This was my word of the week.
It’s funny, because I don’t think of the verb when I see this word – I go straight to the noun. To me, the bird, as they say, is the word. But of course, as my friendly Googly word of the day dictionary tells me, the verb sense was first attested in the early 1800s, as young roister-doisters and Pinks of the Ton decided a bit of a frolicsome skite might be considered not altogether too shabby in breaking the tedium of one’s day, doncherknow. In between getting one’s neckcloth exactly so, parading up and down Bond Street, going to one’s club, or heading off to Jackson’s to watch the Corinthians pummel each other in a gentlemanly fashion, naturally.
Honestly. It’s as though Bertie Wooster decided he felt like having a jab at the Oxford English Dictionary, saw a bird flying past, thought it looked as though it was having a bit of a good time, and with tongue firmly gripped in corner of mouth, painstakingly wrote one definition out, then popped off for a spot of lunch and a nap before beating back the Marriage Prospects with a stick at Almacks, leaving poor Jeeves to sort the rest of the bloody thing out.
The noun of skylark, meanwhile, has been lurking around the nation of shopkeepers since Oliver Cromwell decided ‘roundhead’ was an inspiring name for blokes who didn’t think much of long curly wigs and lots of lace, and decided to show jolly old England what could only be called his own version of skylarking.
The bird in question is in fact a “a brown-speckled European lark, Alauda arvensis, famed for its melodious song”. Arvensis means “of the field”, and Pliny, a.k.a. Pliny the Elder, or Gaius Plinius Secundus, the Robin to Emperor Vespasian’s Batman, believed the word Alauda (Latin for lark) was in actuality of Celtic origins.
As he was a complete clever clogs, I see no reason to disbelieve him.
Pliny the Elder died on an infamous date – August 25, AD 79; and he died doing an act of goodness and bravery – unsurprising, from the sidekick of an Emperor known for doing more than simply fiddle-arsing about whilst Rome burned (yes, I’m talking to you, Nero). He was attempting to rescue, by ship, a friend and his family after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius had decimated Pompeii.
It is believed all souls aboard perished in the attempt.
I am a big fan of Tacitus, for several odd reasons, and Tacitus is a big fan of Pliny the Elder’s. So Pliny the Elder is alright with me. Plus, he wasn’t too much of a Senatorial snob to dismiss the Celts as ignorant peasants – another point in his favour. Thirdly, he wrote an enormous work of natural history, Naturalis Historia, which became the model by which all encyclopædia were designed and measured.
Fourthly… Pliny said something rather wonderful.
Pliny the Elder said this:
There is no book so bad that some good can not be got out of it.
Many people would think having an incurable disease would be so bad that no good could be got out of it. Many people have felt it is not only appropriate, but almost their civic duty, to say this to me, over the fifteen (fifteen! How time flies when you’re not having fun) years since I first started exhibiting symptoms of Young Onset Parkinson’s. I was 29 when it made its stage debut; I am now 44, so I believe this arithmetic is correct. I am only thinking out loud about it at this precise moment, because in writing these extremely naked words, it is the first instance in a long, long, time I have actually stopped to realise just how many years I’ve been lugging this bloody thing around for.
I wonder what Pliny would have made of Parkinson’s?
Probably a paper hat, or possibly a tent.
Maybe even a boat.
I wonder, if it had happened to him, how he would have dealt with it.
I wonder, if he had woken up one morning with half his face dropping off down the side of his neck, if he would have panicked. If when his legs wouldn’t stop moving around, whether he would have given them a sternly stoic talking to, and thumped off to defeat the Visigoths, or whoever was hellbent on taking out Rome that week. If Pliny would have panicked when his body decided it didn’t feel like moving for an hour or so, but instead decided to just stand there, while his brain screamed at it, or when someone inevitably accused him of being a cold-faced bitch, because concentrating on more than one person at a time and maintaining facial expression is hard, whether he would have just bopped them with his sword, and uttered some pithy Latin epithet, the equivalent of ‘sod you, Jack’?
I think he would. Because Gaius Plinius Secundus, all round Roman rockstar, knew that every cloud has a silver lining. He knew every book has a little bit of excitement and knowledge in it, even if the excitement is that the damn boring thing is finally finished.
Some days, I do not think much good can be got out of this god-awful disease. Some days, it’s hard as hell. Especially those days when one finds out there is another steaming pile of manure on top of the disease dung-heap.
But on others, I understand, like Pliny, in all my naked clarity, just what it has given me. How much tenderness it has granted. How much grace. How many people of goodness, and love and hope, whose physical pain and soul-twists are far harder to bear than my own light load, it has given me the gift of knowing.
How many skylarks it has brought into my purview, skiting, chaffing, and seeing the good in the worst of the world book.
Even if sometimes the only way I can envision them is as a photograph of an iron bird, suspended from a branch in my own backyard, from my bed.
That doesn’t mean they, and I, don’t fly.