Ronald Blythe walks through blackberry-blossomed churchyards

[Image : 'Cornfield (1815) Peter de Wint]
"August for the people!" cried the democratic Auden. August for staying at home, I say. Once it was August for Cornwall, those north headlands void of visitors which ranged on and on to Devon. A friend awakened these westward longings when a week in Totnes made her restless for something other than East Anglian brightness.
Charles Causley and James Turner, my Cornish poets, took different views on their county. Charles, born and bred in it, was earthy; James romantic. His uncle had been a country rector there; so we drove to his parish through deep lanes to a wonderfully unkempt churchyard where the tombs tottered about this way and that, their engraved slate messages not at all reassuring for the living.
And there he was, twice buried, once in clay, once in blackberries - James's uncle. We spent hours making him visible. Cathy, James's wife, picked wild flowers, discovered a jam jar, filled it from a little stream, and there he was, recalled if not actually remembered.
But no Riviera ride from East Anglia to the west on a day like this. The garden chairs are drying out, the birds are calling, and the white cat has taken up her hot morning position on the tumbling wall, held upright by ivy. A novel, too, has been left out all night, and I ask its forgiveness. I bought it for 20p in Wissington church porch, after having shown a guest the faint wall-paintings, loving the way in which history can be so apologetic.
Lots of blackberry blossoms everywhere. And shortly my friend Anthony Atkins will lie there. We began our writer-artist careers together: he the principal of the local art-school, I on the Suffolk coast.
There was a school for church-painters in Colchester in the 13th century, so that people could take the Gospel off the wall, so to speak. The peasant congregations, standing on rushes, would look up, and there was their priest, and St Francis, and the disciples in a rocky ship, and Jesu, joy of man's desiring, all picked out on plaster, vivid then, but faint these days.
Where are we? St Bartholomew. Already - August going, going, gone! Not quite. Summer hangs on in these parts often until November. But bullaces are shaping in the hedges, and the harvest oblongs rock by on trailers. Corn stubble needs stout shoes and a keen eye. It is so revealing - treasures can come to light; aftermath flowers and flints; once, an arrow-head.
You can see all the way to wherever, and even the practice bells sound louder, although there is no one about and a lonely countryside. Fewer walkers, too, these days. But the pubs are busy, and a lot of eating is done. Although the truth is that I now know little about what is happening, and what I do know is out of date. What would Thomas Hardy or John Clare have made of them - our fields?
But I think they would have liked our churches with still their old language. It is the Song of Songs. They say that the translators had two minds about putting it into the Bible, this passionate Hebrew love poem that we were asked to read as something quite else.

I put "For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come" on my friend John Nash's tombstone, he having been a great naturalist and having looked down on plants from his small height, besides gazing his way through landscape, as much in Cornwall as in the Stour Valley.  (29th August 2014)

