Saturday, October 23, 2010

Beatrix Potter's Cottage And Wordsworth's Undead Corpse

When I set off for the Lake District at the start of this week, I’d envisaged endless hilltop battles with bobbly hatted ramblers in the cream of the English drizzle.

Which of course happened.*

* Four-nil to me c/o a hat-trick of old ladies tossed into Windermere and a noxious student type I bundled from his bike with a fallen branch.

What also happened was A GLUT OF DEAD WRITERS.

Being an utter Philistine (it’s true — right down to the loincloth and the habitual taunting of Egyptian scholars), I hadn’t realised that the Lake District is essentially a giant graveyard for England’s literary and artistic talent. When the dead rise here, it’s like a bloody poetry recital.

And so, to Beatrix Potter’s cottage.

Currently maintained by the National Trust, this modest dwelling stands at the epicentre of a two mile diameter corral of Japanese coaches on the outskirts of Near Sawrey. You don’t get very long to look around as the tour guides beat you from room to room with an old bedpan, but it’s a fascinating trip. The cottage is much as Potter left it, minus the knickers drying over the radiators, so you get to see things much as they were as she bumbled from room to room in her later years petting imaginary animals. In every room there was an open copy of one of her books, and if you looked closely, you could match up some feature or other with a stick of furniture in the room itself, or a view from the window or door. So, the Edward VII coronation teapot, the mirror on the dressing table in the bedroom, the garden gate — all these details from the illustrations were here, exactly as depicted. As I ignored the PLEASE TRY NOT TO TOUCH signs strung out over some of them, I couldn’t help feeling slightly superior to the armies of seasoned Trekkies licking the ears of some wax Captain Kirk effigy in a purpose built Los Angeles Gene Roddenberry Imaginarium. Best of all was the view from the landing.

This was exactly as you see it here, right down to the cat. It’s odd, but as I ran my fingers along the bannister, peered into the face of the grandfather clock, I was very aware of the bundle of air at my feet. It seemed to glow and sizzle with energy, and I don’t doubt it does so for every single visitor. But that’s the power of figmentary felines for you.

A further treat was the tour guides. The National Trust is infamous for stocking its tapestry-laden Tudor piles and half destroyed castles with Frankenstein-like amalgams of tweed and pastry made flesh, but because this was Beatrix Potter’s cottage, they’d assembled the most squirrelly, mousey, ratty, animaly collection of people you could possibly group together in one place outside of a human-rodent gene splice research laboratory. The woman at the top of the phantom cat staircase in particular looked like she might rub her whiskers or nibble on a chunk of cheese at any moment. As for the bloke collecting the tickets at the door, let’s just say I stepped over what was dangling from the back of his trousers in case he squeaked his ratty ears off. Maybe that’s what all the tourists came to see — the rodent creatures of Hill Top. They certainly added to the curiosity of the spectacle. What fun to witness a tiny, dark cottage, brimming with nick-nacks and the spirits of tiny creatures — plus Germans, Americans, Danes, French, Japanese and a family from Liverpool whose only interest in the world seemed to be whether Wayne Rooney would sleep with another prostitute before Bonfire Night.

Next up on my tour is Wordsworth’s tomb. We hadn’t planned to visit this especially but it just popped up on one of our walks round Lake Grasmere just after we’d kung fued a couple from Brighton who came at us from out of nowhere with their walking canes and cagoules.

As you can see, it’s a pretty plain stone for a literary giant. None of the “loving father, grandfather and budgerigar enthusiast” you see nowadays. And certainly no snippet of verse about being amongst the angels. I was touched by the simplicity of this grave, moved by its humbleness. Then I heard a low growl at my feet. “Get over it.”

Turning sharply, I saw no-one. Okay, there was an old bloke standing in the church doorway but he was too far away to be heard unless he’d shouted. And who would shout get over it while having a covert piss? So I looked down.

A clod of grass had bulged from the sod (why, this could be poetry), inches from the stone, and a single eye glared from the tear in the turf, like some dark underworld gem. The voice, again. “Get lost. I’m trying to sleep.”

The words came out, unbidden. “W-Wordsworth? Is it you? The most lyrical poet of his generation, maybe ever? Buried down there, to all intents and purposes, dead, yet at the same time, curiously still alive, still sentient, reaching out from the spirit world on a blustery Wednesday afternoon?”

“Course not, you dipshit. It’s Lowell. Robert Lowell.”

I looked around, confused — confused as the old bloke in the church doorway struggling to figure out how to get his willy back inside three pairs of waterproofs without severing it at the base. “Where’s Wordsworth?”

“Lemme see.” A rustle of paper. Damp paper. Okay, maybe not so much a rustle, more of a squelch. “He’s covering Ferlinghetti this week.”

Something about my raised eyebrows must have spurred Lowell on. Perhaps it was the way they disappeared into the maw of a passing blackbird as they loop the looped over my cranium in an aerial display of mental discombobulation.

“It’s a rota. To make things more interesting. Hell, it’s no fun being dead, especially dead and buried. Same worms, same bugs, same sobbing devotees. So we kinda mixed it up a bit, yanno, to make Eternity less humdrum.”

Made sense, but there was one small problem, one small chink in this dead poet’s logic. “Waitaminute. Ferlinghetti’s still alive.”

The rotting lyricist beneath the grass groaned. “Too right. He needs all the help he can get.”

“So when’s he back, Wordsworth?”

Another squelch, and this time I saw the paper — an ASDA smart price reporter’s notebook. “June 2088".

“Blimey.” I laughed, partly at the thought of all the Wordsworth enthusiasts destined to stand here for the next seventy years whispering to the wrong spectral poet — but mainly at the old bloke in the church doorway, now writhing and thrashing about the floor so violently, he might as well have been injected with lethal poison.

“Anyhow, get lost.” The flap of grass flipped shut.

I wanted to tease it open again, uncover Lowell, see what the hell he was wearing, but Girly of Whirly came running down the path. “Quick, quick, come quick! I’ve found the perfect totally unnecessary set of napkins that we’ll never ever use, but they’re half price, and knitted by blind Tibetan death row monks, and if we buy three sets, we get a free doily!”

She’s hardly a living poet like Ferlinghetti, but I was moved to wonder which inhabitant of the spirit world had drawn the short straw and been forced between her ears...


Oh, that's just silly...


fairyhedgehog said...

I always ignored the dead writers when I was in the Lake District. If only I'd known what fun they could be.

Whirlochre said...

Another treat was a small jetty next to a clump of trees where Swallows & Amazons was conceived.

Mother (Re)produces. said...

What?!? The "secret" nuclear bunker gets a bigass sign right out on the motorway and James Bond gets wedged in behind the pencil factory? That's an outrage!

stacy said...

I'll have to visit the Lake District when I fly over the pond someday.

Sylvia said...

This is hysterical!

Whirlochre said...

We weren't tempted to visit.

It's definitely worth it. Like a Quainte Olde Englande theme park.

Thanks — I thought so too.

Robin B. said...

Oh mannnnn, I don't even know where the Lake District is but I know I've always wanted to go there!! I'm so jealous!!

Robin B. said...

P.S. Bond, James Bond, and the pencil factory. Weird as shit.