9.18.2016

I Left My Grandfather's House by Denton Welch




Over the weekend, I finished I Left My Grandfather's House by Denton Welch. I spent two weeks with this slender book's eighty-seven pages, reading from a handsome edition published by Enitharmon Press, which is about the same amount of time it took Welch to ramble from his grandfather's house in Henfield of western Sussex County, a village about thirty miles south of London, to the county of Devonshire, 200 meandering miles away.  (And, yes, in the 1940s, when Welch wrote this sensitive, exquisite remembrance of his 1933 summer trek afoot and afield over the southern countryside of England, in which he roughly paralleled a course a short distance from the coastline of the English Channel, he indeed referred to the distances he travelled as "miles").

Welch's walk would nearly be the mileage if not the pastoral equivalent of tramping from Boston to The Bronx.  En route, he crossed the River Adur on a ferry, into the village of Steyning.  He visited Jane Austen's house.  He explored numerous castle and cathedral ruins.  He loitered in a cemetery. He left hostels in haste, after sundown, due to one owner's baffling rudeness or because of the greed of another who insisted, without explicitly saying so, that their cooking — their "extraordinary" supper — was not an optional cost of service. He bathed in a hostel that featured for its "bath" a brisk stream that literally ran through the hostel's interior, and required, if one did not wish to be washed away by its cleansing current (and thus duly exposed to astonished onlookers at the nearby bridge downstream), that you held on tight to the rope affixed to the rafters.  Denton Welch barely held on, but hold on, he did — the story of his short life.  At another hostel, Welch learned from its owner something of the practical value of cruelty and emotional detachment.  A mother cat was watching her kittens toy with a mouse.
It "was not yet dead and a thrill of horror ran through me as I saw it squirm under the paw of one of the little fluffy kittens.  They did not bite it or even let their claws out to it; they just stared at it with their large blue eyes and patted it every now and then playfully as they would a ball of wool. . .
'Won't you kill it, or take it away?' I asked the woman urgently.
'Good Lord, no,' she smiled, 'they're learning to be good mousers.  How do you think she can teach them if we interfere?'"
Stonehenge, however, was humdrum to him.  He was neither impressed by mysteries or by priests.  A couple he met at a hostel toward the end of his journey thought he looked to be about the age of sixteen and yet carried himself as if he were a decade older.  Which perhaps explains much of his expressed loneliness, gloominess, and melancholy, in the pages of his remarkable memoir, being the young but wise old soul he was.  Though perhaps it explains something else as well:  Perhaps had I lost the use of my legs at the age of twenty, as Denton Welch had (because senseless circumstances saw fit to have him hit, almost killed, permanently disabled, partially paralyzed for life, by a motor car) and in this context of suffering and grief was remembering how it was when I was a spry young lad of eighteen and could still walk thirty-five miles across the moors and hillocks of southern England in a single day, perhaps I'd know, as Denton Welch no doubt grimly did (and so decided not to mention it in I Left My Grandfather's House), that the sadness so intrinsic to his poignant recollection surely required no further explanation.

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