A soft morning. Bees are working the fuchsias by the door — the one we brought from Cornwall when we were young. We had seen John Betjeman struggling against the wind at Constantine Bay. Here, the rain falls in its reminiscent fashion, drenching everything, the horses and white cat included. It is blissful.
For some reason, it makes me remember those glimpses of a place which one gathers from the bedroom window where one is staying. Little immortal vignettes of a scene, like the one from my bedroom at Leargan, above Loch Rannoch, which was no more than the tip of a pine, and yet which continues to contain all Scotland for me.
Tidying up the fiction, I find myself feeling a kind of grief or sorrow for all the novels I do not re-read. What will become of them? Are their authors still with us? Do I dare to open one of them and turn a page? This one is from an old friend, long gone. It smells new. It opens new.
I begin, and, outside, the summer rain goes on falling through the oak leaves. The church clock sounds the hours. Simultaneously with this old tale, another story starts in my head; for this is one of the ways in which writers work. It is not edifying, this muddling along, and those people who teach you how to be an author in the magazines would not approve. Put it all down to the summer rain, and the coming and going of the next-to-nothing wind.
Friends who once lived here are in church, and say that they are coming back. I had preached on the Good Samaritan before hearing this, and, what with one thing and another, I feel, well, buoyant. It is not as though I had preached on the Prodigal Son. If only it had drizzled all the way to Jericho. It is, of course, a mighty story. It never frays in the retelling. It holds up all the way. Violent, dusty, it takes one aback.
It is 18 miles from Jerusalem to Jericho, the oldest city in the east, and a poor teacher such as Jesus might have walked to it safely, but not a Samaritan. He was not like other Jews. Samaria was his city, not Jerusalem. We are not told the religion of the robbers. They were outcasts, who hid above long and lonely roads until a true traveller with his pack trod into view, “asking for it”. His fate would have been commonplace.
If one had received ritual cleansing for some sacrament at the Temple, one would hardly be likely to get involved in a road accident en route. Other walkers would have been in a hurry to keep appointments. Or simply minding their own business. But it is a deeply accusative story, and one that suits all ages. We still admire those who go out of their way to help others. Christ (Redeemer) went his way, although tempted to take another direction.
The mild morning runs its course. Although you could hardly call it farming, the ancient business activity is going on. But I can hear clankings and engines, and a little human encouragement — and, of course, the little French dog. And even a whispering shower. It is what people run away from for a holiday. For the sun. And what I longed for in Australia. A soft grey day with damp creatures, including dragonflies.
I shall do a bit of scything in the orchard. Nothing much. Just enough to show willing. (7954)
Posted by Arborfield at 07:37
The peerless English summer proceeds. I sit in the garden, reading and making notes for a winter book. The white cat sleeps on them; the birds sing above them. An unseen harvester plies up and down with orchestral shadings of sound, and a song thrush never stops.
For no reason at all, I am with my brother in Myddle, a village not far from Shrewsbury, where he is a teenage trainee on a fruit farm. It is winter, and the snow is faintly falling. We share an enormous bed in his lodgings, the one in which the Bruin Boys sleep in Tiger Tim’s Weekly. His landlady brings us hot water in a brass jug at seven in the morning, and gives us breakfast on a starched tablecloth.
My brother, fearing that she has missed out on life, has taken her to the theatre, and to a teashop for lunch. She is scandalised by the price of everything. Her theatre operates just outside her window. A neighbour clanks her way to the pump with zinc pails. "She’s early," or "She’s late." Our heads are little scrapbooks.
It is Trinity something.
We have done with dogma and divinity
Easter and Whitsun past,
The long, long Sundays after Trinity,
Are with us at last;
The passionless Sundays after Trinity,
Neither feast-day nor fast.
