Thursday, November 3, 2011

Too English

Just as my mother used to claim that you can be "too Irish", it's also possible to be too English.

If the English were really too English, I mean too TOO English, there wouldn't be any more English and the problem would be solved.

In case you think I'm a racist or at least a cultural philistine (whatever that is), be assured I'm both English and Irish, and the two bloods have been clashing in my veins since my birth (if not before). I carry around with me a tiny IRA of the mind.

But never mind all that, I've been trying once again to get my mind around E. M. Forster, a writer I've attempted a few other times (always running away screaming). He's an odd one, always taking twists and turns that seldom make sense. I decided to start with "the gay one", Maurice, a semi-autobiographical novel about a young Englishman (what else?) of wealth and privilege, trying to resist his overwhelming attraction to another Englishman (of same).

Forster is all about class distinction and is often dead-accurate about the hideous emotional damage it can do, repressing the soul unto suicide, but he also plays games with it. When poor closeted Maurice finally has a consummated sexual relationship with another man, it's with a servant, a gamekeeper named Scudder. As if he has to roll in the mud to gratify his senses in such an unthinkable way.

The book was made into a pretty good Merchant-Ivory film in the early '80s, with Hugh Grant playing Maurice's celibate bro-mance (and dishily, I must say). It was to be the first of many. Most people think of A Room with a View when they think of Forster, and that movie with all the singing and Maggie Smith and Helena Bonham-Carter with the teeny corset and her hair all poofy, and, of course. . .that kiss.

The passionate kiss in the field of barley by a virtual stranger, the free-spirited and somewhate declasse George Emerson, is much played up in the movie, but in the book it's pretty tame. Lucy Honeychurch (and what delicious oxymoron in that name!) is a sweet young thing on her first trip to Europe, and while gallivanting in the fields of Tuscany she has her first taste of eroticism. Well, almost; quite. In the book it's a field of violets, and George "stepped quickly forward and kissed her". On the cheek, we later learn. But even this mild little display threatens to ruin Lucy's virginal reputation.

So OK, we have all that class/sex stuff that the author obsessed about. But this isn't what I wanted to write about, at all. As I mush through the forests with Forster, occasionally coming up for great gasps of air, I encounter things so odd, so droll, so English that it beggars description.

Like this sentence. "Playing bumble-puppy with Minnie Beebe, niece to the rector, and aged thirteen - an ancient and most honourable game, which consists in striking tennis-balls high into the air, so that they fall over the net and immoderately bounce; some hit Mrs. Honeychurch; others are lost."

Not a sentence, really - can't follow the syntax, but what's this bumble-puppy? Who ever heard of such a thing? I do like the sound of it though. It evokes images of very young puppies bumbling around, their eyes not yet open and barely able to properly walk.

I think of mud puppy - maybe the assonance, or whatever it is. That 'uh, uh' thing. As a girl, I wanted a mud puppy; I wanted a salamander; I wanted a newt; I wanted a toad. I wanted anything slimy or crawling. I put tadpoles in jars and watched the transfiguration. I took snakes into the house, into my bedroom. I never found a mud puppy, or a salamander for that matter, but it wasn't for lack of trying. I read about them in books. I never knew they grew to this size however. Pretty disgusting.

Bumble-puppy. . . almost sounds like a dessert, doesn't it, a cobbler or a Brown Betty? My Dad, English (but not that kind of English - way down the ladder) used to talk about a pudding called "plum dupp". Turns out it was a mispronunciation of plum duff, though I must say I've never had it.

Should I invent a dessert called bumble-puppy? Could it have bumbleberries in it? Come to think of it, there's no such thing as a bumbleberry. It just means a whole lot of berries mixed together, doesn't it? And what about a hush-puppy? Can you eat them too, or only wear them?

It all gets so confusing.

