Yes, OK, I’m thinking of holidays. At the very time when life seems to be at its busiest and most complicated, I have to take two weeks off. I could do without that, right now. But it’s booked and paid for, and life with June wouldn’t be worth living if we didn’t go. I recognise that I feel that way because I really do need a holiday, and I admit it will be good to get back refreshed, refocused and re-energised. And the opportunity to do something different or even do nothing is quite attractive too!
The pattern of holidays in this country seems to have its roots in agriculture, with children once needed in the fields at the height of the summer and adults often lending a hand too (either to help get the local harvest in, or “hopping down in Kent”). Then the Industrial Revolution had a say too, requiring workers to be in the factories six days a week throughout the year, then all being away at the same time for two weeks, or even just one “Wakes Week”. In many countries, school summer holidays last two or even three months – and for some reason, Antipodeans have their summer holidays at Christmas!
The modern way is to take holidays when it suits us – such as the most convenient time to leave work, or when all family members can be together, or the flight is cheapest – leading to the current debate about taking children out of school. I know that’s disruptive, and we need to think of others when we plan to be away, but there’s one thing that’s very right about going away when we feel it’s right for us, and that’s the very word “holiday”. It’s origin is “Holy Day”; time off to celebrate or remember the key dates in the calendar. The word “Holy” itself just means “set apart” – so we speak of our Holy God, who is by His very nature set apart; and holy people, who have decided that they will set themselves apart from unholy things so that they can devote themselves, their time and their work, to God.
Shouldn’t we all set ourselves apart from unholy things, and not just temporarily? Perhaps the holidays provide an opportunity to take stock of what we do and why, so that afterwards our lives are not only refreshed, but renewed – with a new focus on things that really matter. Then every day will be a holyday!
Whatever you do this month, at home or away, I hope you enjoy every moment. I intend to!
Yours in Jesus
The July heat reminds Ronald Blythe of family visits in the past
“SHALL I compare thee to a summer’s day?” asked Shakespeare. Impossible. An English summer’s day is unlike anything else in the world. A dragonfly from my old horse pond who has only a day to live wanders past in its deathless way. Black-and-white cat sisters take refuge in shadows. The russet tiles on the monumental back roof are like an oven. The Rudbeckia stares over old red walls. The horses keep the flies off each other. It is very still — almost contemplative.
I tell the horses about William Burkitt who was at our church long ago: a Puritan minister whose house was a little lending library when I was a boy, with shelves of Baroness Orczy and Jeffery Farnol novels. How shocked he would have been. Just below the Croft, the River Stour glitters. I remembered the amazing heat of New South Wales, and felt that of Suffolk, and thought how different they were. Almost caressing.
I preach on stillness — a favourite subject, and one that hardly requires recommendation to the old friends who surround me in the chancel. Back home, the holidaymakers on the screen are still as they burn their way to the French coast. A picnic in an East Anglian meadow would have been bliss in comparison.
It was on July days such as this when Father would take us to have Sunday tea with his mother. She amazed us with her homemade bread and butter as she held a loaf against her stout bosom and sawed slices from it. We had to add our own butter and jam. When she had had enough of us, she would peer anxiously out of the window and see a thunderstorm approaching. “If you hurry, you’ll get home before it starts”.
Boys and girls were given short shrift in those days, and farm people liked their Sunday-afternoon sleep. In the winter, arrangements such as fire irons shone like solid gold. In the summer, her grate shone like ebony. Her clocks ticked our lives away. She would stroke our faces with the back of her hand, and tell us that we were the image of our father.
We passed a ruined cottage on the way home, and made a ritual at its well, dropping flintstones through its wooden cover. There would be a long frightening pause before it hit the water. “Don’t go near that well,” they said. But we did. And I have to go near my own well these days, otherwise there would be no flow from the taps. Friends who live in sensible houses praise my drinking water. “It hasn’t done you any harm,” they say.
In church, we sing William Cowper’s “O for a closer walk with God,” and I see him being comforted by Mary Unwin and also by his pet hares. Now and then he would lose contact with his Saviour and reach out with frightened hands. His Saviour came and went like someone who would only give him a little of what he craved. He was nervous like the hares, trembling, but with bouts of certainty in the goodness of God and men. It was “Return, O holy Dove, return.” And so it did, intermittently; for so, too, did it fly away.
I often think that the dragonflies are more constant. The July afternoon sky gives them their brief universe. What fine creatures they are, jewelled and polished and quivering with light. The big ones are called hawkers, the small ones are called damsels, and their newts are known as naiads. Their lives are short and lovely and celebrated.
