Ronald Blythe travels to Aldeburgh and joins the suntanned crowd
BLISSFUL Mediterranean days, only in Suffolk. Friends from Oxford celebrate them with me at Aldeburgh. I take them to see Benjamin Britten’s grave in the churchyard. Beside him lie Peter Pears and Imogen Holst — the triumvirate who created the festival just after the war, and who employed me as a kind of sorcerer’s apprentice.
But, first, matins at Little Horkesley. The church is cool and dreamlike. Aldeburgh is framed by the gothic porch which stretches out into the main road. Just a single swimmer in the sea, everyone else is making themselves comfortable on the shingle. The weather is hot but airy. We have lunch at the Cross Keys inn, where I used to write stories, hugging the fire in the winter.
It is Trinity 11, and we hear the way of God’s commandments to share his heavenly treasure, in which the Pharisee and the publican give us lessons on prayer. I find a prayer from the 1973 Bangkok mission conference. It is one of perpetual gratitude, including our gratefulness for our own individual contributions. At Aldeburgh, there is a parade of this distinctiveness — suntanned crowds and myself included. The cats, too, enjoy it. English summer, although slow to arrive, has an extraordinary nature.
Meanwhile, my little owls at the top of the farm track fly about over the pastures where the horses graze, now and then dipping their thirsty heads into the water tank, one wearing a long false tail with which to swipe flies. July and August can be scratchy months.
It was in August 1828 that John Clare wrote to Robert Burns and Robert Bloomfield as men with sunburning excellence, with little comprehension of his own standing as a great rural poet. He also saw “the holiday-enjoying face” which, somehow, we miss when we read about his world, although William Hazlitt is critical about retirement and the destruction of a days-old work pattern of toil from dawn to dusk.
August is when harvest blooms. The fields in which my house has burned for hundreds of years hiss with warnings. The blades — whether that of the scythe or the combine — inevitably approach. There is no escaping them, and Clare’s slight physique would have been no excuse.
He once wrote to his friend and publisher John Tyler about “John Clare the thresher and neglected rhymer” as being “the only two comfortable periods of his life”. He was once offered freedom from agricultural toil, but refused it, knowing that, for him, the fields and meadows and the writer’s study could not be more divorced: they were a single unit.
He and a friend would arrive at the Bluebell Inn with plants and precious papers filling their pockets; and these were gathered usually on a Sunday. He was polite about religion, but admits that “when I went to church I could scarcely refrain from sleep”. So he went to the countryside instead. He found God there. He made an inventory of nature, and it kept him sane in the madhouse.
His village was surrounded by the wild land he loved. It is called Emmonsales Heath, and at the back of it the English countryside will be ploughed up during the Second World War. Clare mourned its passing in his day.
Ronald Blythe reflects on the country silence and gifts of creation
“BE NOT afeard, the isle is full of noises,” says Caliban. And so is my ancient garden. At first, one hears nothing, just the old country silence. And then, like the instruments of an orchestra, the sounds introduce themselves: the summer wind in the trees, the quiet rush of the water supply, scuttling rabbits or fox.
The postman is in his van. He delivers Peter Hall’s film for my book Aikenfield, made a lifetime ago. It goes on the shelf which contains future tasks. I’m reading my old friend John Nash’s book English Garden Flowers (1948). The foreword deserves quoting. Anyway, I long to hear the long-silent artist’s voice.
“The 12 flowers illustrated here were drawn before the recent war, which interrupted the production of the book for many years. They had no point in common beyond the fact that they were all grown in my garden in Buckinghamshire. The soil in that particular part of the county was not a kindly one, and, on demobilisation, the wilderness that confronted me after five years of neglect was enough excuse for me to move to one of the small, rich valleys of East Anglia and start another garden.”
This has long been my garden, left to me by the artist. His botanical watercolours are superb, as are the descendants of his flowers. I walk about introducing myself to them: the Jerusalem Sage blocking the way, the Mermaid tea rose on the wall, the Crown Imperial in all its majesty.
At Matins, I say a great thank you for the gifts which have come my way. “We praise you, God our Father, for the richness of your creation and for the uniqueness of each person and for what sustains and renews our cultures.” The garden is in ceaseless renewal and so, I trust, am I.
I sit outside and read until the cats scrawl on the page. I look up the epistle for Matins, the one in which God’s gifts are lavishly, rather than evenly, distributed. Pheasants make a commotion, as does the postman. The silence then returns.
Bach soars away in a distant room. I am pretending to write, the cat making the reality impossible. That’s what I think. The gospel has Christ in his anti-market mood in the temples. The temple is new and beautiful, but commerce is already making it grubby, and he is upset. Nothing disturbs him as much as defilement.
The August garden goes on growing below its rug of weeds, and the hill field is blue with flax. Nothing whatsoever is being done, and what John Clare would have thought, I can’t imagine. A farm without work. A farm without a harvest. A farm without people. Although he would have welcomed a farm with a writer, and a writer is no longer in hiding; and he sits outside blatantly with a pen in his hand. A writer who must now go inside to think of what to say on Sunday, and “running the way of God’s commandments will be a partaker of his treasure”.
I do not have to explain this to the animals, of course. Returning to John Nash’s English Garden Flowers, I read that “the habit of Jerusalem Sage is rather lax, that its leaves fly out, giving the impression of birds’ wings.” An enchanting watercolour of periwinkle reminds me to cut back the massive cushion of this plant which blocks the path. They used to grow periwinkle on graves, and criminals wore it on their way to the scaffold. But today we liken it to the propellers of a plane. It looks as if it will take off.
Jerusalem appears a second time this week, not as a plant, but as a city that makes Christ weep. Like my flowers, it will flourish and fall to the ground.
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.