A Scholar Gypsy – a John Dunn story

John-DunnMy life as a gypsy scholar began in 1932. I had just turned thirteen, and was about to enter first form of high school. That year was historically important for another reason too — it was the second year in a row of a scalding period that a later generation would name the Great Depression.

Some unremembered Solomon in the Department of Education of that era had agreed with St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s prescription for thirteen year-olds entering a Cistercian monastery — “‘Tis best for a man to have borne the burden from his youth” — because the high school curriculum had everyone of us carry a full bag of language, English, French, and Latin, as well as the language of music. Music came on wet days, and our instrument was the mouth organ.

Solomon also recognized memory as a faculty of the mind because memory work fell into the curriculum too — lines included a selection from Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses”,

“I am a part of all that I have met,
Yet all experience is an arch, wherethro’ gleams
That untravell’d world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move.”

Untravell’d world! My word! At thirteen, we were only sketchily aware of the world of Almonte. Were we longing to be on the cusp of another, an untravell’d world too?

Money in the world we knew, Almonte in Depression, was practically unknown. Two coins were in circulation, a David and a Goliath, the small five cent piece and the big penny. Goliath in copper honoured George V, garlanded in Latin abbreviations, D.G. Rex et Ind. Imp. Def. Fid., and was prized by youngsters for its heft. David, the size of the nail on a man’s little finger, slung five times more punch than Goliath: its heart was pure too, silver right through.

Sports pages of Ottawa papers enlightened subscribers by referring to Almonte’s hockey teams, as ‘The Woollen Towners’. Aptly enough too, for in the town’s warp and woof we knew weavers, spinners, dyers, bobbin boys, doffers, designers, shippers, besides a sprinkling of telegraph agents, plumbers, carpenters, bakers, barbers, doctors, lawyers, clergy, draymen, teachers, storekeepers, blacksmiths, returned men from the Great War, and aging, Quebec-shag-smoking, used-up shantymen.

We learned about the untravell’d world of Canada, where dust storms in Saskatchewan had lifted tons and tons of topsoil from wheat farms, whirled it about in the sky, and sent it drifting away to the Dakotas. Fortunate farmers, spared the dust onslaught, still travelled to town with the horse and wagon on Saturday night, carrying a full case of eggs, thirty dozen, to be exchanged — with the addition of a precious David five cent silver piece — for a half-pound tin of Ogden’s fine cut, or ‘Old Chum” cigarette tobacco, a comfort for the men, 65 cents.

Poignantly though, the untravell’d world sometimes assaulted Almonte. On the CPR’s main line to Vancouver great freight trains hammered the rails, rushing towards the bridge over the Mississippi’s falls, whistle screaming a warning for scholars swimming in the falls below to beware. Amazedly scholars gaped up to the catwalks atop box cars to see a dozen, and often four dozen travellin’ men, seated there, backs to the locomotive to ward off the danger of hot cinders in the eyes. Wonderingly we asked from what ‘untravell’d world’ did they come, those non-revenue producing passengers on CPR freights?

Secretly, we envied their free spirits, and I continued to do so until the front door bell at the doctor’s house began to ring, uncustomarily, of a Sunday morning, only to reveal when the door was opened, a haggard travellin’ man, cap in hand, who asked not for physician to bind up a wound, but wondered rather “If the lady of the house might do me the favour of a bite to eat”.

“Would you bring him through the house to the kitchen,” the lady of the house replied.

Freedom has its cost, a returned man on the front step of the blacksmith shop used to say, just as hay and oats have theirs.

Scholars of Depression years travelled on bicycles. My CCM brought me often to a farm kitchen on the tenth line of Pakenham, half-way between Pakenham and Arnprior, for Aunt Kate’s refresher course — lemon cookies and a glass of milk.

A shorter sortie’s destination was Blakeney. After a lengthy illness that had brought my father to her cabin once a week for twenty-two years, Lizzie, the patient, died. In her will she left him a village lot which was a natural potato ground. With hoe at the alert I bicycled to Blakeney and hoed potatoes until eleven in the morning, when a raging thirst for a dipper of cold water led me out from the potato patch, down the hill and across the bridge to the cheese factory where Charlie Hutt was cheese maker. Charlie who welcomed all pilgrims who crossed the bridge, swung wide the curtain to invite the son of the doctor inside
for a taste test, a handful of freshly-salted cheese curd in the vat with the precious squeak in them, a moment when the curd’s magic rings with delight exquisite on two senses at the same time, hearing and taste.

