Two or three years after his death, I was taken to the movies by our father, where I saw this actor in this scene. I cannot forget it, either. Hare, hunter, field: make a sentence! The character in the movie was unable to do that, and so had been castrated by order of his government. Virginia used to do that, as the movie brought out. I didn't know what that was, but he portrayed pain to me, indignity that I could believe; he held up a picture of his mother to me, to plead for her; and this I could believe.

James Hamilton-Paterson
Playing with Water
New Amsterdam Books, 1987©

Montgomery Clift

Stanley Kramer, director
Abby Mann, screenplay
Judgment at Nuremberg
United Artists, 1961©


  1. "That minute bellow of unhelped pain still rings in my inner ear" and will continue to do so in mine, also. Horrific.

  2. BL, I guess you know Hamilton-Paterson? He's extremely gifted with imagery. Here again, we have a living argument for a great bookseller; I wouldn't have known of him, probably, if it were not for Jim Armistead at Tillman Place Bookshop. Obviously I'd like it if we were all to pass along such advisories from time to time ~ as you do.

  3. There are some that hear that appalling scream-while others go merrily along hearing nothing. When you hear the scream it is a better life you lead but not always the happiest-it just is. It can be hardest of all on the days we feel the appalling tiny screams are our own.this is the unforgettable prose we come to rmbl to drink.

  4. Peter Quennell proposed a famous distinction (Customs and Characters, 1982) between desiring to please, an attribute he persuasively showed to be one of Mrs Keppel's, and endeavouring to amuse, for which he cited Mrs Trefusis. My only concern with his distinction is his sense that it was generational, and not persistent. I know that my texts, borrowed or written here, are not very appealing to men as they like to see themselves; and I know that my illustrations represent an untoward demand on the patience of ladies. I deeply appreciate your weathering the storm of the one, to hope for the other; and I would like to enhance the balance of things, to befriend you more often.