To the Alde Valley for its festival. The harpist accompanies evensong; the poet George Crabbe was Rector here. They say that, having drummed scripture into the members of his congregation, he would take them for a botany lesson round the parish. He wrote Peter Grimes, and could not bear to be far from the sea.
Now it is the artist Maggi Hambling who brings the Suffolk sea inland, getting up early every day to catch the incessant fall of waves upon shingle. Her sea pictures hang in the barn to create a kind of silent roar.
We all go to festival evensong in Crabbe's church, and sing harvest hymns to harp accompaniments. I was churchwarden here ages ago. It is one of the seven parishes cared for by a woman priest. Crabbe would preach until the light failed, then stand on a bench and cry "All go home."
But I am home, and still have familiar faces and windows, tombstones, and the roses I planted long ago to prove it. That remaining part of life that goes on flowering when one has moved away is present. There are sheep in the walled park, and maybe the descendants of the climbing roses on the orange bricks. The harpist plays Beethoven and harvest hymns.
Outside, the temperature drops, and fields of rape glare as the day darkens. Back home in the Stour Valley, profitable crops of this oil plant are full of sleeping animals.
We prepare for the bluebell party at Arger Fen, which naturalists believe is a fraction of the wild wood of prehistoric England. We rode there on our bikes when we were boys, gathering huge sheaves of bluebells for no sensible reason. They would trail from our handlebars all the way home. Nightingales still sing above them.
This is the nightingale's song. What would the harpist have made of it? It is in my bird book, and I quote: "A liquid tweet that's a loud tak, a soft, very short tuc, and a harsh kerr of alarm. The song is rich, loud, and musical. Each note is rapidly repeated several times; most characteristic notes are a deep bubbling chook, chook, and a long piu, piu, piu, rising to a brilliant crescendo."
It sings day and night from deep cover. It quite likes to be accompanied by a lawnmower, or a piano being played by an open window. Both John Keats and John Clare did it proud; the latter more scientifically, Keats the more tragically.
At the moment, rooks are carrying away hunks of stale bread. The white cat observes them languidly through glass, growling when their presence becomes intolerable. Birds at dinner under her very nose! And a bumble bee thundering away on the wrong side of the pane.
In church, I say the disaster prayers. All of us have heard the earthquake news. None of us is able to comprehend it. Guilt, compassion, and a sense within ourselves of an inadequacy - and even despicableness, for not being blown apart by it - returns time and time again as we go about our routines, which a small cheque does nothing to appease.
They say that Mount Everest - that sacred height - is defiled by climbers' litter. It was named after Sir George Everest, the Governor General of India during the Raj. For the local people, it was sacred; for the rest of us, it continues to be a challenge: us and our rubbish. We tend to forget its fault - that clashing of plates, those vast rifts, those many deaths. (1st May 2015)
Posted by Arborfield at 07:39
A summer day in April. The windows wide, the robins noisy. A visit to the old horse-pond to see the marsh marigolds in all their glory. Their Latin name comes from kalathos, Greek for "goblet". Their leaves hide the water, and their petals are cupped above the frog spawn. The artist John Nash adored their annual sowing. "Never pass up a pond," he used to tell me.
Mine - one at the top of the garden, and one below - are spring-fed, their surfaces out of sight. The plough horses drank from them before and after work, swigging up such gallons of water that it looked as if they would drink them dry. Now they are wildflower oases from which I rake last summer's leavings.
Pear and apple blossom is on the point of showing, and the vine on the south wall is in bud. Who could stay inside? "Me," the white cat, no lover of fresh air, says. "Give me a nice radiator any day."
Bloomsbury-set reminiscences on the radio. How sickly they all were. No antibiotics. Nash used to regale me with Garsington antics, and how Lady Ottoline Morrell would often be at her wits' end to keep her "lions" happy. Once, Nash said, she made them play football in the barn on a wet day, D. H. Lawrence included, and herself as goalie, and when he was running a cold, sent him home in a huge motor-car, wrapped in her fur coat.
