A Twitch upon the Thread 1

225 A Twitch upon the Thread
The title is taken from the Father Brown story by G.K. Chesterton which Cordelia quotes towards the end of the previous chapter.

225 pigeons of St. Marks
presumably in Venice. One does not have to go as far as Venice to experience this plague.

225-226 These memories are the memorials and pledges ... a secret we shall never share.
EW cut these two paragraphs from the text when he revised BR in the late 1950s.

225 afflatus
creative inspiration, often thought of as being divine in origin.

225 chimeras
Originally a monster in Greek mythology which had a lions head and a serpents tail, the word came to mean as here, any ridiculously impractical if wildly imaginative plan.

226 architectural painter
Charles is not quite right to say that no one else was doing what he did at the time. John Piper (1903-1992) did much sketching of monuments and buildings for John Betjeman's Architectural Review in the 1930s, though art certainly played a major part in his work. An acquaintance of EW's named Captain Richard Dick Wyndham (1896-1948), a wealthy amateur painter, mounted two private showings in the 1930s of his Paintings of Country Seats and Manor Houses. He seems to have served as a model for Charles Ryder, for he too went to the tropics (to Africa actually) in order to give fresh lustre to his art.

226 Philistine
a common term for a person with no artistic or intellectual sympathies, who indeed is often antagonistic to people who have them

227 independence of popular notions
We have already seen that Charles is antagonistic towards much modern art. It must, however, be noted that in the recording of architectural beauties, accuracy rather than imagination is paramount. He has no need of modern art in his chosen profession.

227 The financial slump
The 1930s witnessed widespread industrial and social unrest and distress. Its causes are much discussed today, but the following is generally agreed.
In October 1929 there was a catastrophic drop in the stock market on Wall Street which hit the confidence of investors. During the next three years stock prices in the United States continued to fall until by late 1932 they had dropped to only about 20 per cent of their value of three years before. This ruined many thousands of firms and individual investors. As they attempted to retrieve their savings and investments, their distress was passed on to banks and other financial institutions, with the result that many banks were forced into insolvency, 11,000 of the United Statess 25,000 banks going under by 1933. This widespread failure led to much-reduced levels of spending and demand and hence of production, which only aggravated the situation. The result was drastically falling output and drastically rising unemployment. Since Europe had been linked to the U.S. economy very closely in the post-war years the Great Depression quickly turned into a worldwide economic slump. Unemployment remained high in Britain throughout the 1930s. Government action was not at first seen as a correct response either in the United States or in Britain, and inaction led to long-term distress. It is sombre to relate that only World War II brought back full employment.

227 in the Augustan manner
i.e. doing a Grand Tour in the manner of a gentleman of the 18th century (the Augustan era)

228 gutted palaces cloisters embowered in weed derelict churches
Charles is referring to the landscape of Mexico in the 1930s. The left-wing governments which had emerged from the revolutionary wars of 1910-1920 had passed anti-clerical laws which offended the church and led to active resistance. Those laws were variously enforced in the provinces; in some areas religion was actively banned and churches desecrated; in others Catholic devotion was tolerated. (Graham Greenes novel The Power and the Glory treats of this era and EW himself discussed the Mexican situation in his economo-political travel book Robbery Under Law.)

228 a tiger cat
It is not clear which species this is, but it could be an ocelot.

228 facts about themselves which fellow travellers distribute so freely in American railway trains
Charles, being what is thought to be a typically reserved Englishman, would not feel disposed to discuss personal matters with strangers. Americans, more confident in themselves and more immediately friendly, are not so constrained.

230 Regency four-poster
a canopied bed of the Regency period (1811-1820)

230 Caroline
There is a distinct possibility that Charles is not the father of the baby. Celias calling her Caroline would therefore be an additional irritation since Caroline is the feminine equivalent of Charles. This is maybe why he asks her Why did you call it that? in such a disengaged tone. Celia in response prefers to keep up a facade of domestic harmony.

232 Emden
Sir Joseph Emden is a fictional figure (I think).

232 Country Life
a popular and successful magazine which deals with good living in the countryside. It has been published since 1897.

232 Georgian Society
Actually called the Georgian Group, this is a society established in 1937 for the express purpose of preserving as much as possible of the architecture and artefacts of the Georgian period, i.e. 1714-1830, the period of the first four kings named George. Some of EWs friends, including Robert Byron, helped to found the Group. There actually is a Georgian Society in Ireland.
Since the date of this conversation between Charles and Celia is 1936, a year before the Group was founded, EW has perhaps committed an anachronism; but he might easily have defended himself by saying that he had created an imaginary association.

