Laughter in the Bath

I started this post last night because of something that made me laugh while reading in the bath. It was about people in a boarding house during the war: "Mr Thwaites...spent much of the time writing embittered letters in the Lounge. These, after he had put on his overcoat and cap, he took round to the Post Office and posted in the most acid way. He passed pillar-boxes on the way, but did not trust them, as not going to the root of the matter."  

That last bit is what elicited the chuckle: Mr Thwaites is a thoroughly nasty man, but I admit I share this trait with him. I too hesitate to consign a letter to a pillar-box, much as I like them—and we even have an octagonal Victorian one five minutes' walk away, the VR elegantly adorning its front, the (admittedly small) mouth leading to a perfectly responsible cavity emptied regularly by employees of the Post Office. It was apposite that I was reading this in last night's bath; earlier in the day (which of course was Sunday) I'd posted a letter in a box that proclaimed its last collection was at 5:30 pm, but "there may be" other collections during the day. That half-promise was annoyingly vague. Immediately after dropping the envelope in, I was assailed by regret: surely it would have been better to go to the post office next morning, Monday, when my letter would have been pretty imminently dispatched, rather than leave it in a box which quite possibly would not be emptied all day. (My regret would have been greater if I'd remembered then what I've only just recalled as I write, that I could have gone to the Post Office anyway because it's open on Sundays now! This is quite a recent development; perhaps a hearkening back to earlier times, for example 1841, when post offices were open on Sundays—except during morning religious services—and from 6:00am to 10:00 pm during the week.)

All this reminds me of a British book about a British man in England, who for a reason I forget was looking at or thinking about a pillar box. It was seen from his point of view, through his thoughts. Because I was reading the American edition, I found him thinking about a "mailbox" instead. This man would never have thought that, and I'd bet millions that the author didn't write that. The editorial tampering destroyed the credibility of the character and his world.....I'd better stop, this is a hobby-horse of mine. Of course, after years of living in the States, I learnt to say "mailbox" myself, instead of "pillar box" or "post box." Now that I'm back in England I find I've sometimes forgotten the vocabulary I grew up with.

But to get back to the bath, where I laughed, recognizing myself in the ghastly Mr Thwaites.  He comes from Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton (1947); it is bleakly funny, and brilliant. Hamilton is like a sort of grimmer Pym (and this is an accolade, for I deeply admire Barbara Pym, and she can often, beneath the surface cosiness, be very dark—see Quartet in Autumn). Slaves of Solitude is about a disparate group of people who for one reason or another—bombed out of their London flats, suddenly impoverished—have to live in a boarding house. Trapped there, enduring ghastly communal meals rife with awkward and even cruel conversations, they struggle through their days as best they can. I'm only a third of the way in, but I am awed by the writing of this author whose work I've only now discovered, on a friend's recommendation.

In fact, she lent me her copy; I hope when I give it back it won't be too wrinkly. I approach a bath like Dodie Smith's Cassandra in I Capture the Castle: "I bask first, wash second, and then read as long as the hot water holds out."  Unlike her, I have the luxury of being able to top up the water greedily to extend the wonderful that the blessings of hot baths, and of books whether in or out of them, never grow stale.