Winter sunshine leads Ronald Blythe to think of the summer ahead

O, to be in England now that January is there. Soft winter winds brush the flowering bulbs, and a chattering army of walkers breast the hill. To find snow and ice one has to travel to New York, on the nine o’clock news. The air is gentle, and blows in from the east coast — not that one would know it. Or that Christmas is just a month past.
I have no complaint. Spring in winter suits me fine. The white cat is not so sure, and clings to the split logs that wait by the stove. I think of the monks taking turns to bake by the fire in their warming-room, holding up their habits to scorch their bare legs.
But, at this January moment, the sun is invading the ancient rooms and challenging the central heating. As for the birds, they are singing their heads off. And I think to myself, it is all to come: the summer itself, the empire of leaves, the roses, the Stour reflecting it, the corn declaring it.
But what to say on Sunday? This is the imperative question. A friend and I were once driving home from Wales on a wet Sunday morning, when we decided to go to church en route. We ran from the car to a small Victorian building, which clung to a steep bank, in which a dozen or so people were singing Isaac Watts’s brief “This is the day the Lord has made”. Still singing, an elderly woman left her place to brush the rain off our coats.
A youthful priest gave a fine address from the chancel step. No one looked round to see who owned our added voices. Candles wavered in the draught. Such care was taken. Hurrying back to the car through, by now, a torrential rain, we drove on. “To think we might have missed it!” we said.
Exactly what we could have missed it is hard to say — although it was of great importance, or I would not still have it in my head with such clarity all these years on.
Queen Victoria once saw scores of Highlanders walking to a glen, their Bibles tied up in white handkerchiefs — their lunches, too. Might she join them? It wasn’t raining. They sang psalms, and broke bread. A compulsive writer, she was persuaded to publish that enchanting book Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands from 1848 to 1861. Her energy is exhausting, even at this distance. Terrible weather was no deterrent to her endless excursions with Albert.
“We then came to a place which is always wet, but which was particularly bad after the late rain,” although this did not deter her. On and on they went, the Queen and her husband, their drenched court, their never-to-be-repeated happiness, the little Queen and her beautiful husband, riding and tramping across Scotland, their earthly paradise.
Although I had once walked in James Bothwell’s footsteps in my youth, it was my friend Christopher who drove me across vast Perthshire, and introduced me properly to Scotland — who provided a kind of residency during the surprisingly hot summers and an almost absence of rain, hardly a day of which I can forget. And it was the poet George Mackay Brown who brought me to Orkney.
Now and then, I take down fat photograph albums, and there we all are, youngish and grinning away. I can nearly smell heather. Queen Victoria very much liked the Kirk. Approved of it. She said: “Religion makes one think of what one would not otherwise think of.” My spiritual landscape was Glenlyon, that vast valley all in shadow, yet bright and somehow celestial.  (7977)

