When Claire recommended Letters from England (1924, translated by Paul Selver 1925) by Karel Čapek it was one of those very welcome recommendations – being for a book that I already had on my shelves. Usually I note when and where I buy books, but this time I didn’t – I can only assume it was because the name rang a bell, the physical book is quintessentially 1920s, and I have a soft spot for books about England. And, oh, how fun this book is.
It doesn’t that Čapek shares my feelings about the relative merits of London and the rest of the country. It is amusing, in the 1920s, to hear him complaining about grim housing and traffic (goodness knows what he’d think if he visited it today), but I entirely agree with him about the ferocious busyness of the place. It is rather easier to be funny when one is criticising than when one is praising, of course, and Čapek is very amusing in these early chapters.
These houses look rather like family vaults; I tried to make a drawing of them, but do what I would, I was unable to obtain a sufficiently hopeless appearance; besides, I have no grey paint to smear over them.
Oh, yes, he includes plenty of pen and ink illustrations, of the variety that are deceptively simplistic. He is particularly good at animals, despite what he says in the text.
But – thankfully for the self esteem of the nation – he doesn’t just stay in London and criticise it. Instead, he travels around the countryside and (belying his title) pays visits to Scotland and Wales, and writes about Ireland without actually going there.
Where are you to pick words fine enough to portray the quiet and verdant charms of the English countryside? I have been down in Surrey, and up in Essex; I have wandered along roads lined with quickset hedges, sheer quickset hedges which make England the real England, for they enclose, but do not oppress; half-opened gates lead you to ancient avenues of a park deeper than a forest; and here is a red house with high chimneys, a church-tower among the trees, a meadow with flocks of cows, a flock of horses which turn their beautiful and solemn eyes upon you; a pathway that seems to be swept as clean as a new pin, velvety pools with nenuphars and sword-lilies, parks, mansions, meadows, and meadows, no fields, nothing that might be a shrill reminder of human drudgery; a paradise where the Lord God Himself made paths of asphalt and sand, planted old trees and entwined ivy coverlets for the red houses.
You see his way with words, and his fondness for the long sentence. We will forgive him referring to any group of animals as a flock, and believeing Essex to be ‘up’, because he is so expressive and enthusiastic an appreciator of the English countryside – which means so much to me too, in a way which transcends expression. The countryside is the only place where I feel properly alive, and I would love to have accompanied Čapek on his travels, gasping at the beauty of the Lake District, admiring the simple aesthetic pleasure of a thatched cottage, and (for we are not perfect human beings) sharing eye-rolls at the sort of person who bustles hither and thither in a city all year, and never ventures out to visit a sheep.