In his sun, Ronald Blythe remembers St Martin and his associates
ST MARTIN’S little summer — so make the most of it. This I tell myself,
finding a hood to protect my ears from its underlying chill, and wellingtons to
splosh through the tractor ruts.
Martin was an army officer who gave half his cloak to a naked man, which one
hopes was adequate. His feast is actually on Remembrance Day, a complex
coincidence, as he resigned his commission in order to be in a quite different
regiment — "I am Christ’s soldier; I am not allowed to fight" — thus becoming a
prototype of the First and Second World Wars’ conscientious objection.
Like these objectors, he was accused of cowardice, but, after having offered
to stand unarmed between the lines, he was given an honourable discharge, and
eventually went off to join
St Hilary, one of the first people to teach the gospel by the use of
metrical hymns — and to be a married bishop.
I imagine the pair of them wonder-working in late sunshine, the ex-officer
and tough but good-natured theologian, one who gave his name to a university
term, and the other who would have approved of General Booth.
I often sit in St Martin’s Churchyard in Colchester, my shopping on a nice
with the chestnut-tree leaves whirling around, and the blunt tower (it was
shot off by General Fairfax’s guns during the Civil
War) casting a jagged shadow. Aldermen and their ladies lie around under the
rank grass. A few doors down is the steep house in which Jane Taylor wrote
"Twinkle, twinkle, little star", and her sister Anne wrote:
Lazy sheep, pray tell me why
In the pleasant fields you lie,
Eating grass, and daisies white,
From the morning till the night?
Every thing can something do,
But what kind of use are you?
There are further verses that take the edge off this harsh question.
And then further down still is the corner house in which Defoe began
Moll Flanders, which is strictly for grown-ups. These St Martin’s
folk, since I have known them all my life, are part of my local family. Young
soldiers clatter by them of an evening, en route to pubs and clubs,
with never a salute for the saint; while, overhead, dulled by street lights, it
is twinkle, twinkle, little planes.
On the eve of St Martin, I pack it in, as they say. Work. His sun hits the
sill where the cat sprawls — hits the desk, too. So I walk out of the study
into autumn gold, taking the unmade lane to the new reservoir, where ducks,
geese, and gulls are creating a bird regatta. The water is sky-blue, the summer
grass blond, the wind in the west.
Oaks, probably the crop planted after all the others had been used up for
Nelson’s ships, are tinged with their annual mortality, and are brown shadows
of their June selves. The most recent ones, aged about 20, have burst their
rabbit guards like Samson bursting his chains, and stand clear of protection.
Not a soul about. Vapour trails are scrawled all over what the Taylor girls
would have called heaven. I realise I’m a new man, and all because of walking a
couple of miles across the fields. And why go in again — ever? Martin, after
all, is perpetually "in the fields" in London. He was forever journeying by
land and water, by donkey-back, by foot, and in his sunshine.