What else did we do in Shropshire? We climbed Shrewsbury Cathedral tower. Round and round to the top. Just as we climbed our Suffolk churches, especially Lavenham, where the verger would bellow "Come down, you young varmints!" Supposing he locked us in? Our skeletons would fall to pieces under the bells. And serve them right, them young varmints.
Boys left their names all over the place in ancient churches, but rarely girls. Harry Briscow, 1727. Singing until his voice broke, and later in another key. And from the back, never in the chancel. The fury when "high" Victorian clergy brought the choir forward knew no bounds. My friend Gordon’s father, who died watching a cricket match, changed churches when the choir robed.
And yet, in the parish portrait gallery, those vestry photographs of 40 or more boys and men as whitely robed as the paradisal singers round the throne of God, offer to someone like myself a kind of illustrated "Myddle" into which I read a parish’s Hardy-like particulars, and in which, along with the incuments’ board and the gravestones, the nature of a place is revealed.
It took a long time — often centuries — before most parishes had their own guidebook. Now they are among my favourite reading. I have written a few myself, including one to All Saints’, Aldeburgh. John Betjeman gave me a prize for it. One has to boast a bit in life. I have a photo of his doing it in the crypt of a City church, where sherry and sandwiches were laid out under the grieving memorials. I would glimpse him in north Cornwall, trying to stay alone.
David’s harvester roars away. Young birds and dragonflies are caught in old rooms, longing to find a way out. (7953)
Posted by Arborfield at 08:27
It is late morning, and still I loll in my chair looking out. Bees visit and revisit the same flowers. Vast clouds stay still on the horizon. Green Victorias will soon ripen in the orchard. Impatient balsam peppers me with shot. It arrived in English gardens when Shakespeare was alive, and stands five feet tall outside the window, so that I see the world through a kind of green arsenal.
It is the feast of St James, and his followers will be trudging in to Santiago de Compostela, his shell of quiet on their shoulders, his words on their lips: "But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing." I imagine the great censer in the Spanish cathedral swinging back and forth like a boat on an ocean of faith, and the congregation singing "Let the round world with songs rejoice".
Getting to Compostela was no easy walk: in fact, one of the hardest; but the shrine with its pitching incense and high singing destroyed all the fatigue of getting there. There was elation and a rich feeling of accomplishment.
James was very near to Christ, and had seen his transfiguration and his agony in the garden, the heights and depths of his love. He arrived at Compostela like a fish, swimming into Christian consciousness. He said that we were to "ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed." And he continues sublimely: "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning."
My old friend Roger from the British Museum comes to matins, and then we go to The Crown for Sunday lunch. In two days’ time, he will have retired. I tell him that writers and artists never retire. On and on they go. When he has gone, I try to imagine the experience of retirement.
The first person to describe modern retirement was William Hazlitt, when he followed, as it were, the fate of a London clerk when he left his high stool for idleness in the City streets. Now that we live to be 80 or more, what to do during the decades of retirement can be either an exciting prospect or a problem, and one that our ancestors did not have to worry about. The poet John Clare’s father, crippled with arthritis after manual toil, was set to break stones with a hammer to mend the village lanes. This, or enter the workhouse. Those were the days.
But the countryside provided a break between haymaking and harvest. The first loaf from the new corn was placed on the altar on 1 August, and we still do this at Wormingford, retaining such fragments of tradition as we can, and keeping the church calendar alive.
For all his belated arrival as a silver fish on our religious shore, there is an enchantment about James which breathes reality, as do all great myths. He was, after all, a walker with Jesus by an inland sea, he and his brother John stepping it out with the Saviour. He and John took precedence over the other apostles, and he was the first to be killed by Herod. Just as Jesus marked him out, so did those who dreaded Christianity. Cranmer’s collect speaks of his "leaving all he had" for Christ, although not his boat. Parents, yes. But not his fishing. Eventually, he would become a great catch for the Church. (7952)
Posted by Arborfield at 07:19
July for St Benedict, whose emblems are a broken cup and a raven. He died at Monte Cassino, where his great abbey stood in the way of the victorious allies, and was shelled to pieces.
