On Christmas Day I sat by the fire in my house in France and read a charming little book, Tea With Walter de la Mare, by Russell Brain, published in 1957. Walter de la Mare, who died age 83 in 1956, was a poet, novelist, and short-story writer who was once very famous and popular, but of whom I don’t suppose many people under the age of 60 have heard. Russell Brain was one of the most prominent neurologists of his day, whose textbook went through nine editions.
The very title evokes a long-lost world, for who would now bother, as Brain did, to conjure up the conversations he had at afternoon tea with an author? Who, indeed, recalls the genteel ritual of afternoon tea? But Brain defends what he calls tea-talk:
A tea-talk is by its nature limited in time; after dinner you can talk all through the night, if you like; but not after tea. A tea talk has something of the restrictions of an art-form, and the transience of mortality.
I was immersing myself in the refinements of their conversation—inter alia, Walter de la Mare wished that someone would write the most vulgar novel possible so that no one would then feel obliged to go beyond it—when I became aware of the distant yelping of a dog. It sounded to me like that of a dog that had lost its way and was calling for its master, so I left the tea table of my imagination and went looking for it.
About 300 yards from our house down a sloping meadow is a small river. On the far bank was a sight that horrified me.
The dog, a medium-size brown and white brindled mongrel, was not in the least distressed; rather he was excited. A companion dog, much larger than he, was in the process of killing quite a large wild boar by tearing at its neck, in which there was already a large crimson gash. The boar was larger, or at least heavier, than the dog, but did not have the tusks that so often tear open hunting dogs’ abdomens and make it a formidable foe.+
The large dog was clearly getting the better of things, hanging on to and pulling with all its might at the open wound. Like a bloodthirsty spectator at a boxing match, who hopes for a really savage and perhaps even fatal denouement to a fight, the brindled dog ran round and round the scene, yelping excitedly, as if to encourage his companion. “Kill him, kill him!” the man next to me at the only professional boxing match I have ever attended screamed at a boxer who was clearly winning his fight, and I do not think that he spoke metaphorically: The dog reminded me of that episode a third of a century ago.