EXCERPT FROM "JANUARY" (JOHN HEWITT)
When you dig through skating history, you never know what you will unearth. In the spirit of cataloguing fascinating tales from skating history, #Unearthed is a once a month 'special occasion' on Skate Guard where fascinating writings by others that are of interest to skating history buffs are excavated, dusted off and shared for your reading pleasure. From forgotten fiction to long lost interviews to tales that have never been shared publicly, each #Unearthed is a fascinating journey through time. This month's 'buried treasure' is an excerpt from a piece called "January" which appeared in "New Sporting Magazine" all the way back in January 1832... before Jackson Haines was even born! It was written by antiquarian John Hewitt, under his pseudonym Sylvanus Swanquill. At times verbose and rambling, at others succint and humorous, this piece offers a unique perspective of how skaters were viewed in England during the late Regency period.
Skating may justly be considered as the connecting link between man and the feathered creation; and if it be not flying indeed, it is at least something so closely resembling it, that to define the one is, in a great measure, to describe the other. Nay, it is better than many kinds of flying, - that of the ostrich, for instance, - and perhaps equal to most others. The swallow, I believe, is considered to be as expert in the use of his wings as any bird we have: and in what, I pray, consists the advantage of the swallow over the skater? Does he move more quickly? -No. Are his evolutions more graceful or more frequent than those of the skater? -No. Are his flights more loft? -Not often: and when they are, it is only for the purpose of resting on some chimney top; and to my mind, a style or a mossy bank offers quite as good accommodation. There is the eagle, to be sure,- he takes a somewhat wider range, and cools his brow in the clouds of heaven: but, for my part, I never could see any beauty in a fog, and deem clouds, like trumpet music, far best at a distance.
A skater is, of all sportsmen, the most independent. Grant him ice and health, and he requires no more: himself is his own game, and the only rivalry in the pursuit is between his right leg and his left. Skating has another great advantage, -it is within the compass of all classes of men. The peasant may enjoy this pastime as well as the peer, the poor apprentice as well as the young squire. The hunter requires his stud of mettlesome steeds, the mere purchase of which would ruin nine-tenths of the community...
Winter is to the skater what spring is to the poet: nay, more - he is himself a poet, and, under the exhilarating influence of his pursuit, indites the most delicious May pastorals; for thought it may seem a paradox, it is an undeniable truth, that the flowers of spring never bloom so sweetly as in the blasts of December. So the pleasures of youth never show so brightly as in the decline of age. He is the only person that can keep himself warm this very weather; and while every body else is complaining, 'How excessively cold it is!' he affects to be terribly annoyed by the heat. Take a walk to the pool where he is skating, and he will pretend not to see you; but on the instant commences a series of his most elegant figures, - the outside stroke, the flying mercury, the spread eagle, and the figure three. Presently he discovers, as if by accident, that you have been observing him, and comes to receive your compliments; but protests that you know nothing about it, if you call him a good skaiter; and would not go through his manouevres again, while you are by, if you would give him the glaciers. The reason of this is evident: not, as he would wish you to believe, that his modesty forbids, but that he has nothing new to offer, and would not willingly have you go away with the impression that you have seen all.
In his motions the skater is frequently retrograde, like the sun in the sign of Cancer, and resembles a printer's compositor in no slight degree, for he can get on as fast backwards as forwards. He is like a magic square, for turn him which way you will, it is all one to him. He is a Peristrephic Philosopher, a living lecture on the centre of gravity; though he now and then indulges you with a digression on the centrifugal force. The fishes that sail beneath his feet, take him for a merman that has broken loose through the ice; while the birds of the air set him down as a species of roc, brought over by Sinbad the sailor. He distances the mail coach with facility, and leaves the steam carriages many lengths behind him. He is amphibious, leaving equally well on land or water. He is like a hero in battle, for he cuts away right and left. He is guilty of favouritism toward the north wind, and cordially hates the other side of the weather-cock. Indeed, all stiff gales are his aversion, as they destroy that nice equilibrium on which the neat execution of his figures depends. A snow-storm he dislikes only as it affects the ice, - for himself, he can shake off its feathers as easily as a horse rids himself of the flies in summer. But a thaw is to him the ne-plus-ultra of misery, and he rejoices to hear of his friends taking cold from it, as it seems to justify, if not to strengthen, the cause of his antipathy. He consults the thermometer every morning, and grows warm as the mercury approaches zero. He also makes a daily observation on the state of the wind; and as the four vanes on the church tower point in four different directions, always places his reliace on that which is most favourable to his wishes. Of Thomson's Seasons, the winter is his favourite, and all the skating part of it he has got by heart. He buys all books that treat of his favourite amusement, and will become a subscriber to the 'New Sporting Magazine' as soon as he hears of this article. His parlour is hung round with Dutch snow-pieces; and in the full-length picture of himself over the fire-place, he is represented skating. A cabinet in one corner of the rooms contains numerous specimens of skates, from the earliest ages to the present day; the most ancient pair, with blades of bone, being further preserved in a splendid case of Morocco leather. Over the cabinet is a figure of Mercury, his tutelar divinity, in whose praise he is over eloquent; assuring you that this God was the inventor of the noble art of skating, and that his heel-wings are but poetical types of the implements he used. In fine, the skater is a most amiable companion in a hard frost; and a kind friend while the wind remains northerly. As he approaches the winter of life, he gradually relinquishes the more dangerous manouevres of his art, and at length ventures only on the outside stroke, which, for the greater dignity, he performs with his arms folded. If you are desirous of obtaining his friendship, meet him on the ice; but when this cannot be done, let your letter of introduction describe you as an accomplished skater, - mind! rather as an accomplished skater than as a good man; for it is a favourite observation of his, that "There are many excellent men in the world, but very few tolerable skaters."
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