One night, praying by his window, Benedict thought that “the whole world seemed to be gathered into one sunbeam and brought before his eyes.” Window prayers — a looking outwards instead of inwards — became a lively discipline for many Christians, and were practised before bedtime and first thing in the morning. George Herbert struggled to the window on the day he died, his joy in Christ hurrying to meet his delight in the dawn.
It was pretty early, an hour or two ago, when I looked out at the nibbling horses to wonder if there had been a pause between yesterday’s and today’s grazing. Early Christians seemed to have been a bit panicky about dying in their sleep, whereas I find it the ultimate blessing.
But enough of these thoughts. As I write, July reigns. The old east-facing farmhouse lets in the first light. Its tiled roof is being warmed up for a summer’s day. The 12 mighty oaks susurrate, and the ponds glimmer with dragonflies. I hesitate to clear a path through the fiery St John’s wort. Let the gold go on!
Driving by the church in the late afternoon, I see them shaping the orange earth on the latest grave. “When at last the tired body lies with feet towards the west.” It was our churchwarden’s, and anything but tired. An elegant man, his voice and appearance go in and out of my consciousness all day long.
One of my duties has been to write forewords. This time to an account of an archaeological dig on a hilltop. It was the obvious spot from which to watch the hunt, or for seeing where St Edmund was crowned. Or for hearing the two-hourly rattle of the little Proustian train which begins the commuters’ journey to Liverpool Street. In my thoughts the train’s whistle and the huntsmen’s horns have become a kind of daily concert which varies as the wind blows.
Our village, which joins Essex to Suffolk, grew up on a riverbank with the result that two dioceses are both separated and joined — by water. Nobody owns a river. What lies either side of it, certainly; but not the river itself. Meandering on, twisting and turning, the Stour does what it likes all the way from Cambridgeshire to the sea.
When I was asked to launch a wonderful copy of its barges at Sudbury, and I went for a two-mile sail, it was to find its familiar banks, like the past, “another country”. A neighbour punted me along as I watched for roach, or even a pike. When I was young, a friend was challenged to cook our catch, a vast, prickly pike, and make it edible. We spent much of our dinner fishing pike bones from our teeth. There was lots to eat, even if it was famously dull. Old snapshots show us holding up our catch on the doorstep, but it might just as well have spent a further decade in the reeds.
The sun is now up with a vengeance. It would have been torrid at Monte Cassino, where Benedict was writing his Rule on how his followers could live together. It was strict — no festivalitis. Other rules exist on how the followers of Jesus should behave collectively.
Maybe he would have liked what is written on Jane Austen’s tomb in Winchester Cathedral: that she was against enthusiasm in religion. I expect she was thinking of Methodists. (7951)
Posted by Arborfield at 08:58
[The threshing barn, opposite John Clare's Cottage, Helpston]
I have two calendars: one for the church, one for being a writer. Early July means Trinity services, and a 90-mile drive to Helpston to talk about John Clare. The latter includes a long stretch of what was the Great North Road, along which the great rural poet walked with an empty stomach and bare feet after escaping from a lunatic asylum in Epping. But now his words flood the English countryside with light.
He called his native village dull, but at this moment its Barnack-stone church, cottages, and barns, its rectory, farms, and market cross — on the steps of which he would have sat — are bright in the warm sunshine.
Hollyhocks topple against warm walls, and the pub in which he toiled as a pot-boy is crowded with the likes of us. Morris men and women dance on the tarmac, and, being a good fiddler himself, he would have liked our music.
This year, I talk about Edmund Blunden. He had met a man who knew a man who had spoken to Clare. It was like knowing a man who had danced with a girl who had danced with the Prince of Wales. And I had known Blunden.
