Tuesday 19 November 2019

Lay of the Land: Savour a season of swift change over coffee

Stock image
Stock image

Fiona O'Connell

Whatever about the journey that led me to this lovely country town, probably the most talked about travels of all time are those of a certain Lemuel Gulliver that were published on this day in 1726. Just eight years short of three centuries, Gulliver's Travels has never been out of print.

This part novel, part adventure, part prose satire is often categorised as a children's book, yet adults also adore it. That giant of 20th Century literature and political prophet, George Orwell, confessed that he read it repeatedly and would put it on any list of "six books which were to be preserved when all others were destroyed".

Though it's not just today but this colourful time of year in general that is infused with Swift's spirit, given he was born on November 30, 1667 and died on October 19, 1745. He was aptly autumnal and even wintry in ways, with even those who knew him best baffled by his contradictions. One friend described his character as "exceedingly strange, various and perplexed".

For Swift was both a free spirit yet fiercely loyal to those he loved. He sought financial security yet shunned fame and even sabotaged success. Certainly, Gulliver's Travels was published anonymously while his pamphlets made him powerful enemies who could block potential appointments.

Both his genius and supposed misanthropy surely stem from his bizarre upbringing. It is debatable that the man who died seven months before Swift was born was his real father. Even stranger, Swift's wet nurse abducted him when he was a baby and took him to England, yet his family did not object. Indeed, his mother promptly moved to England when he was finally brought back to Dublin

Stella was undoubtedly the love of his life, beside whom he is buried. But Swift was also close to another much younger woman, Esther Vanhomrigh. He may not have offered her commitment but his term of endearment for her gave the world the beautiful name of Vanessa. The secret lovers communicated mostly by letter, using the word 'coffee' as code for copulation. Rendering their correspondence comically risque: "I wish I were to walk with you 50 times about your garden, and then drink your coffee," goes one steamy snippet. "I drank no coffee since I left you... there is none worth drinking but yours," swoons another.

At one point, the absence of this seriously stimulating drink interferes with Swift's work: "I am not cheerful enough to write, for I believe coffee once a week is necessary to do that."

Making me suspect that Swift might stay put if he travelled through time to this country town. Because with so many cafes serving coffee, love wouldn't be short and sweet so much as swift yet sure to last.

Sunday Independent

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