Ronald Blythe thinks of a Scot who led prayer in the South Sea islands

The Collect being the one which asks the Lord to keep us under the protection of his good providence, and the second lesson being the one about St Paul and his nephew, I remember Robert Louis Stevenson and his mother on Samoa, ruling the natives with a Scottish rod of iron. The wonderful writer had gone there to seek a climate which might add a few more months to his life. He was 44, and had written some 40 books. What they had not expected was to have to rule the roost.
But these were the days when the British Empire unblushingly saw "lesser breeds as children", thus in this instance summoning the Samoans to family prayers. Young and old, men and women, boys and girls, bathed, put flowers in their hair, sang Scottish hymns, and worshipped God the Edinburgh way.
Many years after her husband's death, Mrs Stevenson published the prayers which Stevenson wrote for this Edinburgh worship on a South Sea island. In it, she likens it to the prayers which a child says at his mother's knee.
"The average Samoan is but a larger child in most things, and would lay an uneasy head on his wooden pillow if he had not joined, even perfunctorily, in the evening service. With my husband, prayer, the direct appeal, was a necessity... After all work and meals were finished, the 'pu', or war conch, was sounded from the back veranda and the front.
"I don't think it ever occurred to us that there was any incongruity in the use of the war conch for the peaceful invitation to prayer. . . The Samoans, men, women and children, trooped in through all the open doors. Once, the Chief left the room suddenly - "I am not yet fit to say 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us'." Stevenson's last prayer was for the renewal of joy. "Look down upon the dry bones, quicken, enliven; create in us the soul of service, the spirit of peace; renew in us the sense of joy." He calls God "our guide and our angel." They called him Tusitala - storyteller - and buried him on a hill where he had walked to see the setting sun.
In The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Stevenson novelises the dual nature of man: its goodness and its evil, although there was nothing in his own existence that justifies the latter. His brilliant output made him too busy to be bad. Forty on the whole wonderful stories, an American wife and her son by an earlier marriage, an Edinburgh mother, and some of the best letters in the English language, a physical restlessness which kept him walking, sailing, and those collapsing lungs which cried for more and more air, kept him amazingly on the go every minute of the day. Thus his evening prayer.
"Prolong our days in peace and honour. Give us health, food, bright weather, and light hearts. . . Let us lie down without fear and awake and arise with exultation. . . Let us not lose the savour of past mercies and past pleasures; but, like the voice of a bird singing in the rain, let grateful memory survive in the hour of darkness."
Later on, he asks God to "teach us the lesson of trees and the meaning of fish". When I was a child, I was given his Child's Garden of Verses, with its poem "The Lamplighter", and I can just remember such a person cycling round our small Suffolk town, touching a gas-jet here and there, but leaving a mile of darkness to our house. Stevenson's father built lighthouses - including the Eddystone lighthouse.  (7946)

