I came across an extraordinary simile the other day: 'my pen makes a noise like a goose eating grass'. Immediately, you hear the scritch-scratch of an old-fashioned nib scraping away between dips of fresh ink across the page, and in the background the bird's beak tearing hungrily at ripe undergrowth. A writing friend had dropped by to pass on her copy of November's Literary Review
and, while dipping into this mine of intriguing miscellaneous information, I unearthed this gem, highlighted in a review by Stephen Romer of an English translation of Jules Renard's Journal, 1887-1910
It reminded me of a handwriting class with a young art teacher during the equivalent of Primary 6 at the Edinburgh girls' school I attended in the late 1950s. Once a week, probably only for a term, we were each allocated one of these old scritch-scratch pens that we dipped into porcelain inkwells slotted into our desks and, after being shown how to write with them, how to make downstrokes and upstrokes, were given poems to copy out. I was left-handed, which probably didn't help. For all my subsequent conscientious efforts, my writing emerged all wobbly and blotchy, 'like hens' scrapings', to coin another simile. I wonder how it would have felt to write with a goose quill, like Sir Walter Scott, sharpening the tip as you went.
I particularly remember copying out William Blake's poem, The Sick Rose
, from his collection Songs of Experience
. At the age of nine, I found the imagery distinctly disturbing without understanding why. The teacher didn't offer any explanation. I just remember my discomfort with the poem blending with my disappointment at my awful handwriting. It would have obtained a 'Fair' or marginally better 'Fairly Good' comment in the margin. All very sad. Now, when I take notes, my biro glides smoothly and almost soundlessly across the page. No effort. No blots. Beautiful.
Jules Renard grew up in the countryside of the Auvergne. His most famous book is Poil de Carotte
, an autobiographical novel of a small, red-haired boy growing up on a farm, feeling unloved by his parents or siblings and much put upon by malheurs, like having to go out in the dark to shut up the hens every night. He would know the sound geese make cropping grass.
There's something rather engaging about geese, the way they walk, the way they gaggle together, the way they honk, belligerently, like people who instinctively communicate as if they're perpetually arguing. One of my Moroccan sisters-in-law kept a pair of geese for a few years. Whenever we visited their house in the country, there the geese would be, a perfect Derby and Joan, solemnly following each other around among the shade of the fruit trees in the 40-plus degree summer heat. I always looked forward to seeing them. But the last time we visited, two years ago, they were no longer there. 'Where are the geese?' I asked. 'Did you eat them?' My sister-in-law was evasive. No eggs to sell, perhaps, no progeny. Too expensive to maintain. So they had to go.
Ever since I first read of Ebenezer Scrooge's final generosity towards the Cratchits in Dickens' Christmas Carol
– 'Such a goose, Martha!' – I have fancied roast goose for Christmas, but I have never eaten one. Unfortunately, my man will only consume halal meat, and that includes poultry as well as the redder variety. Halal shops don't do geese. They barely do turkeys. I cannot buy a goose for myself alone, but one day, perhaps, I'll find a way.
Renard, of course, means fox, and foxes consume poultry. Like Jemima Puddleduck's nemesis, the charming 'sandy-whiskered gentleman', whose cultivated veneer concealed his predatory nature. We used to see foxes in our street when we moved here in the 1990s, back when we had black plastic rubbish bags. They were a fine sight, small, dignified, purposeful streaks of orange, padding between parked cars. But since the bags have been replaced by plastic bins they've disappeared. Nuisances though they could be, we rather miss them.
And so we might come to the foxy Mr Johnson. Our scatty, blond, mop-topped PM, who has gambled our nation's future for what, exactly? Who actually benefits from the great Brexit delusion? Chaos rather than control. Entrepreneurial uncertainty. Bureaucratic nightmares. Queues at border ports. Personal anguish for those whose lives have been bound up with the European project for decades. Eye-watering sums of money wasted. Your EHIC valid no more. Higher prices inevitable. The oven-ready deal proving pie in the sky.
He had a way with words, Mr Johnson. He loved the sound of his own utterance. Our very own snake oil salesman who thought being PM would be a massive wheeze, a mere strut in the park. He assumed he could show David Cameron a thing or two, once he'd swatted that girlie swot Theresa May out of the way. Mere bluster now. Mind you, I did agree with him on the burkha. Go and see the one on display in our national museum in Edinburgh. Whoever dreamed up such an absurd garment? A prison for anyone, i.e. women, compelled to wear it, a sinister cover-up for those with more nefarious intentions.
However, tentatively, scarcely believing it can be true, we must welcome the miraculous arrival of the vaccines. Forget the childish nonsense of being first or being best or being 'world-beating'. Just let them come, those ponderous pantechnicons, trundling through the Eurotunnel, bearing in their bellies their precious deep frozen cargo. The words 'Merry' and 'Happy' may ring hollow in our seasonal greetings this year. No roast goose for this writer yet either. But if we can begin to contemplate a more hopeful 2021, that will be a considerable relief.
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh