‘Thus I refute Bishop Berkeley,’ said my husband, multitasking by kicking the stone and slightly misquoting Samuel Johnson at the same time. It was his (my husband’s) notion of a little joke. Dr Johnson had demonstrated with his own kick the falsehood of thinking that all things are merely ideal, not material. The stone my husband kicked was a milestone outside the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington Gore. It said ‘To Hounslow 9 miles’ and ‘To London (Hyde Park Corner) 1 mile’. Helpfully, a manicule pointed out which way was which. I’m still unsure where Bishop Berkeley comes into this, but milestones have been everywhere recently, all of them grim. Everyone in the papers and on the television called Britain’s 100,000th Covid death a grim milestone. Mostly it is a pious cliché, just as people write ‘the sad death of her husband’.
The Times managed to make it ‘grim, grim, milestone’ and, true to form, the Independent applied the cliché to a minority preoccupation: ‘a grim milestone in the long history of tensions surrounding the political status of Quebec.’ I tried drawing a diagram of that, with little success.
Grim has a northern feel, not just because of the epic figure in Peter Simple’s mythology, Alderman Jabez Foodbotham, the 25-stone, iron-watch-chained, crag-visaged, grim-booted perpetual chairman of the Bradford City Tramways and Fine Arts Committee. Norman Wisdom’s Mr Grimsdale too is as northern as Grimsby, and Grimsby is the town of Grimr, a byname for Woden. Grimr is a different word from grim and means ‘masked’, as Woden or Odin often was. Grimr produces place-names further south, such as Grime’s Graves in Norfolk, a complex of 380 or so flint mines from the Neolithic period, later connected to Grimr. In some place-names Grim- is a synonym for the Devil as the contriver of earthworks, as at Grim’s Ditch in Harrow.
Our quite separate word, the dour adjective grim (which in another Germanic language gave the brothers Grimm their surname) was attached to the Grim King of the Ghosts, in a song the tune of which Gay used in The Beggar’s Opera, and the Grim Reaper, whose scythe stands ever sharp, whetted perhaps on a grim milestone.