Ronald Blythe muses on the joy of each and every sound
I NEVER quite get used to it, the static nature of today’s countryside. Villagers such as John Clare were elaborately seasonal. Every month, every day almost, brought its special tasks, and he could describe them, as the seasons followed each other in their traditional order. But now they’ll be sowing and reaping; certainly, one would have to be alert to catch them. Otherwise, there’s no sound other than that of birds or traffic. Wonderfully, there’s not ever this at Bottengoms Farm.
Today was a great event: the oil tanker found its way down the lane at seven in the morning, managing to turn on the mud equivalent of a ha’penny. The youthful driver was sanguine. I wasn’t to worry. He could turn the vehicle on anything. I could smell the winter fuel in the summer air, and crushed wild flowers, and the enormous happiness of a full supply.
Not all that long ago, various walking women would call to me through the hedges: “Was I well? Wasn’t it cold for June?” They expected I had heard of some drama. But, usually, I had not.
For hundreds of years, this outlying farm has heard very little of what went on a couple of miles away. I had put the postman himself quite a trek from the front door; to save him the tramp, I put the letters in the box. I was working in the orchard when we exchanged joyful good-mornings the other day, and he would say, “You have to sign for something.” Long ago, there was a postman who, when holding on to a parcel would say, “Somebody loves you.”
Even the Stansted planes seem to have changed route. But my neighbour’s low-flying aircraft skims me, and the horses look up at me. All the roses are in flower, and they scent my small world.
A friend from Berlin is sprawled in a chair with the cats. I may look asleep, but I am wide awake inside my head; a chapter of a new book I should be writing is taking place. But, more importantly at this moment, I should be thinking of St Paul’s voyage, for matins. It was Paul who took Christ’s revolutionary teaching into the wide world, where they were soon suppressed. That world possessed a plethora of deities, but not one who was proclaimed the only god. It was why Caesar struck out.
I am often puzzled why people don’t go to church. It is so beautiful — the music, the language. And, if I may say so, so caring. And, indeed, thinking of the bell-ringers, so skilful and so poetic. I’m thinking at this moment of a Suffolk bell which is inscribed “Box of sweet honey, I am Michael’s bell.” Who was Michael? The man who left his bell to “talk” when he himself was silent.
Lately, the marsh nightingales have raised their voices, not in chorus, but in a kind of wild solo. Nightingales prefer thickets to woods, and quite enjoy a push lawnmower.
I hope that Jesus and his friends were able to sit in gardens, even Gethsemane before that immense tragedy, to listen to birdsongs and the wind in the fields. One listens more as one grows older and the sound of nature fills one’s head.
My stream provides continuity. So everlasting is it that I have to remind myself to listen. It pursues the route through chalk and gravel, tree roots and London clay, until it finds the river and finally the sea. It is deep and solemn under our bridge where the Suffolk-Essex travellers splash through it and where we tied up our boats near the kingfishers.
Ronald Blythe re-reads a diary that is suited to all times of life
SOFT summery rain. Blue tits nesting by the brick gate-post. Shrubs heavy with rain, having fallen across the path. Drenched roses. The stream and the guttering in competition as the water dispels. Gentle grey light. Giant weeds. Friends look a little ascant. Red kites reeling around. Sometimes they have flown before us to Newmarket.
I estimate how long it will take me to do some substantial weeding. But not today, my turn to take matins. I read the banns for the young strangers sitting below me and think of the rural dramas such duties used to create. “If you know any just cause or impediment why these two people may not be joined together in holy matrimony, you are to declare it.”
How Thomas Hardy revelled in such language. His wonderful poems caught the rhythm of the Book of Common Prayer. He liked to spend Whitsun in Suffolk in a houseful of agnostics in Aldeburgh who accused him of being a humbug, because he would now and then enter a church to pray. He never explained, and perhaps he couldn’t.
Benjamin Britten, who set Hardy’s poems to music, would have refused the sacraments on his death-bed, were it not to hurt the feelings of his friend, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich. We all do so many things out of convention and politeness rather than out of belief. But there are moments of great faith and illumination. Now is comfort itself to be denied. “I would be your Comforter.”
I am re-reading Francis Kilvert’s Diary. The picnics in it remind me of the flower shows that used Constable tombs as tables, laying tablecloths and places, but standing up to eat because of their height. Kilvert was the youthful priest of St Harmon’s, in Radnorshire and Bredwardine, in Herefordshire, during the late 19th century. Also a remarkable writer. His Diary unselfconsciously reveals the soul of rural Anglicanism.