Ronald Blythe takes in his late-summer garden, leaning on a new stick

Elegiac days. I have been given an ash-plant walking stick that John Masefield cut from a hedge on the Western Front. He was a medical orderly. I lean on it in the peaceful August garden. The poplars sing in hushed voices. It has gained a polish where hands have held it, and a ferrule. I try it out on the long walk, and it sends up summer dust. "Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you," Jesus said. Excellent advice.
In church we remember 4 August 1914, first silently, with Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending, and then with touches of compline. I read Rupert Brooke's "Safety" and "The Soldier". His safety lies in the indestructible heart of things. Very soon, in the same fleet as bore my teenage father to Gallipoli, a mosquito would take his life. He was 27. And here am I, old in the old garden, eating raspberries, telling tales to the white cat, thinking of what to say on Sunday.
There are celebrated dragonflies here. I forget why they are celebrated, but naturalists call on them and they sometimes enthrone themselves on my bare skin, gossamer, shimmering. "August for flying," they say. Roses tremble beneath them. "August for the people," W. H. Auden said. August for lazing, say I. I am no good at this, however, which is just as well, considering the state of my desk. But I adore the sounds of August, its orchestral winds, its midnight creaks, its loud birds, its noises off - i.e. the sound of other people's pleasures. And the splutter of my neighbour's little aeroplane as he takes a look at our valley.
They are harvesting here and there, not that anyone is interested. The most disturbing in today's farming year is the total lack of interest in the harvest. In church, Harvest Festival is a kind of apology for ignoring the fields. All is safely gathered in, the tinned peas, the outsize marrow, the magnificent flowers. And there is gratitude, of course. The appalling things we see on the evening screen make me feel lucky. And goodness itself is commonplace, or should we say ordinary?
And while we know a good deal about each other in the village, our lives are too expanded these days for us to feel that we are "observed". Think of John Clare, who had to hide away in order to write. But then writers are very odd people.
New Zealanders come to see me, and carrying gifts. They call the earth tremors there "the shakes". They are rebuilding Christchurch Cathedral, and not entirely of cardboard. The loss of the beautiful Victorian architecture four years ago brings tears to our eyes. We mention John Selwyn, who took the gospel to New Zealand, teaching himself Maori on the ship.
I tell them of my old friend Christopher Perkins, who taught at Wellington Art School, and whose work is now in the National Gallery. As a youth, I sat for him as St John, dressed in a sheet. It was for a Dorset reredos. I remember his sketchbooks, with their pages and pages of New Zealand towns and settlements, the wooden houses and tin roofs, and their sense of being far away. As far as you could go. And particularly the Scots

They - these visitors - were on their way to Scotland, making me feel envious. It is almost the time when the Highlands' scent of heather is so seductive that it makes one long to emigrate. But the white cat says "Know your place." Which I try to.  (22nd August 2014)

Ronald Blythe returns from matins to find three poets in his garden

Having preached on St Mary Magdalene at matins, I returned home to find three Persian poets in the garden. Having told my young neighbours that I once lived near Boulge, the Suffolk village where Edward FitzGerald translated The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, they had driven to his grave and recited what was once one of the most popular poems in the English language. I knew most of it by heart in my teens. Published in 1859, it was found in a bookseller's tuppenny box by Swinburne, and soon everyone was reciting it aloud.
And now, having in my vague way mentioned this famous tale to friends up the lane, here they are, princes from the East, exotic and beautiful, and waiting for a lunchtime drink. Worse or better, whichever you prefer, they returned to their London flats in those clothes. I simply hung my cassock on a peg.
But the Bottengoms roses in their innocence and profusion perfumed the whole garden. The white cat observed all this with some disdain, sprawling on the bone-dry earth and looking up with little interest. Give her good plain human behaviour any day. One of the boys had actually visited Omar's city, seen his rose in situ, slept under his stars. On the strength of this, he returned to his London flat in his robe, sash, and sandals.
Then John the Vicar calls to discuss 4 August, that tragic date. He has chosen Thomas Hardy's "Men who March Away", and Rupert Brooke's "The Soldier" and "Safety" for me to read. The latter is a little-known poem about the safety of death. "Safe shall be my going." So let the slaughter begin.
Time does not still the madness of the First World War. My teenage father ran from the plough to the recruiting station at Stowmarket, and was soon at Gallipoli. Brooke was on the same convoy, but a mosquito intervened, and the troopship pulled in to Skyros, where a grave was dug with difficulty on the rocky shore. Men who sail away.
I lent his poems to Edward, the young friend in the Omar costume, grateful to him for having recreated and freshened what I had thought of as a conventional literary experience.
There comes a time when what was everybody's "read" is nobody's read. Also - I speak for myself - when the Booker Prize list is full of well-known names of which one has never heard. I was a Booker Prize judge, years ago. I rose at six every day, and read and read. On the doorstep, when it was warm enough. A fine cat who now sleeps in the wood sat beside me.
We gave the prize to William Golding for his amazing sail to Botany Bay, Rites of Passage, a novel in which the passenger list gives little away. He looked like an old sea captain himself, blue-eyed and bristly. I thought of St Paul when he offered to be thrown overboard, en route to Rome. Seafaring was as risky as skyfaring. "But then," as a philosophical old friend once said, "if you didn't take risks, you wouldn't go anywhere."
It is bliss, now, not to go far. To stay in the summer garden. To pack the passport away. To pray. To think of what to say on Trinity 7. It is Samuel, of course, Samuel the kingmaker. The little boy who heard God's voice in the night. "I am here, Lord." The little boy who would go far