Ronald Blythe is struck by the abilities of the clerics whom he is addressing

"Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright." The white cat sleeps on the piano stool until it warms up. The horses breathe like dragons. The trees hang on to yesterday's heat. I must talk to the Clerical Society, a Victorian foundation, to tell it what I hope I haven't told it before - and in 25 minutes, after which there will be lunch. But first I am asked to say Grace.
Just up the hill, St Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, carries the true cross on the top of the town hall. A chilly wind from the east coast blows the birds about. Young and elderly priests listen to me, none of them familiar to me. As always, I marvel how they minister to three or more parishes at once, each with its own culture. Long ago, we would race from church to church, me giving the bell a toll or two, lighting candles, filling up registers, passing on; the wild verges waving to us as we passed.
This Sunday, I read the banns. "Both of this parish." But strangers. "If ye know of any cause or impediment," I add. Never in my life has anyone known any cause or impediment. Banns were a drama in old novels. Part of this drama was the bridegroom's possessing the bride's fortune the second he placed the ring on her finger.
But then came the Married Woman's Property Act. And now comes what often seems to me the near-eternal bondage of the mortgage. They do things differently in France and Germany. You pay rent if you like. It is an unpossessive way to live.
When we are old, we have to give everything we own to somebody else. Long ago, I knew an ancient neighbour whose declining years were made joyous by the expression on his children's faces when they found out that they had been left nothing. But then came a law which prevented a "dead hand" from interfering with life. "How much did he leave?" the rich old lady asked as the car swept into the cemetery. "He left it all," said her companion.
Christ asked a young man to leave it all. It was too much. The Kingdom of Heaven is a long way off when one is young. I suppose that most of us watch the faces of elderly millionaires on television with perplexity; for, like the sweet day, so calm, so bright, they must die and leave every penny to others.
But it is easy to moralise. We are to condemn, not money, but the love of it. I loved my first half-crown with a vengeance. Held it in my child's hot hand for at least a week, and could not bear the spending of it. There is an old table in my library with a drawer in which my brother hoarded his Saturday pennies. When I opened it yesterday, I thought I heard a chink.
And there was the collection. "Nothing rolls as far as a penny in church," they used to say. But I like the wicked blacksmith's son we used to sing: "He put a penny in the bag, and took a sovereign out."
And now they say we are coming to the end of coins and arriving at the age of cards. Loose change will soon be lost change. Old coins frequently turn up in the garden. I wash the faces of Queen Victoria and, once, George III, and put them on the sill. They are in profile, and take turns to look right and left.
Roman Colchester, up the road, has great boxes of coins with emperors' portraits on them, all of them left behind after 400 years of imperial government. So that is what Hadrian looked like!
The Lord's short life was full of coins which he returned to Caesar, and it was bought and sold with Temple funds.  (7945)

Ronald Blythe recalls post-storm stillness

It comforts me somewhat that it is the youthful commuters who now talk about haymaking and cows, putting hedges back and seeing sugarbeet leaves take a shine after a good rain, and not the old farmers.
When the commuters arrived, we all thought that they would put the acres that went with their fine houses out to foster-care. But no. A number of them dash home from the City to feed stock before settling to hear how wicked their children have been in their absence, and what is for dinner.
Occasionally, if one is lucky, it is just possible that an actual farmworker might be spied during the hours when they are away totting up immense figures in Bishopsgate, but generally the farm waits patiently for its owner to return, put on his jeans, and comfort his cattle.
Tom said that he had spent the spring holiday cutting his hay and silage — some of it in the riverside pasture that is still called “Constable’s” on account of its being owned by the artist’s uncle before the Napoleonic wars. This haymaking ended perfectly in heavy rain that penetrated the shorn ground, polished the blue-ish ears of corn, and pounded the willows. Rushing through it, I glimpsed a drenched white cat quietly observing sporadic lightning from a drowning wall.
Later, in the post-storm stillness, I walked to Hugh’s to hear the result of the Flower Festival. We do not put on this yearly show for nothing. No flower-festival takings, no quota. To think that the diocese’s economy rests on such arrangements.
This time the theme — there has to be a theme — was islands. So during Songs of Praise, standing between the school’s lusty Treasure Island and Pip’s cool Iceland, I read: “No man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.” But when I came to “if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,” President Chirac was the man who came into my head. St John the Divine on the Isle of Patmos dislodged him.
We sang hymns that were clearly entirely of themselves, their once immense messages half lost in favourite tunes. Then we loaded up the takings, switched off the lights, locked in the scent, and left all this floral ingenuity to get on as best it could with the grey severity of the pillars and the blackening painted windows.
Waiting for the key to turn in the lock, I heard the clock go clunk. A kind of “That’s that.” The table-tombs of the Georgian farmers and millers, so useful for the flower arrangers’ sandwiches and wine, were resuming their well-lettered dignity, and the churchyard trees were all standing to attention and getting ready for their secret night-life.
As May crosses into June, we are to read the Book of Ecclesiastes, that matchless confession of world-weariness, although how anyone can be world-weary when the days are at their best, heaven only knows. The Preacher wraps his gloom in such marvellous language that he somewhat undermines his conclusions. When he complains that there is no new thing under the sun, I — at this pre-summer moment — can only ask, “Does there have to be?”
Reading on, disillusioned or not, who can resist this enchanting writer? He is the man who had everything, but who is now an old man for whom everything has turned to dross. He venerates sadness, and makes it beautiful. Yet, at the very end, just before the silver cord is loosed, he finds the light sweet and the sun “pleasant”. As shall we all. 

