(This essay originally appeared in Prufrock, which everyone should subscribe to at once: http://www.prufrock.co.za/subscribe/. As well as running a brilliant and beautiful magazine, the editors have been endlessly supportive of me as a writer, and I am so, so grateful to them. No kidding, they are the fucking best.)
The Little God Pan
When I was little, my mum had a few standard expressions. She said “Jesus wept”. She said “for crying in a bucket” (I think this meant For Fuck’s Sake, but when I was little what I imagined was my mum standing and holding a bucket up to her eye, and making sure her hot cross tears went in it, and then I didn’t know what would happen after that). She said “this is getting on my tits. This is getting on my tits badly.”And when she had to do something that she did not want at all to do, she said “I feel like El Cid.”El Cid is a real life historical man. He was the leader of an army in medieval Spain, and everyone loved him, and then he died in the middle of a protracted battle. So what happened was his wife just strapped his dead body onto his horse. She was worried that the troops would lose morale if they knew that their fearless leader was dead. And it worked. They won! Wikipedia does not tell us what happens when the rest of the army worked out what was actually going on. It doesn’t matter. They are all dead now anyway.
So when my mum said she felt like El Cid, she meant that just the sort of husk of her would be stepping into the breach. She said it when she had to go to certain long family things, or boring meetings. She didn’t really have to do anything, but she absolutely had to show up. A dinner party is like El Cid, I think. It just needs the surface appearance of things being fine for everything to go on as usual.Everyone knows how to behave, there are certain rules to follow, specific knives to use with the fish. A dinner party in a book is the same. Of course they can be ruined, but it takes some pretty good trying. A novelist has to be fairly inventive to screw up a dinner party. For instance, a dinner party in a book can be ruined because someone is drunk. Fine, but they have to be so drunk. They have to be as drunk as a person can be before they die. Dinner parties are built to handle drunkenness, and so a character has to be completely ripped before it becomes remarkable.
Think about John Self in Martin Amis’s Money. All he does is black out at dinner parties – it seems to be in some sense his job, and everyone just shakes their heads a bit indulgently. In Never Mind, the first Patrick Melrose novel, the wicked father has more than one terrifying dinner party, where he says these spine-chilling things, and makes everyone around him go all ashen. And still the dinner party keeps going. Because there are rules. In The Corrections, Denise puts a cigarette out behind her ear in the middle of supper. She has exposed the strangest and frostiest aspects of her heart, she freaks everyone out, but the dinner party keeps chugging along. In the second Patrick Melrose novel, Patrick disappears before the first course is finished. He goes and does a million drugs in the bathroom, and passes out there for many hours, and it’s fine. It is No Problem.
You can’t do this with a picnic though. A picnic is not going to work as an El Cid type scenario. It needs more than the surface appearance of things being all right. If someone disappears on a picnic, they have fallen into a hole or been savaged by a dog, a wolf. They are Miranda in Picnic at Hanging Rock and they have disappeared into a crack in the cliffs and are never coming back.
I think it’s more than just indoors is safer and cleaner than out. I don’t think it’s just a matter of there being more little beetles outside, or more sand gritting around in a person’s teeth. There is something inherently Brave and therefore tragic about a picnic, this sense of people trying too gamely to have a good time. People go on picnics much more in books than they do in real life, and maybe this is because they have such a clear structural and emblematic function. Picnics in books are an easy way to show the gap between theory and practice, between the vision of how something will be and how it actually ends up being.
They are a way for a writer to talk about innocence lost and the perilous condition of happiness. It is too easy for a picnic to go wrong. Three girls disappear. Wild children come running over the hill and bust it up. A man falls out of the sky. Ants. A bear. The hillside catches fire. Remember that a picnic was how Nabokov dispatched with the mother of Humbert Humbert. It took two words: picnic, lightning. In brackets, even. It’s plausible becausebad things can happen on a picnic. A mom can die.
