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.
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.
At this time of year, they’re all around us; in Wormingford and Mount Bures, we’ve just had yet amazingly successful Flower Festivals; the Wormingford Family Fun Day wasn’t called a Festival, but was one; and we’re currently planning the Three Churches Apple Fest which takes place on Saturday 26th September.
So I thought I’d try to get back to basics and find out what a festival is, was or is supposed to be! Definitions boil down to “an event ordinarily staged by a community, celebrating a unique aspect of its nature or traditions, often to meet specific purposes, a thanksgiving or commemoration”. The oldest recorded festivals celebrated nature, such as the seasons of the year, and then we read of festivals commemorating major events in history. Some of the earliest of those are recorded in the Bible, where the Israelites held many annual festivals – and were required to journey to Jerusalem for at least three major festivals each year.
The verb for celebrating a festival is “feasting” and let’s face it, a get-together isn’t a good one without lots of food! In the Christian Church there are several festivals, including Christmas, Easter and Harvest of course – celebrating the major events of Jesus’ life as well as the fruitfulness of the world around us. Jesus’ disciples set the pattern (Acts 2:46): “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” It’s no surprise that food is important whenever we meet, because the one event which unites a family or a community is to sit down and eat together. I can’t work out why that should be, but it’s true – everywhere in the world people meet and eat on every occasion from birthdays and anniversaries to conferences and funerals. Perhaps, as eating is something we all do, it’s more enjoyable when it is a shared experience.
Festivals these days are often planned for a very specific purpose, such as to publicise something or to raise money. Though money is often vitally needed, and we’re so grateful that it is raised, festivals work best (and most money is raised!) when the prime purpose is to celebrate together as a community, whatever the reason. “Any excuse for a party” we might say!
So what lessons can we learn from that? Well, if we want more unity in community, let’s feast together more. If we want to be closer to neighbours, to family or a group, then find something in common and celebrate it together. And do so regularly!
Let’s thank everyone in our villages who has planned or has been a part of our festivals, and look for every opportunity or excuse to have more!
Yours in Jesus
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.
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.