[St. Mary's Church, Harkstead]
Simon and Jude, apostles. The vast oaks by the stream shower them with gold. Unseen water makes its way down the fields to the Stour, topping up my taps en route. Now and then, a young man from the council arrives to see if it is pure and I am still alive. I remind him that Londoners drink water that has passed through several people, and he smiles.
Seasonal visits from kind people are logged in my diary — only I forget to look at it; so I have to pretend to expect them. This is no difficulty. The Gospels arrived from a dry land, and I see the Lord’s dusty feet, and I comprehend that encounter with the lady at the well.
Meanwhile, my oak leaves, like a floating fortune, speed towards the river. I have squelchy feet as I aid it on its journey. The white cat fusses over damp paws. Soon, the fall will be complete — the orchard bare, the track carpeted, the fine horse-chestnuts willed to us by a Victorian parson, gaunt.
The artist John Nash used to appreciate a dead tree here and there, as do I. Meanwhile, mulch is claiming autumn’s flow and creating a kind of hesitant music. Do the badgers listen to it as they hump their way to the bar, as it were, quarrelling and dragging their black and white bodies towards deep water? I hear them as the light fails.
The emigrant birds have long taken off, leaving the stay-at-homes plenty of room to be noisy in.
I have just returned from the Stour estuary. It is a universe of its own, and not at all like the rest of the river. Even the people who live there are a separate race. It was where they trained naval ratings when I was a boy: impossibly spotless youths who climbed terrifyingly tall masts, and who sang carols like angels. A race apart. They could see the Empire.
Voices carry across water. At Aldeburgh, near by, the wonderful Imogen Holst taught Suffolk children how to release their voices in the firmament, as well as over the North Sea, drawing the sound out of them. Her dancing step — she once hoped to be a ballet dancer — destroyed their inhibitions.
So here I was, back from the Stour Estuary, that not-quite-earthy country. I had been to Harkstead to give a talk in St Mary’s, which Nikolaus Pevsner called “a perfect Constable picture. Flint and septaria, mainly C14 . . .”. And, just outside, flowed the Stour, the most celebrated river in British art.
It continues to flow below my house, now and then glinting through the naked trees, quietly for most of the time — unless it meets a mill-race, when it roars at the top of its voice.
The garden demands attention. Cyclamen is in full flower, the corms — which pigs find a treat — lying on top of the soil. My first real country smell as a child was that of our pigsty. It was far from unpleasant. The house was thatched and apt to be full of wintering creatures. The poet John Clare heard them as he made love to his wife in the room below.
I sometimes feel that I must apologise to my old house for its absence of the old hospitality. Not that the white cat has a part in it: her indifference to other residents is a kind of sloth incarnate. She does nothing. She sings “Stay young and beautiful if you want to be loved.”
I was shocked when a visitor felt her, and said: “She’s getting on a bit!” But who isn’t? The year certainly is. (7964)
Posted by Arborfield at 08:58
Until my friend Patrick Wildgust came down from the north, everything I knew about moths was contained in the Burial Service. My beauty would consume away, like as it were a moth consuming a garment.
When I was a boy, old ladies often smelled of mothballs — and old men of tobacco. Moths were drawn to the flame, and, in a perfect essay by Virginia Woolf, “Death of the Moth”, the poor creature anticipates her own tragic end.
Patrick the naturalist, however, will have none of this. On 12 October, a date to be reckoned with, he sets up a moth-trap — or, rather ,a light-trap — in my garden, and, early next morning, what do we find? The following roll-call of moths.
Beaded Chestnut, Merveille du Jour, Red-line Quaker, Yellow Underwing, Common Rustic, Rosy Rustic, Setaceous Hebrew Character, November Moth, Feathered Thorn, Sallow, Common Marbled Carpet, Lunar Underwing Shades (just one wing, the other probably consumed by a bat) — and, wait for it, six hornets.
All these creatures here at Bottengoms! Every night? And, until Patrick arrived, invisible to my untrained eye. All I can muster is Robert Browning’s “moth’s first kiss” of Elizabeth Barrett, which goes on: “The bee’s kiss, now! Kiss me. . .” No wonder she fled Wimpole Street with him for Florence.
Kiss me as if you made believe
You were not sure, this eve,
How my face, your flower, had pursed
Its petals up; so, here and there
You brush it.
The white cat owns the wall where the moth-trap displays its amazing catch, purring into moss. Does she sleep, or does she contemplate? I meditate on moths’ life-cycle, cats’ life-cycle, my life-cycle, and how briefly they touch.
