Saturday, June 22, 2013

`A Flourish With His Stick Thus'

A pleasing coincidence, one of those unexpected convergences that inject wonder into the routinely ignorable. The wall next to the dry cleaner’s shop frequently serves as a canvas for vandals – i.e., “graffiti artists.” On Thursday, I noticed someone had whitewashed the concrete blocks, effectively erasing the latest batch of spray paint. By Friday, a vandal with minimalist tastes had left a long, looping line of black paint, like a pulled pig’s tail, angling down the wall. I thought immediately of the line Corporal Trim traces with his walking stick in Book 2, Chapter 17, of Tristram Shandy. Sterne writes: 

“Nothing, continued the corporal, can be so sad as confinement for life—or so sweet, an’ please your honour, as liberty. 

“Nothing, Trim—said my uncle Toby, musing—Whilst a man is freecried the corporal, giving a flourish with his stick thus—” 

Followed by the squiggle and this: “A thousand of my father’s syllogisms could not have said more for celibacy.” On Friday I started reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Viking, 2012), his account of walking across England and elsewhere. Early in the book, with Edward Thomas as his tutelary spirit, Macfarlane walks the Icknield Way across southern England, following the chalk escarpment between Norfolk and Wiltshire. (Thomas published a prose work, The Icknield Way, in 1913.) Along the way, he writes: 

“Here and there people had used chunks of chalk to write on the grey bark of the trees: initials, stars, or squiggles like the looping signature Corporal Trim’s walking stick leaves on the otherwise blank page in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.”

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