Books bake on the lawn, their leaves turned by warm winds. Beyond the garden, onions for the supermarket are irrigated by dazzling jets. It is full summer.  (15th August 2014)

Ronald Blythe waits for the summer to break, and goes barefoot

The current shelling of an Eastern city brings Milton's Samson Agonistes into my head. "Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves." The heroic leader has been seduced, cropped, blinded, but in a moment of God-given return of strength, he is able to pull the house down on is tormentors.
An apologist for the bombing is unable to persuade me or anyone else of its righteousness. Milton's Samson is not named on the breakfast news, but when "Gaza" is said, he seems to criticise the military action taken against a modern city in which today's children cower in their classrooms. Hasn't the world seen enough of this "justified" response? Words would have done. Words would have done for all wars.
Apart from Gaza, the radio says that the summer will break today. Though little sign of it as yet. The ancient farmhouse continues to bake; the wasps hang around. Climbing roses burst against the warm walls. My freshly scythed orchard turns into hay. At 6 a.m., the garden is sopping wet and cold to bare feet, as I carry yesterday's letters to the box for the postman.
This is the day when the clay-sculptor Jon Edgar delivers my bust. He carries it through the tall plants, and here I am in three dimensions, and as I have not known myself before. If only Charles I could have seen his head in the round, what might our history have been!
My question now is, where shall my head be put? Think of the white cat. Think of some sudden movement. Clay heads are as fragile as bone heads. But Jon soon discovers a place from which it can survey the universe safely. After which we drive to Mount Bures for a celebratory fish and chips and beer.
By this time, the sun knows no limits. I tell Jon about the Iron Age folk sleeping beneath our feet, and about the Mount being all of 30 feet high. After lunch, we visit the soaring door-angels at Stoke-by-Nayland; silvery with centuries, they rise to a Virgin that the Reformers could do little about, considering the cost of new doors.
The day becomes hotter and hotter, and the passing cornfields more and more golden. Not a soul about. If you want outsiders, you must go to Ambridge. A church-size combine presses us into the blackberries en passant. Hollyhocks loom. Pigeons play last-across. Irrigation jets play Versailles. "There's a lot going on," we tell each other. We mean for an English village in late July. We might even see a man at work.
Trinity 6, and we are to remember a holy family who fed and lodged the Lord as he walked the rough roads in the heat. Two sisters and their brother remain the founders of Christian hospitality. George Herbert would find Jesus at the "ordinary" table in the inn. I can remember the "farmers' ordinary" in a small Suffolk town when I was a boy. It was kept by two sisters, and the farmers walked across from the corn exchange on market day to eat roast beef, whatever the temperature. None of your silly salads.

Plaster labourers lolled against plaster sheaves above the corn exchange in attitudes of what the Book of Common Prayer calls "plenty". The corn exchange is now the public library, but still they loll in the full sun, sickles at the ready. The mere ghost of agriculture haunts our country towns, and heatwaves seem to draw it out. What shall we sing at matins? "With prosperous times our cities crown, Our fields with plenteousness. (8th August 2014)

