chesterfield

In this dream, you are named Chester. You are in a field near Chesterfield, wearing a Chesterfield, sitting on a chesterfield, smoking a Chesterfield, listening to The Chesterfields. A Roman army is camped nearby. You look over to the town. The steeple of its church is twisted around and leaning towards you, as if looking over its shoulder at you.

It all started with the Roman army, really. Their encampment: castra, Old English ceaster. Near it, a field. Ceasterfeld. Eventually Chesterfield. The town – near Sheffield – with its church dating to the 14th century, Saint Mary and All Saints, with that famous spire, twisted and leaning. There are many folk tales as to how the spire got that way. A local blacksmith mis-shod the devil, who leapt over the spire in pain and made it crooked. Or it bent over in curiosity when it heard a virgin was to be wed in the chuch, and will straighten up when one is. Or, or. In reality, mistakes were made by builders and roofers.

Chesterfield has had earls. The fourth Earl of Chesterfield, Philip Stanhope (1694–1773), was a noted statesman and man of letters. He also, incidentally, commissioned a piece of furniture: a sofa with a squared back and arms of equal height, plush, with buttons deeply upholstered onto it, and upholstry often of leather. A Chesterfield sofa. In Canada, for quite some time, any sofa – any couch – was called a chesterfield. That usage is dying out now; the Canadian linguist Jack Chambers studied it 20 years ago and found a clear age grading. But for many Canadians, me included, the first thing they think of even still when hearing chesterfield is a couch.

Philip Stanhope was also popular in the colonies, at least until they rebelled. There are several Chesterfield places named after him in America. One is in Virginia, Chesterfield County. They grow tobacco there. A brand of cigarette, once quite popular but seldom seen these days (especially in America; it can still be seen in Europe), is named after the county. You would be well advised to avoid smoking a Chesterfield on a chesterfield, as the embers may land and burn in and smolder, leading to a fire. Perhaps this is why the steeple is canting towards you.

The sixth Earl of Chesterfield, George Stanhope, also made something popular, a bit of upholstry, as it were: a coat for men. Around 1860, he decided that he had had enough with the fitted coats of the time, made for wearing indoors and out; he took to a less shaped version, a straighter coat with lapels and buttons (single or double breast), that was meant to be doffed when one was indoors. The Chesterfield coat. You may well have one without knowing it. I have one hanging in my closet.

The Chesterfields, for their part, were a British indie rock band of the mid- to late-1980s. I should tell you that they came from Somerset. They came out with a number of songs that will be liked by the same people who like The Smiths. “Goodbye Goodbye.” “Nose Out of Joint.” If I were you, I would be listening to “Ask Johnny Dee” while reclining on that rural sofa smoking.

And I would be thinking about that word: chesterfield. Three syllables, like the three cushions of a chesterfield. All consonants are voiceless or liquid, except for that last voiced stop /d/. An affricate to start with, then a fricative plus stop – the reverse of an affricate. After the liquid /r/, another fricative to move the sound from tongue-tip to lips. But it goes back to the tongue-tip after that. It is soft for the most part, like cushions or ashes or perhaps a long coat, but with a bit of crispness.

And there is a contrast between the expansive feeling of field, the images we get of open plains, and the solidity of chest, like your chest which you may smite through your coat, or a chest of drawers, or a treasure chest.

Yes. You snuff your Chesterfield and toss your Chesterfield on the chesterfield. The treasure chest must be buried here, in the field near Chesterfield. You had gone all the way to the Chesterfield Islands in the Coral Sea looking for it, but, though you felt you were following Philip Stanhope’s advice, “The world is a country which nobody ever yet knew by description; one must travel through it one’s self to be acquainted with it,” you now realize the treasure is at the source, a place much less exotic. No doubt this is why the Romans are here, these thousand soldiers – mille milites.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, in Nunavut, Canada, a chest lies buried in the permafrost at Igluligaarjuk – also known as Chesterfield Inlet. You will wake before you get there.

2 responses to “chesterfield

  1. I used the word to refer to a sofa in a song I wrote circa 1988 about how kids view aunties compared to their parents and home (“They think my house is prettier / My chesterfield is cozier / My foolish jokes are wittier / My roses, they look rosier”). I realize now anyone born in the last 25 yrs or so probably won’t understand that reference. Perhaps I should rewrite for live performances? “My sofa’s clearly cozier”, or…?

  2. I say let it be. Aunts are people who say “chesterfield.”

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