Chapter 19: Don’t Quote Me

Why we walk where we walk – The Mysterious Pit – The Wonderful Miss Cox – A Dead Tree kind of Philosophy – Nuts n’Isles – Stanley as Ophelia

Sometimes you need Shakespeare to explain yourself with any weight.

For example. We tend to walk Stanley in the same place every day. The reason is that the fields over the back of the estate are all well fenced off. There are horses in the first field – the Hole in the Hedge gang – but they tend to keep themselves to themselves, playing cards, drinkin’ and cussin’ over the far side – so we’re okay if we take a circuitous route to the two fields beyond them. There aren’t any sheep or cattle in the neighboring fields, and if you pick your time you can avoid seeing too many other dog walkers, so all in all it’s a good place to let Stanley off the lead. He’s getting better at being around other dogs, and I don’t think it’ll be long before he’s completely reliable. Until we’re sure, though, it’s safer and easier to fill our pockets with treats and head that way.

We mix it up a little, for variety. I mean – sometimes we’ll reverse the order. Sometimes we’ll go up rather than down, clockwise rather than anti-clockwise. And anyway, there are plenty of distractions. There’s a mysterious pit in the far corner, completely wooded and overgrown. Stanley often disappears down there for a root-around, and always comes back with a wilder look in his eye.

So where does Shakespeare figure in this?  

Well, to begin with, sometimes when I’m walking I find myself raking through the scraps of memorised lines I know of WS, mostly from my time at Secondary school, and a VERY Pre-Raphaelite teacher with long red hair and a pale expression, who wandered round the margins of our English class like a tragic princess doomed to repeat endless circuits of a pit of ravenous wolves. I had a VERY big crush on this teacher, Miss Cox, who I would risk any humiliation to impress. I even gave her a book of poems I’d written, mostly about animals – moths and spiders and things – basically being a closet goth, before the term goth or closet existed. And when I say book, I mean an exercise book, where the poems only took up the first half, so I ripped out the other pages to make it look as if I’d written more, on the same logic that if you had a bag of crisps and smashed them up before you opened the packet, you got more crisps. Anyway, Miss Cox, with a bravery in the face of ridicule that was basically martyrdom, insisted we all learned poetry by heart, especially the emotionally stormy stuff. I’m guessing she must have drawn some wry satisfaction from seeing eleven year old rugby players scrape back their chairs, stand up, punch the guy next to them, then recite: tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day… or Milton: Blind among enemies, O worse than chains, dungeon or beggary, or decrepit age.

The point of this is, the other day I was thinking about the repetitive quality of the walks. I was thinking that actually, the walk is never the same – like the old saying: you can’t step in the same river twice, because it won’t be the same river, and you won’t be the same person (or something like that). There are an infinite number of changes that happen, and in some ways it’s good to do things over and over, because your relationship to them is as fluid as the thing itself. You see that in the quality of the light. How a dead tree looks against a bright blue sky, or low cloud, or through mist. With crows or without. And when you see it with one of its limbs fallen after a storm, the shock that gives you.

Anyway – it reminded me of that Shakespeare quote from Hamlet:  I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space. Which sums up nicely (in the way that Shakespeare can absolutely be relied on to sum things up nicely), the fact that you can always find new things to look at, and new ways of looking at them, if you relax and stop worrying about the pursuit of novelty.

As a side note, there’s a whole range of Shakespeare quotes whose meaning changes if you don’t quote the whole thing. Like the nut one. The whole quote is: I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams. Which definitely makes the whole nut gaff a little less cozy. The other one that often get quoted out of context is the ‘sceptred isle’ speech from Richard II. You often hear it as a patriotic thing, an expression of the glorious Britannia mindset… This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle … a long, gaudy shopping list of all the wonderful things about Britain. Except, they always miss the point of it. The payoff of all that hyperbole is to express how much disgust John of Gaunt feels at the way the country was being f*d over: …Is now leased out… Like to a tenement or pelting farm. So nothing new there, then.

Thinking of that elegant, goosey, Pre-Raphaelite look, I’m sure Stanley would’ve made one of those Victorian painters a wonderful muse. I can totally imagine Stanley in a big embroidered frock, lying on his back in the studio with a posey of flowers in his paws. There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts. . . then he catches scent of a rabbit, leaps out of the bath and runs off.

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