Ronald Blythe always wanted to be alone - and now, in a way, he is

When, giving a hostage to fortune, I recklessly announce that I do not take holidays, meaning that I don't have a fortnight in Spain, or Felixstowe, the reply is: "But your life is all holiday!" So much for the years at the desk.
This country was all holy days until the Reformation, after which you were lucky to get time off for Christmas. Bank Holidays began in 1871, when banks were closed for one day a year. In Thomas Hardy's novels, you got a day off only if some minor mishap - a whitlow on your finger - prevented your working - although, in the old half-dreaming, hard-working countryside, skiving was an honourable art.
As a boy, I would vanish into the long grass, so to speak, to read and escape jobs. As country children, we had our jobs, and mine included milking goats, running errands, and looking after small brothers. I longed to be alone, like Greta Garbo. And now I am - alone with three parishes.
Their wants are part of my happiness, something that puzzles my friends. I have long stopped worrying about repeating myself when I talk to them Sunday after Sunday. Sometimes I read to them, sometimes I teach them. The lesson-readers take such trouble. I could listen to some of them by the hour.
It is Isaiah now, peerless prophet. And a lengthy one, thank goodness. He flourished, as they say, in the eighth century BC. And what a writer! His wonderful book begins with human desolation, and ends with the new heavens and the new earth. His God tells him: "Be glad, and rejoice for ever in my creation."
"I know I should be happy, if in the world I stay," we sang in Sunday school. Not, of course, on the News, which is as unhappy as journalists can make it: a sad entertainment on the hour. But human nature's balancing propensities defeat such expert gloom, certainly when the sun shines as it does at this moment, hotting up the roof tiles, and driving the white cat under the sheltering leaves.
I am re-reading Virginia Woolf's The Waves. "The sun struck straight upon the house, making the white walls glare between the dark windows. Their panes, woven thickly with green branches, held circles of impenetrable darkness.
"Sharp wedges of light lay upon the window sill and showed inside the room plates with blue rims, cups with curved handles, the bulge of a great bowl, the criss-cross pattern in the rug, and the formidable corners and lines of cabinets and bookcases." Just as now, this minute. Nothing need be changed in the description. The virtue of such writing is to show us all over again the beauty of the ordinary, the commonplace.
Washing dries between two plum trees. The postman rattles down the stony track. But fewer walkers than in days gone by. It has been a public road since Alfred the Great or John Bottengomes, c.1375. It tilts towards the River Stour, with pastures on one side and crops on the other. I know its every flint. They shine in the July sun, just as they do in the spring rain.
The summer birds sing, but I am bad on birdsong, try as I might to identify it. "But that's a goldcrest," the old friend tells me, although it will merge into "birdsong" the minute she leaves

The Old Testament is terrible on natural history. I learnt some of mine reading the Palestinian information at the back of my Bible during sermons. This when I was a child. I am all attention now, of course. But the summer does make one drift off. It is partly what it is for - meditation.  (1st August, 2014)

Evensong – it’s not really an oddity, says Ronald Blythe

We have two evensongs, one every Sunday at Little Horkesley, one each month at Wormingford, one with the biggest attendance, one with the smallest, and both stemming from traditions that are largely forgotten.
Churchgoing rules and figures in the countryside were created more by the timing of the main meal on the sabbath than by its prayer pattern. To enable their army of servants to have time off for God, the middle classes had dinner at two instead of eight. They went to matins (and holy communion about four times a year), and their staff, having washed up, laid the table for supper and, dressed up, went to evensong.
There was much singing and, afterwards, long walks, then home again strictly by ten. And, of course, it was pre-eminently the service for the farmworkers and their families. Usually the best television of the week, plus, I used to suspect, some connivance by the clergy to rid themselves of this service, has resulted in the actual oddity of evensong in many minds.
It is, of course, liturgically most beautiful and spiritually entirely satisfying. Just to read it at home at about four o’clock sets the day right. If our three churches were nearer, I would read it in one of them, but they are miles away. So, I sing it alternately with Henry, the Vicar at Little Horkesley, along with this surprising-to-some large attendance; and every first Sunday in the month here at Wormingford, with the Colonel, the bell-ringers, and the churchwardens, the two candles wavering, the four hymns, too.
And I think to myself how good I am at Quiet control. Not even the wild goings-on of Jonah disturb us, or the lukewarm antics of Laodicea. All is submerged in ancient prayer. But for sermon I read both the great and small evensong folk something I have written about the sea-routes of the early faith, and I think I imagine its sound like the entrancing noise in a shell when it is clasped to the ear and entirely listened to.
To Norwich to talk to the annual general meeting of Age Concern. It is convened in one of those hotels that have conference suites, and I am met with a stand which says, “How to arrange your funeral”. We are far from evensong.
In my late 40s, I began to write a book about old age, feeling Time pressing on me. It was a philosophical riposte to Simone de Beauvoir’s brilliant Marxist tirade against the dying of the light, and also a kind of stand against some of the ideas that have created today’s old-age management.
An old lady was telling someone, “And when she saw me she said, ‘Why, you keep on looking younger!’” But what an incomparably better world it is for the old, with its dentistry, hygiene, pretty clothes, disposable income — and long, long years. Four-score-years-and-ten are becoming the norm. Christ raised only the young from their death, those like the governor’s daughter, or the widow’s son, or his friend Lazarus, who deserved a life to live, not those who had already lived it.