He had come to Long Melford, near my Suffolk birthplace, where Siegfried Sassoon had bought him the Mill House on which I had unveiled the plaque to him and then talked about him in the marvellous church. Blunden had been appointed Oxford Professor of Poetry, but his pleasure to me was that he had read Clare’s words to his men at the Western Front.
He once gave me his notes after a lecture. We were waiting for the London train on Colchester Station, and he pushed them into my hand. Beautiful writing in brown ink. We sat at his feet at Long Melford Bull, and remembered ancient rhymes:
For the wicked old women whofeel well-bred
Have turned to a tea-shop “The
How little one remembers all the talk, the recollections, the happiness of being in certain company. Even the voices. Blunden’s belonged to a previous age.
They say that St John lived to be very old, and that young men would ask him how Jesus spoke. And all he would say was, “Little children, love one another.” Nobody thought to say how he looked. St John, they said, was beautiful, or that one might gather as much. But, as Shakespeare said, “Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.”
Our churchyard must be all of a millennium old, and full of such dust, but its face, as it were, is perpetually fresh and flowering. No hint of mortality. Just summer’s growth.
My song thrush sings “tchuck, tchuck, tchuck” all day long in the garden. It has a spotted breast and a brown back. Nobody replies. There is a delicious rain, and tall plants fall about under its persistence. It is fine but drenching, a kind of liquid sultriness. The sweet peas clamber up their canes to meet it. Sopping wet, I potter about, thinking what to say on Sunday, and what to write today.
Our dear churchwarden has died — just left us, as one might go through a door. And too quick for us to feel anything. Feeling will come. A few days ago, he was bringing me the offering and waiting for my little bow. And I was hoping that the last hymn would see him back to his seat. And then he was in the vestry, and I was signing the register and squashing my robes into the case.
And a mile or two away, the song thrush, a loud and musical bird, was proclaiming “tchuck” to high heaven. For such is a summer’s day. (7950)
Posted by Arborfield at 07:10
There is at the heart of faith — all faiths, maybe — a serenity, a great quietness. It is why people have faith in God, his ultimate silence questioning our noise. We look for that peace which is beyond our understanding, but often in a rackety fashion. And we listen, not for some huge divine command, but for the still, small voice that Isaiah heard.
Once, watching the haj on television, I found myself marvelling how a million or more men and boys — no women — could so individually make the pilgrimage to Mecca without touching, as it were. And also how they stayed so fresh and white, as they trod the burning sand. Lawrence of Arabia hidden in snowy Arab robes walked it — the infidel in the midst.
An East Anglian heatwave has been putting these fanciful notions in my head. There is a great deal of birdsong, none of it complaining. Each early evening, I carry well-water to the big stone pots, pick a few stems of rhubarb, look at my lawns and then at Wimbledon, feel the dry paths under my bare feet, and think of the heat in scripture, and those gritty sandals of the prophets — and, indeed, of the Lord. All the prophets and disciples would have been covered up against it. Christ in his seamless robe. Who gave him this lovely garment? Someone who sheltered him from the sun — and the cold.
In years gone by, the upper classes took care not to get a tan. It made them look like peasants. “Fear no more the heat of the sun,” a brother told his sibling in Cymbeline; for “Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney sweepers, come to dust.” My house was built when Shakespeare was alive. It makes little sounds as it bakes. Greenfinches get in and have to be shown out. Hollyhocks touch the roof.
How did the poet John Clare deal with summers such as this one? Making my way to his annual festival at Helpston — once in Northamptonshire, now in Cambridgeshire — I re-read him on the season.
*Rich music breathes in Summer’s every sound
And in her harmony of varied greens,
Woods, meadows, hedge-rows, corn-fields, all around
Much beauty intervenes
I like beauty intervening. It does so all the way to Helpston, the poet’s birthplace. It is my 32nd visit to talk about him, and usually on the gardens and fields where he briefly toiled. For they would lock him away in the madhouse for years and years, summer after summer, where, sprawling and hidden in the July growth, he would write. He had so much to say! And everything both factual and fanciful about summer.
