There was at one time a great debate amongst philosophers. Bishop Berkeley (1685 – 1753) an Anglo-Irish philosopher was one of those who contributed to it. The question was, basically, how do we know that anything exists? Who is to say that things don’t disappear the moment our backs are turned? And the reply, probably from Bishop Berkeley since he was a Bishop: things exist whether we watch them or not, because God is always watching.
Which in turn resulted in a little poem, an epigram in fact, and then two answering epigrams, on the subject:
There once was a man who said “God / Must think it exceedingly odd / If he finds that this tree / Continues to be / When there’s no one about in the Quad.” Ronald Knox
Dear Sir, / Your astonishment’s odd:/ I am always about in the Quad. / And that’s why the tree / Will continue to be, / Since observed by / Yours faithfully, God
A philosopher, one Bishop Berkeley, / Remarked metaphysically, darkly, / That what we don’t see / Cannot possibly be, / And the rest is altogether unlarkly.* R F Ashley-Montagu
Quad in this case is short for Quadrangle rather than Quad Bike or Quadrophenia, being a square or rectangular courtyard or grassy space around which are parts of one large building, or a number of smaller buildings. These are mostly to be found in colleges or universities but can be found in other places such as palaces.
I copied the verses from a 1938 Penguin paperback entitled: The Week-End Book: in two volumes: I. This was given to me by one of my grandfathers in 1960 or thereabouts. He kept it in a roll-top writing desk along with luggage labels, stamps for posting letters and string for parcels. Grampa had been a Chief Writer in the Navy. I gather that was something quite important but not much to do with creative writing, more like clerical or admin. I was told that Grampa died on his way to the post box, of a heart attack.
In those days parcels did not come in self-sealing plastic bags with bubble wrap interiors but were wrapped in folded brown paper secured with string and occasionally even sealing-wax. My aunt worked in the Post Office Parcels Department and was taught the proper method of parcel-tying. This was because the Post Office was constantly having to re-package parcels that were falling to bits because people had packaged them improperly.
Grampa’s ball of parcel string was in a spherical wooden container which had a tiny hole in the top for the end of the string to poke through. At that stage I was not very mechanically-minded and spent much time wondering – two things, actually.
Firstly, how to discourage Grampa from helping me with my sums. He would keep on about something called minus, which might or might not have been what my teacher referred to as take away. This was unnerving, like when the driving instructor yells Take your foot off the gas when you imagined it was on the accelerator.
Secondly, how did Grampa get the string into the string-container through such a tiny little hole? And how did the string manage to wind itself back into a ball, neatly criss-crossed, once inside?
That’s had to change. Living on your own forces you to become mechanically-minded whether you can be bothered to be or not. I am taking the precaution of learning as many new things as possible, while I still can; it’s important to keep the Little Grey Cells firing. I am currently at the ball-of-string stage with smartphones.
The Week-End Book (note the hyphen) is yellow and white, or at least it was once upon a time. On the back cover is a Complete List of All Penguin Books to January 1938. There are 130 books listed – I didn’t count them all, the list is numbered – many by authors who have since died the death. Well, physically they must all have died the death by now; I mean extinguished in a literary sense; for example A Safety Match by Ian Hay, The Glen o’Weeping by Marjorie Bowen and The Hampdenshire Wonder by J D Beresford. However, a few have stood the test of time such as A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway and The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir A. Conan Doyle.
How The Weekend Book: in two volumes: I keeps itself together I don’t know. Even the sellotape has given up and curled away, all brown and crackly. The pages are mostly the colour of ginger biscuits. They sit ragged and loose in what was once their binding. I turn the pages with care nowadays, sensing that they are more or less dust held together by some booky sort of willpower. Maybe the book knows it’s loved.
I have a cat like that, hanging on to life for grim death. His name is Old Rufus and I inherited him and another equally unimpressive moggy from the disabled lady over the road, who had died. Rufus became Old Rufus because I already had a Rufus and the vet’s receptionist said it would avoid confusion on her system. Old R is eighteen or so years old and has a piratical right eye, half-closed, which weeps brown stuff constantly. The vet says there’s nothing to be done about it without an anaesthetic, which would probably kill him. He (Rufus) has already had all his teeth removed.
Rufus is like a little ginger skeleton wandering around the house. Every morning if he doesn’t form part of the mob clamouring to be fed I go looking for him, prepared to find a curled-up, ice-cold bundle of fur in one of baskets or behind a door. But in spite of much spitting and snarling and a tendency to mistake my feet for baby rabbits, Old Rufus sticks around. Like Grampa’s little book, he must know that he’s loved.