Ronald Blythe welcomes a visitor from Africa, and smartens up his garden
THE first cuckoo. Its call-note is unmistakeable, the books tell me. As is its parasitic habit. Why build a nest when others can build it for you? It glides in from foreign parts to its seasonal home in the Stour Valley. It likes the edges of things, where the woods and commons peter out. Its cry is relentlessly the same for weeks on end. It stays summery and welcome, and we tell each other, “I heard the first cuckoo this morning.” Not to have done so would be worrying, and the summer itself diminished.
It is a ruthless occupier of other birds’ nests, heaving out eggs and chicks to make a home for its brood. How strange that other species are unable to tell the difference between their own brood and the invader.
That most enchanting and knowledgeable of bird poets, and tester of popular legend, John Clare, did not believe that cuckoos had hollow backs specially designed for this purpose. I, too, have found what might be called a comfortable ignorance of nature in many neighbours, although some of the TV documentaries are beginning to shift this.
Clare despaired at the way his neighbours would go thus far and no further in nature study, if one could call it that, perhaps finding it blasphemous to know more than their parents did about flowers and birds. They did not need to be told what a cuckoo in the nest was when it came to their own families.
Once, Clare heard both a nightingale and a cuckoo on the same evening. He hated natural history being put to use for human conduct; but he didn’t get very far with science among his Northamptonshire friends. They had centuries of legend behind them, most of it full of repeated falsities, and his commands to look, listen, and learn were ignored. Even today, hearing my first cuckoo, there has been an effort to listen to a bird and not a human morality.
And there it sings, Colchester way, not too far off, a creature of variegated greys, monotonous, plaintive with early summer. “Did you hear the cuckoo last evening?” I will say at the first opportunity; for this is the drill. And I will forget that it was last listened to in Africa, and that it is not the prerogative of an English late spring.
Meanwhile, I hesitate to pull advance wildflowers like weeds from my borders. Laburnum hangs in greening tassels, and only prejudice stops me from saying that my nettles are a sight.
In church I read “O Lord, from whom all good things do come: Grant to us thy humble servants that by thy holy inspiration we may think those things that be good, and by thy merciful guiding may perform the same.” And I preach on Julian of Norwich, who thought it a pity to die when one was 30. A Norfolk priest was there to catch her last words; for something told her to abandon this deathbed for literature. How it must have irritated those who stood around her: having to blow the candles out, dismiss the priest, and cope with genius.
Adrian has mown the grass paths. I edge them. How smart we are. The lilacs are sumptuous. “Lalocks,” my grandmother used to call them. She wouldn’t have them in the house. “Unlucky,” she would say. We brought her a bunch, but she hurried them outside. Should a bee wander in, it would mean a good message. Should there be lightning, she would cover the mirrors with cloths. For her, life was a run of blessings and risks.
Ronald Blythe recalls an author with whom he strolled in London
IT IS one of those grey mornings – the west wind soft and contemplative, the animals munching the May grass, nose to nose.
The radio goes in one ear and out the other until, suddenly, I am all attention. A name is mentioned, then a moral position. It is Obama. For no accountable reason, it suggests to me another name: James Baldwin.
He and I have been sent for a walk in London by his publisher, Michael Joseph. What is more, we have been given £10 for lunch. I am to persuade him to cut some pages from his latest novel; it is not at all unusual for a writer to go off at a tangent in a story, and start another story. This is what James has done.
James is a New York novelist who is deservedly at the height of his fame; a slight, nervous man in his thirties, who, unlike most of us, is all physicality, clutching my hand as we stroll along, and nervous, like a kitten. I am awed by his genius, and ready to accept his fury when I mention these errant pages. But he says: “Of course, of course.”
I tell him how much I loved his previous novel, Giovanni’s Room. We are at peace. We have been sent out like children with the publisher’s pocket money. So what shall we do, where shall we go? London roars around us. I know it a little, and James not at all. We keep to the streets. No St Paul’s, no museums. No Obama in the White House; and, so far as I’m concerned, no comprehension of racism.