233 he settled for two thousand pounds out of court
This unknown girl had sued Mulcaster for breach of promise of marriage, a tort which no longer exists in England. Mulcasters case obviously had not been strong enough to stand up in court and in desperation he had been considering renewing the engagement. Though this outcome seems bizarre to us, it sometimes happened in cases where the man feared the loss of the case, simply because the expense of paying the resulting damages might be far greater than he could tolerate. One cringes at the thought of such a marriage. A settlement was much preferable, of course, if it was cheap enough.

235 on coming aboard
Since I put this website on the internet, a number of correspondents have written to ask me which liner it was that the Ryders and Julia travelled on. EW wrote BR in 1944, and by that time he had made, on my reckoning, two transatlantic trips. His trip to British Guiana in 1932-3 was hardly a luxury trip (he embarked on the SS Ingoma), but in 1938, on his way to Mexico, he travelled to New York on the RMS Aquitania, a liner of great luxuriousness. No biographer appears to be able to identify the liner on which he returned, but small hints suggest that it may have been RMS Queen Mary. The description which EW gives in BR fits the Queen Mary very well. The liner is now a tourist fixture at Long Beach, California, and its art deco flavour has been largely preserved.

235 on the fringe of the Government 
EW does not make Rexs political position entirely clear. Flirting with both communists and fascists seems a remarkable double error, and revolutionary speeches of any kind would not impress his party leaders. One might have thought he stood with the politically isolated Winston Churchill in his apprehension of Nazi Germany were it not for these revolutionary and extreme flirtations.

235 Tatler
a periodical fascinating to the class of people of whose activities in high society it gave details

236 vast bronze gates whose ornament was like the trade mark of a cake of soap which had been used once or twice
In the revised edition of BR (1960), EW changed this description of the bronze gates to on which paper-thin Assyrian animals cavorted. In fact the Queen Mary, which I am assuming is the liner Charles is travelling on, had distinctive bronze doors into the first class lounge, but the animals on them were from classical mythology, Europa and her bull and Arion and his dolphin among them.

236 the colour of blotting paper
Blotting paper can of course be any colour; but the commonest colours in England then were pink and white (and they still are now). I fancy pink, but, perhaps disappointingly, the actual colour on the Queen Mary was beige.

237 biscuit-coloured wood
Once one knows that these walls consisted of imitation wood, a kind of plastic, one can easily account for the disgust that one senses is permeating EWs description of the decor.

237 square blocks of stuffing
The chairs in the first class lounge of the Queen Mary did have this shape, then considered modern and chic.

237 It seems a lap to me.
i.e. the lap of luxury. Julia uses a childish abbreviation of a common cliché.

239 la Gioconda
another name for Mona Lisa, the title of Leonardo da Vincis painting

239 the sound of lyres and flutes
This is a quotation from a passage describing Leonardo's picture of Mona Lisa in Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) by Sir Walter Pater (1839-1894), the burden of which is that the woman we see in the painting is timeless and all-knowing. Julia, thinks Charles, has been changed more by the passage of time than Pater says the Mona Lisa has.

240 friend of the dipso brother
The fact that Celia can so cruelly refer to Sebastian like this indicates how much of his past Charles has kept from her, unless of course she is gratuitously wounding Charles, which seems unlikely at this juncture.

240 She used to be a girl friend of Boys.
Of course she wasn't but Boy has his own unreal estimate of his capabilities. It is perhaps surprising that an intelligent woman like Celia should automatically believe her brother.

241 designing scenery for the films
The 1930s was a period when spectacular design and décor was encouraged by movies of increasing confidence and magnificence, to reach a peak perhaps with Gone with the Wind (1940).

241 two Hollywood magnates
By 1936 the Hollywood studio system was fully developed and its dominance in the world of cinema complete. Just a few men owned all the major studios and made the important decisions.

241 In sixteenth-century Venice it would have been a somewhat different shape.
The restraints on forming a swan from ice would certainly have given it a bulkier shape than realism demanded. But it is not realism that Charles thinks is lacking; he knows that an idealised representation by a Renaissance artist would have displayed extended curving lines and a heightened sense of drama. The swan would not be merely a dull representation.

241 Here is Father Christmas.
Father Christmas is the old English equivalent of the modern American Santa Claus. They are much the same today, but originally Father Christmas wore furs and green clothes and was a cheerful winter visitor to northern European homes.