Ronald Blythe sniffs the air and looks out on a white landscape

[Peter Hall and Ronald Blythe all those years ago]
Waking early, I can smell that frost has performed its secret ministry, as Coleridge put it. The scent of it is indescribable. Jack Frost has not filled the window-panes with his artistry; so I look out on to white pastures and rose beds. It is not as cold as the radio insists.
The embers of last night’s logs will blaze at a touch of the bellows. Soft white ashes have a spark or two in them, and the brick surround is warm to the touch. When I shake hands after the service, some are permanently icy, some always warm. The cold ones accompany a little apology; the warm ones a little smile.
From my desk, I can see women walking the skyline. They are in silhouette, cut paper shapes balancing between two parishes, their joyful dogs as well. The January garden is April-like with flowers, primrose, and stubby bluebells below the greengage trees. But no birdsong to speak of. A mild winter we may have of it, but wild creatures take no chances. There is a time to be dormant, and a time to rub one’s eyes and emerge. Which is not January.
Country people no longer say things such as: “We shall pay for this!” Or “We need a good freeze to kill everything!” And walking is not what it was. Not even after Sunday dinner, now called lunch. I hazard a bit of weeding. The white cat and Jean’s horses hazard nothing, and keep a weather eye open for the unpredictable turns of nature.
At matins, I preach on the ascent of the disciples to apostleship. They were to leave all that was familiar to them, and take Jesus’s teachings out into the world. It filled them with dread. Some of my neighbours go nowhere, and yet have a comprehensive view of life. Some take the village with them, no matter what distance, and the places they see are grateful for it.
Peggy Cole, who played more than a part in my film Akenfield all those years ago, has died. She was a perfect example of that wonderful regiment of women which orders England’s village life. Her garden was the old classic mixture of vegetables, fruit, and flowers, and her home-made-wine and -jam shed was a rebuke to the recent measuring out of how much we should drink or eat and its thimblefuls.
The Collect for Plenty in the Book of Common Prayer would have suited Peggy. Her flower beds and fruit cages romped together, her runner-beans and sweet peas were glorious mixed marriages, her rhubarb and salads hid every inch of soil, and she gave away anything we wanted, along with excellent advice, given in a kind Suffolk voice. Women’s Institutes throughout the land heard it.
Her husband, Ernest, and I were churchwardens when we were at Charsfield. Should I visit it these days, I like to wander through the memorials inside and out, giving goodbyes and greetings, a friend’s car and not my bike at the gate.
The Virgin’s monogram is clean-cut on the tower. Tall grasses part in summer to reveal it. Small red-gold Tudor bricks hold firm. Most of us have a not-at-all-spectacular shrine in our history to which we can return, counting our few holy footsteps. It was here that I preached my first sermon — on the Lord’s Prayer — to an encouraging Irish canon and half the churchyard.
Shortly after leaving this Suffolk village, I helped to edit the New Wessex Edition of the works of Thomas Hardy, and I saw him in my mind’s eye, dreaming in his Dorset churchyard, putting two and two together.  (7976)

The snow reminds Ronald Blythe of holidays in Scotland

[Image: The wood above Kinlock Rannoch]
They promise snow, and back it up with descriptions of Moscow, where it is raked up and put in the river. Here, in the Stour Valley, snow-laden skies hold back their burden, and it doesn’t seem cold enough for a wintry landscape. All the same, the white cat finds a radiator, and the horses are being led in.
I think of Scotland in summer, with its snow-capped hills, and of the steep track to the high house where we spent so many summers, opening and shutting deer-gates all the way. Ever since I was a boy, I have thought about what was happening to familiar places when I wasn’t there. And particularly when they were in Scotland.
We were a party of eight at the village of Kinloch Rannoch, in a big house above the loch. We collected wild flowers, paddled, got lost, found ourselves, wondered how little farms could make a living, and, in the evenings, read old geographies. And I would remember my East Anglian neighbour Mr Brown, whose farmland touched mine.
Almost 100, he would talk to me about Ayrshire. Once, I sang him a song about the Covenanters and Claverhouse: “To the lords of convention ’twas Claverhouse spoke. ‘Ere the King’s crown shall fall, there are crowns to be broke.’”
When I took his funeral, the East Anglian church was full to the brim with local Scots.
Mr Brown would tell me how his family emigrated to our rich soil before the First World War, the plough horses kicking in their special train, and even the last of the Scottish hay carrying its heathery scent to Essex.
Mr Brown was born at Michaelmas, and died at Michaelmas, with just a century in between. The special train from Scotland to the East Anglian coast cost £10, and contained everything the Browns possessed.
John Clare, our finest rural poet, had Scottish roots: an itinerant schoolmaster had bred him. Like Laurie Lee, he left home with a fiddle. What more did a handsome lad need? Clare needed the Great North Road, but his journey back to Northampton is one of the most tragic in English literature.
Sometimes, en route to church, we slow down for a glittering battalion of Sunday cyclists, nose to road, ears to the swish and hum of life, and I remember my Raleigh days and how wonderfully solitary they were. They say that there are something like 600 parish churches in East Anglia, and I must have propped up my bike against them all. A vast pile of guide books testify to this. Needing to verify some architectural fact, I opened a cupboard, and a torrent of them fell to the floor. And this put me back in the saddle.
Today’s traffic makes church-crawling on a bike hazardous, they say. Yet the visitors’ books at the back of our churches are filled with names. And fatuous “Very peacefuls”. But who can hear what these sacred interiors — not to mention their consecrated surroundings — have to say to Edward Everard from Swansea, or Linda from Camberwell? My friend Richard Mabey and I used to look for rare grasses spared from agricultural poisons, the latter not nearly as prevalent as they once were.
What I mourn is the loss of faith in the inscriptions. Generally speaking, their Christianity is uncomfortable, uncertain. Or, maybe, just its language is. As for me, I walk around churchfuls of neighbours who don’t seem at all “departed”. Any more than they do in my farmhouse, listed “1600”. It can bear a ton of snow.  (7975)

