A Pocketful of Thoughts

Send me a hateful postcard and a posy of black lily stalks if I am wrong, but it cannot have escaped the notice of many of my readers that the story reproduced in the post below was one of a fair few tales to feature a diverting performance from everybody’s favourite clothing companion: the pocket.

Ah yes, the humble pocket. Where would the European folk tale tradition be without it? Down which unpleasant and lonely creek would the canoe of literature have paddled: oarless, rudderless, pocketless? Where, oh tell me where would the feckless writer turn had he/she not the plot-shifting pocket to rely on in their hour of desperate need?

All fascinating questions, and all answered – to some extent – in Leigh Verpäsch’s recent study This Is What He’s Got: Pockets of Knowledge from Paris to Nepal. Not, alas, a book that you can fit in your pocket (hang your heads in shame, publicity department) but one guesses that this is the price you pay for five hundred pages of wonderfully wise pocket-related literary criticism.

As the title suggests, a little-known English writer called J.R.R.Tolkein forms the source of more than one chapter – not just because pockets (or to be more precise, ‘pocketses’) feature greatly in his work (The Hobbit, for instance) but because he was known to draw heavily on earlier literary forms, especially those the Norse variety, in which pockets, or pocket-like devices, are rife. This line of enquiry leads, amongst other things, to a remarkable exploration of pockets in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Suffice it to say that had I ever looked at Beowulf in the first place (which I haven’t) I would be able to say at this point that I’ll never look at him the same way again. And it’s all because of the pockets…

Verpäsch, unfortunately, never stops to consider The Man with a Bear in his Pocket, but she does have a handful of interesting things to say about men who keep wild animals in their pockets. And it isn’t all degoratory. At least, not every line.

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