In those days when I was determined to read all the many volumes of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, I did not choose to inhabit a padded room as Proust did. Instead, I was trying to read the third volume while walking up the steps to Montmartre followed by an irritating young man. Proust came to my aid. I turned sharply and struck him on the shoulder with the book. He scuttled back down the steps and into the crowd below. Now in lockdown, I sometimes think back to his choice and am convinced that his padded room was the only way he could achieve the many volumes of what would become his masterpiece, famed also for meticulous sentences of a page or more. I do not propose to follow his example either in that. But in those masterpieces of inventive punctuation when one wanders over page after page with only commas and a very occasional semi-colon to pause and breathe, one glimpses with a vividness that lodges in the memory the necklace-like hedgerows of mayflower, milky-white and fluttering in a breeze that is awakening spring in the northern hemisphere. (This is a short sentence compared with Proust’s!). Such is the power of memorable description that I, like Proust, can imagine the resplendent hawthorn hedgerows, though mine are in Yorkshire, not Normandy, and at the northernmost reach of the chalk soil starting from the white cliffs of Dover. It is the soil the hawthorn trees prefer.
Corralled inside a familiar dwelling, one’s mind yearns to escape. Welcome then to our inner camera of memories, occasionally reeled by time sequences into a personal film. Books help. Before the irony of days of bright spring sunshine to lure us out when in lockdown for our very survival, there were floods and dramatic images of the magnificent Tewkesbury Abbey stranded on an island formed by floods, to the villages invaded by water from the tidal Humber estuary. Gaze over the wide expanse where saltwater meets rain and spring water and imagine the Roman ships venturing inland to York.
The Humber is unsung in history, literature or mythology. Even its name sounds mundane – it has no echo to it. The Romans built Ermine Street to connect London to York, but the Humber got in the way. Historians are uncertain. Could the Roman soldiers wade across – a wide and perilous estuary, not a mere river – or were the Romans the first to invent a pontoon bridge? At a crook in the estuary, where the River Trent breaks away to flow south to Nottingham, is a turf labyrinth, carefully restored. You can walk around it and silently wish your hopes, that is, as long as you reach the centre without working out the pattern and stepping over into a more favourable track that is on course for the pivotal centre!
Returning in my mind’s eye across the Humber to the north and the last of the chalk earth vegetation, I wonder why, in our fast-receding age of tourism, there has been little publicity about the springtime magnificence of Yorkshire’s mayflower, in spite of David Hockney’s luxuriant delight when he painted it. Much is made instead of the North Yorkshire moors carpeted in purple to crimson heather in August. Some say it is because of the excellent grouse shooting when children are on holiday and can help in a shoot. I suspect it is also because of the call off the wide span of sky and the open spaces of moors topped by craggy summits and valleys with a neat drystone pattern of grey walls dividing fields and grey stone barns with brown tiled roofs. A Dutch visitor once surprised me by saying that it was one of the last quiet places in Europe – how could that be in a small island crammed with a population of sixty-six million and rising?
I am tempted to return to my favourite author, George Eliot, to reread Mill on the Floss and the profound descriptions of the landscape and of the effects of flooding on communities and individuals. It is a vivid evocation of the same human compassion that now keeps us united in the face of the unknown and unforeseen tragedy of a pandemic. Reread George Eliot or Proust and start travelling in a landscape of one’s imagination.