For hostesses, country-house weekends were perilous, with boredom and discomfort nibbling at the edges. The wonderful short-story writer Saki Munro, killed on the Western Front in 1916, made them the venue of his most pitiless tales. And, of course, the home of Tobermory, a gossiping cat.
But my cat has something better to do than to tell tales. Such as to worship the sun, or find a good lap. Idleness to her is a profession, and one has to look one's best to practise it.
This is the moment when the Traherne Association sends me its newsletter. A new window in Hereford Cathedral captures his appreciation of the earth, never more so than at this moment. He could not tell the difference be- tween poetry and prose. He was a young man in a leather suit who thought that the best way to live was to lie under a tree. We - you and I - live in an "endless sphere" of "endless pleasures", or we should: otherwise, something is amiss.
When I think of Traherne, I also think of those who continue to celebrate him in his own countryside, Herefordshire, and in his own parish, Credenhill, and with his own "singer", Richard Birt.
The teachers, saints, and singers of the English Church have a habit of dropping out of sight until a knowing hand recaptures them, and places them where they belong in the lectionary. Never more so than Traherne, that ecstatic voice.
I met him through the poet James Turner, when I was a youth; he died ages ago. His widow said: "Choose one of his books to remember him." So I chose his Traherne: Poems, Centuries and Three Thanksgivings, edited by Anne Ridler. "A stranger here Strange Things doth meet, Strange Glories see." (25th April 2015)
Posted by Arborfield at 08:45
They say that one’s life streams past one when drowning, but so a good stretch of it is apt to do on the Kings Cross-Edinburgh line. It is a sullen April day, with wheeling birds and low crops, but there is Helpston Church and John Clare’s whole world, “a gloomy village in Northamptonshire, on the brink of the Lincolnshire fens”. His words, not mine.
And here is York, with its brilliant, port-holed station, and here, though gone in a second, is Durham, into which I carried my baby godson, good as gold, past the Venerable Bede and St Cuthbert.
And there, for miles and miles, is the sacred shore of Northumberland. And here come the Borders, where illiterate sheep-rustlers fought like heroes and became lords. And here, all of a sudden, comes Waverley Station — and some staggeringly cold air when I leave the carriage. Princes Street whirls and dances in snowflakes.
Walking to George Street, I glimpse Rose Street, where the post-war poets drank themselves into bouts of genius, my friend George Mackay Brown among them. And then the George Hotel and its shelter.
Breakfast is the best hotel meal. It is lavish, interesting, leisurely. Showered businessmen, crackling newspapers, considerate comings and goings, greedy old couples, sleepy lovers, suits and ties and bare-armed girls, and beautiful waitresses learning the language.
I eat an awful lot. More toast, more coffee, more warm hotel, more guests to stare and wonder at. A pair of scaffolders arrive from on high. Might they have some breakfast? Yes, yes. Sausages, bacon, egg, black pudding, fruit, marmalade, juice for all mankind. But no Scotch porridge.
Then out into the bitter weather. Except that the sun is playing on the vast architecture, and warming up the wind. And the smell of Scotland, heather, water, and a kind of ancient grandeur blowing through the city.
Alice meets me in the National Gallery, where I have to give a lecture on artists from the Suffolk-Essex countryside. But, before this, I have had time to call on the paintings I first met in my 20s — Gainsborough’s Mrs Graham, poor St Sebastian being tied up for his martyrdom, a lovely Paul Nash — and to sit on one of those buttoned couches that are perfectly placed for drowsing in front of masterpieces.
Although, to be fair to myself, I could not be more awake; for this is what Scotland does to me: gets the blood flowing — presumably so I won’t collapse with hypothermia and create a public nuisance on the Doric steps. The truth is that never have I felt so healthy.