And so to King Street in Norwich, the city’s first entrance, by the side of which a very old woman went on living long after she had written a book called her Revelations of Divine Love. She said that “We need love, longing and pity,” curious necessities, some now would think. When she was 30, she thought it “a pity to die”; so she got better in order to be a writer, among other things.  (12.09.2007)

Ronald Blythe visits the home village of one of England's greatest poets














Off to Helpston for the 32nd time. For John Clare, its native voice, the first Sunday in July was the Helpston feast: "Wrestling and fighting, the ploughman's fame is still kept up with the usual determined spirit." Like his contemporary, William Hazlitt, another quiet man, Clare accepts violence in the village. He walks away from it, and into his intellectual world.

"Saw a bird that was an entire stranger to me about the size and shape of a green linnet, and with wings of a brown-grey colour, the crown of the head a deep black that extended downwards no further than the eyes. Went to see Artis [his archaeologist friend] who tried to look it up in his bird book. It was an unnoticed species of the linnet tribe."

Clare was all too noticed for his own peace of mind. A ploughman who wrote poetry? People came to look at him in the fields. He tried to hide - an impossibility in a 19th-century village. And now we continue to look at him from all angles.

I read him yet again, before Alan and I set off for what is now the Cambridgeshire border, early in the morning. And there it is, the walled park that cost a pound a yard, the Clare Society, his birthplace next to the pub where he worked, the pleasures of repetition. Although not too much in my presidential address.

The white cat sees us off. For her, the top of the farmtrack is Ultima Thule. Only once in a dozen years did I find her up it, and had to call her back to her own two acres. Meriel the organist is taking her cat miles away, and is dreading it. But long ago some Suffolk friends drove their cat, Holly, to Cornwall, and suffered more than he did. Neither did he recognise me when I arrived, having become Cornish at once.

Today, reading in the study, I watch the horses out of the corner of my eye. One wears a white mask against the flies, the other makes do with her tail. There they stand, deep in horse talk, which is silent.

I have allowed the Himalayan Balsam to riot. It has explosive seeds. Touch their capsule, and they're off. A small child was more disconcerted than amused when invited to do this. Pretty flowers were not supposed to end their lives with such power. The gardener brushing against them with the mower is peppered with seed shot.

What do I say in church in early Trinity? Something I haven't said before, if possible. Shall I read Francis Kilvert? What was he doing on a Victorian July day? He died so young - 39 - and a week after his wedding. His coffin was carried beneath the bridal arch.

William Plomer, the South African poet, published some of his diary in 1939. Amid all the parish duties, there is a longing for girls. It also contains one of my favourite clerical anecdotes.

The curate took his candidate for confirmation when the bishop arrived. They were both youthful and nervous.

"Stand up!" the bishop cried.

"But I am the curate, my Lord."

"Stand up!" the bishop cried.

So the curate was confirmed.

This was on the Welsh border, you understand.

(18th July 2014)