Picnics are such frail things, so ready for catastrophe. There is so much hope that goes into their planning and execution, and it takes very little to dash it. In Collected Impressions, Elizabeth Bowen said that “it is not only our fate but our business to lose innocence, and once we have lost that, it is futile to attempt a picnic in Eden.” In support of this, a brief outline of one of the saddest things that ever happens to that fictional dog called Snoopy: He was born, you will recall, at the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm. One of eight puppies. Years later, he and his incredible but dissolute brother Spike try to have a reunion picnic at the farm. They cannot. Why? Because the farm has been turned into a parking lot. Who is surprised? No one. Those small cartoon dogs have lost their innocence, they are grown up, and therefore no picnic should be attempted. It is a hard but necessary lesson for the readers of Peanuts to learn.
They are the perfect way for a gloomy man writer to tell you what is what, to give you a brief overview of what is in store for you: your dreams will be crushed, the wind will be torn from your sails. Christopher Hitchens said they were overrated, obviously. In John Cheever’s Torch Song, the narrator describes a journey on “one of those trains that move slowly across the face of New Jersey, bringing back to the city hundreds of people, like the victims of an immense and strenuous picnic, whose faces are blazing and whose muscles are lame.” This is pretty rough, but of course John Cheever, the laureate of repressed misery, would describe anyone who went on a picnic as a “victim”. In a sad little letter, Wallace Stevens is dithering about whether or not to go out. He says: “The truth is that the only other clam bake I have ever been to was perfectly my idea of a poor picnic.” In Lolita, Humbert Humbert compares something to “a rainy picnic to which only the dullest bores have come.” This list is not exhaustive.Structurally, the picnic in Brideshead Revisited does the same thing. It is only there to remind you of how dramatically everything goes down the tubes shortly afterwards.
Charles Bukowski, naturally, imagined that they stood for all that was claustrophobically domestic: “To get married, to have children, to get trapped in the family structure. To go someplace to work every day and to return. It was impossible. To do things, simple things, to be part of family picnics. . . was a man born just to endure those things and then die? I would rather be a dishwasher, return alone to a tiny room and drink myself to sleep.” Oh, you rake. You bohemian. Not every writer is Charles Bukowski, luckily. A lot of writers use picnics the way EM Forster did – to disturb things, and throw people together in settings that put them on edge. Here is the narrator in A Room With A View: “Pan had been amongst them—not the great god Pan, who has been buried these two thousand years, but the little god Pan, who presides over social contretemps and unsuccessful picnics.” Social contretemps and unsuccessful picnics: the building blocks of maybe too many novels.
Also, they are a way for a writer to talk about food. In the same way that clothes in books are signifiers of class, taste, wealth and everything, food in books is a way for a writer to reveal a great deal about a character without saying too much at all. Here is Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited doing his sweetly imperious bit, ordering Charles to accompany him on a picnic: “I’ve got a motor-car and a basket of strawberries and a bottle of Château Peyraguey—which isn’t a wine you’ve ever tasted, so don’t pretend. It’s heaven with strawberries.” Here is Joe Rose, the narrator of Enduring Love, and the contents of his picnic basket: “I went in and put together a picnic whose centre piece was a great ball of mozzarella which the assistant fished out of an earthenware vat with a wooden claw…” The wine they drink is a “1987 Daumas Gassac.” And Madeline, in The Marriage Plot: “On the way, she stopped at a market to buy a hunk of cheese, some Stoned Wheat Thins, and a bottle of Valpolicella.”All this exhaustingly elegant rusticity, the hunks of cheese and the earthenware vats, the wines we have never tasted, are sending a very clear message to the reader. These unsubtle indicators of affluence and the right kind of taste help to socially position the characters just as much as anything they do or say.
There are many exceptions to these rules. There are a lot of books in this world. There is a whole other set of things going on with picnics in fantasy novels, for instance. But here, for now, are the four kinds of picnics you meet in books.