To prove it, I visit all the museums from the Castle to Holyrood Palace, exploring every close, wandering into St Giles’s kirk, seeing the early tourists from Japan, having some conversation with a fine cat, and walking about ten miles — it seems. Nowhere else in Britain is the dangerous hugger-mugger of late-medieval/early-modern town existence so emotionally retained as in Edinburgh.
From the poky, tragic rooms of Mary Queen of Scots to the warren that is the Royal Mile, “early skyscraper”, one hardly needs to be Sir Walter Scott or Robert Louis Stevenson to feel the past passionately accompanying one wherever one goes.
Back home, at matins, I remembered Scotland by choosing Psalm 122 from the Scottish Psalter — “Therefore I wish that peace may still Within thy walls remain.”
Posted by Arborfield at 12:24
Hot April days; the birds building, the skies high and still. On Sunday, I dressed for a procession, only to find children tying trinkets on an Easter tree. It was Sunday school with ceremony. But lunch was spring lamb and sherry.
Bad news from good friends: their days here are limited. I do not write back immediately, but ponder it in my heart. It was news that had to come, by the sound of things. They spoke philosophically about their faith, and how good the children were. The end of life these days is more medical than spiritual, I imagine.
Meanwhile, it is perfect springtime, in early bud, and the horses are eating their heads off in the meadow opposite and plunging them into glittering water tanks.
And so we come to that favourite of mine, St Mark the Evangelist, whose symbol is a winged lion, and whose capital is Venice; a glorious person. The young man who ran away naked when Christ was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the priests grabbed his garments. It was he and his cousin Barnabas who accompanied Paul on his first missionary journey, although they turned back at Pergamon, a lovely city, which would become one of the greatest art centres of the ancient world.
Young people continue to travel haphazardly to destinations that promise spiritual goals. We, who lost our spiritual innocence long ago, worry about passports and suchlike impediments. St Paul turned on those who criticised him for gallivanting about when, to their minds, he should have been developing the little Christian settlements that he had established in Asia and Europe. He told his critics in no uncertain manner what he had gone through. All the horrors of travel in those days. Had he not had the privilege of Roman citizenship, he, a Jew, would not still be alive to tell the tale.
I see him and his young disciples stepping out along the endless Roman roads, many of them bedecked with crucifixions, at the entrance to towns such as Colchester, a few miles from Wormingford.
Two Middle European brothers who are my neighbours are taking a look at the water supply. Bottengoms Farm, like a number of Stour Valley houses, is not on the mains. So we check the springs that fill the tanks and, eventually, the taps. The water is exquisitely pure and cold as it runs from my ditch to the River Stour, never halting, never fast or slow. Always on its way. But now and then its twin tanks - one brick, one metal - have to be pumped spotless. So this is what is going on at this minute.
For many years, I did it myself, scantily clad like St Mark, and trusting that a churchwarden would not arrive, as happened to the artist John Nash, who lived here before me. But there comes a moment in life when one hands such pleasures on to others - these youthful neighbours.
A different cloud of unknowing darkens their day: they have lost their cat. His portrait appears in the parish magazine. I feel for them, as my white cat follows in our watery steps. Cats often turn up after months, but sometimes they do not. Life for cat and man is perilous and uncertain.
What has appeared in its usual spot is my Fritillaria or snake's head lily, named after the dice box that every Roman soldier carried with him, and that they shook to see who should get Christ's seamless robe at Calvary. (17th April 2015)
Posted by Arborfield at 12:58
I love provincial art galleries. It is amazing what hangs on their walls. Is that a real Picasso? And who is this painter no one has ever heard of? It is so captivating.
This week, I went to the Minories Art Gallery, in Colchester, to see the permanent collection, which I knew existed, but had forgotten. And there they were - the artist friends of my youth, and of the Suffolk-Essex countryside I had known. Also, the ghostly assemblies I joined in a stately townhouse just after the war. I usually went with John and Christine Nash, who themselves belong to another day: John, who never looked at the paintings, and chatted away to old friends; and Christine, who sat in a tall window, endlessly embroidering.