241 Dear Lady Celia
This is the first time we become aware that Celia is entitled to call herself Lady. Since the daughters of viscounts are not entitled to call themselves Lady (they are mere Honourables) and we know that Mulcaster has the title of viscount, the facts must be that Boy and Celias father is still alive and he is an earl, marquess or duke. In fact, Celia herself has mentioned on page 221 that her parents are both alive, though we are not told her fathers title.
Those unfamiliar with British customs may need to be told that Celias rank (and any wifes rank) confers no title on her husband. (So Charles is not a lord by marriage!) She may, however, still call herself Lady.
Some ladies marrying peers below their rank still claimed the rank bestowed on them by their parentage rather than adopt that given by their husband, though this was not procedurally correct. After her husband was made a peer, Lady Diana Cooper preferred on formal social occasions still to be reckoned a dukes daughter rather than a viscounts wife. Her hostesses ignored this preference at their peril. (A piquant point is that she was almost certainly not the 8th Duke of Rutland's daughter but the offspring of her mothers long-term lover. The Duke nevertheless accepted and loved her without demur.)

243 Tanner half a dollar
Slang for English coins of the period. A tanner was a sixpenny piece, 2½p in modern currency. Half a dollar was slang for half a crown (two shillings and sixpence, or 12½p) because for some length of time the exchange rate was fixed at around four U.S. dollars to the pound.

244 Six weeks in America has given me an absolute phobia of ice.
Englishmen and women often dislike their drinks being served ice-cold. Charles himself has already had difficulty getting his whisky-and-water at his preferred temperature.

244 orange-blossom
The speaker means that Celia has in some way retained her bridal innocence and enthusiasm. Charles knows otherwise. Orange blossom was frequently used to decorate a brides hair. (Julia used it too when she married Rex.)

245 the Captains table
Only socially important people achieved the honour of being invited to sit at the Captains table for dinner.

245 Episcopalian Bishop
Charles believes this to be a redundant expression because he thinks all bishops must be episcopalian (the word means pertaining to a bishop). In fact Episcopal Church is a common name for the branch of the Anglican communion in the United States (and Scotland).

245 ping-pong
i.e. what today is grandly called table tennis and is a serious worldwide sport. Ping-Pong was originally a trademark.

245 Captain Foulenough in person
a reference to a character in a fantasy column of considerable humour and depth which ran six days a week for over fifty years in the Daily Express of London under the title By the Way. The author, John Cameron Audrieu Bingham Michael Morton (J.B.Morton), wrote under the nom-de-plume of Beachcomber. Among the hundreds of other characters who appeared in his column were the judge Mr Justice Cocklecarrot, the prima ballerina Sonia Tumbelova and her partner Serge Trouserin, the diva Emilia Rustiguzzi, and the Hollywood movie producer Sol Hogwasch, whose main difficulty in planning a movie on the life of Johann Sebastian Bach was to find someone to compose the music.
Captain Foulenough was a dastardly opportunist who was behind many roguish plots to enrich or advance himself or to insult a pretty woman. He was not a cartoon character - the column was entirely textual. His character may be discerned in this extract from his autobiography :

"I shall never forget my mothe'rs horror and my fathers cry of joy when, for the first time in my life, I said angrily to my father, That's not the hand I dealt you, Dad."

246 Popeye
a character in newspaper and movie cartoons, famous for his spinach-derived strength

246 Barcelona
This is the period of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Barcelona was a centre of republican strength, but already their forces were suffering from the different goals of the disparate political groups which supported the government. The Anarchists (who were strong in Barcelona itself) and the Communists distrusted each other as much as they did the Fascist enemy, and both of them undermined the government they were supposed to be defending.

246 There is no fundamental diversity between the two ideologies.
Only a committee of ignorant intellectuals who lacked all political sense and practical experience could reach this ludicrous conclusion, or think it valuable to unite two sets of revolutionaries.

246 personalities have put asunder 
The Bishop uses a phrase from the marriage service, but reverses it, leaves out God and puts humanity in His place instead. An apt symbol.

247 The language of Reason and Brotherhood The speech of the coming century is in thoughts not in words.
The Bishops utter fatuity is stressed in these high-sounding but essentially meaningless words. It is perhaps a pity that Charles did not suggest that the Bishop address his dining companions only in thoughts. EW was especially caustic about such trashy sentiments.

247 Lear on the heath
In Shakespeare's play King Lear the king is betrayed by the two daughters he had expected to shelter him with some state; their ingratitude drives him mad, and rather than house with them he braves a thunderstorm in the open air.

247 Duchess of Malfi bayed by madmen
In John Websters play The Duchess of Malfi her brother, in revenge for an unequal secret marriage that she has made and which he has discovered, deliberately torments the Duchess. One of his pleasant ideas is to lock her up and introduce madmen from the local asylum to be her companions.

247 I summoned cataracts and hurricanoes
This is a reference to a speech from Act 3 Scene 2 of King Lear, the storm scene :

"Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!"

248 Like King Lear Lear, Kent, Fool
three characters who appear in the thunderstorm scene of the play. Lear is temporarily deranged; Kent, though banished, is trying to look after him while disguised as a lowly servant; the Fool is a natural simpleton who sees deeply into the truth of things. Quite what Charles means by saying that he, Julia and Celia are all three of them is not easy to decide : it might make an absorbing pastime for a couple of hours to disentangle the meaning. He himself says he doubts if he could explain the comment. Let us just say that he is stressing their isolation and disorientation, physical and psychological.