Ronald Blythe steps outside, and feels a cold north wind

[Image: John Nash]
Walking in the January garden, who would have thought that it would be so bleak? Blazing sun on the windows, the frozen screen running to the river — but the sky is so summery, the birds at war over old Christmas cake, the washing blowing, the freshly scythed orchard filled with primroses, the postman’s tyre-marks drying up.
But it is nippy. And so it should be, with Candlemas only a fortnight on. Natural light and spiritual light come together, as do the Archdeacon and St Paul.
At the moment, a north wind is getting up, and making itself felt. The white cat tumbles from her sill into the books without waking up. Wasn’t it St Paul’s nephew, worn out by his uncle’s preaching, who fell asleep and fell from a window? Why was his homely fate recorded? — although I am glad that it was.
My Suffolk-Essex patch is strewn with small adventures. Every step tells a story, and a long stroll is a meditation on my own existence. The River Stour, where John Constable set his easel, glitters icily. Not that he would have done much on a day like this. But my old friend John Nash did.
Perched on a three-legged stool, muffled to the ears, he would shape the water in the fields, fag in mouth, his big grey eyes not only drawing everything in sight, but bringing it into this vision, and returning to the farmhouse with a full sketchbook. This would be carried to the studio and turned into watercolours and oils.
He liked bits of agricultural toil: a hurdle, the tumbling shed, the byre, and particularly his mighty thatched barn — although all that was in it, during the abandonment of farming here, would have been his Ford Herald car, so packed with fishing rods and old military uniforms that the lad — myself — had to squeeze beside him.
He was devoted to plants, but John was none too caring where the farm itself was concerned; and, taking him morning tea, I once saw snow on his face.
Both he and his wife, Christine, also an artist, possessed beautiful voices, which came from the long ago, possibly the late 1890s. These they left behind when they went, plus an avalanche of books with their names on the flyleaves. Their Proust contained instructions on how to read it.
After tea, they would sit side by side on the hefty piano stool, and thump out Schubert, humming bits and laughing. The piano was a 1920s Steinway. Now and then there was a muffled sound, until the cats were evicted.
My white cat — a gift from Meriel, our organist — goes no further than toppling the photographs, and, at Christmas, the cards. She is old and worn and beautiful. Ravenous, too. “She will see you out,” they keep telling me.
At matins, as I have a modest voice, they wire me up for sound. Jane Austen’s aunt sleeps at Little Horkesley, one of our parishes. When I went to see Austen’s own tomb at Winchester Cathedral, there wasn’t a word about her being our greatest novelist, simply that she was “against enthusiasm in religion”. John Wesley, perhaps.
People rarely go to church in Austen’s novels unless they marry. She said that it was wrong to marry for money, but foolish to marry without it. And many other sensible things. How did her aunt end up here?
“Where?” I hear her say. “Little Horkesley? I must look it up.”
Sticks from last summer clatter on the house, and the old moss cushions the tiles. It is during the Epiphany that we learn of the Lord’s brief education — that a light is cast upon it, and also on his wilfulness, this brightest and best of the sons of the morning.  (7974)

