Memories, Rats, and Hair Books

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January 16, 2022 by libroshombre

P.G. Wodehouse, the greatest humor writer of the twentieth century, claimed that “Memories are like mulligatawny soup in a cheap restaurant.  It is best not to stir them.”  Wodehouse is an author I’ve re-read many times, and his observation seemed appropriate while reading a NYTimes article, for “Cave Clues Show It’s More Than Just The Oldest Outhouse in America.”  It seems Oregon’s Paisley Caves, which are particularly arid, allowed the preservation of human coprolites, or poops, for 14,000 years, after “a group of humans heard a call that nobody can deny: the call of nature.” 

This not only pushes back the date of America’s earliest known human migration by a thousand years.  Coprolites (another word for “poops”) are “nice little packages of information about diet and health … The dung found at Paisley Cave suggests a varied diet, not just of large game like mammoths that early Americans are stereotyped as eating.  It contains partially digested seed coatings, rodent bones, and the outer casings of insects, as well as organic compounds of plants.”  I’ve been intrigued by indigenous migrations into the Americas since exploring Anasazi ruins in Arizona – and even finding (and leaving) ancient coprolites – when my parents lived on the Navajo reservation in the 1970s when such poking around wasn’t forbidden. 

Those old coprolites came to mind when reading a recent article forwarded by a friend who’s also a reader, “London’s Callings: Odd, Obsolete and Old Jobs in the Capital.”  It mentioned “nob-thatchers” – “someone who made perukes, or men’s wigs” (“in 1700 a young country girl got 60 pounds for her head of hair, and the grey locks of an old woman, after death, sold for fifty pounds”), and “bummarees”- middlemen at the fish markets who were “great burley fellows with bluff faces, deep chests, and still deeper voices … and a faculty for mental arithmetic which is perfectly surprising.” 

But it was the “toshers” who captured my imagination.  “Tosh” was a cockney term for copper metal, and toshers scavenged old London’s nasty sewers for that and whatever other “valuables” they could find.  Henry Mayhew, a Victorian journalist, playwright, and reformer (as well as a founder of Punch Magazine), wrote a series of in-depth articles about London’s lowest classes that in 1851 were collected into a book, “London Labour and the London Poor.”  Mayhew said toshers wore “long greasy velveteen coats furnished with pockets of vast capacity, and their nether limbs” – “legs” was an improper expression in Victorian times – “are encased in dirty canvas trousers.”  They appeared “to have a fixed belief that the odour of the sewers contribute to their general health,” and they could clear about £2 a week (about £170 currently). 

The smells might have delighted them, but even the most hardened tosher feared the sewer rats.  One of Mayhew’s interviewees reported, “I often see as many as a hundred at once, and they’re whoppers in the sewers, I can tell you.  Them there water rats, too, is far more ferociouser than any other rats.”  That contradicts my long-held impression of water rats that I met  through Kenneth Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows” when my new bride read it to me during long car trips 49 years ago. 

I’d heard of the book earlier but, based on Disney’s bastardized animated version, considered it a story for children.  How wrong I was; it’s ostensibly for children but actually written for adults to revel in the innocent times of childhood.  The central characters, in order of appearance, are Mole (a naïve creature just discovering life above ground, Ratty (a cordial, generous, and gentlemanly water rat, and Toad (an upper-class amphibian and wild 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 mother and I recently completed the part where Mole and Ratty get lost in the Wild Wood during a blizzard), and it’ll rekindle the embers of childhood even in old, cold hearts.  I strongly recommend it, particularly the recent edition gorgeously illustrated by David Petersen and Annie Gauger’s “The Annotated Wind in the Willows” that’s packed with all sorts of details, including Kenneth Grahame’s sad life.

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

Grahame eventually married Elspeth Thompson, who pursued him avidly, when he was 40 and she was 36.   A year later his son Alastair was born afflicted with visual and emotional problems.  He bit and hit other children, especially girls, and enjoyed lying in roadways to make cars stop.  His dad forced him to go to Oxford, where he failed most courses and committed suicide by being decapitated after lying on a railroad track at age 20.  Alastair’s parents saw him as a prodigy and were devasted by his death.  However, he had a wonderful governess who wrote copious letters to his usually absent parents, that are collected in Gauger’s book.  She encouraged five-year-old Alastair to keep a scrapbook of writings and drawings titled “The Merry Thought” to share when his parents came home.  That scrapbook can be seen at the University of Texas’ marvelous 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 in a surreal baby-talk, until being convinced to pull together some bedtime stories he’d told Alastair about Mole, Water Rat, and Mr. Toad.

The HRC contains a million books, 42 million manuscripts (like Alastair’s), 5 million photographs, (including Kenneth Grahame’s) and 100,000 works of art that can be seen when they’re not closed due to the pandemic, but alternatives exist.  The HRC has dozens of digital collections to browse at  Besides being a repository, a memory storehouse if you will, of great writers (Tennyson, the Brontë’s and Brownings, Keats, L. Frank Baum, Henry James, and Jack London, to mention only a few), the HRC owns an extensive circus collection, John Wilkes Booth’s promptbook, Harry Houdini’s scrapbooks, and the poet Leigh Hunt’s Hair Book (including locks from Milton, Keats, Shelly, and George Washington). The HRC also has a Dylan Thomas collection, which sparks 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 great children’s book illustrators and a pen-pal of Berry’s, and when she died, the Fairbanks Library Foundation ( purchased her painting used for the cover of Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” that shows a young boy leaning out a window gazing on 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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