Scripture avoids natural history if it can, and, instead of all these marvellous creatures’ witnessing their existence in the dancing light of tents, they are feeding on our clothes — the ones with which we covered our naked selves. Anyway, a whole host of previously unsuspected members of God’s creation have made themselves known to me. And all because of Patrick’s light-trap.
Should you wish to meet these neighbours, or, rather, fellow-sharers of the universe, this is what you do. I have taken it straight out of Paul Waring’s and Martin Townsend’s Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland, which is the Gospel of mothology: a book that will change your life.
“Light trapping exploits the commonly observed tendency of many moths to approach and become disorientated around bright lights. The types of electric lights which emit part of their output as ultra-violet light have been found to be most effective, and two types are favourites among moth-trappers: mercury vapour discharge bulbs, and fluorescent actinic tubes. Traps are designed around these, operating on the lobster-pot principle. The moths rest in the traps unharmed, and can be released again unharmed.”
The grape leaves wither round the moth-trap and come down, floating past the study window — whether with relief or reluctance, it is hard to say. The vine itself must rest until the New Year and the cold has polished its boughs. (7963)
Posted by Arborfield at 06:28
[Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows]
Classic October days. Plenty of heat left in the sun; hardly a leaf fallen from the trees; mouldy fruit in the orchard grass. Seven horses rolling in the wet meadow, the white cat baking on the wall. A note to myself on the kitchen table: “Tidy back of house.”
This means raking up fat mossy cushions from the cat-slide roof, running my hands along the guttering, and then mowing a green lane to the stream. A one-day-a-year’s toil. A duty much looked forward to at this time of the year.
No sound other than that of my water supply taking a short cut to the Stour. Now and then the ringers add their descant. Cars are lined up by the churchyard for the horse chestnuts to rattle with conkers, although the tombs of the Constable family get the main battering. Not the artist’s. His is far away in Hampstead.
Our Constables say “Gent”, and John made a pencil sketch of their Wormingford patch. They were farmer-millers, and long prosperous by the river. He was very good-looking, and his mother noted the way that women stared at him. And his brother Abram was even more so, but none of them caught him. John married above himself, and infuriated the squire.
Their great-great-grandson became my friend, and we cycled for miles, looking at old churches. As well as handsome faces, the Constables had beautiful voices. Amazingly, staying in an American hotel, I opened a chest of drawers, and there was Constable’s death-mask looking up at me.
But I see him most in our riverside fields, his easel propped up, his eye on the family fields and on Miss Bicknell, his future wife. She, too, would walk this countryside. No will-waving, as they called it in those days, got in the way of their intense love for each other. The only document that Constable carried with him in the Stour Valley, Hampstead — or wherever he happened to be — was a stubby sketchbook, one that just fitted the palm of his hand, and into which he put men at plough, children at play, gossips at gate, and often his dog Dash.
Watching a TV programme, I saw a woman putting on white gloves to handle a Constable sketch, and I heard him say: “There, there,” when his little son accidentally ran a ruler though a canvas.
How did these great artists work in a cottage full of children, maids, dogs, pupils, neighbours, washing all over the place, and uncles whose advice never stopped? Constable, they said, could be short-tempered. Only his friend John Fisher bought a picture. Nobody else. And there was Fisher’s uncle, the bishop. He bought Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows and hung it over the fireplace.
And now the TV arts producer takes the stubby sketchbook from the Victoria and Albert Museum in her gloved hands, and there is a glimpse of pencil, and of something else. Of work in progress, and time immeasurable being valued on a single page.
Painting the Stour Valley in Hampstead, Constable would need to know what wildflowers bloomed there in June, or which cornfields lay fallow there this October. No harvest festivals in the churches there, then, but riotous harvest feasts in the barns, which were none of his business.
Although Constable paintings are among the most looked at these days, most of the figures in them are not seen. Landscape hides them, open though it is. (7962)
Posted by Arborfield at 07:47
“I think I could turn and live with animals,” Walt Whitman wrote. “They’re so Placid and self contained, I stand and look at them long and long. They do not sweat and whine about their condition. They do not lie awake in the dark, and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God.
“Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago. Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.”
“Is this true?” I ask the white cat.
No answer. She lies in the sunshine on a quern-stone, which was a hand mill for grinding corn which the artist John Nash brought from his native Buckinghamshire, and carried from house to house. It is planted with bulbs, and weedy with milkwort. I let them flower together.
My friend Ronnie Carless arrives. His father featured — glamorously, compared with my somewhat stay-at-home activity — in a great book, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Ronnie and I drive across the Stour to visit St Francis of Assisi’s portrait, high up on the north wall of Wissington church, and to keep faith with the boy who was organist here, and whose brief music ended in the Western Desert.
