Mr A is not a man to govern the expression of his opinions, but one would hardly expect to find diffident a man who has drunk so deep in the wells of experience. Only last Friday, on a rare outing from Bristol, his place of rest, he quite disarranged my buttonhole with the vehemence with which he grasped my lapels and demanded facts.
He is a man, he proclaimed, who wants facts. He has not the patience to hearken to the vague pronouncements of the Brown Advisor, that such and such a tree might have been planted on the instructions of that that ‘fine fellow’ as Mr Honey would have it, Capability Brown. He wants to know for a fact the year in which the tree was planted. He wants to take a boring and count the rings. Such is his zeal for the truth that he is prepared to risk the health of the tree for a good fact.
He is not alone. There are entire communities in which the advancement of knowledge is premised upon the accumulation of facts. Where would our great universities be if it were not for facts? Indeed I wonder if there is anyone living in the enlightened world whose soul is not gladdened by a good fact.
By way of encouragement, I whipped at Mr A’s enthusiasm with the sheer number of facts he might accumulate in verifying the planting of a single tree. Let us suppose an accurate ring-count, one then has to calculate by some means or other how old the tree was when it was planted, or (supposing that tree was a replacement planting for one that had failed) when the first plantation was made. I was able to remind him of the ring-counts taken in the clumps at Petworth after the great storm of 1987, after which it was concluded that they had been planted at the beginning of the 18th century by the Royal Gardeners of the day, George London and Henry Wise. Emphasis had been placed on the age of the trees rather than the age of the planting (they might after all have been moved to their positions by the great tree-mover himself, Capability Brown, at 40 or 50 years growth). I then took him in imagination to Highclere Castle, where Brown’s planting was put in after he had died. The trees therefore are younger than one might expect from a cursory examination of his plan and one might dismiss the whole magnificent landscape as a pale imitation.
It is small consolation to Mr A, but the hunt for facts is never satisfied by a kill. We are always one more question away from certainty – ah – if we had all the facts, what a fine thing it would be! but in the meantime we must walk in the shadow of truth.
And it is out of that shadow that I extend the courtesy of a reply to each of my correspondents. Captain Ken will huff and puff at my side; he says that thus one might welcome guests to an Assembly, with a bow and a curtsey to each in turn and for each the same polite ‘Pleasure t’ see you Ma’am’ and ‘I’m afraid the Facts are not with us tonight, the Certainties send their apologies’. He tires of the repetition, but so long as we have guests and so long as they come for the Facts and Certainties, we shall stay at the door and apologise for their absence.