Hamish arrives as he always does, en route from his parish to a week by the Suffolk sea. And we do what we always do — make a little pilgrimage to St Francis, at Wissington. I can see this village on the opposite bank of the Stour from my garden — two miles by foot, ten by car. The weather is golden, and smells of fallen plums.
Hamish and I lunch on fish and chips and beer, then enter the white aisle and look up. St Francis and a friend of his are preaching to birds — rooks, perhaps — who listen attentively. For hundreds of years they listened under whitewash. Then Professor Tristram scraped it off to reveal what the late Middle Ages, congregation saw at mass — blackbirds at their devotions.
There was a painting-school near Colchester where artist-monks carried colours and ladders to write the Gospel in pictures on plastered walls. It included, of course, a fearful dragon above the north door, and a tail whisking the way to hell.
This part of my village calendar fulfilled, I attend a showing of my film Akenfield, directed by Peter Hall, at Bury St Edmunds. There I am, perpetually young, dressed in borrowed robes, taking a country funeral. An old farmworker has died, and, rather like drowning, his whole existence passes through the memory of his son and grandson.
My East Anglian neighbours have seen this film so often that they have taken it for themselves. There are more than 300 “actors” in it, including the schoolchildren. Benjamin Britten was to have provided the music, but he fell ill, and we used Michael Tippett’s Corelli arrangement.
We also sang “The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended”, the first line of which was borrowed from an anonymous line in a collection of church poems. John Ellerton’s son was being seen off to the mission field — a life-threatening place in those days. Embracing his boy goodbye, Canon Ellerton went inside, and comforted himself with the realisation that the same sun would rise and set on them both.
The hymn is a devotion on time. The St Martin-in-the-Fields choir sings it in the film Akenfield. We were in Hoo church, near Framlingham, where there was a carved holder for a fob watch and an hour-glass on the pulpit, and I can hear the muted groan of the congregation as the rector turned the latter upside down to preach on and on.
What did they say, these wordy parsons? Beautiful scholarly things, perhaps. In the disgraceful skit on Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village, they said, “On Sundays, he do go to church to hear the parson spout. He puts a shilling in the bag and takes a sovereign out!”
I was a Suffolk choirboy. My memories of matins and evensong are full of glorious music and marvellous words, of a white river of choristers in procession, and the hissing of gaslight; but not a word of sermons. And bell-ringing! Father would stand in the garden on practice night, as I do now when they ring at Little Horkesley, the sound pouring through the trees and over the corn.
An old man who farmed here would sit in the pear-tree to listen to the bells. I am honoured to have been an honorary ringer for many years. Bells are often given exquisite texts. One in Charsfield, Suffolk, says: “Box of sweet honey, I am Michael’s bell.”
Saffron in flower, but a new quiet — all the birds are on their way to Africa. Three hornets in my bedroom are zooming around like Second World War bombers, and wait to be liberated. Not a buzz of thanks. (7959)
Posted by Arborfield at 13:12
Long ago and far from home, we would “ask the time”. A fat watch would be drawn from a wesket pocket, and the stranger would say, “Time you were in bed!” Back in the garden,we would climb the greengage tree to hear the church clock if the wind was right. If it wasn’t, there was no time, and the day wandered on without hours or warnings.
At the moment, it is certainly time to pick the greengages. Every old Suffolk house had greengages, that delicious plum, named after Sir Thomas Gage, they say. My Victorian Dictionary of Gardening describes it thus: “Fruit round, medium sized, yellowish green, covered with a thin bloom; flesh tender, melting and of a most delicious flavour. End of August. Well known as being one of the richest flavoured of all the plums, invaluable for dessert and amongst the very best for preserving.”
It has the most glamorous history of all the plums, and it travelled to my garden via Greece and Italy. They found its stones in the wreck of the Mary Rose, the flagship of Henry VIII. In France, it was called after Queen Claude, the consort of François I (1494-1547).
Eventually, it came down in the world in order to fruit in every East Anglian orchard. Mine were at Bottengoms Farm, before John Nash bought it during the Second World War, and its fruit must be picked before this afternoon, if not sooner. Blackbirds! Freezer bags must be found. Rumer Godden’s excellent novel Greengage Summer must be re-read.
Every now and then, I pay homage to the fiction shelves, taking out some huge story, or some brief masterpiece, to retaste it, like fresh greengages — which are a romance in themselves. They emigrated to Suffolk from France in about 1712, when the monks of Chartreuse, near Paris, sent some to Hengrave Hall, near Bury St Edmunds, where the gardener, unable to get his tongue round the French, renamed them after his master, Sir Thomas Gage. They say that the original trees are still fruiting in Suffolk.
