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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

20 January 2023

After another week touring the US, Malcolm Guite revels in being home at last

I’M HOME at last, in the familiar and comfortable armchair of my little study, after another week of intensive and exhausting lecturing in the States — and what a pleasure it is to be back!

There is, of course, as much to admire as to deplore in America, as in most countries; but there is also, as they rightly say, no place like home. I always enjoy the work itself, and the people I meet, but one disadvantage of frequent travel in our age is that you usually stay in identikit soulless hotel chains, whose lobbies, lifts, corridors, and rooms all look the same, and offer no sign of place or character.

They could be anywhere. They have the same grey carpets, faux modern art, huge television screens, which I never watch, constantly whirring central heating, a myriad of little lights on everything from coffee-makers, screens, and fire alarms to bedside digital clocks, none of which you can turn off, and which wink at you balefully all night unless you contrive to cover them with your discarded clothes; and, worst of all, those dirty grey windows that you cannot open, though you are desperate for a breath of fresh air and a sense of where you actually are.

Only so much of that alienating placelessness can I take; so, I sometimes sit in my hotel room and imagine my own study, mentally shelving the walls and filling them with books, all old favourites, cluttering the icily empty desk, if there is one, with piles of imaginary books and papers, leather-bound journals with half-written poems, pens, ink bottles, and, of course, pipes: some in their racks, some resting on their bowls in ashtrays, and some half-smoked, leaning precariously on the book piles where I left them.

If I try hard, I can even imagine the aroma of my study, the subtle combination of old tomes and aromatic tobacco. I am comforted for a second or two, but then it’s gone, and I am back in the alienating bleak minimalism that some design committee decided would please, or at least not offend, the average customer.

I sometimes wish that I had been a writer in an earlier age. The familiar essays by the likes of Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton often describe their travels, and they always seem to stay in glorious old coaching inns, each with its distinctive atmosphere, its local ales, and its magnificently Dickensian characters. They give you the savour and flavour of each little town or village, and you rejoice with them in the sheer variety and diversity with which the map of England is speckled and chequered.

Now, Chesterton was a man of such wit and good humour that he could probably have found something beneficent and thankful to say about even the blandest of my hotel rooms; for, after all, it was he who said that “an inconvenience is simply an adventure wrongly considered”; but I have not yet attained to his breadth, his unfailing enthusiasm, or his saintly optimism, and my efforts flag after a day or two.

At least it means, though, that when I am back in this armchair among the friendly and familiar scatter of books and pipes, I am as genuinely delighted and as profoundly thankful as Chesterton himself.

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