In his July, everyone was outside — and not to get some sun. This was not an option. His July birthday arrived when nothing much could be done, outside or in, falling as it did between hay and corn harvests. So he could read and write in the sun.
When they put him in the bin, he took the summer with him, feeling the prickly mown grass against his shirt and the sun full on him. They allowed him a good library of more than 50 books, but not much paper. The blazing summers succeeded each other, firing the asylum walls. He was an honoured inmate. But he should have been outside in some uncultivated spot, watching swallows and paddling in the River Nene.
Madhouses — his word for them — are ovens in July. As are all prisons. A breath of air is all their inmates ask for. And birdsong. (7949)
*"Rich Music" is from Summer Images "Now swath summer by rude health embrowned"
Posted by Arborfield at 08:31
It is the summer of 1976 all over again. The heat builds up until noon, then turns down a notch or two. The trees burn for a bit, then creak and sigh. The mason bees buzz outside their crumbly mansions in the track, and the hornets, as big as little birds, swarm by the ruined bread oven. A kind of high-temperature intensity, plus a torpor, rules all things.
A collection of Cornish ghost stories tumbles from behind the radiator. Dated 1974, it is the work of my first writer-friend, James Turner, now in heaven. Surprisingly mint from such dusty hiding, and entitled Staircase to the Sea, it is set on the Cornish coast — that violent edge of it called Bedruthan Steps, where he and I talked “writing” by the day, to the ceaseless crash of the Atlantic far below.
When he died, a year or two later, I returned from Suffolk to speak at his funeral, and the hearse, with only me and the rector in it, travelled to the crematorium. Strangers to each other, we scarcely spoke. Every few minutes, a mile or two of James’s and my Cornwall passed by in the great heat — a hill, a tower, a pub, all sizzling in the sun. Thirty miles to Truro, where many wreaths were wilting in the racks.
I cannot remember a word I said, feeling sorry for the young curate who had never heard of either of us. The dead man’s address remains vivid up until this moment when his novel fell from the radiator. It was Parsonville, St Teath.
Our minds are curiously retentive and rejective. So I can hear every decibel of the Atlantic as it crashed on to Bedruthan Steps, but not a word of what I said at the funeral. James’s widow had stayed at home, rather as women do at a Highland funeral. She had looked bewildered as much as sad. It had all been so sudden, that final Sunday: holy communion at the eight-o’clock, coffee with the neighbours, a roast for lunch, a BBC concert at three, some of the new novel rattled off on the tall Remington, a letter to me in his Gothic hand, and then the pipe falling from his mouth at bedtime.
When I got off the Cornish Riviera train, his widow, Catherine, said: “What did he mean — going off like that?” People can be very indignant about death. I managed a few hours at Bedruthan Steps, his “staircase to the sea”, the title of the novel from behind the radiator.
They say that the heatwave will go on for days. The white cat sleeps 20 feet up in a tree. The ancient farmhouse is cool within and baking without. It is the quality of such buildings. Its water supply runs near freezing. Walking in the garden, I saw what at first I thought were burnt emblems on stilts, but which turned out to be old roses, York and Lancaster, Duchesse de Somebody or other, and John Clare. And St Edmund, of course. And wilting water plants and bright-as-a-button heart’s ease.
My Cornish friend was 68 when he died: a good age, I thought then. But, later, one changes one’s mind. Animals never change their minds. They like a routine, a place, a temperature; and, in the white cat’s case, a height. The birds like to sing at dawn in the summertime, and are Augustine in their collective voice. Heaven knows what they are saying. But it gets one out of bed.
Another hot day. People return from the Italian holiday they booked in winter, feeling short-changed. My friend’s letter says that “Cornwall was hell over Easter, but our new vicar is the goods.” But one can’t have everything. Although my house at this moment says that I might. (7948)
Posted by Arborfield at 07:58