Ronald Blythe makes a long journey and visits a packed village pub

[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 who
feel well-bred
Have turned to a tea-shop “The
Saracen’s Head”.

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)

Ronald Blythe wonders how a farm labourer dealt with summer heat

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"

The discovery of an old book takes Ronald Blythe back to 40 years ago

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)

Ronald Blythe and a fellow author visit the grave of a poet

Duncan’s men are making hay on the horizon. Their toy-like machine topples along the field. Tall grasses go in at one end, and oblongs emerge from the other. The ecstasies of Colin’s little French dog as it follows the reaper fill the entire landscape.
It is Trinity 3, and I have read, "Grant that we, to whom thou hast given an hearty desire to pray, may by thy mighty aid be defended and comforted in all dangers and adversities."
At matins, I tell them about St Etheldreda, an East Anglian lady who managed a monastery for both sexes at Ely where the cathedral now stands, its mighty lantern precariously held aloft by vast oak beams to illuminate the fens. And us, of course.
An age ago now, the novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner came to visit me. I had praised her wonderful novel The Corner That Held Them. It was about three medieval women who had escaped marriage to three illiterate knights by taking the veil, their only regret being unable to celebrate holy communion, and having to put up with an ignorant priest. I talked to Sylvia about it as we sat by my fire. It was spitting hulver (holly) sparks.
Later, we drove to see the grave of Edward FitzGerald in the darkening afternoon. I often visited it in St Michael and All Angels, Boulge, just a mile or two from my house. It was engraved "It is He that hath made us and not we ourselves," which may have been the poet’s answer to the curious figure he presented to the village.
And, as a boy, I learned the whole of his translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám by heart. He would have walked past my old house, although not in many of the village lanes in which he composed; for they had been flattened and straightened out to make a bomber base in the Second World War.
A Cornish boy had given me his enchanting poem. His grave tilts a little in the Suffolk soil. Omar Khayyám lived at about the same time as our Norman conquest, and was a Persian astronomer. FitzGerald was an Anglo-Irish gentleman who lived in the lodge to his brother’s Suffolk mansion. He wrote perfect letters, and sailed his yacht off Woodbridge.
For a quarter of a century, I lived in his partly war-wrecked countryside, which nature was taking over. There were noisy rookeries and cracked concrete American runways, which the farmers have now pulled up to replant with sugar beet and corn. For, as the prophet said, for everything there is a season. One for ladies who preferred a cell to warring men, somewhere to sing and write, garden and chatter, write forbidden books, and not die in childbed.
All the roses have come out at once in my garden. The Old English and French roses with their heady scents and their sumptuous blooms, which are too heavy for their stems. They are not for cutting, and will begin to die in a night, when brought inside. The languid white cat sleeps her lives away in their perfumed shade.
As the breadwinner, I can only look down on this perfumed sprawl of things from my study, watch the haymaking, and think of Napoleon, two centuries after Waterloo. Both William Hazlitt and John Clare were heartbroken when he lost the battle. "Thy fate, thy monument and fame, links thee with names that cannot fade or die," the latter wrote.
The longing for some kind of revolution in English society was great, if mysterious now to us. "Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go, Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!" was FitzGerald’s advice.  (7947)

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.