Ronald Blythe believes he can hear parochial voices calling

Returned from Loch Rannoch wanderings, and having missed the flower festival, a hanging offence, I remember that it was at Trinity in 1739 that John Wesley defended his absenteeism with that now famous line, "I look upon all the world as my parish." It was in a letter to a friend who was urging him to settle down and not meddle "in other men's parishes".
His meddling at that moment was in Somerset, where the childlike, artless love of the people enchanted him. In this letter, Wesley reminded his friend that there was no place in the world, Christian or heathen, which was not "after a sort, divided into parishes"; so that to speak of Christ anywhere was an encroachment on localised religion.
But what had made Wesley touchy was another letter beseeching him to return to London, "our brethren in Fetter-Lane being in great confusion, for want of my presence and advice". Guilt. Our parish may be the world, but our parochiality refuses to be boundless.
Indeed, it requires an impressive degree of selflessness to allow it to sweep across the borders of the average united benefice - a fairly recent bit of diocesan fiddle-faddle, of course, for whenever during their long, adjacent histories were Wormingford, Mount Bures, and Little Horkesley united? That is the last thing they were. As they say, however: "We are all one in Him." Christianity certainly makes us reckless.
I catch up on parish news - from each parish its own news. Just as I thought, it is sensational. It has to be. A parochial prerogative is that things must happen the minute one turns one's back, and they have.
I salvage from my store of appropriate reactions the stunned expression of a parishioner returned from a week's holiday. A nave ceiling painted blue, the cake-stall a gold mine, the hymns I had chosen for "Songs of Praise" with lots of verses omitted, "otherwise we'd be singing them still." The churchwarden, "He won't like it; he says the words are poems." But he understands - isn't he parochial?
What does amaze me is the garden. Left trim and just in bud, I come home to find it modelling for Monet, and the cat high on pollen. My new rose "John Clare" is in bloom. Clare, the ultimate parish voice of England, the poet who made its limitations illimitable.
He also wrote that touching hymn "The Stranger", in which Christ is the outcast villager forced to leave human boundaries. Clare was both a prisoner and the free spirit of parochialism, both confined and yet soaring. A line from his hymn: "The blind met daylight in His eye."
You can find "The Stranger" here :

Ronald Blythe considers finishing a book, and biblical botany at the feast of Pentecost

