Karel Čapek: In the Country

WELL now, take a seat in the train and ride off in any direction, humming a tune to the rattling of the wheels. There will parade the Streets of the Vast Number, the cupolas of gasworks, crossroads of railway-tracks, factories, grave­yards; now strips of green intrude upon the endless city, you see the tramway ter­minus, quiet suburbs, green grass and the first sheep bowed down to the earth in nature's eternal ceremony of feeding. And then, another half-hour, and you are outside the greatest city in the world; you alight at a small station where hospitable people are waiting for you, and you are in the English country.

Where are you to pick words fine enough to portray the quiet and verdant charms of the English countryside? I have been down in Surrey, and up in Essex; I have wandered along roads lined with quickset hedges, sheer quickset hedges which make England the real England, for they enclose, but do not oppress; half-opened gates lead you to ancient avenues of a park deeper than a forest; and here is a red house with high chimneys, a church tower among the trees, a meadow with flocks of cows, a flock of horses which turn their beautiful and solemn eyes upon you; a pathway that seems to be swept as clean as a new pin, velvety pools with nenuphars and sword-lilies, parks, mansions, meadows and meadows, no fields, nothing that might be a shrill reminder of human drudgery; a paradise where the Lord God Himself made paths of asphalt and sand, planted old trees and entwined ivy coverlets for the red houses. My uncle, a Czech farmer, would have shaken his head with disapproval on seeing the red and black flocks of cows on the finest meadows in the world, and would have said: "What a pity to waste such splendid manure." And he would say: "Why don't they sow turnips here, and here again you could have wheat and here potatoes; and here too, I would plant cherry-trees and service-berries instead of this shrubbery, and here clover, and here too, oats, and on that stretch of land corn or rapeseed; why, just look at the clay soil, fit to smear on bread, and they leave it for pastureland."

"You see, Uncle, they don't think it worth the labour; they get their wheat from Australia and sugar from India and potatoes from Africa or wherever it is; yon see, Uncle, these people aren't peasants; this is only a sort of garden." "But you know, my boy," he would say, "I like our way better; it may only be a turnip, but at least you can see the work. But here, why, there's nobody looking after these cows and sheep; it's a wonder they don't get stolen. Good gracious, my boy, there isn't a living soul to be seen here; only over there some one's riding along on a bicycle, and here, look out, another one of those stinking motorcars; my boy, doesn't anyone do any work here?

It would be difficult to explain to my uncle the economic system of England; his hands would itch too much for the heavy plough-handle. The English countryside is not for work; it is for show. It is as green as a park and as immaculate as paradise. I saun­tered along a grassy pathway in Surrey during a tepid shower, among the stems of broom with its yellowish blossom and russet heather which stippled the light ferns; and there was nothing but the sky and round hillocks, for the houses with their inmates are tucked away amid the trees, from which a meal in preparation wafts a cheerful cloudlet. I recall you, good old house with the raftered ceiling and the huge fireplace in which is an oaken table, and tasty is the Guildford beer in clay tankards and the gossip of cheery people over their English bacon and cheese. Once again I thank you and must now pass on. I ambled like a wood-nymph across the Essex paddocks, climbed over a hedge into a seigniorial park, and saw water lilies and gladstonia on a dark pool, danced in the loft a dance which I did not know, climbed up a church tower and ten times a day was amazed at the harmony and perfection of the life with which the Englishman surrounds himself in his home.

The English home, that is tennis and warm water, the gong summoning you to lunch, books, meadows, comfort selected, stabilized and blessed by the centuries, freedom of children and patri­archal disposition of parents, hospitality and a formalism as comfortable as a dressing gown; in brief, the English home is the English home, and therefore I have drawn it from memory together with the cuckoo and the rabbit; inside there lives and writes one of the wisest men in this world, and outside the cuckoo utters its cry as much as thirty times in succession: with this I conclude the tale of the best things in England.

Čapek, Karel: Lettres from England. Translation byl Paul Selves, Geoffrey Bless. London 1945.

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