Friday, August 22, 2008

Tradition That Captures The Imagination

That's the wall in Winston Churchill's schoolroom at Harrow.

There are public figures that capture the imagination. Many people inhabit the dreary world where politicians are the only people they consider important. Yecch. I suppose back when politicians were generally private citizens that dropped what they were doing to sort out the affairs of their nation, until they could do their Cincinnatus act and go back to their plow, that made some sense. Even if it's an act, like Eisenhower's protestations of indifference to the charms of importance, I prefer it to the modern version -- never done anything their whole lives that doesn't involve a government sinecure. George Washington wasn't exactly a shrinking-violet man-of-the-people, but I really do get the impression that he held his nose for eight straight years and put up with being President. I can't picture George Washington as a lifer in politics tapping his foot funny in a Men's Room.

There's a brace of men that captivate almost everybody. Teddy Roosevelt. Mark Twain. Lawrence of Arabia. Albert Einstein. Maybe the king of them all is Winston Churchill. The guy was endlessly interesting.

Oh, yes -- the picture I offered of the wainscot wall in Churchill's schoolroom at Harrow. Harrow is a "public school," which means it's a private school. Welcome to England, and English.

I like tradition. I'm not a reactionary. It's not the same thing.

The word "harrow" no doubt refers to the ancient farm implement for tilling the soil. Children were a crop to be cultivated; the perfect metaphor for school. Allowed to grow, yes, but pruned as well as nurtured. Sometimes, even in very straitlaced circumstances, that growth is allowed to run its tendrils outside the pot it's in. Carving your name on the wall would come under that heading. Perhaps not encouraged. Overlooked with a wink, more likely.

The very word "wainscot" is ancient beyond reckoning. A wain is a type of wagon with splayed sides used on a farm. Wooden wheels would have to be angled in at the bottom to work properly without any bearings on the axle. The wain's sides would be splayed out to make the most use of the space between the wheels and carry as much as possible. Medieval woodworking used split, not sawn wood, especially oak, so a wain was a board wide enough for a farm cart's side, and eventually gave it its name. And in its turn, wide boards to line the lower half of the walls of a room took their name from the side of the cart they resembled: wainscot. Tradition.

When I was young, I haunted a very old-school library. It still looked just like this photo:

The tables were made of white oak, hard as a banker's heart and dark as a politician's soul. And ever square inch of them had someone's name carved in it. Most of the work was done by digging at the surface with the tip of a ballpoint pen. It took forever to make any impression in the unyielding surface. But so many people had done it, overlapping each other and eventually working on a layer of existing names, that the tops began to look like a kind of inkstained black coral. It was impossible to write on a piece of paper placed on the surface. You had to place a pad of some sort under your work. It was magnificent.

I returned to the library 25 years after I had practically lived in there. The tables were gone, replaced with nondescript rectangles and inelegant chairs that looked like they belonged in an officepark lunchroom. No one has defaced them with infinitely interesting whorling cicatrices. The tables themselves are a defacement, and so no one bothers to ruin them with their runes.

The beloved temple of words of my youth can no longer produce a Churchill; but you could take out Ishtar on VHS in there now. Which is nice.


Anwyn said...

I think it is one of the great tragedies of writing that William Manchester was not spared to write the third Churchill volume. Endlessly interesting is right on.

Gerard said...

Ash on and old man's sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
Dust inbreathed was a house—
The walls, the wainscot and the mouse,
The death of hope and despair,
This is the death of air.