Wordsworth's Socks


Before there was central heating and global warming there were bedsocks and winceyette. There were stone hot water bottles and there were warming pans you put hot ashes in at night then polished next day. I never had a warming pan. I never had a feather bed either, but I slept in one once when I was small, a deep trough I remember thinking I'd never get out of. I remember being held up to say hello to one of my grandfathers when he was dying in that bed, Hello Granddad, then being sent downstairs by one of the aunts who thought it wasn't nice for a child to be in a room with someone who was dying, though I was disappointed to be missing something.

Before there were water closets there were earth closets that smelled so bad they were as far away from the house as possible and if you tried to hold your breath and run there, take your knickers down, climb up on to the wooden board all without taking a breath, tough, you couldn't and you'd gasp the worst of it. Small pieces of newspaper were speared on a nail. When there were earth closets there was also a man with a horse and cart to shovel them out. I never saw him but I always used the left hand hole as that made his job easier. He must have got used to it.

Before there was electricity there were paraffin lamps and everywhere smelled like it. I don't know what people did in the long winter evenings by paraffin lamp as I was in bed. My father would know, he goes way further back, so far back he had ringlets when he was two, but he won't talk about it, he only wants to talk about a new condensing boiler for his central heating.

Before there were fitted kitchens there were more shelves and hooks, and sometimes dining rooms and sideboards. We had a sideboard that was too long when we moved house so my father sawed a third off the end. Shorter, it was less important but now I look back, I'm impressed: he must have fixed the end and two legs back on.

Before there were taps there were wells. Even when taps came in, you still walked to the Spring Wells to dip a can among the bubbles because tapwater didn't taste right. There were no washing machines, there were coppers and dollies and mangles and wringers and you washed on Monday even when it rained. There was a gas ring you could put under the copper. It was also before Health and Safety but I never knew anyone who burned their house down though it wasn't hard to mangle a finger.

Before there were fleeces there were jumpers. All the women knitted and if you weren't knitting you had your arms out aching while someone wound a skein off them. You even had to knit at school so they could teach you how to turn a heel on a pair of socks you had to wear. The trick was not to take your hand off the needle when you slipped the wool round but I never got the knack and gave up knitting as soon as my mother finished the socks.

I know if I could get hold of a pair of knitted bedsocks, the sort that woke you up not because you'd gone cold but because one had come off and you felt lopsided, I'd remember a lot more. With a pair of bedsocks like that, you could walk straight back into the past. Socks are why I go to Grasmere. Never mind the coat that someone even more famous lent him, never mind the brooch that Dorothy is said to have given to somebody, what I go for are Wordsworth's socks WW embroidered on the tops, though the stitching isn't as smart as the knitting. You should see the knitting, so fine and even and the heels perfectly turned: you can't imagine anyone being able to see that well by candlelight in the long winter evenings. I often visit the socks, working on a way to winkle them out of the display case. I know if I could get them on, I'd be off up the hills: the stuff I'd tell you then, head full of metres and rhymes, but I'd get it right. If Wordsworth had actually looked instead of wandering around with his head in the clouds then cribbing off his sister, if he had actually got down on his knees and thought about them, he would have seen that daffodils were a creamy-greeny-yellow, very quiet and not at all golden. They say poems can't change the world but that one did. After he said gold, plant breeders went off in a frenzy of mutations to make those brassy-toothachey-municipal yellows that weary every March or maybe February what with global warming, which proves some things weren't all that bad before.

       Jane Routh 2005