I took in the exhibition appreciatively, longing to paint, not at all longing to write. It had been the generous custom of the artist to give a work to the gallery, and these, from having been tucked away so long, were now a kind of autobiography. Each picture, even if it was a portrait, brought to life another face, another room, another time.
There was Sir Cedric Morris, tall, his scarf tucked through a silver ring. There was my friend John Bensusan-Butt, cousin to the Pissarros. There were the poets James Turner, W. R. Rodgers, and R. M. Currie - all a generation older than myself, but we did not constitute an East Anglian collective: we were just local people who spread our wings after the war.
And, most importantly for me, there was the emergent Aldeburgh Festival, and its founders, Benjamin Britten, Imogen Holst, and Peter Pears. What there was not was wages, just little handouts and big improvisations. Simplicity was the thing. I walked and biked everywhere. I edited the wonderful programme books - collectors' items now - and did everything from setting out the stacked chairs to persuading the Suffolk priests to allow concerts to take place in their beautiful churches.
One of them forbade applause, and I still dislike the often excessive clapping of some concerts. There should be a few seconds at least, after the last notes of Schubert or Bach, to translate the audience to another sphere, but not this battle of palms and feet.
Everything took place in Aldeburgh itself in those days. But the spread of music across the marshes to Snape altered everything for the better. The entrepreneur Newson Garrett had built a vast maltings there in the 19th century, as well as emancipating women - Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was his daughter - and the entire business of concert-going was transformed by Snape.
My particular friends were Denis and Jane Garrett. He an exciting botanist, his wife a loving head of social welfare in Cambridge. Oh, brave new world! It was run on a shoestring - but a highly professional shoestring. I wrote stories, walked miles, got used to the sea, and became a writer.
At this moment, I am rereading that Essex masterpiece, J. A. Baker's The Peregrine. Once read, constantly read. One could call Baker a mid-20th-century John Clare. There is nothing like this bird book in the whole of English natural history. Its ravishing prose and scientific force remain mysterious. It was written by a rather ill young man as he cycled in the rivery countryside around Chelmsford. Each evening, he would translate his birdwatching jottings into brilliant prose. He died in 1986, having carried birdwatching into English literature. (10th April 2015)
Posted by Arborfield at 09:39
HOLY WEEK. A soft gale troubles the bare trees. But it will not rain. Gulls land among the horses. The stream pours unseen to the river. The garden calls.
I reread Julian's revelations of divine love in which, for me, there is an unparalleled account of the crucifixion - one that could only have been written by someone who had witnessed official torture. Also a slow dying. It comes after Julian's enchanting comparison of God's love to a hazelnut. "What is this? It is all that is made."
She translates medieval Christianity in a way that makes it acceptable to us, all these centuries later, and never more so than when she describes what happened on Good Friday. Without writers like her, "We do not know, we cannot tell, what pains he had to bear."
And yet her Christ is a gardener sent by his master to plant love in his creation, digging and banking, toiling and sweating, turning and trenching the ground, watering the plants the while.
"And by keeping at this work he would make sweet streams to flow, fine abundant fruit to grow; he would bring them to his lord, and serve them to his taste."
Although a young neighbour does most of the sweating and turning these days for me, I can look on the Bottengoms garden with some pride at the hard graft that created it, long ago.
In fact, I love digging, especially in the kitchen garden, where the soil fell off the spade in delectable clumps, and robins followed me up and down, up and down, and the mower made its neat mark; and the excitement of deciding where the runner beans should climb this summer could be intoxicating. So when a friend came to tell me about his London allotment, my heart went out to him.
And when I visited the Garden Museum in Lambeth, its relics spoke more of human happi- ness than mere toiling and sweating.
Anyway, I have made a start. The white cat looks down at me from a tree. Nesting birds watch anxiously from ivy grandstands. Bluebells, their buds still near to their roots, perilously close to the badger setts, promise a show in May; and, altogether, I have made a start. Making a start is the thing. One cannot do it often enough.