- Picnics in Children’s Books
Children’s books are full of them, and they are very different from adults’ ones. Children are meant to be naive, they are still meant to be in Eden. The Fall has not happened yet. You could never have anything go terribly wrong on a picnic in a children’s book – what kind of monster would write it? This is Famous Five territory. All lemonade and raspberry cordial and bread and cheese and a clean happy dog not even trying to eat your food. All lying on blankets tired but happy and innocent, innocent. The best is the one in The Wind In The Willows: “‘What’s inside it?’ asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.
‘There’s cold chicken inside it,’ replied the Rat briefly; coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwidgespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater––’.” Everyone remembers this bit – it makes people nostalgic for a picnic they have never been on. It recalls this sun-dappled time that exists only in the outer reaches of being a kid, or in books.
- The picnic where the bad thing happens straight away
There’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, where the sweet Australian boarding school girls vanish in the middle of the outing, just wander into a cleft in the rocks and disappear, and that is basically that. I grew up believing this to be a true story.
Alice Munro has a story called Deep-Holes that opens like this: “Sally packed devilled eggs—something she usually hated to take on a picnic, because they were so messy. Ham sandwiches, crab salad, lemon tarts—also a packing problem.” This excursion, we sense, will not be a success. And we are right. Shortly afterwards, Sally’s older son falls in a hole and is rescued by his remote and horrible father: “Alex was still crawling along with Kent dangling from him like a shot deer.” Things go rapidly even more south after that. Kent grows up and goes mad. He disappears for a long time, and then resurfaces as a full-blown weirdo. He tells his mother he is a “neuter” now. He changes his name. His life is gross and squalid in some indefinable way, and he traces it all back to the picnic. It is all the picnic’s fault.
There is the one in the Marabar Hills in Passage to India, where Adela Quested has one of her little turns, and believes that she has been sexually assaulted by their Indian host. She is wrong, but that doesn’t stop her from almost destroying him. Again, all the many many depressing things that take place immediately after this can be blamed on the picnic.
And then there is the one at the beginning of Enduring Love. It opens with Joe Rose and Clarissa on a picnic, the one with the mozzarella ball as the centerpiece, and the 1987 Daumas Gassac. In the first two paragraphs, there is this most appalling balloon accident (which sounds funny and sort of twee, but it is just horrifying) and a man falls out of the sky. The picnic is ruined. Who is surprised? No one. Ian McEwan tears right straight into it: “It marked the beginning and, of course, an end. At that moment a chapter, no, a whole stage of my life closed. Had I known … I might have allowed myself a little nostalgia.” The picnic, here, is the eye of the storm. It’s there to show how delicately balanced the safety and happiness of these characters is. Needless to say, everything gets much, much worse after this. Needless to say, a man begins stalking Joe Rose and demolishes his life. It’s so obvious.
- The picnic where something a bit sexy or strange happens /The picnic as catalyst in a person’s coming of age
Someone is inducted into the grown up world via the picnic. Via the eating of a gritty sandwich outdoors. This bears some resemblance to category 2, but is not unambiguously catastrophic in the same way.
In one of the only readable bits of The Pale King, David Foster Wallace has his two nicest characters sit at a picnic table and have a torturous, mostly silent, conversation about keeping a baby: “They sat up on the table’s top portion and had their shoes on the bench part that people sat on to picnic or fellowship together in carefree times.” They are so sweet, these two, and so young, and the picnic table here only highlights how thoroughly un-carefree these particular times are for them. They both age in dog years in this passage, and by the end of it they are adults.
In the same way, the picnic in A Room With A View forces the crazed little heroine to grow up. Lucy Honeychurch wanders away from the group, and ends up being kissed behind a tree by a vaguely unsuitable man. She changes, in this moment, from being a tiring child to being a slightly less tiring adult. She returns to the group transformed, all glittery eyed, a grown up lady.