He was 24, a schoolmaster’s son, and would have seen Professor Tristram washing the whitewash off St Francis and the blackbirds to whom he is preaching. “O all ye Fowls of the Air, bless ye the Lord: praise him and magnify him for ever.”
At matins, I had preached on “the nine states of blessedness” from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. It was Matthew who called it this. Luke called it the Sermon on the Plain. In Matthew’s version, only the Lord’s followers heard it. In Luke’s version, all the world hears it. Matthew has the bereaved comforted. Luke has weeping turned to laugher. Both apostles present a thrilling account of the teachings of Jesus, whether from the classic heights or from the human level.
To be blessed means that an individual or a place or an activity is the recipient of God’s gift. Those who recognise their need of him are blessed. But the affluent, the powerful, and the great can be disconcerted to realise that they are not. And so Jesus, standing on a rise, preaches his lengthy sermon, his congregation ill at ease.
He said that those who knew that they needed God were blessed; that there was a blessing for sorrow but not always one for ambition. It would be the meek who would inherit the earth. And then, most wonderfully, he said: “Blessed are the pure in heart.” For they would see God. It was spellbinding, his topsy-turvy catalogue of blessings.
The natural human longing for a vision of God remains timeless and intense. The haj, with its disasters and aspiration, as it crowds towards the eternal, is nothing less. A handful of old friends in a Suffolk church may not search all that hard to find him, but each of us, every now and then, is surprised how near to us he is.
Medieval wall-artists tell us to look up. Seeding plants in the churchyard’s humps and bumps tell us to look down. At matins, we heard a very natural tale. Jesus has put his fingers in deaf ears, and his spit on a tied tongue. “Ephphatha” — be open.
We shut the church door, and I buy, amazingly, the biography of the translator of Proust — 10p. (7961)
Posted by Arborfield at 05:01
I stand on a chair to reach down Francis Kilvert’s Diary. Long ago, I shelved the apple-room to make a library, and the books smell of fruit; and, when it came to mature fruit, of D’Arcy Spice. These apples were left to wrinkle and even to rot, and were eaten with maggoty cheese, and thought a great treat. The maggots were affectionately called cheese-hoppers, and the post-Christmas Stilton on the sideboard would have its craters topped up with port and last until Easter.
Here I am in the apple-room-cum-library, however, with Kilvert in my hand, as indeed he should be; for am I not President of his Society, and a lifelong devotee of his enchanting Diary? So what does he say for late September?
See him, a sturdy-looking curate from the Welsh border who walked miles and miles, who kept one of the best rural diaries ever written, who loved girls, who married late and died soon after, and who had his sermons torn from his papers by William Plomer just before the last war.
Such is life. I for one would have very much liked to have “read” young Francis’s sermons. He was one of those people who hesitated to call himself a writer, although he did nervously publish some poetry. As for the wonderful diary, it lay in the dark until a young South African returned it to the light.
Anyway, returning to the house after calling on St Francis, I began to re-read it, the entries for autumn: “Monday 14 October. Last night I had a strange and horrible dream. It was one of those curious things, a dream within a dream, like a picture within a picture.
“I dreamt that I dreamt that Mr Venables and Mrs Venables tried to murder me. We were all together in a small room, and they were trying to poison me, but I was aware of their intention and baffled them repeatedly. At length, Mr Venables put me off my guard, came round fondling me, and suddenly clapped his hand on my neck behind, and said: ‘It’s of no use, Mr Kilvert. You’re done for!’”
Alas, poor Kilvert would be done for at the age of 39. He had just been married, and his coffin was carried under the same floral avenue as had been made for his wedding. I read his Diary constantly, now and then at matins — just fragments from it, when his Welsh rain seems to join our East Anglian down-pours, and we ourselves, all these years on, are so little different from his parishioners.
Except — and it is a big exception — his parish was full of encounters. Other than the postman, one could walk to my stranded farmhouse for a week without meeting a soul.
Five horses commune in the hilly meadow opposite, and might be ridden on a Sunday morning. But only might. The rain has made their coats shine like conkers. When I was a boy, I used to wonder why horses did not leap over the gate and gallop off to Bedford, this town being as far as I could imagine.
I once went there to see John Bunyan’s anvil. He was a strong craftsman who humped it on his back when he strode off to repair pewter. He was a whitesmith, as opposed to a blacksmith. In The Pilgrim’s Progress it became each person’s load of sin. As Bunyan walked, he could see in the distance the heavenly blue Chilterns — his celestial mountains.
Once, Alan and I walked in his steps. There it all is, for anyone looking for a great walk through a great book: a decided progression still, just like Kilvert’s Diary.
Posted by Arborfield at 08:36
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