249 I didn't know a ship of this size could pitch like this
The Queen Mary had a dreadful reputation for moving about like this even in the calmest weather.

250 salmon kedgeree and cold Bradenham ham
Kedgeree is a dish of British origin supposedly based on Indian cuisine, consisting of spiced rice with flaked smoked fish and crumbled hard-boiled eggs. Nothing like it exists in India.
Bradenham ham is an unsmoked cured ham originally produced in Wiltshire and named after the last Lord Bradenham. Its recipe dates from the eighteenth century. It has a delicate, sweet flavour owing to its immersion in molasses, coriander and other spices. True Bradenham ham is hung and matured for around six months so that its skin turns black.

250 Muscat grapes
grapes, red or white, often used for making sweet muscatel wines

251 cellophane
a thin transparent material made from wood pulp which was used for wrapping gifts and other articles

254 the Channel
i.e. the English Channel. There are many sea-crossings to France every day.

254 Gulf of Lyons
a large bay of the Mediterranean Sea easing into France. Encyclopedias now recommend us to spell it Lion, though many of us were taught at school to call this large bay the Gulf of Lyons. It is nowhere near the city of Lyons (French : Lyon).

256 succubus
Charles is thinking of the dreams he had of Julia the previous night, when she appeared in a hundred fantastic and terrible and obscene forms. Clearly at least some of these dreams were sexual in nature : a succubus was believed in the Middle Ages to be a female demon who had intercourse with men while they were asleep.

258 Cordelia's in Spain with an ambulance
She is presumably looking after the wounded of the Spanish Civil War (as indeed in real life did EW's sister-in-law Gabriel Herbert, later Dru). Cordelia certainly helped on the side of the Fascists since she stays on for a short time when the war is over and is decorated by the new government. EW would have enjoyed putting her on that side since nearly all the intelligentsia of Britain supported the losing side, the republicans (or Loyalists). Numbers of them went out to fight with varied qualifications, unquestioned bravery and notable lack of success.
EW was nevertheless very cool towards Franco in his writings and opinions, believing the struggle in Spain to be a cloak under which the Germans and the Russians fought a preliminary war by proxy.

258 a character in Chekhov
The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) portrayed the futile and lonely lives of people who find it difficult to communicate with one another. They are unable to change a society they know to be unfair and in decline. The characters therefore bumble about with a greater or lesser ineffectiveness bordering on comedy.

259 Death, Judgement, Heaven, Hell
known collectively in the Catholic world as the Four Last Things. They would have formed the basis for a course of uncomfortable meditations in Julia's childhood.

261 So at sunset I took formal possession of her as her lover.
EW was dissatisfied with this paragraph. It is certainly lacking in passion. In his revision of BR, he removed most of it and substituted a paragraph which turns out to be even more dispassionate :

"It was no time for the sweets of luxury; they would come, in their season, with the swallow and the lime-flowers. Now on the rough water there was a formality to be observed, no more. It was as though a deed of conveyance of her narrow loins had been drawn and sealed. I was making my first entry as the freeholder of a property I would enjoy and develop at leisure."

One can understand the wish to change, but perhaps not applaud the result. EW himself complained that the English language did not possess the resources to describe love scenes without either vulgarity or primness.

261 we orphans of the storm
Julia is making a wry joke about a famous movie. Orphans of the Storm, first shown in 1921, was directed by D.W.Griffith and starred Joseph Schildkraut and the Gish sisters, Lilian and Dorothy. It was originally a French play, Les Deux Orphelines, written by Adolphe Philippe d'Ennery and Eugene Cormon and first performed in 1874.
The story of the film (it differs in many details from the play) is about two young orphan girls, close friends but not sisters, who grow up together. One becomes blind and the other looks after her until one day the blind one gets lost and is taken away by a vicious old woman who wants to make her beg for money. All is not well for the sighted girl, either, for she falls in love with an aristocrat who is likely to be a victim of the guillotine (this is the time of the French Revolution). The film's title may seem more suited to the situation of Charles and Julia than it is to the two girls, but the storms of life that the girls in the film go through are frequent, massive and life-threatening.

262 cocktails
The practice of having cocktails in social groups was becoming as well-established in Europe as it had long been in the United States, where the term had originated over one hundred years before. It became popular in London in the 1920s to have cocktail parties even instead of balls, according to Patrick Balfour in his interesting study of the twenties and thirties, Society Racket. Alec Waugh, EWs brother, claimed to have invented them as an alternative to teas in the late afternoon.


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