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In My Own Way
An Autobiography, 1915-1916
By Alan Watts
New World LibraryCopyright © 1972 Alan Watts
All rights reserved.
THE STONED WOOD
Topophilia is a word invented by the British poet John Betjeman for a special love for peculiar places. It sounds almost like a disease or a perversion, but it comes close to the Japanese aware, which signifies a sophisticated nostalgia. One may love special places either for their beauty, or for their fascinating ugliness, or for their inability to be described. In the first class put the Swiss-Italian lake district and Big Sur, California; in the second put residential North London, Philadelphia, or Baltimore; in the third put Chislehurst, which means a stoned or stony (or even astonished) wood. It is an area on a well-forested and flat-topped hill to the southeast of London, its soil abounding in round and grey-surfaced stones, some of which contain pockets of crystals, and some which, when broken, reveal an image of dark blue sky, dense with clouds. Large sections of this area are commons or public parks, wild and left generally to themselves. In the interstices lie palatial mansions, affluent suburban residences, three small shopping areas, seven churches, seven amiable pubs, and two respectable slums.
Even today it hasn't been too objectionably improved. Indeed, many of the mansions are now schools, offices, or service-flats, and a number of boxy, red-brick, quiet-desperation homes have filled up the old rural lanes. But the Royal Parade, the one-block-long principal shopping center, is almost exactly what it was fifty years ago. I was back there in June 1970 to celebrate my father's ninetieth birthday at the Tiger's Head pub on the village green, across from the ancient parish church of Saint Nicholas — and incidentally, it isn't so widely known that English pubs (as distinct from restaurants) can provide magnificent feasts. But there was the village center in its original order, though ownerships had changed. Close to the prosperous-looking Bull Inn are Miss Rabbit's original sweet shop, and opposite, the incredible Miss Battle is still running the bakery. I can't account for her; she is a young woman about seventy years old. Mr. Walters (Junior) is still running the book, stationery, and greeting-card shop, though Mr. Coffin's excellent grocery has been taken over by a chain — and yet the goods and the service are unchanged. It smells as it always did of flavors of fresh coffee, smoked meats, and Stilton cheese, and is run with a dignity and courtesy which make it, for me, the archetypal grocery designed in heaven.
Mr. Francis's tobacco and barber shop is still there, though he has long joined his ancestors. It was here that I had my one and only personal encounter with that vivacious and ancient priest, Canon Dawson, rector of Saint Nicholas who, as a very High Church Anglo-Catholic, sported a fried-egg hat and cassock around the village. (All I can remember of his sermons is a series of enthusiastic coughs, but everyone loved him, and he lived in a magnificent and mysterious Queen Anne house — The Rectory — kitty-corner from the church, next to the Tiger's Head, and backed by a row of stately trees beyond which lay the acres of Colonel Edelman's spacious farms and crow-cawing pines.) The Rector was in a hurry and very affably asked me to yield place in line for a haircut. Naturally, I was delighted; he, the dignitary, the parson or person of the domain had treated a nine-year-old boy as a human being. I hadn't long to wait, for he was almost bald.
But vanished now is the drapery and dress shop run by the Misses Scriven, two elderly spinsters with put-up hair, bulging, with bun on top, and thoroughly clothed from neck to ankles with long-sleeved frilly blouses and tweedy skirts, granny-style spectacles with thin gold rims insulting their faces. Fashionable young ladies of today should note (since granny spectacles are back in vogue), that constructions of wire upon the face, especially upon ladies with angular figures, have about as much sex appeal as bicycles. To make things worse, the Misses Scriven displayed their frocks and dresses upon "dummies," which were headless, armless, and legless mock-ups of female torsos, having lathe-turned erections of dark wood in place of heads. These hideous objects gave me repeated nightmares until I was at least six years old, for in the midst of an otherwise interesting dream there would suddenly appear a calico-covered dummy, formidably breasted (without cleft) and sinisterly headless. This thing would mutter at me and suggest ineffable terrors, but thereafter it would rumble, and I would have the sensation of dropping through darkness to find myself relieved and awake.
And then, just to the north, was the pharmacy of Messrs. Prebble and Bone, its windows adorned with immense tear-shaped bottles of brightly colored liquids, for ornament and not for sale, where medications were sold in an aromatic atmosphere which has prompted the riddle "What smells most in a chemist's shop?" Answer: "Your nose." Whereas Mr. Coffin's grocery was low and on the level, Mr. Prebble and Mr. Bone's establishment was lofty and looked down at you, and their mysterious bottles with occult labels were stored in high, glass-doored cupboards. They supplied Dr. Tallent's utterly illegible prescriptions in bottles and boxes with formal and punctilious labels entitled "The Mixture," "The Ointment," or "The Pills," followed with such paradoxical instructions as "Take one pill three times a day," which reminds me of a notice once posted on the buses of Sacramento, California: "Please let those getting off first."
