JESUS, Peter, Paul, and Stephen all knelt to pray. "Strengthen
the feeble knees," Job prays. Now and then in scripture there are
apologies for not being able to kneel down. The great novelist
Henry James suffered agonies from what was lightly called writer's
cramp, but when his brother William fixed him up with a typewriter
- and someone who could work it - his readers were not at all
pleased. Dictation had ruined his famous style. He soon found a new
But arthritis was a common hazard, and was given dismissive
names - tennis elbow, the screws, etc. A craftsman from Norfolk
arrived to relay my 18th-century brick floor, a large, kneeling,
skilful man, who smoothed the original underlying sand and chalk
tenderly before resetting the slender tiles, wiping them with a
mite of wax and leaving them with little sign of generations of
hobnailed boots, something that he had done since he was 15. He
wore leather knee-caps. "Yes," he admitted, "my knees are killing
me!" Like Job, he was submissive.
People once hid occupational aches and pains for as long as they
could. Anything to stay out of the workhouse. No longer able to
follow his trade, John Clare's father sat on a bank, chipping
stones to surface the lane.
And now, a brilliant writer told stories to James's secretary, a
young Scot who was a shorthand-typist. It was the first time that
he had worked with another person sitting beside him, and with a
clatter, not a noiseless nib. Visitors glance at my Olympia
typewriter with alarm, and then at shelves of books with some
respect. And carbons? They think of Caxton.
The leaves are sailing by at quite a rate; the November sun is
warm. The white cat picks her way through the debris, and the
horses discuss the climate on the hill. None of these animals have
done a day's work in their lives. Now and then, they are engulfed
in gulls. I am engulfed in digging up a little apple-tree from
where it has seeded itself by the front door, to put it in the
orchard. I rock it gently, loosening its roots. Like us, plants
must breathe and grow. Inside, the dreaded filing awaits. Oh, for
James's saviour. I remember an ancient joke: the typist returns
with the letter and tells her boss: "I couldn't spell psychology;
so I drew it."
A talk on the radio accidentally chimes with James. I am back in
New York with the London plane-leaves whirling by, and the windy
city is "blowing your head off". It is one of the world's best
walking cities where one can step it out. Life, that is. It is
mathematical. No wonder Americans find European towns bewildering
and illogical. And the way in which we prop up clearly done-for old
buildings instead of pulling them down! They shake their heads.
Just imagine what London would look like had it not been for the
At this moment, I am thinking of what it looks like now,
particularly in the parks, on this lovely November morning, and
from the top of a bus, maybe. Lunch on the steps of St Paul's.
Evensong for the few at four. Golden Bath stone, townie pigeons,
the Thames a Turner.
Writers are often allowed a memory like a haversack, a pile of
unsorted experiences from which they can pull out something to suit
the day. We are asked to remember William Temple. Short-lived,
alas. St Leonard, too, who was a hermit. These lives flutter in my
head and need anchorage. In our churchyard, the stripped trees are
rooted in the dead, but full of life.