The radio is talking about Alistair Cooke and the American Civil War. My only experience of its unresolved tragedy was when I stayed in one of those Gone With the Wind mansions in South Carolina, and found a grave in the garden. Surrounded by mournful yews, it was that of a 24-year-old Lieutenant. It had been dug in the garden in which he had played as a boy.
The first night I was there, the owners, who were in New York, telephoned to say, “Close all the shutters – there’s going to be a gale.” And there certainly was. The trees in the park bowed to the ground, and the big timber-framed house trembled – rather like James on our London stroll.
It was all unlike Suffolk, where the flint church-towers and the trees withstood the storms and the occasionally swollen rivers. It is what the British notice abroad, the way the rain falls and the winds blow.
Walking near Sydney with my brother, he laughed when I treated the spitting rain as I would have done a brief shower at home, but in seconds we were soaked to the skin. Ditto the New South Wales sun, which looked merely pleasant from the veranda, but cooked one alive on the lawn.
I preach on the sayings of Jesus: how his hearers did not take notes, but, although he frequently spoke to congregations like a rabbi, there is no record of anyone in the New Testament recording what he said. Yet his teachings are a bit like those of a single author, both in style and message. Long after the message, long after the crucifixion, those who heard him speak would have told their children, and those they met, what he had said – and maybe how he said it.
He was a great poet. He was furious with those who spoke and did not act, possibly thinking of those of his own race, who sang the Psalms, which was the Jews’ handbook, beautifully, but failed to live by the words. Christianity is but music for many people.
Farmers are sowing, weeds are growing, lawns need mowing – it’s all activity on the farm and in the garden, now that May is here! Flower arrangements in Church take on a different pattern, with an increasingly impressive selection of flowers to choose from; and of course in Wormingford and Mount Bures, we’re gearing up for the annual Flower Festivals. For me, flower arranging has always been a spectator sport, seeing how individually beautiful blooms can become a new, exciting community of flowers.
One thing that amazes me is that, whilst a large arrangement of flowers can be a complex creation, it’s nowhere near as complex as the detail of a single bloom, or even one part of it – such is the beauty of nature. And there’s another thing I’ve realised about nature – it’s relational. Nothing can exist on its own. The blooms need roots to survive; every part needs the leaves too; the stamen needs pollen; and so on. And beyond itself, the roots need water, the leaves need sunlight, fertilisation needs insects or the breeze. The whole of nature is relational; animals need plants for food, some plants rely on other plants. Then just think how much we need nature, and not just for food – for clothes, medicines, furniture – and previous generations of plants provide our fuel. Nature is so interdependent that the decisions we make are far-reaching – and I’m not even talking about climate change! Even my breakfast honey would taste differently if a farmer changes his crop next to someone’s hive!
Humanity is also relational – of course. If human beings never related to anyone else, we’d die out in one generation! Here’s a quiz question for you. In the Bible, it says God created every living thing “and saw that it was good”. Then God declared that something was “not good”. What was it? See Genesis 2:18: “It is not good for mankind to be alone”. The history of humanity is the story of how we developed individuals into a society, with every unique member relating uniquely to every other, with the elusive objective of creating communities as impressive and beautiful as a complex flower display.
St Paul likened a community to the human body with many parts. In 1 Corinthians Chapter 12, he says: “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? …the head cannot say to the feet, I have no need of you” – and so on. We’re all relational beings. But what part of the body are you? A hand, because you’re a practical soul? Are you the ear of the community? Or a tummy-button… every village has one hidden away, who knows where everything came from! Go on – have some fun working out who is what, amongst your friends! Then work out for yourself what you are, and live confidently and productively as a unique and vital part of our community.
Now take time to stop and smell the flowers!
Yours in Jesus,
Ronald Blythe sings to the sound of a harp, and goes to a bluebell party
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.
Ronald Blythe is glad that a poet is remembered in a cathedral window
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 between 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.”