They should not be cooked, but eaten from the bough. Just the writing of them makes me feel faint with taste. There must have been half a dozen of them in our Suffolk garden, and, like the birds, we simply gorged on them; although some were bottled or put in pies. And all were wasp-ridden. Caution accompanied them. Gorgeous, dangerous, delicious, unspeakably edible, that was what greengages were — are.
Greengages come true when grown from the stones, although I have always seen them as an inheritance, and more paradisal than any other fruit in an English orchard. Watching cooks on TV, I tell myself that there are things that are beyond recipe: raw greengages, for example. Things that should bypass the kitchen and go straight to the table.
They say that greengages possess a flavour that Italians and Greeks almost fainted for, centuries ago. My Hooker’s Finest Fruits — that ravishing portrait gallery of a guiltless Eden — speaks of the Green Gage as “a rounded green fruit with a slight red flush or dots, with yellow-green flesh, tender and excellent”.
But I must not go on. I must go to my orchard with an ancient basket, trusting that the white cat is not asleep high up and bothered by a rain of plums, and feeling that she, too, has to be shaken down. Animals shake their heads at humanity — so always on the go, so rarely still. (7958)
Posted by Arborfield at 09:54
SEPTEMBER. The air is warm and damp, and the grass is sopping wet to my bare feet. I visit my greengages, as do the birds. The Victoria plums are at the blushing stage, and hang in clumps. Pigeons rush from the vine as I pass.
The postman turns where the sign says he must, and with panache. Heaven knows what straggling farm-tracks like mine must cost the state. I have a mailbox like those in American films, to save him a long walk. But at least I am less of a drive than my neighbours on the riverbank, and I can actually hear the bell-ringers when the wind is right.
Two kind priests take me to the pub for lunch, say grace, and exchange thoughts on the Church of England. It is a geographical climb in our level landscape, and we can see Suffolk and Essex coming together for miles and miles.
Aerial photography has revealed the circular graves of Iron Age folk, and I never climb up here in the car without imagining them. Eating, perhaps, or singing. Or licking a finger and holding it up to see where the wind comes from. There is the mount of Mount Bures, all of 30 feet in the air, and all made by hand. Why? Who knows. Wind from the Colne Valley whirls around it. This is where the Earls of Oxford settled, on land that William the Conqueror allotted them. Their mark was a star. Their old age was 40. Their altars were lined up to the westering sun. As ours still are.
I must not forget to pick this year’s blackberries, and pick up this year’s crab-apple falls. It is rare to see village people gathering wild food these days. While thinking that we might include it in the harvest festival thanksgiving, acknowledging its existence, I see a clump of wild clary, Salvia verbenaca, growing near a holly bush.
It reminds me of my friend Michael Mayne. We met when he was Vicar of Great St Mary’s, in Cambridge. When he became Dean of Westminster, he said that we should put the great rural poet John Clare in Poets’ Corner. I asked Ted Hughes to unveil the memorial, and I brought a sheaf of wildflowers from my — wild — garden all the way to London to lay on the Abbey floor.
The Abbey Surveyor had carved a bird carrying a sprig of clary on the memorial, a play on Clare’s name. Wild Clary was planted on graves in the Middle Ages in the belief that it conferred immortality on those buried below. Clare’s neighbour is Matthew Arnold, for no other reason than space.
After we had placed it on Clare’s memorial, Hughes read “The Nightingale’s Nest”, that sublime account of a boy’s covenant with a bird. I sometimes tell my farm birds that we are all in it together, meaning existence. Not that they take a blind bit of notice. They swing around the roses that cling to the old walls, now and then giving the windows a tap. Others have better things to do, such as fly to Keats’s warm south, using my telephone wires as a take-off perch.
Yesterday, I cupped a wren in my hand to free it from battering itself to death against a window. For a second or two it lay fluttering in my darkness, then soared over the cropped field, climbing and falling, just like a prisoner who had done his time.
A less easy guest to put in his place is the vole who has the nerve to eat crumbs by my bare feet when I am having breakfast. I have shown it the door, but it would sooner have a lodging under the dresser. (7957)
Posted by Arborfield at 18:45
Walking down the farm track with bare legs, I am careful not to annoy the inhabitants of Mining Bees City. I pass the sloes where the Little Owls dwell, the ripening elderberries, and the heroic oak that must have rooted when George Herbert was singing to his lute — although not here, of course — and the freshly cut corn.
Dull, warm weather, and the faint buzz of a machine. “If you came this way, it would always be the same. . .” I get up very early, and walk straight out, and go to bed very late, in smudgy starlight. I should be working in between, but I drift. I take matins. Friends who have moved away are coming back. Friends who cannot sell their house are staying put.
One might say that torpor prevails, but I find myself energised by all this inaction, and I “read” for my next book. Many years ago there was a literary scholar who, we were told, was “reading” for a biography of Christopher Marlowe, a task so delightful that he thought, “Why write it? All that trouble.” So he sat in libraries, getting to know more about the poet than anyone alive, though not publishing it. It was a form of modesty. He was never accused of sloth.
