The Earl Next Door

Montague, our Jack Russell terrier, had a visitor this morning. A sheepdog from the neighboring farm took time off from her daily chores and made her way up the lane to our cottage. A mere quarter of a mile—but what a giant leap into the lap of relative luxury. I wonder about the old lass. You can tell by her coat that she isn’t a pet; she’s strictly the below-stairs kind of gal. And that would be the front steps. No lounging around in the conservatory at all hours of the day, no ball games in the garden, no treats from the table, no trips to the beach. If she weren’t dead tired from doing her work, she might be daydreaming about how the other half lives. Perhaps, that is what did in the last dog who held the job. The poor thing was run over by the tractor under whose wheels it rested. Shades of Thomas Hardy.

I was reminded, too, of Norman Corwin’s “association” with Nick, an English setter who “lived down the hill,” but, having had a “falling out with his owners,” insisted on being taken care of and paid attention to elsewhere. That same “Grand Hotel of fleas” achieved the next best thing to immortality in Corwin’s radio play “The Odyssey of Runyon Jones.” Our neighbor’s sheepdog, on the other paw, was rather less demanding. After an hour’s visit, she went dutifully back down the hill. Now it is Montague’s turn to dream about that life beyond the fence. . . .

Entire industries are devoted to reminding us that the grass is greener elsewhere, to sowing the seeds of discontent and to suggesting we’d settle for a pair of binoculars and a box of weed killer to improve our lot. In this racket of showing us the other half and telling us that, with some slight and low-priced adjustments, our own ain’t half bad, the quarter-hours known as soap operas take the booby prize. Some fifty, sixty years ago—but at just about the time of day that Montague was entertaining his not-a-lady friend—a string of tangled yarns like Our Gal Sunday would roll into America’s kitchens and living rooms, or wherever radio sets were positioned and tuned in for that chance at a ready-made getaway.

“Sunday,” as James Thurber put it, “started life as a foundling dumped in the laps of two old Western miners” but managed to move on up to become the “proud and daggered wife” of “England’s wealthiest and handsomest young nobleman.” Was it safe on the other side? Was it wise to make that leap? According to Thurber, that was a question asked by most of the so-called washboard weepers:

Can a good, clean Iowa girl find happiness as the wife of New York’s most famous matinee idol? Can a beautiful young stepmother, can a widow with two children, can a restless woman married to a preoccupied doctor, can a mountain girl in love with a millionaire, can a woman married to a hopeless cripple, can a girl who married an amnesia case—can they find soap-opera happiness and the good, soap-opera way of life?

The answer, of course, was a resounding “no.” The denizens of “Soapland” remained “up to their ears in inner struggle, soul searching, and everlasting frustration.”

Sure, we’ve all got those. I’m never sure, though, just what the other half might be for me. It’s not that I know my place; I just came to know a lot of places. What is the use of an elusive realm of otherness to a squarely queer working-class boy with a PhD, a cottage in the country, and a suitcase that is always half full (or half empty)? I am either here or there, and the elsewhere is neither here nor there to me. I guess I’m just not prone to nostalgia.

Meanwhile, on this partly cloudy afternoon, my better half and I are off to spend a night at Powis Castle. We won’t flop in the recently restored state bedroom, mind you, but in the timbered cottage to the right of the Welsh fortress once known as “Y Castell Coch” (“The Red Castle”). Further to the right is where the present Earl of Powis resides. So, I am spending the night between the riches amassed by the aforementioned Clive of India and the home of a demoted nobleman. Our Gal Sunday and her kind can take a half-day . . .

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