Just as Lord Tennyson’s Idyllic existence for Ulysses ended, so did ours. In 1936, Upper School doors closed on us, now sixteen and seventeen-year-old spent scholars; certificates of language proficiency outlined me with a little Latin, a dollop of German, two scoops of  French and a bowl full of English. As for the ‘untravell’d world’, it must lie somewhere. Could one find it on a bicycle? Hardly.

One neglected Almonte resource, however, lay open to a gypsy scholar, the Almonte Public Library. Presided over by Miss Aggie Forgie and her newly-appointed assistant, Elizabeth Kelly, the Library was so important in the community — it was located in the town hall, directly opposite the council chamber. In its sanctified silence, I found “In Search of England”, by H.V. Morton, and read it avidly. Other works by the same author followed, “In Search of Wales”, “In Search of Scotland,” “In Search of Ireland,” and “In Search of France.” I read them all, but none with greater delight than the opening pages of “In Search of England”.

In a foreword the author speaks of his formative years immediately after the close of the Great War. Having read Tennyson’s “Ulysses”, Morton had gone off into an ‘untravell’d world’, Jerusalem. There, without warning, he fell into a dreadful funk, loneliness so powerful that only the German word, “Sehnsucht”, comes close to its meaning; it’s a longing for home, so deep it is a sharp pain around the heart, and a longing for a world known in childhood. No medicine availed Morton, no physician’s cure, no way for him to get help except a return to Britain, and studied immersion in the mystery of what makes Britain.

H.V. Morton took passage immediately from the Near East for Southampton, and set out to overcome Sehnsucht by following one abiding principle: the big cities, he felt, had been responsible for the decay of real English life. He would confine himself to searching for the genuine article in out of the way places, hoping to find it by stumbling upon it.

Two days later he found himself standing at the gate of the gatekeeper’s lodge of the Hospice of St. John in the ancient town of Winchester, twenty miles above Southampton. Centuries after the departure of the Roman legions from the garrison town, Winchester became first major stop for mediaeval pilgrims from Europe who crossed the Channel to follow the Pilgrims’ Way along the southern slopes of the South Downs to the shrine of Thomas a Becket at Canterbury. Morton’s discovery of the gatekeeper’s lodge at the Hospice of St. John became Chapter one of “In Search of England”.

From that chapter I too learned something of the magic of England in the ancient days when Arthur had been king, for Winchester had been England’s capital until Henry VII’s time. I wondered if the Knights of the Round Table had learned to swim in the little River Itchen at the bottom of the High Street.

Six or seven years later the gypsy scholar, transmogrified, in the words of the author of Gulliver’s Travels, had become a soldier, and a knight. Seated on a two-wheeled charger called Harley-Davidson, he put-putted along a country lane in the South of England. It was February; all signposts had been taken down and put in storage in order to keep any invader dropping out from the skies to wonder “What is the name of this place?”

Against the stiff winter chill the knight wore a leathern jerkin, a short, sleeveless surcoat of blanket cloth on the inside and a black leather windproof exterior, and, on his head a chamber pot, it seemed, inverted as a helmet. No other armour carried he, unless mention be made of a testimonial in his left saddlebag that declared the knight to be Bachelor in Arts with Honours in Philosophy, English and History. The companion saddlebag on the right held further testimony signed by the Governor-General stating that if one were to lift the weight of the leather jerkin from his shoulders, the knight’s true identity would be clear: that he was both officer and gentleman, well-beloved of His Majesty, King George VI, D.G. Rex. Ind. Imp., D.F. and whether in Surrey or Hampshire, or anywhere else in the king’s world-wide demesne, the knight was to be trusted as one of His Majesty’s captains.

The knight bore a striking resemblance to a gypsy scholar of that other world called Almonte. That resemblance would have become even more apparent if the knight’s map under the jerkin were to open up for examination, for on it he had marked out the precise location of a number of tea shops renowned for a hot cuppa and a Chelsea Bun.

At Farnham in Surrey, at the foot of the hill on the High Street he enquired in his tea shop about the strange estate at the top of the hill, a very large estate, with high brick wall, built as if to protect its owner from invaders. “The estate,” he was told, “Is the home of a famous local author, Mr. H.V. Morton.”

A sticky bun dropped from the knight’s fingers. His mouth fell open. Wonder stared out from his bulging eyes. He remembered “In Search of England” in the library at Almonte, and looked around quickly as if wondering if he might be standing in the shadow of the author.

Saints alive! H.V. Morton, author of “In Search of England.”

In the summer which followed, the knight again found himself on patrol on his Harley-Davidson charger. The South of England can be a pleasant place in June and July, with winding ways flanked with holly hedges, oak and ash groves, and sheep grazing on the Downs. The patroller came at last unto the precincts of an ancient town: over the top of trees he espied a massive square stone structure, the tower of a cathedral.