Dr. Tallent also lived on the Royal Parade, at Walton Lodge, a pleasant begardened house oddly sequestered in the very middle of the row of shops. He was a confident, kindly, and clean-smelling man who officiated at my birth, upon whose brand-new suit I pissed at my circumcision, and from whom, as soon as I was articulate, I demanded a two-shilling fee (which he paid) for some unpleasant medical attention. His wife was, necessarily, a talented woman — a singer and actress resembling Mary Pickford — and I was secretly in love with his tall brunette daughter Jane without knowing how to do anything about it. She seemed to be on a higher rung in the social ladder, and thus went with the boys who played tennis and cricket (the ultimately boring game), and indulged in the lugubrious dangle-armed dancing of the 1920s. And then I was vehemently in love with a blond kindergarten mate named Kitty, who lived in one of the pretentious mansions near the Rectory, so much so that I got up the courage to propose marriage to her and was so flatly rejected that I didn't have the nerve to make amorous approaches to women until I was nineteen.
I have been told, in later years, that I look like a mixture of King George VI and Rex Harrison, but then the boys told me I was a cross-eyed and buck-toothed weakling to whom no girl would ever possibly be attracted. But when I search through the records, like Who's Who and even the Greater London Telephone Directory, all those handsome and self-confident sportsmen, scholars, and snobs who were my successful peers in school seem to have vanished. It is unbelievable and awesome that I find no trace of the heroes of my childhood, save one or two whom the system rejected, like poet, travelogist, and (during World War II) Brigadier General Patrick Leigh Fermor, who was expelled from King's School, Canterbury, for taking a walk with the local greengrocer's daughter.
But back to Chislehurst. Rowan Tree Cottage, our home, is one block east of the Royal Parade, and takes its name from a mountain ash or rowan tree which grew in the front garden behind a hedge of sweetbrier and beside an arbor of jasmine and a magnificent tree of green cooking-apples upon which we used to hang coconuts, sliced open for the delectation of wrens and blue tits. The house is a semidetached cottage, that is, a mirror-image structure, one half occupied by ourselves and the other by an astonishingly ugly, garrulous, holy, and warmhearted lady known as Miss Gussy (Augusta Pearce — and may she rest in peace, fanned by the jeweled wings of her Anglo-Catholic angels.) Also let it be said, in passing, that most of the people mentioned in this book are to be recognized as my gurus — people from whom I have learned all that I value — and in this respect Miss Gussy had an important role.
Behind the house my parents had acquired an acre of land which adjoined the playing fields of Farrington's (Wesleyan) school for girls and gave access to the immense fields and forests of Scadbury Manor, where the lords of Chislehurst had lived from at least the thirteenth century. Just at the boundary between our land and Farrington's was a colossal sycamore tree exactly ninety feet high, where the sun rose, and where, in the late afternoon, my mother and I watched glistening pigeons against black storm-clouds. That was the axletree of the world, Yggdrasil, blessing and sheltering the successive orchards, vegetable gardens and (once) a rabbit farm which my father cultivated in time of economic distress. There was also a time when he let the back part of the garden go fallow, with grasses, sorrel, and flowering weeds so well above my head that I could get lost in this sunny herbaceous forest with butterflies floating above. I was so happy in this miniature jungle that I still don't understand why those who have neither time nor skill for real gardening shouldn't just let their land go its own way, rather than insisting on lawn order, whereby grass is forced to imitate a billiard table.
We are compulsively and drearily tidy, and frantically flatten, rectangularize and uniformize the chthonic world into Euclidian patterns, which are wholly bereft of imagination and exuberance. Shouldn't we beg pardon for millions of square miles of cropped, unflowering grass? This was the magic of the Chislehurst commons — that all those acres were simply left alone, save for the attentions of jovial Mr. Cox, the Common-Keeper, who went about with a burlap sack and a spiked stick to pick up human trash — mostly paper. There were open acres covered with curly-ferned bracken and dotted with prickly, yellow-flowered gorse bushes. There were dark dense clusters of rhododendrons, dank mysterious pools under enormous oaks and cedars, sweet, sandy, and sunny groves of pines, and, at the bottom of Pett's Wood — just across the railway tracks — an almost tropical swamp, where the stream Marchristal (named after Margaret, Christine, and Alan, who explored it from end to end) flowed into a larger stream which ran eventually into the Medway River, through Maidstone, and into the Thames at Sheerness.
Margaret and Christine, incidentally, were sisters — two adorably feminine tomboys whom I hadn't the nerve to relate to except on the boy level of adventure and mild naughtiness, such as initiating Christine into smoking cigarettes under a bush on the commons. However, we followed that tiny stream through two miles of thickets, mostly young hazels, elm, and ash, over ground twinkling with wild primroses and celandine and blossoming (if that is the word) with pagodalike layers of tree fungus, with toadstools, and with that formidable red-topped, white-flecked mushroom Amanita muscaria — of whose properties we knew nothing except "Don't."
