a thimbleful of cherry brandy for three shillings

By Caroline Crampton,

Published on Dec 28, 2022   —   5 min read

I was recording a podcast interview for a corporate client a while ago — we all have to pay the bills, lest you thought that this kind of scribbling alone magically sustains me — when somebody said something that intrigued and amazed me.

When the pandemic first made itself felt to us in the UK in March 2020, she said, she had started reading a little of Samuel Pepys’ diary every night before going to sleep. Immersing herself for a few minutes every day in the seventeenth century and hearing how he had coped with the waves of pestilence that broke over London during his lifetime was a welcome escape from the daily news reports of our own death tolls and public health failures. Two years and more in, she had finished seven volumes of the unabridged diaries and had two more to go.

Admirable, to be sure. I wish I had done something so edifying with my time. But I long ago came to the conclusion that the road forked when this major life change came upon us, and we all took one of two ways onward. Some, like this podcast guest, chose the path of virtue and productivity. These are the people who wrote novels, ran marathons, learned languages and otherwise made use of all that extra time at home.

Then there are those of us who took the second route, that of paralysis and wallowing. Required work barely got done, let alone housework and optional new projects or tasks. Of course, many were automatically shoved in this direction by the circumstances of parenting, caring, disability, chronic illness and so on, but I have no such explanation. I entered goblin mode of my own free will and have only just begun to drag myself out of it.

With my rebirth as a vaguely functioning person has come a renewed interest in chance literary encounters. I struggled to read for pleasure at all in 2020 and most of 2021, picking up books and then discarding them a few pages in when they failed to provide the exact balance of escapism and intellectual stimulation I was craving. I re-read a lot of books that I already knew, because cracking the spine on an unfamiliar story felt like too much of a risk. And I completely stopped picking up interesting-looking tomes just on the offchance that they might amuse or inspire me. The world became narrower and smaller as a result.

Then, a few months ago, I was in a cavernous and confusingly vast bookshop in Llangollen when I came across an anthology of diary entries that I had once owned but long ago lent to someone and lost. The first time I had The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diaries on my shelf I was always meaning to read it. It felt like the kind of thing I ought to be doing but never quite got round to, just like I probably ought to have used lockdown to write one of the half dozen novel ideas that are always revolving, uncaptured, in my head. Flipping through its pages, I reacquainted myself with its daily layout of extracts from different writers across the centuries and thought: why can’t I.

And so, the great bulk of The Assassin’s Cloak came home with me and I have been reading my way through the year ever since, a day at a time. I like to fill in my own one line a day diary first — endless exciting entries about how many squirrels my dog has almost caught — and then dive into everybody else’s. Of course the big hitters who wrote capital-D diaries are all there: Pepys, Vera Brittain, John Evelyn, Queen Victoria, Alan Bennett, E.M. Delafield, and more. And they can be fun, on occasion.

But the best evenings are the ones when I meet someone I barely know, like the dancer Liane de Pougy, who uses her entries to gossip about who just got false teeth or to vent her feelings about what Jean Cocteau has done now. Or when Alice James, invalid sister of Henry, reaches out from the page to commiserate with me about being ill and having to pretend that you aren’t: “It is an immense loss to have all robust and sustaining expletives refined away from one!”. Then there’s Franz Kafka, master of casual juxtaposition; on 2nd August 1914 he writes: “Germany has declared war on Russia. Swimming in the afternoon.”

I enjoy skimming through all these lives so much that I often have to speak sternly to myself so that I don’t read ahead. The pleasure is in the consistency, of recognising certain names that recur across the weeks and months, and of seeing new ones crop up. There are a few that now make my stomach do a swoop of excitement when I see them, and chief among them is Denton Welch. I had never encountered this Chinese-born British writer and painter before I started reading The Assassin’s Cloak every day, but I learned from the biographical appendix that after a serious car accident at the age of 20 in 1935 he became a prolific diarist. He wrote over 200,000 words in his journals between 1942 and 1948, chronicling the art he could not make and the life he could not live because of his pain.

On 17th September 1944 he recorded this:

“Shall I write about the war ending? Or about my breakfast of porridge, toast, marmalade and coffee? Or just about autumn. Waking up cold in the morning; coming back cold through the low blanket of mist by the waterfall last night — from the pub on Shipbourne Common, where Eric bought me a thimbleful of cherry brandy for three shillings, and we heard the loudmouthed woman holding forth on cubbing before breakfast.

In this house now — in the big part which Eric and I are sleeping in because Mrs Sloman is away, I have an eighteenth century wooden mantel in my room, taken from an old house. Then there is a china green basin and brass locks with drop handles to the doors. The furniture is ‘limed oak’, ugly, and a chinchilla Persian cat is sleeping and grunting and dribbling on my bed. Outside the window a tractor is humming. Eric is having a cold bath, so that the water pipes sing.”

I have never read such a perfect evocation of autumn. It’s not overwritten or self consciously literary, but the description is vivid and precise: we can follow him on that dark misty walk back from the pub, brandy warming our insides, and know how the door handles in the chilly old house with singing pipes would feel in the hand.

I am glad to have met Denton Welch. My world is expanding again.

What I’ve been doing and reading since I last wrote to you

— Very little that I can show you! Writing a book is this long boring process where you’re left alone in a room for years to produce something while lots of other people wait for it to appear so they can do their bits. It bends your mind somewhat. I might write more about this another time.

— Using supercook.com to make better dinners. Fill out all the ingredients you currently have available and it suggests recipes from across the internet that you can make. You can also filter by cooking time and dietary requirements. I filter for <30 minutes and then just make the top recommendation every time; it hasn’t steered me wrong.

— Launched the annual pledge drive for my detective fiction podcast. I am not good at asking for money to make things so I only really do it in a concerted way once a year and I have to delete a lot of apologies from the relevant scripts. The equation is simple really, though: the show is free to listen to; it costs money to make; costs are going up. There are perks available if you help out.

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