Monday, 16 June 2014

The best of company. In the finest surroundings

Anne Elliott, one of Jane Austen’s most endearing characters in one of her most enchanting novels, Persuasion, tells her cousin:

“My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.”

“You are mistaken,” he gently replies, “that is not good company; that is the best.”

It was a privilege to enjoy just that kind of company this weekend, at the invitation of a good friend – not so much an old friend, though it was her birthday and a big one with a zero in it, but a longstanding and much loved one.

We were in Dorset, one of England’s finest counties and, as it happens, the setting for a key moment of Persuasion. It also happens to be next door to the county that includes Anne Elliott’s home. We were in a glorious rental cottage – a “cottage” in the sense that our own house is a shed – whose garden sloped down to the river Piddle. Since many of the villages around have the word “puddle” in their name, I can confirm that if the piddle’s big enough, it can form a few puddles.

The company, excellent as it was, did spend a few minutes exploring the punning possibilities of Piddle and puddle but, such was its good taste, swiftly moved on, as I now shall.

Among the many puddles is Tolpuddle, which gave its name to a group of martyrs. These were agricultural labourers who set up a friendly society with a view to improving their lot, and were transported to Australia for their pains. England is known for its respect for traditions, and this story illustrates one that is honoured to this day: while it isn’t a criminal offence to be poor, merely a badge of shame, trying to do something about is highly reprehensible and punishable by the awesome power of the law.

The only downside about Dorset is that getting there owes more to the horrors of Dante than to the elegance of Austen: Purgatory at best when it isn’t simply Hell. We decided to give up all hope before we even set out, and just gritted our teeth as we struggled through the traffic which bedevils this island of ours, tiny but gridlocked because so many people choose to travel, and to travel by car, just at the time that we need the roads.

You appreciate that, following David Cameron’s exhortation to promote them, I’m embracing a British value here: specifically, the one that sees our car as an entitlement, and all others as traffic.

A fine sight. But nothing like warm enough
for me to want to join the brave souls on the beach
On Sunday, we wandered along the cliff path above Lulworth Cove. Ever since the last time I bathed in the Channel, some forty years ago, I’ve felt that the top of a cliff is about the best place from which to enjoy any sea off the English coast. The walk was perfect, in part because it kept us a safe distance from any prospect of actual contact with the water.

Then came the plunge back into Purgatory or, as we like to call it, the British road system. We decided that we’d take advantage of the fact that we were going to spend four or five hours travelling under 150 miles, so we’d have a break along the way. We’d frequently driven through the New Forest but never stopped there, and decided on this occasion to have lunch at an inn followed by a walk.

New Forest ponies, where we stopped for lunch
Not, I hope, an ingredient in the horse radish
It all went smoothly.  The pub was surrounded by Forest ponies who wandered around hoping someone would give them something to eat. We had a traditional English Sunday lunch, roast beef and the trimmings, though in a gesture to the need to modernise traditions, the trimmings included mashed butternut squash. The horse radish was home-made and excellent, though it had unidentifiable lumps in it. I hope it wasn’t horse.

The walk went well too. We were able to coo sentimentally over a new-born calf in a byre we came past. The moment gave me great pleasure, not in the least diminished by the irony of having come there straight from a table where we’d been eating roast beef. You see, in my view Ralph Waldo Emerson got it absolutely right: “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” 

Aww. Just the sight to make us melt
After a roast beef lunch
Our minds had clearly been fully enlarged. No doubt by spending time in beautiful places. Above all, though, by the very best of company.

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