Thursday, May 15, 2014


A small encounter with the flu has me being gentle with the day, and instead of cleaning out the fridge I have taken pencil in hand and spent the morning on the sofa with Chris Arthur's Irish Nocturnes, - reading and re-reading, and pondering the human condition.

It is the type of book that can be read in spurts and starts, picking up at any chapter that tweaks your fancy, or that you have marked to read again and note the wise words and the elegant way they are intertwined.  I read somewhere how fitting the genre (essay) is to the development of a subject or an idea, and I have to say it is my favourite way to stimulate a little thought, a little learning.....

Professor Graham Good, Professor of English at UBC, says ...."[Chris] Arthur's aim in his essays is to move from immediacy to immensity, from the vivid concrete particulars of an incident, an object, or a sight, to the most universal ideas; the human condition, the infinity of space and time,
 the complexity and connexity of the world"

This morning I read the essay on Linen.  And not for the first time.  I am particularly interested in linen, having woven tablecloths and a pair of  pillow slips with this fine thread, although Charles found them to be not as soft as he would like to lay his sweet head upon until they had been washed innumerable times and polished with a hard iron. And even going so far in my young and curious and uber-enthusiastic days to growing flax, retting it in a little stream and eventually trying to spin with it, but my curiousity was larger than my skills and the venture was not a great success.  Chris Arthur points out that the water the flax is to be retted in must be waist deep and stagnant, so perhaps that is where I went wrong...  I am content now to have the beautiful sky blue flax growing in my garden along with the poppies and the iris.

In his essay on linen Arthur extracts first the story of his blue-eyed great-grandmother and the piece of linen, drawn worked and meant to sit under the platter of meat to save the tablecloth from being soiled during the carving - called a 'carver'.  

He expands his essay to follow another thread, another story of the hardships endured by those who worked in the production of linen in Ireland, and further into the source of the flax seed and the extreme dependency the evolution of man has had on the plant world....."in a sense we start below the ground with plants (and will return there again).  We are as dependent on them as we are on our mother's milk.  As we sit in our cars or at our computers, apes far removed from the trees that gave them sanctuary, lost in illusions of power and independence, it's worth reflecting that for all the might of our industry, for all the sophistication of our technology, we are still in thrall to plants.  If, one year, the movement of pollen should somehow be embargoed, if the wind didn't blow or the insects didn't come, or the plants withheld their bounty, the outlook for us would be bleak".pg 15

He goes on to describe the way in which linen is produced, in Ireland and elsewhere, in the old, laborious way and in the new technological way.  He describes the way the plant has 'woven important concepts into our vocabulary' - spinster, distaff, retting, scutching, rippling, and not least "line" , which connotation has had such an influence on our notions of straightness.  He asks if nature had not provided anything to spin thread from, would we have understood 'lines' the way we do now?  Despite our alienation from the earth much of our vocabulary has its roots sunk deep in nature, and sometimes it is good to recall such origins.....

I put down the book and think about the things that Arthur has said,
 and the long, long line of linen history.
I have an especial fondness for the flax plant and for linen.  
While I was still young and working in the City 
at lunch time we used to haunt The Irish Linen Shop, 
although we didn't have the money to buy, - just admire.


Barb said...

Hildred, As always your writing draws me in and makes me think. Some of the vocabulary tied to linen is new to me. (I, too, love the simplicity and color of the flax plant.) I believe plants, animals, and insects are more important to human existence than we ever imagine. Sometimes we take liberties with the natural world that eventually cause catastrophic and unforeseen changes. I hope you feel better soon!

Hildred said...

Oh, I do agree Barb, - we are such an arrogant species....overly confident and so lacking in humble awareness.

Sallie (FullTime-Life) said...

Oh Hildred! When I have a "small encounter with the flu" I pull the covers over my head and let my mind go blank (not that it has too far to go). You, on the other hand, write a beautiful post/review and end with a prose poem with memories that delight me.

Hildred said...

It was only a small encounter Sallie, - a good excuse for taking the day for myself and relaxing... I have had the 'pull the covers over your head' experiences too!!!!