Thursday, February 07, 2019

'This Isn’t Just a Walking Stick'

It’s a cane, not a walking stick. This is no late-life conversion to dandyism. I can hardly walk without it. My vanity isn’t wounded. It’s a tool (or a weapon), like a hammer, and gets the job done. Photographs of two writers come to mind when I think of walking sticks. First, Chekhov, seated on the steps at Melikhovo, legs crossed, buttoned to the throat in his greatcoat, dachshund (Khina? Brom?) under his left hand, walking stick in his right. The other is Joyce, posed like a boulevardier, staring at the camera, standing across from Sylvia Beach outside her bookstore.

My first impulse was to buy a sword cane, also called a sword stick, a la G.K. Chesterton, but that would complicate visits to the airport. I settled on the “Celtic Tiger” design as a nod to half of my ethnic heritage. The other half is Polish. I can’t do anything about that but at least the cane’s origin is Slavic: “This product is totally handmade in Ukraine. Buying it you are supporting Ukrainian crafters.” If that isn’t reassuring enough, consider this: “This isn’t just a walking stick but also a work of art.”

I see that Max Beerbohm’s cane is on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It’s a beauty, though no Celtic Tiger. The wood is honeysuckle, the ferule is silver. I like the “object history note”: “The owner of this cane was Sir Max Beerbohm (1872-1956), the English essayist, caricaturist and master of a polished prose style. It was possibly handed down from a relative as he would have been 10 years old when the cane was made (it is hallmarked 1882).”

In Max Beerbohm: A Kind of Life (2002), in a chapter titled “A Chekhovian Story,” N. John Hall recounts a visit Camille Honig paid to Beerbohm and his wife at their cottage in Surrey in 1944. Honig calls Beerbohm “the greatest living handler of the English language.” As he leaves, Honig realizes he has forgotten his cane, reenters the cottage, grabs the cane and heads for the door. Hall picks up the story:

“Exclamation of ‘Oh no!’ from Max and his wife. A terrible thought strikes Honig: had he taken the wrong cane? But no, he is motioned to a chair. ‘Don’t you know it is very unlucky to come back after you have said good-bye. You must never do that without sitting down again before you leave!’”

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