FOR Simon Barnes the sacred combe is the Luangwa Valley in Zambia. It is a place to which he returns regularly, sometimes for as long as two months. Here he experiences a ‘wildness’ that he feels is essential to happiness, and, indeed, humanness. In the combe Barnes finds patience and serenity, which are not generally aspects of his character. He describes himself as one who suffers ‘the agonies of the damned at any hint of delay’.
He also discovers that he can be brave although he dismisses this as hardly worthy of the word. It is not brave, he says, to feel and overcome fear if one sleeps in a tent, as he does, in lion and elephant country. A chapter of the book is entitled ‘Some African Animals that Can Kill You’. It consists of 18 words, one of which is human. Also listed are lion, leopard, hippo, buffalo, Nile crocodile, black rhino, white rhino, puff adder, black mamba, elephant, mosquito tsetse. You need to be brave then.
This list is typical of Barnes’s informal style. The Sacred Combe reads like a collection of blogs. I think that is exactly what it is. Looking on his website, his most recent blogs about Luangwa are dated November 2016. One, posted on the 2nd describes him looping round a trio of lions on his way back to camp.
Barnes is a prolific writer. He spent over 30 years on The Times (London) as a sportswriter and wildlife columnist. He has written more than 20 books. So writing comes easily to him. But what he has attempted in this book is beyond reportage. Barnes links his love of the African valley with his memories of childhood. He writes of the books he read and the heroes he chose and comes to see that his boyhood and Luangwa represent a similar type of lost innocence.
They are redolent of greenwood, an Eden, a time when everything was simple. Sitting on a riverbank, mere yards from three replete lionesses, all four of them dangling their legs over the water, reminds Barnes of a family picnic by the river Eden, in which the water sparkled and he, as an eight year old, swam. The problem is that Barnes could not swim at that time so he knows the idyllic memory is false. Whereas the present can still be perfect if he goes to his combe. It was sublime on 20th November when he was stopped in his tracks by a small herd of elephants and had to wait patiently for them to move on, which in the end they didn’t.
Barnes compares his first visit to the valley, when elephants ate the roof of his house, with falling in love. He suggests that the marvellous moment cannot be sustained but that returning as he has many times to the beloved place enables him to get to know and love it better and more deeply, even if not so ecstatically. Rather like his love for his wife, Cindy, to whom he has been married for over thirty years.
Luangwa remains as it is only because of conservation. This is fed by tourism. It is as unreal a world as that of Robin Hood or Mowgli. The ‘lions and tigers and bears, oh my’ may be fierce and unpredictable but they are preserved in a wildlife park rather than roaming free throughout the world. Those, which are not shot by guns are shot by cameras. It’s a bit like WestWorld with no robots. Nevertheless the combe, enclosed by escarpments, is still there and provides a safe-haven for wildlife and troubled humans. And you can go there too for about €8500 in September 2018. Unfortunately Barnes’s, 2017 trip is already fully booked. Or you could stick to your own sacred combe in West Cork, perhaps?
Reclaimed, by Irishmen such as Yeats, from the canon of English Literature, Jonathan Swift has become an icon of Irishness and Stubbs’s book provides an insight into the Dubliner who insisted he was English.
In his introduction to this excellent biography John Stubbs is at pains to point out the complexity and contradictions in both the character and the life of Jonathan Swift. Like Yeats, who was born two centuries later, Swift believed in the desirability of a pastoral society run by landed gentry and the Anglican church. He abhorred the burgeoning urban financial centre of London, almost as if its participants were usurers in the temple. Ordained in a high church tradition, Swift despised low, dissenting, Protestantism, as well, of course, as Catholicism.
Arriving from Dublin to London in 1710 Swift, at 43, soon became an important ‘spin doctor’ to Queen Anne’s chief minister, Robert Harley. His work consisted of briefing against members of the former Whig government, which he did with alacrity and vitriol. These unfortunates included the victor of the Battle of Blenheim, the Duke of Marlborough; the former Lord Treasurer, Earl of Godolphin and the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Marquess of Wharton.
Speaking with a patrician voice from which nearly all traces of Irishness had been meticulously eradicated and wearing the orthodox dress of a clerical gentleman, Swift’s impressive public persona disguised altogether another personality. Known to intimates as Presto, Swift was an incorrigible mischief-maker. There were many more than one Swift.
Although marrying neither, he had two close lady friends at this time – one in Dublin, ‘Stella’ (Esther Johnson) and one in London, ‘Vanessa’ (Esther Vanhomrigh). His comportment towards them was respectful and he relied on them for intellectual as well as emotional support. Another, darker side of Swift emerges too – consorting with prostitutes and his scurrilous writings, such as ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’: a poem dealing with, among other sordid matters, the odours and stains of feminine underwear.
