Ronald Blythe takes his saw to a once fruitful quince
I FIND myself relishing the failing light, the brief afternoons, the cross
birds waiting for me to pack up, chiffchaffs and pheasants mostly, joining in
noisy protest as I continue to garden when, at 4 p.m., every decent December
creature should be in bed.
But still I clear the orchard. At the moment it is the desperate task of
sawing dead wood from the ancient Portugal quince, and I feel like one of the
surgeons in Nelson’s navy — "Bite the bullet, my lad. You’ll be better off
without it." Off comes a vast limb.
Half the quince flourishes; half has gone wherever quinces go when they are
past bearing. But the tree has a history parallel with my own in the wild
garden, and I sense that I am losing part of myself as the boughs fall — not
very far; for they writhe in their Laocoön fashion only just above the grass.
Once there was so much fruit I could hardly give it away, the locals not
wanting "the trouble" — all except my farmer neighbour William Brown, who came
to beg a few for "my wife". Welcome, welcome, dear quince-lover. John Nash, who
planted the tree, liked to place a fat quince on the dashboard of his Triumph
Herald, there to scent the car out. I made quince cheese, or put a bit of the
fruit in an apple pie "to quicken it".
Alas, wonderful Cydonia oblonga, how you have come down in the world! Once
you scented the tem-ples of Venus. A quarter of you is in late leaf; so, rid of
death, I having let the light in, pull yourself together, and bring forth in
abundance your hard-as-wood, yet delicate, yellow fruit, just as you used to;
for there remain a few of us who will take the trouble to make of you "a
precious Conserve and Marmelade, beeying congealed with long seethyng, and
boiled with Sugar, Wine and Spices".
It is now as dark as midnight, and the tools are swallowed up, enveloped,
lost, and an owl cries imperiously. I feel my way home. On a shelf of cookbooks
going back to the year dot, I discover one published in Calcutta in 1919.
Quinces, quinces — the yellowing pages turn. "Quince cheese — press into tins
lined with brandy papers"? "It will take hours."
A monthly evensong for just half a dozen of us — more when it is light — but
"Where two or three are gathered together in my Name," etc. And anyway it is a
favourite service, sung without an organist, spoken with alternate voices, the
candles wavering, the nave roof somehow floating and indistinct, barely above
us, the Advent prayers. It is all so perfect, so beautiful, so "enough". But of
course it won’t save the world. What will?
The bellringers’ dinner looms into the calendar, and we crowd into the
Crown, wear paper hats, and devour turkey. We spy strangers from towers near
and far, captains and masters who make the valley tumultuous when they have a
mind to. Our bells reach from the Wars of the Roses to the Second World War,
and our attempts reach dizzy lengths, as our pealboards boast. Some of us are
ringers, churchwardens, and organists all in one. You get your money’s worth in
the Church of England.
I think of my father standing in the dark garden when there was a ringing
practice, just to listen, just to soak the sound in. The noise in the pub is
less listenable-to, though there is no choice. Fifty eating ringers and their
guests make a fine roar. It is hot inside and mild outside, and the low rooms
hum with the courtesies of the season.