Would anyone read it, he asked himself. His clergyman-father would have taken great care that he did not. But when William Plomer encountered it just before the Second World War, he knew he had met with a masterpiece. Plomer and my friend Ralph Currey were South Africans who had won Oxford scholarships, and I always wished I had asked Ralph about Kilvert’s diary. But Miss Kilvert, the diarist’s niece, lived near me in Suffolk, and I always felt that I was touching, as it were, a huge stretch of Anglican time.
One of my favourite stories in this wonderful diary is about a youthful curate who brought a lad to church to be confirmed — and was himself confirmed by the bishop. Kilvert was somewhat overwhelmed by pretty girls, before he married. His death was sudden and not a little Shakespearian; for he died after only a few days after his wedding, and his coffin passed under the bridal arch. Peritonitis.
Although his diary does not hesitate to reveal the horrors of Victorian rural life, it is essentially beautiful and enchanting, a book to re-read for all one’s life. Also one to accompany the lectionary, the parish magazine, and, for myself at this moment, the great business of putting lavatories in the church — although never once have I been asked for one. But you never know.
At the moment, the horse chestnuts, which a young clergyman selflessly set in the 1890s, are reaching for the sky, and their conkers will soon descend on graves, bouncing about on almost obscured names and dates. And rivulets will find their way to the tarmac and thus to their old journey to the River Stour.
What do we know of the weather and the world, asks Ronald Blythe
The weather forecasters wear their best clothes to tell us the worst. That the sun will not shine today. They have no language for dullness. But I have. On the telephone at breakfast, I say what it looks like out of the farmhouse window, that greys and browns prevail. Not a sunbeam in sight. And he says something like, “Oh to be in Norfolk” — his native land — now that summer’s here. And I remind him that Suffolk has the lowest rainfall (Felixstowe 22 inches), and that the radio goes on for preparing the nation for the worst. No sun until next week, they say.
Jane Austen is notorious for her devotion to bad weather, and I once commended her for it. “All her novels link the sublime moods of nature with our moods.” Her understanding of the English climate is very modern, and she would have approved of the formal elegance of those who describe it, day after day on the television, for they are priests of a sort and have to be robed for their part-scientific, part-mystical profession.
Their litany is, of course, a shipping forecast, something too beautiful for daylight hours, something to lie await for, something with which to compete in one’s screens. Jane Austen’s characters, although they may be rained on and shone on hundreds of years ago, are clearly us, and their weather is ours. Except that we keep warm without coal fires, and thus run our towns and cities without creating fog. We wear comparatively few clothes and we keep candlelight for best. And for the altar, of course. Jane, of course, wrote her novels by it. Although that she would have lit them because it was a dull day is unlikely.
As a boy, I remember our grandparents enjoying what they called the glooming before the paraffin lamps were lit. Firelight made the pictures and ornaments glitter, and the cat rolled on the rug. Some kind of gas lit the church in winter. It made a soft hissing sound, which was rather holy. There were two candles on the altar for ordinary worship and a dozen or so for saints’ days. An untraceable draught made one candle burn faster than the other, also causing it to melt into what we called a “shroud” — the stalactite of wax which could be freed from the brass only with hot water.
Although the daughter of a priest, Jane Austen barely mentions religion. Emma is seen in church only for her marriage to the squire. But a witty morality holds forth Christian values, not to mention class values.
The Suffolk-Essex border is famous “ringing” country. They say that the sound of our bells is carried along the river, although not always to my farmhouse. The wind has to be right. An ancient man who lived here for the First World War would sit in an apple tree to hear them. During the Napoleonic war, the Prime Minster would stand in the Downing Street garden and say boomily: “They are ringing the bells tonight — they will be wringing their hands in the morning.” Pitt the younger, of course.
But how little we would have known then about what was happening in the great world! My father remembered the schoolmaster reading what he thought the villagers should know from The Times. He read it in the playground on Saturday mornings. Real news in the village was when the watermill burnt down.
Yesterday at matins, I read the banns, and add: “If you know any just cause or impediment why these two people may not be joined in holy matrimony, you are to declare it.” But how little we know of these two, or indeed of anyone else these days.
A few years ago, a school changed its motto, because the Governors thought it too modern for the image they wished to have. It was “Audio Video Disco” – and I can understand what they meant, except that it is far from modern. It’s Latin, of course, for “I hear, I see, I learn”!
That’s on my mind this month because there are quite a few Saints’ Days in June, including St. Peter and St. Paul, on 29th. We can learn a lot from them and people like them – remembering that the word for one who learns – discovers, discerns – is Disciple, which just means that like us, Jesus’ disciples were Learners.