Putting a finished book together is at first a formidable task, but a satisfying one. Pagination, chaptering, index, and, above all, entitling must be tackled one by one. And, of course, there has to be a dedication. There was that old bombshell - "I dedicate this book to my dear wife, without whose help it would have been finished in half the time."
I write by hand, type, then file the handwritten and typed pages, and put them in my manuscript cupboard and forget about them; for I am a fan of the present, although with a head full of the past.
It was Oliver Goldsmith who wrote best about being an author. He may have used a quill pen, not a computer, but today's writer cannot quibble with such lasting truths as, "one writer, for instance, excels at a plan or a title page, another works away on the body of a book, and a third is a dab hand at an index." How he would have adored my photocopier, on which the white cat sleeps in her unscholarly moments.
Pentecostal days. My vast trees murmur in the valley wind. Late last night, walking in the warm garden, I listened to an owl conversation, or duet. There is an Elizabethan poem about its ancestor which I am fond of, "Sweet Suffolk Owl". Even today I may see the River Stour as Owl Country. Now and then, I see them flying low; their impenetrable disc-like faces say nothing. Little Owls, Athene noctua, perch in my ancient track, creating commotion as I appear. They were introduced to England in Victorian times, and they make low mice-hunting sweeps across the dark fields.
Christopher, the New Zealand bishop's son, helps me to tie back a vast climbing rose which had escaped its constraint and tumbled to the earth. He climbs my new ladders and is perilously secure. The rose fights back. He looks at his hands and says, "It is only blood."
He lectures on photography, and we look through tattered albums. Young faces, centuries old, stare back at us, beautiful women, sturdy youths, and elegant folk in frock coats and huge coats. Or naked in the river and obviously immortal. Christopher ties the rose to the wall with special knots that the Scouts taught him, and he is lost in budding flowers. I stand on the bottom rung, steadying everything, I like to think, but nearly gesturing. I remain useless until I make the tea.
In church, I read 1 Peter 1. It is about being born again, clarified, made new in Christ. And there is that exquisite verse in the burial service, "For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away. But the Word of the Lord endureth for ever."
As a naturalist, I know that grass seed falls and grows all over again. But biblical botany has to offer a different text. And I never forget my childhood flower letters in the encyclopaedia at the back of my Bible, tucked away with colourful maps of the Holy Land, and the Roman Empire; the meaning of names and dates were a wonderful escape route from sermons.
The only sermon I can remember at this devout time was in a Suffolk church, half-empty after Christmas, when a retired bishop, his enormous sleeves billowing on the pulpit-ledge, spoke on the Good Samaritan, with fluency and love. There was a death-like cistern in the church, which made a sound like the Pentecostal flames, as they wavered about the heads of a new Church, and which made everything mysterious.  (29th May 2015)

Ronald Blythe is meditating over a silver fork

It is a May afternoon, and I am engaged in that form of meditation known as weeding. How the May birds sing! I am on my knees hoiking out the undesirables with a nice new silver fork, untwirling the Everlasting Sweetpea fronds from a nettle, and sadly, for they always make me think of the Dürer drawing, piling up dandelions.
I cut fresh edges and smell pear blossom. A lean tomcat calls to pay court to Kitty, who eyes him sanguinely, safe in the knowledge that there is nothing doing. The sun is warm, the grass is wet, the jeans are muddy. It is great to be alive. “Oh, the work, the work!” laments a caller. I think of Gilbert White peering from the rectory window at “my weeding women”, and most likely believing that they could be at their prayers.
My meditations are random and ranging. For instance, I contemplate St James, the man from Bethsaida, which means the House of Fish (just as Bethlehem means the House of Bread), swimming away to Compostela in his silver box — and what a welcome he got!
In her pilgrimage book On Glory Roads, Eleanor Munro says that “It is the fate of the imagination sometimes to be trapped in the very structures it invents. . . the Lord, as a construct of thought, understood this natural condition. He who had been a wayfarer, coming out of the dark like a wind, standing over Sinai like a flame, travelling north in the Ark, in scriptural fact approached his installation in a Temple with a troubled mind. ‘Down to this day I have never dwelt in a house. . . I made my journey in a tent and a tabernacle. . . Did I ever ask any of the judges why they had not built me a house of cedar?’ (Samuel 7.5-9).”
All I can think of as I dig away is that nobody requires a house in maytime. A mighty stand of cow parsley three feet tall below the kitchen window, almost in flower, dares me to touch it; and so, like some petty deity, I let it live. As I wash up, I will watch it whiten and sway, and become a lovely fragment of that glorious transformation of the English roads, their ravishing takeover by Anthriscus sylvestris in a week or two’s time.
I always cut tall stems of it to place in big old pots by the brick bread oven so that I can enjoy it inside and out, and where it kindly makes its own starry, branchy, perfect shape. This would have been anathema to the men who built the oven; for them it was “Devil’s meat”. They should have got out more, and into that divine universe of flowers.
Late that evening, I watch Muriel Spark seeking to define her art in slowly accurate sentences, the Scottish rawness attractively present. So broke was she in London that a stationer had to give her the five quarto sheets on which to write her début story “The Seraph and the Zambezi”.
She always wrote with a ballpoint pen, three to each novel. I wrote my first books with a relief nib, dipping and sliding it along the ruled foolscap; but these days I use three-to-a-card ballpoints. Recently, in a rush, I came away from Smith’s with red ballpoints, and so there are entire chapters in rubric.
Hearing the recently dead speak is strangely moving. Muriel Spark, maybe, has a slight cold. Her eyes are weary and watery, and now and then she presses a tightly scrunched hanky to her nose. She is in Tuscany, and her study window frames vignettes of the hilly landscape like those seen in the old masters’ portraits of the Virgin.
At one point, she describes bombed London, the wallpapered rooms hanging in the air, the plants taking over, the intimate interiors open to every gaze. 