On a cool evening, Ronald Blythe sits with Mary, Martha, and Alice
THE Maltings Farm hayfields were cut yesterday, and now they are being trundled along the horizon in the shape of vast drums. Stripped land is pale and dusty. The sun burns down, and, apart from the haymaking machine, and the everlasting cry of pigeons, there is no noise, only a kind of quiet silence.
I sit on the hot terrace and listen to seeds snapping. I think about Rupert Brooke, and Gallipoli, and about clearing my spring out, and of yesterday, when we all celebrated holy communion in a Norman chapel that had been turned into a barn after the Reformation, and then turned back into a shrine when I was a boy.
The Earls and Countesses of Oxford lie in marble state on the tiled floor. The chapel is dedicated to St Stephen, but our hymn sheets bear the crown and arrows of St Edmund. The Bishop of Dunwich, the Revd Dr Mike Harrison, preaches on the two sisters Mary and Martha — one a listener, one too busy to do anything other than cook the dinner. Afterwards, we have lunch in what I call my Alice in Wonderland house, because it was there, long ago, that I heard of its connection with Lewis Carroll. And so to bed.
There are still plenty of summer days left in which to cherish an English summer evening. The American novelist Henry James adored such days. How pleased he would have been to know that they could still be lived, as it were, a century after he had passed away. I find Alice in Wonderland at the back of a shelf — a nice edition, given to a little girl named Christine, just before the Great War, and lovingly inscribed, and I take it into the hot garden.
So I end up with Martha, Mary, Alice, the Red Queen, and some of my neighbours, all of us sunburnt and guests of Abraham, who sat in his tent door during the heat of the day, as I sit in my door on this cool evening, hoping that no one will arrive to disturb my sloth. I shall call it meditation.
Later, I discuss the clearing of the farm track with the friend who chops the middle off and mows his banks at this time of year. From a narrow access to me, it grows into a stately approach to a sizeable old house. This is the time to rake the ditches that bring my water — and all free of charge. No water rates, but some hefty toil to make sure that it reaches me.
There are a few butterflies, a few small animals scuttling for safety, and a badger town, standing open. But there are fewer and fewer walkers, less and less greeting, and no gossip. And the Stour Valley whines, sultry at the moment, and the hums of bees prevent actual silence. “It is surprising what you hear when you listen,” an old man said.
As for what I see, this is for ever amazing. At the moment, the big field is a dull gold, and the ash tree in front of the house is a heavy green. And the horse ponds glitter under their weed. The artist John Nash, who lived here before me, loved these ponds, and portraits of them hang in our town hall to refresh the Mayor and corporation.
Have I heard, David says on the telephone, that they are digging up a Roman villa not far from me? This is not his usual line, which is: “Have you heard about this rare apple?” His orchard is a kind of fruit museum, with plums, pears, and apples going back to Eden.
I look at my greengages. They have a habit of bearing a crop and forgetting to crop alternately. I scythe beneath them, letting the wild seeds scatter under my feet. But there is July dust on my feet, and not very tuneful birdsong in my ears. I must read what John Clare says about hot dry Julys, and how he lays his way through them.
George Herbert’s poems make Ronald Blythe think of St Luke’s Acts
WARM, soft summer winds, the ones that rock the barley. They bring back the exhilarating Julys of boyhood. I can feel old Mr Cardy’s crops scratching my bare legs. Or Captain Cardy, as he liked to be called.
Although it was incorrect, many temporary officers of the First World War liked to retain their title. They had become chicken farmers, and their wives walked to market, pushing prams laden with eggs, and passing tramps pushing prams piled high with all they possessed as they trudged from workhouse to workhouse.
This was the land fit for heroes. Not that I understood such things.
Suffolk, for me, was a wild paradise of abandoned corn fields, brilliant with weeds such as daisies and poppies. I cycled through it to visit the great wool churches, which were shrines of another age, and which bore witness to prosperity, art, and learning — although the ten-or-so-mile coastal belt and the Forestry Commission’s fine woodlands made its edges look like Russia.
My first writer-friend was a poet named James Turner, who introduced me to George Herbert. We would give readings from him in enormous naves to handfuls of listeners. We never asked permission, but simply entered these glorious empty spaces and read.
Later on, I would be the guest of Vikram Seth at Bemerton Rectory, near Salisbury, Herbert’s home; and Vikram, in his enchanting manner, and I, in my quiet English way, would speak Herbert in his own countryside, and I would imagine him riding the river lanes.