We look on those famous Biblical characters as special, because of what they achieved, and because they experienced Jesus’ life first-hand, but they certainly didn’t start out that way! Peter was a fisherman, and as a disciple of Jesus he first became famous for getting things wrong – he needed to learn how to learn. Few of the disciples were academic – in fact they were noted to be “unschooled, ordinary men” (Acts 4:13). Paul, on the other hand, was indeed academic – but needed a complete change of life and learning in order that Jesus could use him in his ministry.
To learn, they first had to learn two things; to hear, we need to listen; and to see, we need to look. That’s obvious, you might think, but I beg to differ. A Vicar colleague told me, years ago: “When you get to a new place, make sure you get to see absolutely everything in the first six months. After that, you won’t notice a thing!” I know what he meant, but I hope that the scenery, the beautiful Church, the village surroundings, never become so familiar that I don’t appreciate them anymore. Or that the people become so familiar that I don’t listen as carefully as I should. Discovery and discernment require the constant effort of looking and listening.
Are you still a Learner? We could all decide to take up a new interest, go to evening classes, join a group – and it’s really good to do those things (especially Church, of course!) but surely it’s important to train ourselves to look and listen in everyday lives, as there’s so much to know, to enjoy, to gain in life!
The old railway signs say ‘stop, look and listen’ just for our safety. But there’s real learning, real joy and real peace to be found in pausing to appreciate all we have, and seeing and hearing the signs of God’s presence in the world. It’s a discipline worth learning!
Yours in Jesus,
Ronald Blythe is busy before the sun rises, writing and editing
IN THE summer — although it is not quite summer — I get up immensely early, and write for hours. And still it is not breakfast, and still the morning chorus has not begun, and still “the gold bar of heaven” hasn’t appeared above Duncan’s farm, and still it is night.
And I think of all those novelists who did a day’s work before six in their dressing-gowns, leaving them even more time to dwell on that grim text “Of the making of books there is no end.” And that surely a great many of them in this ancient house cry out for a second reading — those of my first novelist friend James Turner, for example. Read once, and then shelved for eternity.
And now I cannot recall whether it was George II or III who exploded “Another damned thick book, Mr Gibbon!” when the unlucky historian presented his monarch with yet one more volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
And yet how glad I am when friends send me their latest work, for it means that they are healthy and prosperous. At the moment, I am running out of dedicatees, and must trouble the departed. I think of the writer who put “To my dear wife, without whose assistance this book would have been finished in half the time.” But there it is, the strange business of telling tales, of having headfuls of them, of releasing them into the world at large so that other folk can read them in a day so that they can be shelved for eternity.
The motor-mower is going up and down, rowdy when it passes under the window, whispering when it smooths the badger holes under the 12 oaks. Making stripes. All the roses are in bloom, the honeysuckles, too. Far away in the church they are making a flower festival, and the lane will be full of cars. The diarist Francis Kilvert described this in his 1870sDiary, that perfect rural confession. There he is, in classic profile, the handsome country parson.
Some fool of an editor removed his sermons, and some silly relation of his censored his liking for girls. But enough of his diary remains to prove his genius. And to prove that, where early mornings are concerned, at least in remote villages, the sounds and scents stay much the same, especially where there is a river to carry them. All the lanes leading to Wormingford are temptingly labelled “Flower Festival”, and their banks are dense with cow parsley.
All is as it should be, Songs of Praise and all. Meanwhile, the mighty tombstones, which were raised from the nave floor ages ago, continue their journey; for now they must make way for lavatories. What would the Constables have thought? The great artist family lie all around, celebrating their rise to “Gent”.
The horse chestnuts swing above them. It is a sumptuous moment. A vicar planted them for Queen Victoria. The Benton irises in the garden, pale blue and silky, speak of my long friendship with that iris master Sir Cedric Morris, and how, at this time of the year, we would drive to Hadleigh to see him — a lanky figure in corduroys, smoking a pipe and full of scandalous tales about plants.
Gardens everywhere are at this moment “Open to the public”, but not as they once were: rough and ready and scholarly. Also with rock cakes. “Well named,” Cedric would say.
Friends forcibly retired at 60 have little need to wonder what to do next. Rural Britain is marvellously run by them, not least the parishes. But, as I repeat, artists and writers do not retire. They die anon.
Don’t forget it’s Flower Festival weekend at St. Andrew’s Wormingford this Bank Holiday weekend, from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily.
Come and see the wonderful flower displays based on the theme of “A celebration of Her Majesty The Queen’s 90 years.”
Don’t miss the bric-a-brac sale, plant stall, farm produce, cakes, lunches, teas and refreshments at the Wormingford Community Education Centre a short stroll along the road.
Entrance is free – come down and see us 🙂