Ronald Blythe gathers up holly and cards, and checks the fridge

Ever since I was a boy, natural light and religious light have got tangled up in my imagination; so that, at this moment, the Epiphany and the pale sunshine flooding Duncan’s field are one. It is mild and still, and a little gardening would not come amiss. An ancient farmhouse manufactures its own silence, and its past sounds can only be imagined.
At matins, I preach on the manifestation of love, and we sing “As with gladness men of old” and “Low at his feet lay thy burden of carefulness.” The burden of carefulness! Should we not be carefree now and then? I take down the withered holly from the stout beams. Traditionally, it should be burnt. I gather up the toppling Christmas cards. Should they not be answered? But would not an answer add to the senders’ burden of carefulness?
And there is the new fridge, from which joints must descend to where they can safely exist until next Epiphany, if needs be. In between this domesticity the Christ-child makes brief but glorious appearances, and the news on the TV manifests its appalling presence.
One of the most beautiful Epiphany stories is that of a little temple boy, who thinks that he hears an old priest calling him. He climbs from his warm bed, and runs to him. “No, my child, you are mistaken. Go back to sleep.” The priest is tragic; for we are told that he has never been granted the vision. All those visits to the Holy of Holies, and never to have seen what was there. And yet a mother has entrusted her son to him, bringing him a new coat year by year.
Samuel’s training is amazing. His mother, Hannah, has been the victim of clerical blindness; for, once seen in silent prayer, she has been turned out of church for being drunk. What is fascinating about Samuel’s story is that God spoke to him in his master Eli’s voice. So as not to frighten him?
It is the time of the year when another child will be taken to the Temple, to be counted for the army. He would have been told about Samuel, and “Speak, Lord, thy servant heareth.” The new year is filled with voices. Old voices; new voices. Although the sounds of centuries of farming are no more. Hardly the cry of a bird. Just the scratch of a pen, and the tap of a key.
“To think we have come to this,” the old building says. To an old man remembering and writing. And the tap of a winter rose against the window. And the cry of an old cat; the ripple of a brook; and the small crash of a dead bough from a tree.
The great prophet Elijah expected to hear God’s thunderous instructions, but, for him, “the Lord
passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains . . . but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire, a still small voice.”

These are the words that Thomas Hardy loved most of all in the whole of the Bible. They are engraved on his memorial window at St Michael’s, Stinsford, and I always go out of my way in the West Country to read them. Or into my way, I suppose.
A new year should put one into the right way — at least for a week or two. Into a little quietness, perhaps. Into some simplicity. Listening is a grown-up activity. Long ago, when our faith was young, the Epiphany was celebrated as Jesus’s baptismal day: that walk to the river, that stepping from the current.  (7973)

Ronald Blythe ponders diaries and journals, private and public

Diaries come in all sizes, and are - not to be judged by length.  Some are a long life's length: Samuel Pepys's is nine years long.  They could be kept for a special occasion, a war, a journey, or a love affair.  They could be read to amuse friends, sent piecemeal through the post, or locked up and hidden from sight, their secret existence being a large part of their importance to their owners.

They could be a diarist's most valued possession.  "I am increasingly haunted by Horace Walpole," wrote Sir Henry Channon.  "Can I be his reincarnation? I'm so like him in many ways.  Honor and I have decided to bury my diaries in the churchyard [at Kelvedon, Essex -- it is 23 May 1940, and Hitler's invasion is expected]." Mortimer has promised to dig a hole tomorrow evening, after the other gardeners have gone home; perhaps some future generation will dig them up."

Later: "I collected two volumes of diaries, dating from October 1940 till now, and took them to the British Museum, but I was received with indifference."

Many hundreds of English and American diaries exist in print.  It seems to become the fashion for well-known people, especially politicians, to publish fat edited versions of their diaries in retirement.  There are, too, great numbers of manuscript diaries in local libraries, national archives, and attics.

A diarist's individual flavour takes a few pages to catch, and a paragraph or two won't do.  Robert Fothergill speaks of the diary as "the passionately cherished Book of the Soul": he is talking of Pepys, but every diary attains  to this to some degree.

The first diarists wrote to bring some systematising to the rich model of their lives What did they
believe? What did they do? What and who were they? When all is said and done, however, we read diaries and journals because they seem to possess a special literary ability.  "I believe", Fothergill says in his private diaries, "that the major achievements in diary writing have been produced out of a conscious respect for the diary as a literary form and that the criteria which they aspire to meet are by far the most appropriate and rewarding"

Diary: from the Latin diarium, which means daily.  Journal: from the Latin giornale, which means daily.  Journey a day's travel.

Although diaries and journals become indistinguishable very early on, journals retain some reputation of being of great public importance, and the former always mean privacy.