Anyway, the nice stuffy month August proceeds. The white cat observes it from her roost in the greengage trees, hardly deigning to come down when I rattle the Whiskas tin. David’s tomatoes cling to toppling canes, and cucumbers miraculously appear. They flourish luxuriantly in scripture. Zion was a garden of cucumbers, if you recall.
My garden needs weeding with a vengeance. The grapevine decorates the telephone wires, and orchard grass touches the greengages. I scythe in a dilatory fashion, and a youthful neighbour mows enthusiastically. And, as Keats put it, “no birds sing”. They are saving their voices for Africa. Even the harvester did little more than mutter a ghostly cry from another age when it tells me “They are cutting!” All I can hear is a buzz which is less imperative than that of the mining bees.
I say Maurice Wood’s prayer in church: “Make us like a city set on a hill whose light cannot be hidden; so that men and women and children may find Christ as the light of the world, and his Church as the family of the redeemed, and eternal life as the gift of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
I tell the congregation about a novel by Sylvia Townsend Warner. She and I had been brought together when she lost her lifelong partner in a little flurry of mourning letters. More creative, where I was concerned, were her marvellous short stories. She had one of those clarion Englishwoman voices that spoke of suffering as much as genius.
On a dark November afternoon I had taken her to a dank churchyard to show her Edward FitzGerald’s grave. We had East Anglian roots. Her light was unhideable. Having mentioned her after all these years, I must go in search of her on the short-story shelf. She was published in The New Yorker, that peerless magazine. To turn its glossy pages is a mixture of worldliness and blissfulness — probably caused by the price of what is for sale in its margins. Somewhere in the house, mouldering in some stately corner, there must be a pile of New Yorkers full of Sylvia’s stories.
The sun beams as I write this, and shines through heavy rain on to my fine weeds, scrubbing my flagstones and greengages. (7956)
Posted by Arborfield at 18:29
Summer rain. The land is thirsty for it. No birdsong to speak of, just the perpetual running of my stream to the Stour. I say Robert Louis Stevenson’s prayers at matins — the ones he wrote for his Samoan community. They called him Tusitala, the writing man. He was dying in his thirties; tall, thin, Scottish, amazingly fertile, with everything from The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to Treasure Island lined up on the shelf. The only protraction to time was pure air.
It was like this in the Stour Valley when I was a boy and saw grown men in prams. Consumption, they called it. This disease consumed them. They waved to us with stick-like arms. Stevenson was part-way through his last novel, Weir of Hermiston, when death pounced. It was my weir that made me think of him. This, and the summer rain.
I had planned to “do the back of the house”, i.e. tackle the dizzy, seeding weeds, scrape mossy cushions from the roof, and generally prepare the ground for a bit of scything.
Since we must all boast of something, I will boast of my ability with a scythe. I bought it from the scythe shop in Stowmarket, ages ago — this unremarkable little Suffolk town was where my teenage father joined the 5th Suffolks for Gallipoli. John Milton had also had a holiday there with his old schoolmaster, now the Vicar of Stowmarket. They say that the mulberry tree he planted in the vicarage garden still bears fruit.
Anyway, it was where I bought my scythe. It glitters plaintively on the brick floor, waiting for the rain to cease. And I remind it that
Sceptre and Crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.
As if to confirm this, the spade that my brother gave me long ago promptly snapped. I was doing a little archaeology with a friend when it broke in half, splintered by donkey’s years of wear and tear. What remains is a dib, which is better than nothing.
It has always been a mystery to me that our ancestors looked down on tools and those who used them, and looked up to those who carried guns and swords. Something to do with the defence of the race, they said. How perfect that Mary should have mistaken the risen Christ for a gardener.
Quite a long time ago, my friend Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote a novel about three women who founded a cell in the Fens — founded Ely Cathedral, as it happened. It is called The Corner That Held Them. They didn’t get on, of course, but the cell did.
You should just see Ely! See it from the train, the dead-straight roads, the roof of a Cambridge college, from a distance and from simply looking up. Its lantern balances on oak trees above a landscape that is as flat as a pancake, yet at the same time is a soaring spiritual experience. For no reason at all the hymn “How shall I sing that Majesty Which angels do admire?” comes into my head when I enter Ely. It goes on:
Thou art a sea without a shore,
A sun without a sphere;
Thy time is now and evermore,
Thy place is everywhere.
Posted by Arborfield at 08:00
A soft morning. Bees are working the fuchsias by the door — the one we brought from Cornwall when we were young. We had seen John Betjeman struggling against the wind at Constantine Bay. Here, the rain falls in its reminiscent fashion, drenching everything, the horses and white cat included. It is blissful.