Trying to find images for bumble-puppy yielded pictures of puppies in bumblebee suits. This reflects the literal way we North Americans interpret things. To the British, at least to Forster's surreal exalted British, it's a made-up game with, it sounds to me, a made-up name.

Lucy sums it all up: "Oh, it has been such a nuisance - first he, then they - no one knowing what they wanted, and every one so tiresome."


The Iceman Cometh: equine salvation

OK, so. . . I did find more info on that disastrous "horse crash" I posted yesterday, in which a dozen horses (later identified as Icelandic and only the size of ponies: their riders' feet nearly touch the ground) fell through the ice in a sickening row like so many toppled dominoes. It's shocking to watch, and at first it seems completely hopeless: how to drag a dozen terrified horses out of icy-cold water before they succumb to hypothermia? The rubbery ice immediately begins to sink, which makes matters worse.

But notice: the horses have their feet on the ground, thank God, so they at least don't have to tread water.

To back up a bit: these horses were displaying a gait called tolt: a sort of running walk which is supposed to be unique in the world, but to my eye looks similar to the gaited saddle horses from the States such as the Tennessee Walking Horse. Even at these flying speeds, they always have a hoof (or two? Can't see) on the ground. The riders sit completely level, but this isn't unique either: take a look at a good Western rider (even in an old John Wayne movie: his horsemanship was top-notch) and you'll see the same thing.  

I found more instances on YouTube of many horses parading in a row (and most of these videos had Icelandic text so I couldn't decipher them), so this must be their traditional method of displaying them. They're not racing, as some sources have said. They have special shoes with something like cleats on them to gain traction on the ice, but it seems to me these people were too trusting about the relative thickness of that ice and the possibility of cracks. Placing tons and tons of weight on ice in a straight line is asking for disaster.

I found a video too poor-quality to post from a show (a guilty pleasure of mine) called Untamed and Uncut which draws much scorn from my husband (and he watches some pretty hokey stuff of his own, and I never say anything). It features close encounters with every kind of animal, disasters and near-disasters with wildlife and tame-life alike. The announcer goes on and on about certain catastrophe and gruesome death in a histrionic way, though everything is always resolved by the end.

This video gave me more information: when the crash first occurred, there was much thrashing around and panic. Actually, the horses were calmer than the people. Each rider tried to pull his/her horse out of the water. It was chaos. Then a man they called The Iceman (don't have his name, and don't have all those little symbols to spell it anyway) arrived on the scene and quickly organized the disaster.

All the riders formed a co-ordinated team to pull out one horse at a time, determined by a sort of triage (which horse was shorter, which horse was in the most distress?). Then the Iceman had a brilliant idea that no one else ever would have thought of.

Obviously the horses were unable to gain a foothold on soft, sinking ice. There was much mad scrambling and wasting of energy. Then he decided to make himself the foothold. He got down on one knee under the water, lifted the horse's forehoof and placed it on his knee. Instinctively the horse thought, foothold, and pushed up and out and freed itself.

Impossible, you say?  Remember, these horses were almost completely submerged in water, so they would be much more buoyant than usual. They weighed considerably less than a full-sized horse, perhaps by 200 pounds. They had special shoes on, and while they probably shredded the guy's knee, it would help them overcome the inevitable slipperiness.

This was an example of fast and innovative thinking which saved equine lives. It's horrible to think of having to destroy a horse slowly succumbing to hypothermia because there's just no way to get him out.

I've seen many videos of  the "tolt" gait in slightly different forms, and the horse just flies, but it's not unique, and whatever the custom in Iceland, it should never be performed on ice. Never mind that "nothing like this has ever happened before" (and that's another one of those idiotic "truisms" I am going to attack in a future post: the "fact" that if it never happened before, it will never happen in the future.)

As I have said so often before, anything can happen to anyone at any time. And it can even happen to shaggy little horses on the ice.

(Spot the non-Icelandic horse! Hint: he once got stuck  in the mud, and could run very fast to the barn.)