Ronald Blythe welcomes a visitor from Africa, and smartens up his garden

[Young cuckoo being fed by a reed warbler]

The first cuckoo. Its call-note is unmistakeable, the books tell me. As is its parasitic habit. Why build a nest when others can build it for you? It glides in from foreign parts to its seasonal home in the Stour Valley. It likes the edges of things, where the woods and commons peter out. Its cry is relentlessly the same for weeks on end. It stays summery and welcome, and we tell each other, "I heard the first cuckoo this morning." Not to have done so would be worrying, and the summer itself diminished.

It is a ruthless occupier of other birds' nests, heaving out eggs and chicks to make a home for its brood. How strange that other species are unable to tell the difference between their own brood and the invader.

That most enchanting and knowledgeable of bird poets, and tester of popular legend, John Clare, did not believe that cuckoos had hollow backs specially designed for this purpose. I, too, have found what might be called a comfortable ignorance of nature in many neighbours, although some of the TV documentaries are beginning to shift this.

Clare despaired at the way his neighbours would go thus far and no further in nature study, if one could call it that, perhaps finding it blasphemous to know more than their parents did about flowers and birds. They did not need to be told what a cuckoo in the nest was when it came to their own families.

Once, Clare heard both a nightingale and a cuckoo on the same evening. He hated natural history being put to use for human conduct; but he didn't get very far with science among his Northamptonshire friends. They had centuries of legend behind them, most of it full of repeated falsities, and his commands to look, listen, and learn were ignored. Even today, hearing my first cuckoo, there has been an effort to listen to a bird and not a human morality.

And there it sings, Colchester way, not too far off, a creature of variegated greys, monotonous, plaintive with early summer. "Did you hear the cuckoo last evening?" I will say at the first opportunity; for this is the drill. And I will forget that it was last listened to in Africa, and that it is not the prerogative of an English late spring.

Meanwhile, I hesitate to pull advance wildflowers like weeds from my borders. Laburnum hangs in greening tassels, and only prejudice stops me from saying that my nettles are a sight.

In church I read "O Lord, from whom all good things do come: Grant to us thy humble servants that by thy holy inspiration we may think those things that be good, and by thy merciful guiding may perform the same." And I preach on Julian of Norwich, who thought it a pity to die when one was 30. A Norfolk priest was there to catch her last words; for something told her to abandon this deathbed for literature. How it must have irritated those who stood around her: having to blow the candles out, dismiss the priest, and cope with genius.

Adrian has mown the grass paths. I edge them. How smart we are. The lilacs are sumptuous. "Lalocks," my grandmother used to call them. She wouldn't have them in the house. "Unlucky," she would say. We brought her a bunch, but she hurried them outside. Should a bee wander in, it would mean a good message. Should there be lightning, she would cover the mirrors with cloths. For her, life was a run of blessings and risks.  (15th May 2105)

The Cuckoo - some excerpts from John Clare

Generally prefers eith[er] a wagtails or a hedge sparrows (nest)    drops no more then one egg in a nest    it (is) a short one of a beautiful blush color clouded at the large end with a deeper hue    they are small & not much larger then a hedge sparrows    after singing times it preys on young birds & is oftern mistaken fro the hawk whose character in many (ways) it assumes – the young cuckoos are aid to be hollow backd & throw out the young ones that are hatchd with them   

The loitering cowboy peeping at a nest
Breaks off his sports for the first cuckoos strain
He turns & looks warm thrillings melt his heart
‘Cuckoo’ he sings & seeks his rest again