John Evelyn's is one of the longest and grandest of diaries.  He adored spectacle, processions, architecture, gardens, trees, paintings, fruit, duels.  He is a public diarist who conducts the reader toward the great happenings of his times.  He was 27 when he and his wife returned from abroad to a very much changed England, where Cromwell was assuming power.

One day, Evelyn slipped into the Painted Chamber in Whitehall to listen to politicians discussing the killing of the King, and from this point on the great formal diaries take over in national events.  But now, diaries include rich accounts of the birth of modern science.  The diary is a source book for all times, and is full of wonderful portraits of contemporary people.

A great many people will begin a diary on New Year's Day, but, like me, are not likely to proceed with it for more than a month or so.  There are many beginnings of diaries, and few ends of diaries, and the New Year always brings a dean sheet that you need to write on - but, eventually, a lot of it isn't written on at all.

This is what will happen on New Year's Day in many bedrooms, studies, offices, and governments.  (7972)

Ronald Blythe thinks of how three composers saved the carol

In 1928, three remarkable Church of England composers — Percy Dearmer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Martin Shaw — rescued the carol from what could have been its extinction — a fate that many of the clergy hoped might overcome it.
“Please, sir, may we sing a carol?” the congregation asked in the 18th century.
“You may, but wait until I am out of the church.”
I met Martin Shaw outside church when I was a boy. He was my friend Jane Garrett’s uncle, and we were Suffolk people, and I never hear the Nine Lessons and Carols from Cambridge without thinking of him.
He and a handful of other composers caught the carol just in time. It might easily have slipped out of earshot, out of mind. Out of church. It was originally a dance with words, as well as true church poetry, and the origin of today’s dance music. After years of suppression and forgetting, the carol hung in fragments in the popular mind, and scholars might even detect its present in Strictly Come Dancing, because it is impossible to eradicate it from music and movement.
After Bishop Benson of Truro created an entire service of carol singing in his new cathedral in 1880, his Christmas music was taken up in every parish church in England. Interwoven with the story of our redemption, it now fills the ancient buildings, and makes their very sites angelic.
The word “carol” comes from carola, a ring-dance. While most hymns are sung within the liturgy or service, carols are usually non-liturgical. They belonged to the people, at a time when their own songs were being driven out by clerical hymns in the long history of the destruction of folk music.
But there was a beautiful tenacity about them. They spoke to the singer “as none other song or sacred hymn spoke”. Dearmer, Vaughan Williams, and Shaw searched the countryside rather than the libraries for them. “The holly and the ivy” was one: words and melody taken from Mrs Clayton, of Chipping Camden, by Cecil Sharp, and supplemented by words from Mrs Wyatt, East Harptree, Somerset.
Sharp once took a young man into the village pub to take down the words of a carol, but they were both thrown out because it wasn’t a singing pub.
“The first Nowell” is the processional from Christmas Day to the Epiphany. But in “In the bleak midwinter” there is something static, penetrating; and it is Christina Rossetti’s and Gustav Holst’s bitter destruction of the dance element.
It is fascinating how the carol singer, whether in church or the school choir, or listening to the broadcast, knows when the dance has to stand still, and when it has to have movement or contemplation only.
Herbert wrote two Christmas poems. In both, he at first forgets that it is Christmas, then he hurries towards it. Christmas at Bemerton, maybe. What he never forgets is to sing. He was a lutenist, and he would sing on the day he died.
I remember being the guest of my friend Vikram Seth in Bemerton Rectory, and hardly able to sleep in those old rooms, which would have heard Herbert’s voice. We had sat by his fireside; we had rung his church bell, and sipped from his chalice. But we could only imagine those rides of his around Salisbury. A fit man, he rarely walked.
   All after pleasures as I rid one day,
   My horse and I, both tired, body and mind,
   With full cry of affections, quite astray;
   I took up in the next inn I could find.
I see Herbert, not well enough to walk his parish on Christmas Day, quietly ambling around it on his horse with scraps of carol music. Or maybe some great choir, like that of King’s College, Cambridge, in full voice at his cousin’s palace at Wilton. And then, as in Bethlehem, “The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be? My God, no hymn for thee?” and he writes a poem on ungratefulness.
Christmas is full of gratitude for the gift of love, and for myriad small things. And they come together in the winter light. (7970)