How terrible it was that Jesus had to suffer in a garden - probably one that he knew and delighted in; one in which ancient olives were rooted in Jewish history: Gethsemane.
He had walked there after the Last Supper, accompanied by his disciples. He would have crossed the brook, Kidron, and descended the little valley between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives.
It was springtime, and Julian of Norwich walked with Christ in Gethsemane. She was a young woman of 30, and was not well, but "thought it a pity to die". And rose from her bed because she had much to say.
It was 8 May 1373. It was then that she wrote her masterpiece. It became illegible with time, as we all do; but a modern scholar, Clifton Walters, brushed the grave-dirt from it so that we could find our way about in Holy Week, meeting the gardener and saviour, and be forced to comprehend his crucifixion, and attempts to uproot him, and then to arrive at his glorious flowering. (3rd April 2105)
Posted by Arborfield at 08:49
Collecting the post, there they were, where they had been since time immemorial: my wild daffodils under the plum tree - the ones that Dorothy Wordsworth drew her brother's attention to. Although he did not acknowledge this when he wrote, "And all at once I saw a crowd, a host, of golden daffodils."
But their immediacy is true enough. One day, there is just fresh spring grass; the next this golden host, nodding and waving in a chilly breeze. And loud birdsong above them. And the white cat padding through them. And the horses looking through the hazels at them. And then Narcissus Pseudonarcissus. It descends from the medieval Latin affodile, our Lent Lily. How long have they been here, this Wordsworthian patch that spreads? A cold coming they had of it.
Passion Sunday. I take matins. "Were you there when the sun refused to shine? Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble. . ." And, in this instance, passing from the mental sufferings of Jesus as he went the way of the cross. You did not have to walk very far from Jerusalem, or from any Roman city, to see the crucified. It was: "Keep the peace, or this is what will happen to you." I often think of this when we give each other the Peace in church. "The peace of God, David, Merial, Mrs. . . I've forgotten your name."
Passion Sunday first appeared in the Book of Common Prayer in 1928, so what shall we sing? The sumptuously sad "O sacred head"; the unsparingly painful "When I survey"; "My song is love unknown", which a neighbouring priest wrote for the men in his parish. All of them, and a bitter anthem, and that last glimpse of Jerusalem before the sight faded from those dying eyes. No cheerful goodbyes at the church door.
Floods of crocuses. Scaffolding round the tower. Then carloads of flowers for Easter Day waiting to take over. Early in the week, lunch with a young prison chaplain, myself wondering - marvelling, indeed - at his quiet ability. "But then I couldn't do what you do," he says, simply, and I think of the multiplicity of the Church.
Now that King Richard's bones have been translated from a car park to Leicester Cathedral, the author of Don Quixote, the first novel, is to be suitably laid to rest. Miguel de Cervantes was almost contemporary with Shakespeare. Don Quixote de Mancha sends up the knightly quest, and is the originator of many of our popular sayings. The following were all said in Spanish before we borrowed them: "Time out of mind", "A finger in every pie", "Put you in a pickle", "Thank you for nothing", "No better than she should be", "Within a stone's throw of it", "Give the devil his due", "You've seen nothing yet", "I begin to smell a rat", "My memory is so bad that I sometimes forget my own name."
But there are sayings of his that deserve a new currency: "Youngsters read it, grown men understand it, and old men applaud it." Which sent me to the bookshelf to heave down my own, two-volume copy, in French, with wonderful drawings, sometimes two to a page, dated 1836. My name is scribbled in it.
One of Cervantes's sayings is: "Can we ever have too much of a good thing?" Enthralled, it is well past midnight when I put the Don to bed. "Mum's the word."
In the morning, I hurry breakfast to see the eclipse, but invisibility reigns. "As well look for a needle in a bottle of hay" (Cervantes). (27th March 2015)
Posted by Arborfield at 06:49