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Word from Wormingford

12 June 2012

Ronald Blythe finds reasons to lay down his pen

A CLEAR day. Not empty day. The difference should be, well, clear. Nobody is coming, the diary says. Give yourself a break from the new book, my head says. The skies concur. Venus having wandered across the sun, cloud Alps promise downpours as contrition. Even planets should know their place.

All this rain. The garden grows a foot an hour. I cut bamboo poles for the runner-bean wigwam, trim their tops, and arrange them in a circle. Bamboo is a kind of grass. A huge stand of it gives monumental importance to a little lawn. The June birds sing their heads off. They, too, celebrate a clear day.

What did John Clare do on a clear day? Slip from sight of his nosy neighbours, for one thing. Steal away to the open-cast quarry down the road, where no one in his right mind would want to go, there to lie flat and let his imagination do all the work. Out of sight, out of mind. Why were they all so interested in him?

The father of an Ipswich Town footballer told me how his son could not go out because of the staring. His boy would have to drive to some foreign city, like Norwich, if he wanted to avoid all those eyes. Touches, even.

John Clare walked away to the wilds to converse “with shepherds and herdboys”, to learn the fiddle from Gypsys, and to find a clear day. William Hazlitt, when he was a boy, heard them calling from the Manse, but laid low in the long grass, not answering. There was reading to be done. I did this when I was 12, feeling wicked.

The rain-growth of the past few days reminds me of all this, the shelter, the English countryside out of control, the kitchen garden pleading to be sticked, the grey puddles, the clouds sailing over their surface. A nervous green wood­pecker has just stopped its dipping flight to rest for seconds, a yard from the window. Hares are about, they say.

“When are you going to get Jonathan to cut the sides of your track?” they say.

“When it stops,” I say.

The rain. Every now and then it drops like a curtain on the scene. The white cat trots in like a walking dishcloth to dry herself on my jersey. It is murky for a clear day. But soft, I’ll give it that. And sweetly scented, like Shakespeare’s bank. Church-tower flints look like crown jewels from so much wet polishing, and last week’s bunting like sad rags.

It was on such a day as this that the youthful John Clare went out hoping to see some girls’ legs. But they had lengthened their skirts to hide their muddy stockings. Such is life. He noted “signs of the weather in animals”.

“Cats eat grass and their eyes lose their brightness. Swallows gather in company. Quails make more chirp­ings. Fowls go to roost more early. Dogs turn sick. Frogs turn black, and gather round their homes. Horses play around the yard. Hogs champ . . . cattle toss molehills. Animals sport and play before a storm. Cows bellow.”

And poets who see that it is far too wet to work in the fields cry hurrah! Now for a dry spot in the Hills and Holes, the abandoned quarry, where one can read and write, dream and fade from sight.

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