Herbert teaches a companionable Christ, one who is a dinner-guest, a fellow gardener, and a close friend. They call him “Holy Mr Herbert”, but no one knew that he was to become the greatest poet of the Church of England.
Sending a Cambridge friend a fat rolled-up bundle of writings, Herbert said: “Burn them if they’re no good.” His friend gave them to the best publisher in Cambridge.
I always think of St Luke’s treatment of the Acts of the Apostles when I recall what happened to Herbert’s poems. It opens with: “The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began to do and preach.” Actions and language.
The Acts begin with a lottery. Somebody has to complete the sacred circle, now that poor Judas has betrayed Jesus, and then himself, because suicide is a kind of betrayal of hope and continuity. I have always thought that the Lord’s love will take Judas to that heavenly table.
Summer fills the old farmhouse. Hollyhocks stare into the bedroom windows. They remind me of those that lined the village street of Helpston, John Clare’s immortal village, where the buildings do not moulder as they do in Suffolk, but stay grey and rigid, and are propped up by hollyhocks, the tallest imaginable. But it is a dizzy year, with some plants high enough to see what is going on in the next-door parish.
Down towards the river, they are digging up a Roman villa. Did those who lived in it walk in what is now Wormingford? Did their children dive in the deep end of what is now our Stour?
”Once ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I,” wrote A. E. Housman. Historians say that our Romans came from what is now Romania. What did they sing — and all in Latin? And, with this notoriously cold reputation, were they amazed that it could be so warm and so Italian, if only for a week or two?
It is what one misses abroad: a changing climate, rarely two days alike. On a hill, the horses graze and graze on warm grass without diminishing it.
Ronald Blythe on a poet of Cornwall
TODAY, I found myself thinking of my old friend Charles Causley. He’d be looking around my ancient house and saying, But you can’t live here! But I do live here, Charles. With all this garden? Charles detested gardening.
When we met in Cornwall, he would take me to see such sights as Sabine Baring-Gould’s grave, for the Virgin under the east window of Launceston Church, into whose stone lap we would throw pebbles.
Charles was a schoolmaster who taught at Timothy Winters’s school. He’d also served in the Royal Navy for six years, a plight he was witty about. Our Cornish encounters inevitably led to the kind of adventures that only Charles could devise. They were poetic and funny.
Once, I remember we strayed into a village wedding. Like those scriptural guests, we were improperly clad: ourselves in jeans and everyone else in hired tails. Apologetically, we began to make our exit, but the bridegroom, who may have recognised Charles, said, No! So we danced with the bride herself: a lovely girl, straight out of a Thomas Hardy novel.
But it was Baring-Gould’s grave that both awed and fascinated Charles. Here was the author of “Onward, Christian soldiers”. Here, too, was someone from Essex whom Charles thought I ought to meet. It was made of 1920s white marble. Charles touched it dutifully, then entered the church and picked up this mighty hymn on the organ, now and then glancing around nervously as if the author might be striding up the aisle.
But mostly we sat in the Launceston pub and talked about our work. He had done his teacher-training at Peterborough, from where he had biked into the John Clare country.
When it was suggested that he should become president of the newly created Clare Society, he said, No, an East Anglian like me should have the honour. And so, every year, for much of my lifetime, I have given the Clare Lecture. Until today, that is; for all good things must come to an end, particularly presidencies. So three Great Oaks are to be planted in John Clare’s birthplace: one for him, one for Edmund Blunden, and one for me. They will grow vast at a spot called Swordy Well.
Blunden lived in Long Melford, close to my birthplace. We met now and then. I thought of him because of the TV programme On the Western Front, and of his great book Undertones of War, which he published in 1928. He once gave me some lecture notes in his wonderful handwriting. Later, I would help to unveil the memorial plaque to him from the house in Long Melford, which Siegfried Sassoon gave him. It was a mile or two from where my teenage father set off for Gallipoli.
The art of such connections is to hold fast to a shared past, while living vividly in the present, each new morning being such a gift. Or so I find. Also, Christopher is here, to size my orchard; so that this summer’s seed will fall into the damp earth. And last summer’s climbing roses must be pruned. Two new cats, named Alice and Dinah, watch all this nervously.
In church, I preach on the elemental nature of God’s giving. Then I let Charles Causley take me back to his Cornwall and our youthful dance at the strangers’ wedding, and the music of its violins. And his address returns vividly to me — 2 Cyprus Well, Launceston, Cornwall.