Swift was a stickler for personal hygiene; a habit unusual for the period and he exercised regularly, walking and riding. But his health was not good, suffering as he did from debilitating deafness and often confined to bed by extended fits of vertigo and tinnitus. This ailment was to plague him until the end of his life; exacerbated by several strokes which left him mute as well. But before Stubbs reaches the endpoint he offers over 600 pages documenting Swift’s political and writing career, his avoidance of marriage and his position as a revered Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.
Obfuscated by lack of evidence, and the differing stories that Swift himself told, is the strange mystery of Whitehaven, Cumbria. As an infant, it seems, Swift was taken, perhaps kidnapped, by his wet nurse, to the small English port. He stayed there for some years, maybe two, maybe three.
On his return, his father having died before his birth and his mother now impoverished, Jonathan was brought up in the Dublin household of his Uncle Godwin. He seems to have been denied affection but was, unsurprisingly, precocious.
It is tempting for biographers and critics to apply modern psychoanalytical techniques to Swift’s life and work and to trace his peculiarities to early emotional trauma, or indeed, a position on the autism spectrum. Medical approaches have suggested that he suffered from syphilis, contracted from streetwalkers. Although, as his father is recorded to have died from this disease it may be that it was congenital. Stubbs, like others, indulges in this kind of speculation but always gives the caveat that these conclusions are anachronistic and thus unreliable.
Nevertheless it is disturbing to read that after an inauspicious start in life the boy went sent to boarding school in Kilkenny aged “about six”. It is difficult to see how the child, Jonathan, could become an emotionally stable adult.
With an education in the classics under his belt Swift arrived at Trinity College, Dublin in 1682. According to his autobiographical accounts he did not prosper and contemporary college records show many instances of the undergraduate being fined for misdemeanours. The ‘Presto’ side of his character was in ascendant.
In 1689, just too early to take his master’s degree, Swift, along with many other students and faculty, fled to England. The Williamite war had revived, among Protestants, fears of a massacre similar to that carried out by Catholics in 1641. Now 21, Swift became secretary to Sir William Temple, a retired diplomat, who was to familiarise the young man with the mores of English society and politics.
By 1692 Swift was in possession of an MA from Oxford although he had to wait until 1702 to attain a doctorate in divinity from Trinity in Dublin. In between he took holy orders in the Church of Ireland and was allocated a parish north of Belfast Lough. At this time, and in this location, the role of the Established Church was under siege from Ulster Presbyterians.
In 1696 Swift, perhaps bored and disillusioned, returned to the hearth of Sir William at Moor Park in Surrey. When his mentor died in 1699 Swift was left adrift until becoming private chaplain to the Earl of Berkeley, who was immediately appointed as a lord justice in Ireland. Swift reluctantly returned to the city of his birth. Here he pursued his clerical ambitions; the path was rocky but eventually he found himself with a seat as a prebendary canon in St Patrick’s Cathedral.
For the next few years Swift continued to hold onto his benefices in Ireland, as well as his position in the retinue of the Berkeley. He travelled to and from England crossing the Irish Sea, always expecting it to swallow him whole. He rode and walked in both countries, visiting his parishes, his relatives and his patron.
He rescued ‘Stella’ from a life of drudgery by settling enough money on her for a move back to Ireland with her friend, Miss Dingley. The two ladies would discreetly follow Swift on his parochial journeys, providing him with companionship. Life was not really too unpleasant.
Then began, in 1710, the four influential years in London. In 1713 Swift was offered, and accepted, the post of senior priest in Dublin, that of Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Strange though it may seem he was disappointed by the appointment, having wanted a prestigious deanery in England. But on the death of Queen Anne in 1714, and the subsequent rise of the Whigs, Swift knew that it was time to go back to Ireland.
Thus Swift’s entered into the church and state politics of his homeland. A nostalgia for an English-country-garden-like Ireland enthralled him. He longed for a “romantic Ireland” that was not “dead and gone” but one that never had nor could exist. Instead he had to engage with the realities of the rise of the Non-Conformists and the Catholics, and to rail against the inadequacy of English policies towards her Irish sister.
He felt obliged, however reluctantly, to rebel against his beloved England, which had served him literally, as well as metaphorically, as a nursery. Ireland, who had birthed and educated him, could now reclaim her son, and, eventually, place the great satirist at the centre of her literary heritage.
Irish-born Stubbs, is well placed to write Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel, as he studied English at Oxford and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge. Historical and political context encourages a greater understanding of Swift’s work and detailed analysis of this work reinforces comprehension of the man. Although 25 pages of notes exemplify his academic background, Stubbs has an accessible style and writes beautifully.
Stubbs, J. Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel. London: Penguin Random House. 2016.
An earlier version of this review appeared in The Irish Examiner, Weekend section pages 33 and 34 on 18 Feb 2017.