Thursday, March 15, 2007

Postman's Horn, or, Foreword into the Past.

Having recently finished rereading Arthur Machen's autobiographical work, Far Off Things (1922), I was once again left with that evocative image with which he begins, and rounds off his narrative, an image that rather lingers in the shadows of my day beckoning me to slow down and think upon a period when the perception of time and space was different, and the very accessibility of the written word was dramatically so. He was recalling a time when he was a young man of 21 living in his native Gwent, translating The Heptameron of Marguerite of Navarre into English, and he would walk a mile each day to a place where the postman would pass:

Here a footpath over the fields crossed the road, and by the stile I would wait for the postman. I would hear him coming from far away, for he blew a horn as he walked, so that people in the scattered farms might come out with their letters if they had any. I lounged on the stile and waited, and when the postman came I would give him my packet-the day's portion of "copy" of that Heptarmeron translation that I was then making and sending to the publisher in York Street, Covent Garden. The postman would put the parcel in his bag, cross the road, and go striding off into the dim country beyond, finding his way on a track that no townsman could see...

It was also his habit, three or four times a week, to walk four miles to the Pontypool Road Station in order to purchase the London newspapers:
Here, then, of a "celestial" agent of W. H. Smith I bought my papers; usually the "Standard" and the "Daily Telegraph" . . . I would make my way out of the station and along the high road till I came to the stile and the lonely path across the fields, and alone under a tree or in the shelter of a friendly hedge I would open my paper, cut their pages, and plunge into their garden of delights.
The accessibility to the printed word in the 1880s in the fairly remote prospect of Gwent, contrasts so greatly even with the 1920s, when he finally published his memoir, but today, the contrast is indeed great. I can start my day reading newspapers and magazines without ever having glimpsed the day outside. The internet has brought the world to that window of darkness, my computer screen. The short walk from the kitchen to the study with a cup of tea is less exhausting than a four mile hike, but certainly not as memorable. In gaining something, we lose something else. It is as if there is a balance sheet with a celestial accountant.
A recent letter to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement in response to an article (James Fergusson, "Collected Editions", Febuary 23, 2007)about the second-hand book trade, also made me think of the changing times. The revolution in bookselling has been swift. The author of the letter stated that "What has emerged is soulless but wonderfully efficient, a golden age for book buyers", and concludes: "One hopes Fergusson's world of musty shops, personal relationships, catalogues and bookfairs will manage to hang on in a few civilized outposts, but personally I wouldn't bet on it." The balance sheet of time once again. I found it interesting that the author of this letter lives in Llandrindod Wells, Wales, seemingly more remote than Usk and Pontypool, but really just a hop over the Brecon Beacons National Park with my Google Maps tool, and if there was data, I could perhaps zero in on a visual using Google's Satellite images, and then fire off an e-mail to the bookseller there to see if he had a copy of Far Off Things by Arthur Machen.
I think I shall leave off with Arthur Machen's meditations on his past, an image that will stay with me as if it were a memory of mine own:
And I, with time to spare, walk slowly, meditatively down the hill, holding my manuscript, hoping that the day's portion has been well done. As I come to the stile there sounds faint through the rising of the melancholy night wind the note of the postman's horn. He has climbed the steep road that leads from Llandegveth village and is now two or three fields away.

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