The Marchristal descended across a belt of pines, through a culvert under the tracks, and out into this vividly alive swampy area where flowering weeds grew far above our heads — white umbelliferae, yellow ragweed, something with small but imperially purple flowers, nettles, wild roses, honeysuckle, common bugle, foxgloves, wild poppies, vast thistles, blackberry bushes, and high barleylike grasses — all of which was bewhizzed by kingfisher-blue dragonflies, by bumblebees and tiny pseudowasps called hover-flies, and befluttered by fritillaries, red admirals, swallowtails, painted ladies, tortoise-shells, orange-tips, small coppers, Camberwell beauties, graylings, common whites, commas, peacocks, clouded yellows, marble whites, chalkhill blues, and even an occasional purple emperor.
Yes, I am showing off my knowledge of folk entomology. My father was an amateur entomologist, and his guru in this pursuit was an extremely small, affable, and intelligent bon vivant named Samuel Blyth — a well-to-do solicitor, stockholder in the Bank of England, and confirmed bachelor, who lived with his splendidly witty mother and two devoted serving-maids in a Churriguresque house just south of the Royal Parade. Samuel Blyth was one of Canon Dawson's loyal henchmen, a devout and even militant High Churchman who hardly ever discussed religion. His ancestors had sailed with the Royal Navy, and his house was ablaze with the folk art of Africa, India, and Indochina — inlaid tables, silver canisters, an immense basket from Lagos, and all sorts of lacquered and marquetry boxes with images, in brilliant color, of Shiva, Krishna, Parvati, and Radha dancing it up amid stylized frameworks of creepers and vines. Furthermore, he presided at stately dinner parties to which a select company gathered in formal dress, where the cuisine — served by Annie I and Annie II — was English cooking at its best, accompanied by the best wines of Bordeaux, for which he had a special liking. Next to my mother, he may be considered my true teacher in the arts of the table, although now — in California — we attend formal dinners in outrageously imaginative costumes instead of black, silk-lapelled suits with boiled shirts and black bow ties.
Sam's mother was just the sort of woman I hope my own wife will become when she is eighty. She was somewhat stout, wore a black velvet choker, and carried a silver-topped ebony walking stick; a lady of wonderful presence and dignity who was, nevertheless, given to chuckling. Sam, also, had this particular and important grace for appreciating and giggling about nonsense — important, because I am not fully at ease with those who lack it. At a very early age I was presented with a handsome edition of the nonsense limericks of Edward Lear by the angular, (apparently) acid, and bearded Mr. Chettle who, as headmaster of the school sponsored by the Worshipful Company of Stationers, had been the most respected of my father's teachers. He, then, was responsible for initiating me into a taste for such profound ridiculosities as
There was an Old Man of Vienna,
Who lived upon Tincture of Senna.
When that did not agree,
He took Camomile Tea;
That nasty Old Man of Vienna.
So, I told Sam Blyth and his mother about an insane cartoon-film I had seen called The Worm That Turned in which an officiously persecuted worm, ordinarily slow and limp in action, became galvanized with energy after drinking from a bottle labeled "Encouragement," and with electric convulsions banged all his persecutors to bits. Thereafter, on our return from night-time entomological expeditions, I was invariably given a Bottle of Encouragement which, as then appropriate for a small boy, was that most pleasant concoction — English ginger beer from a stone bottle. I am drinking some at the moment of writing, and though it comes from a nasty and ecologically pestiferous no-return bottle which says, with incongruous pomposity, "bottled under authority of Schweppes (U.S.A.) Ltd., Stamford, Conn., 06905, from essence imported from Schweppes, London, England," it is very good; though not quite the same thing as served by Samuel Blyth from a stone bottle or bought, homemade, from a rose-engarlanded cottage on an ancient Roman road just south of Canterbury.
Those entomological expeditions after dark were usually conducted in a long and ancient grove of trees on the west side of Pett's Wood, bordered by Colonel Edelman's open fields with their clusters, or spinneys, of pines. Sam and my father would paint the trees with a thin, one-foot strip of molasses mixed with essence of pear. Then, at the bottom of the grove, they would wait and light up their pipes (Sam, who was a perky little man, had the most enormous Dunhill I have ever seen), whereafter we would return with our flashlights examining the various moths which had visited our treacly traps. My father usually called them by their folk names, such as the Silver Y, from the silvery Y-shaped mark on its upper wing, but Sam, as the guru, used the Graeco-Latin scientific names — in this case ITLγITL — always pronounced in the flagrantly British distortions of Mediterranean languages. Thus the very rare and prized oleander hawk moth, which Sam once netted ecstatically over his flowering tobacco plants, is known to the science as nerii. He pronounced it "neary-eye." It is a gorgeous mottled green, almost birdlike moth which occasionally reaches the southern shores of England from Africa.
We would carefully identify the various specimens on the treacle, then proceed to capture those not already in our collections by inveigling them into glass-topped pillboxes, and thereafter spiflicate them in glass jars, or "killing-bottles," containing cyanide under a coating of plaster of Paris. Pounded laurel leaves would do just as well.
Excerpted from In My Own Way by Alan Watts. Copyright © 1972 Alan Watts. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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