For some reason, it makes me remember those glimpses of a place which one gathers from the bedroom window where one is staying. Little immortal vignettes of a scene, like the one from my bedroom at Leargan, above Loch Rannoch, which was no more than the tip of a pine, and yet which continues to contain all Scotland for me.
Tidying up the fiction, I find myself feeling a kind of grief or sorrow for all the novels I do not re-read. What will become of them? Are their authors still with us? Do I dare to open one of them and turn a page? This one is from an old friend, long gone. It smells new. It opens new.
I begin, and, outside, the summer rain goes on falling through the oak leaves. The church clock sounds the hours. Simultaneously with this old tale, another story starts in my head; for this is one of the ways in which writers work. It is not edifying, this muddling along, and those people who teach you how to be an author in the magazines would not approve. Put it all down to the summer rain, and the coming and going of the next-to-nothing wind.
Friends who once lived here are in church, and say that they are coming back. I had preached on the Good Samaritan before hearing this, and, what with one thing and another, I feel, well, buoyant. It is not as though I had preached on the Prodigal Son. If only it had drizzled all the way to Jericho. It is, of course, a mighty story. It never frays in the retelling. It holds up all the way. Violent, dusty, it takes one aback.
It is 18 miles from Jerusalem to Jericho, the oldest city in the east, and a poor teacher such as Jesus might have walked to it safely, but not a Samaritan. He was not like other Jews. Samaria was his city, not Jerusalem. We are not told the religion of the robbers. They were outcasts, who hid above long and lonely roads until a true traveller with his pack trod into view, “asking for it”. His fate would have been commonplace.
If one had received ritual cleansing for some sacrament at the Temple, one would hardly be likely to get involved in a road accident en route. Other walkers would have been in a hurry to keep appointments. Or simply minding their own business. But it is a deeply accusative story, and one that suits all ages. We still admire those who go out of their way to help others. Christ (Redeemer) went his way, although tempted to take another direction.
The mild morning runs its course. Although you could hardly call it farming, the ancient business activity is going on. But I can hear clankings and engines, and a little human encouragement — and, of course, the little French dog. And even a whispering shower. It is what people run away from for a holiday. For the sun. And what I longed for in Australia. A soft grey day with damp creatures, including dragonflies.
I shall do a bit of scything in the orchard. Nothing much. Just enough to show willing. (7954)
Posted by Arborfield at 07:37
The peerless English summer proceeds. I sit in the garden, reading and making notes for a winter book. The white cat sleeps on them; the birds sing above them. An unseen harvester plies up and down with orchestral shadings of sound, and a song thrush never stops.
For no reason at all, I am with my brother in Myddle, a village not far from Shrewsbury, where he is a teenage trainee on a fruit farm. It is winter, and the snow is faintly falling. We share an enormous bed in his lodgings, the one in which the Bruin Boys sleep in Tiger Tim’s Weekly. His landlady brings us hot water in a brass jug at seven in the morning, and gives us breakfast on a starched tablecloth.
My brother, fearing that she has missed out on life, has taken her to the theatre, and to a teashop for lunch. She is scandalised by the price of everything. Her theatre operates just outside her window. A neighbour clanks her way to the pump with zinc pails. "She’s early," or "She’s late." Our heads are little scrapbooks.
It is Trinity something.
We have done with dogma and divinity
Easter and Whitsun past,
The long, long Sundays after Trinity,
Are with us at last;
The passionless Sundays after Trinity,
Neither feast-day nor fast.
What else did we do in Shropshire? We climbed Shrewsbury Cathedral tower. Round and round to the top. Just as we climbed our Suffolk churches, especially Lavenham, where the verger would bellow "Come down, you young varmints!" Supposing he locked us in? Our skeletons would fall to pieces under the bells. And serve them right, them young varmints.
Boys left their names all over the place in ancient churches, but rarely girls. Harry Briscow, 1727. Singing until his voice broke, and later in another key. And from the back, never in the chancel. The fury when "high" Victorian clergy brought the choir forward knew no bounds. My friend Gordon’s father, who died watching a cricket match, changed churches when the choir robed.
And yet, in the parish portrait gallery, those vestry photographs of 40 or more boys and men as whitely robed as the paradisal singers round the throne of God, offer to someone like myself a kind of illustrated "Myddle" into which I read a parish’s Hardy-like particulars, and in which, along with the incuments’ board and the gravestones, the nature of a place is revealed.
It took a long time — often centuries — before most parishes had their own guidebook. Now they are among my favourite reading. I have written a few myself, including one to All Saints’, Aldeburgh. John Betjeman gave me a prize for it. One has to boast a bit in life. I have a photo of his doing it in the crypt of a City church, where sherry and sandwiches were laid out under the grieving memorials. I would glimpse him in north Cornwall, trying to stay alone.
David’s harvester roars away. Young birds and dragonflies are caught in old rooms, longing to find a way out. (7953)
Posted by Arborfield at 08:27