- The idyllic picnic that comes to stand for the best time the characters ever had/ the picnic as symbolic of what is lost, or what will be
When novelistswrite about picnics, a word that comes up a lot is “nostalgia”. For instance, here’s the narrator in Wonder Boys, talking about his now-estranged wife: “I closed my eyes and I thought of the lash of her skirt snapping around her as she danced one evening in a bar on the South Side to a jukebox that was playing “Barefootin’,” …of a tuna salad sandwich she’d handed me one windy afternoon as we sat at a picnic table in Lucia, California, and looked out for the passage of whales, and I felt that I loved Emily insofar as I loved those things – beyond reason, and with a longing that made me want to hang my head – but it was a love that felt an awful lot like nostalgia.” See? The picnic here is Eden, again, it is everything that’s gone.
But the Ur-picnic, everyone knows, is the one in Brideshead Revisited. It comes right at the beginning of the novel. Sebastian and Charles are having an extremely, extremely homoerotic time of it on a “sheep-cropped knoll under a clump of elms”. As promised, the wine they are drinking is Heaven With Strawberries. They are lying on their back smoking cigars, looking up through the leaves. It is not specified whether they are both naked, but we all know that they are. Sebastian looks at Charles all mistily and says: ‘“Just the place to bury a crock of gold … I should like to bury something precious in every place where I’ve been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.”’ It does not take an especially perceptive reader to see that this man is going to need some of those happy memories later on, when he goes all strange and tortured and dies of being an alcoholic.
Poor old Sebastian Flyte, the human picnic, who “withers at the first cold wind”. This symbol of promise despoiled. Given that Brideshead is one long exercise in nostalgia, it is perfect that this is one of the novel’s high points, in terms of everyone having an excellent time.They lie there in the grass, and “the fumes of the sweet golden wine seemed to lift us a finger’s breadth above the turf and hold us suspended.” It is very silly, we can see that, and it will never last. But isn’t it lovely while it does?
Also: MUM IF YOU ARE OUT THERE. IF YOU ARE READING THIS: I’m sorry you’ve come across as irritable and cross here. You’re not. You just have a powerful turn of phrase. But for the record, you also say that you love us all the time, and you have perfect pitch and you’re cleverer than everyone, and everyone wants to be your best friend, especially me.
From the Wikipedia entry on Spike: “His appearance is similar to that of Snoopy, but he is substantially thinner, has a perpetually sleepy look, and sports a long, droopy mustache and a fedora. He sometimes wears Mickey Mouse shoes which were a gift from Mickey Mouse.” He lives in the desert in a place called “Needles”. Needles! His shoes were a present from Mickey Mouse.
The names of some of Snoopy’s other siblings, ps, are Olaf, Marbles, Andy, and Belle.
Also, Ayn Rand’s little characters have some uncomplicatedly high times at a picnic in The Fountainhead, but I could not for any money figure out what was happening there. Something like: WORK! A PICNIC AS REWARD FOR WORK! SET FIRE TO THE UNEMPLOYED! I don’t know.
Maybe it is interesting that Kenneth Grahame is another writer who pays direct homage to the little god Pan. The seventh chapter of The Wind in the Willows is titled “The Piper At The Gates of Dawn”, and it is easily the most bizarre section, involving the Rat and the Mole going to rescue an otter’s child. They find that otter baby sleeping between the little hooves of Pan. This section is excised from most editions. It has a powerfully odd druggy energy, and it is easy to see why Pink Floyd chose the title for the name of their first album. It’s because of drugs.
The title of a dissertation no one will ever write: “Pan As Muse: The Novelist’s God?”
 Guess WHERE he disappears to though? Needles, California, home of Snoopy’s brother. I like to imagine Spike and Kent hanging out in Needles. They are smoking cigarettes and doing pottery. They are listening to Grateful Dead tapes. It is 4am. A dog barks.