Memories, Rats and Hair Books | At the library column

PG Wodehouse, the greatest humorist of the twentieth century, asserted that “memories are like mulligatawny soup in a cheap restaurant. It is better not to stir them. Wodehouse is an author I’ve reread several times, and his observation struck me as appropriate when reading an NYTimes article, for “Cave Clues Show It’s More Than Just The Oldest Outhouse in America.” Oregon’s particularly arid Paisley Caves appear to have preserved human coprolites, or poop, for 14,000 years, after “a group of humans heard a call that no one can. deny: the call of nature “.

This doesn’t just push back the date of the first known human migration to America by a thousand years. Coprolites (another word for “poo”) are “cute little packets of food and health information … The droppings found at Paisley Cave suggest a varied diet, not just big game like the mammoths that the first Americans are supposed to eat. It contains partially digested seed coatings, rodent bones and insect outer shells, as well as organic compounds from plants. I’ve been intrigued by indigenous migrations to the Americas ever since I explored the ruins of Anasazi in Arizona – and even found (and left behind) ancient coprolites – when my parents lived on the Navajo reservation in the 1970s. , while such a search was not prohibited.

These old coprolites occurred to me after reading a recent article forwarded by a friend who is also a reader, “London’s Callings: Odd, Obsolete and Old Jobs in the Capital”. He mentioned “nob-chaumes” – “someone who made wigs or wigs for men” (“in 1700 a young country girl got 60 pounds for her hair, and the gray locks of an old woman , after his death, sold fifty pounds “), and” bummarees “- fish market middlemen who were” big Burley guys with stunning faces, deep chests and even deeper voices … and a faculty of mental arithmetic which is perfectly surprising “.

But it was the “toshers” that captured my imagination. “Tosh” was a Cockney term for metallic copper, and the toshers scavenged the sewers of old London for it and any other “valuables” they could find. Henry Mayhew, Victorian journalist, playwright and reformer (as well as founder of Punch magazine), wrote a series of feature articles on London’s lower classes which, in 1851, were compiled in a book, “London Labor and the London Poor. “Mayhew said the toshers wore” long, oily velor coats with large capacity pockets, and their lower limbs “-” the legs “was a misnomer in the Victorian era -” are locked in in dirty canvas pants ”. They seemed to ‘have a belief that the smell of sewage contributes to their general health’, and they could clear off around £ 2 per week (around £ 170 now).

The smells might have delighted them, but even the most hardened toshers feared the sewage rats. One of those interviewed by Mayhew said, “I often see up to a hundred at a time, and they’re monsters in the sewers, I can tell you. There, the water rats are also much fiercer than any other rat. This contradicts my long-held impression of the water rats I encountered through Kenneth Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows” when my new wife read it to me on long road trips 49 years ago.

I had heard of the book earlier but, based on the bastard animated version of Disney, I considered it a children’s story. How wrong I was; it is ostensibly for children but in fact written for adults to revel in the innocent times of childhood. The central characters, in order of appearance, are Mole (a naïve creature who discovers life above ground, Ratty (a cordial, generous, and gentlemanly water rat, and Toad (a high society amphibian and a savage enthusiast of all forms of locomotion, from gypsy wagons to steam engines.) Reading “Wind in the Willows” is certainly evocative (it was -35 when my mom and I recently finished the part where Mole and Ratty got together). lose in the wild wood during a blizzard), and it’s I’ll rekindle the embers of childhood even in old, cold hearts. Highly recommend, especially the recent beautifully illustrated edition by David Petersen and Annie Gauger “The Annotated Wind in the Willows” which is full of all kinds of detail, including Kenneth Grahame’s sad life.

Grahame was a very successful banker, but his childhood was dark: his mother died when he was five, and his alcoholic father couldn’t handle his grief and packed his four children to their reluctant maternal grandmother, whose large dilapidated house was surrounded by the lush countryside and the Thames that live in Grahame’s books, and they were free to roam there. It ended abruptly when the main chimney collapsed, their emotionally estranged aunts and uncles became their guardians, and the children were soon sent to residential schools. Although he excelled in prep school and couldn’t wait to go to Oxford, his clenched-fisted banker uncle decided otherwise, even though money wasn’t an issue. Instead, Grahame apprenticed with his uncle’s employer, the Bank of England, where he prospered materially. Being quite asexual, he focused his free time on writing a flow of stories, essays and articles and was successful at it. Two collections of his childhood writings – “The Golden Age” (1895) and “Dream Days” (1898) – were bestsellers that established his literary reputation.

Grahame eventually married Elspeth Thompson, who pursued him greedily, when he was 40 and she was 36. A year later, his son Alastair was born with visual and emotional problems. He bit and hit other children, especially girls, and liked to lie on the roads to stop cars. His father forced him to go to Oxford, where he failed most of the courses and committed suicide by being beheaded after lying on a train track at age 20. Alastair’s parents considered him a prodigy and were devastated by his death. However, he had a wonderful housekeeper who wrote many letters to his usually absent parents, which are collected in Gauger’s book. She encouraged five-year-old Alastair to keep a book of writings and drawings called “The Joyful Thought” to share when her parents returned home. This album can be viewed at the University of Texas’ wonderful rare book library, Harry Ransom Center. Interestingly, Grahame stopped his torrent of writings when his son was born in 1900, writing only letters and those on a surreal baby talk, until he was convinced to put together a few bedtime stories. that he had told Alastair about Mole, Water Rat and M.. Toad.

The HRC contains one million books, 42 million manuscripts (like that of Alastair), 5 million photographs (including those by Kenneth Grahame) and 100,000 works of art that can be viewed when unclosed. due to the pandemic, but alternatives exist. The HRC has dozens of digital collections to browse through at Besides being a repository, a storehouse of memory if you will, great writers (Tennysons, the Brontes and Brownings, Keats, L. Frank Baum, Henry James and Jack London, to name a few) , the HRC has an extensive circus collection, John Wilkes Booth’s Promptbook, Harry Houdini’s scrapbooks, and poet Leigh Hunt’s Hair Book (including locks from Milton, Keats, Shelly and George Washington).

The HRC also has a Dylan Thomas Collection, which rekindles my memories of Bill Berry’s iconic “An Alaskan Fairy Tale” mural, and how, after Berry’s murder, it was completed by Trina Schart Hyman. Hyman was one of America’s leading children’s book illustrators and Berry’s correspondent, and when she passed away, the Fairbanks Library Foundation ( purchased her painting used for the cover of “A Christmas in ‘Child in Wales’ by Dylan Thomas. shows a young boy leaning out of a window and gazing in wonder at the falling snow. As Louis L’Amour noted: “No memory is ever alone; it’s at the end of a trail of memories.

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