In a quiet cul-de-sac he stopped by an old stone wall surrounding an estate, dismounted in the shade, and threw the halter of the Harley over the wall. That done, he set off on foot to reconnoitre the precincts. A couple of hundred yards saw him smack dab in the cathedral yard of the old, old town of Winchester, ancient capital of Britain until the reign of Henry VIII’s father, old garrison town for Julius Caesar’s finest legions, and first stop after Southampton for thousands of Christians in the Middle Ages bent on pilgrimage from France and the continent to the shrine of Blessed Thomas at Canterbury. The gypsy scholar’s mind filled up suddenly, like water in the well, with “Canterbury Tales”, “In Search of England” and those indefinable tales of used-up shantymen on the front step of the blacksmith shop who reminisced about life in the shanties of the Ottawa Valley.

In those days with a team of Clydesdales and sleighs for freighting supplies to the shanties, teamsters travelled on the ice up the Ottawa River. Their pilgrimage permitted them to lay over at “stopping places” every twenty miles — that being a full day’s draw for the team — for refreshment for men and comfort for the team.

In this untravell’d world, pilgrims landing at Southampton trudged to Winchester town, twenty miles and there found rest and refreshment before continuing their journey another stint on the Pilgrims’ Way along the South Downs towards their destination, Canterbury.

The transmogrified gypsy scholar made his way through the massive front door of Winchester cathedral to the inside. Immediately the contrast between its builders exposed itself in the architecture of the cathedral. Begun in the Romananesque style of the semi-circular arch, the principal design feature of the 1200 A.D. era, the work continued into hundreds of later years when the Gothic arch feature invaded Britain from the continent. At Winchester cathedral Gothic arches became superimposed over the semi-circular Romanesque arches.

Niches, delightfully arranged in each pillar of both side aisles, originally held statues of saints, in stone, small miracles of the carver’s faith and art, but vacant now, and left empty, the beadle declared, after the destroying rampage carried out by Cromwell and his reformers.

The massive circular west window, another victim of the Cromwell rampage, completely destroyed was left in ruins. However, its broken pieces were carefully gathered by townspeople and fitted together once more, although in random fashion, and set again in the west window opening. June sun, piercing through their translucent splendour sent dust devils flitting along a line directly to the marble slab covering a tomb in the south nave, that of Jane Austen of the neighbouring parish of Alton, author of “Pride and Prejudice.”

In Winchester the ‘untravell’d world’ of Ulysses and the Almonte world of the gypsy scholar met each other, face to face. Chapter one of “in Search of England” hit the screen, and memory, that intellectual giant of the scholar gypsy days, reached out and grasped at H.V. Morton’s discovery of Winchester’s place in the making of England.

This old town also had a famous bishop in the 13th century who believed in and practised the Golden Rule, and in doing so, left a most delightful heritage. William of Wyckeham, the bishop, built a charitable institution in the shadow of the cathedral, the Hospice of St. John, as both a refuge and permanent residence for gentlemen who had fallen on ill chance in their later days.

Residents wear today the uniform designed in the days of the founder, a mediaeval costume in distinctively bright colours, red, yellow and black. In the constitution for the Hospice the bishop left one remarkable order, the gypsy scholar discovered, which was that every pilgrim who stopped at the gate was to be offered hospitality, viz., a crust of bread and a horn of beer.

On his return to the haltered Harley the scholar gypsy discovered that the gatekeeper, in mediaeval attire, a sentinel in yellow gold, was awaiting him.

He was the gatekeeper, said the mediaeval man, and this was the entry to the Hospice of St. John, a refuge and home for gentlemen in their later years, who had fallen on distraint, and, by the patrimony of a medieval bishop, were enjoying life here as a refuge and shelter thanks to his lordship, William of Wyckeham, bishop of Winchester town.

My word! The gatekeeper regarded the gypsy scholar, and enquired about his status as a pilgrim. The scholar made disclaimer to the privilege. “In spite of that”, said the gatekeeper, “The mission that you are on in the king’s name and in the king’s uniform is certainly a pilgrimage of the greatest importance.” He went further: he declared that in a time of war every person who wore the king’s uniform must be sanctified in some little way, being on a pilgrimage that would last to the very end
of the emergency of faith.

What more fitting expression of the true English life? The scholar accepted the bishop’s prescription of hospitality with grace — to every pilgrim who stopped by the gate of the hospice of St. John, a crust of bread and a horn of beer. Tennyson’s “untravell’d world” had opened wide.