I’ve had a couple of reminders recently of William Boot. Boot, you might know, even if you haven’t read Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, is the nature writer who, owing to a case of mistaken identity, is sent off to be a war correspondent. The first reminder came in Ground Work: Writings on Places and People (Jonathan Cape), an excellent new anthology edited by Tim Dee. One of Dee’s contributors, Adam Thorpe, writes of a potholed track he used to play on as a child:
“My adventuring seas were a mundane puddle. ‘Puddle’ sounds diminutive, too like ‘piddle’; the language lacks a word for something bigger, unless we revive ‘plash’. My plash filled the chasm of an exaggerated rut…”
Boot’s most famous line, of course, was: “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole…” It’s a line nodded to constantly on social media by Sam Leith, literary editor of The Spectator, whose Twitter handle is @questingvole.
The other reminder of the unworldly Boot came when I was given one of the risk-assessment forms that media organisations (or their insurers) insist these days that travel writers complete before going off on a trip. Now, health-and-safety people get a bad rap on the basis that they’re humourless. This form suggests otherwise. It suggests the compiler had not only read Scoop but had slipped in a little homage. It has the kind of instructions that would be indispensable to a contributor who doesn’t get up to town to often. It says, among other things:
When using trains or buses they [journalists] will check the front of the vehicle for the journey information to ensure they do not board the wrong one.
Journalists will ensure they do not step too close to the platform edge when waiting for the train and will mind any gap between the platform and the train when boarding.