PENTECOSTAL days of perfection. From the distinctive regions of rose scent in the baked garden to the hot old rooms open to the world, all is fit for “the dove descending”, and the singing of “Thy blessed unction from above Is comfort, life, and fire of love.”
Three gargantuan machines prepare the onion beds. A residue of floodwater slows the way to church. But the countryside burns physically and ethereally, and the Twelve are commissioned in the windy room.
The congregation takes a break from bunting, etc., to praise the birth of the Church. As with all births, it was violent. Fiery tongues, loquacious tongues. Such language! But one word among so many goes over and over with me — Comforter. Where did it come from in his vocabulary? Scholars may know. But it holds me up when he says it — repeatedly — in St John’s Gospel. “When the Comforter is come.” Ah, when! And then here he is, noisy and thrilling and more reassuring than comforting. But later now, with us, in the far distant parish church on a blazing May morning, a familiar presence, dearly loved and to be leaned on.
David arrives, and we drive to Charleston in his Land Rover. It is 100 miles. It is where Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and John Maynard Keynes lived and worked. We journey over the glittering Dartford Bridge, and pay the toll, £1.50. We pass through Kent, which is sound asleep, and come to the South Downs, which are lawned chalk. And then to the famous house, with its dedicated rooms.
Having visited it frequently, on the page and in paintings, I feel I know it almost as much as Bottengoms Farm, and walk familiarly from enchanting room to room. It is a literature festival, and although the place is sheltering a multitude, it retains its ancient exclusivity and out-of-this-world loveliness. I feel I should tap on Keynes’s door and apologise for disturbing the writing of The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919).
We are impressed by the absence of anything that cost a lot, and the presence of furniture that cost very little, but which provided surfaces for decoration. I imagine Virginia Woolf visiting her sister. Their letters are on my shelves.
The young naturalist Robert Macfarlane and I are here to talk about “A Sense of Place”, in a vast marquee, at midday. We are old friends.
The tent yawns. The Sussex birds sing. All is loud and potential, and there is a boisterous hint of the Upper Room. We sit at a desk, and sign our books. Tall ghosts pass in the garden looking for a spot to set up easels, dip pens in ink, gossip. Sussex is glorious at Pentecost. Firle shines. We must come again.
Back home, it is the celebrated Wormingford flower festival, never mind Bloomsbury. First things first. And a peal for the Queen. And apologies to the white cat for disappearing for a whole day. The scent of flowers is distributed here and there like distinctive tributes, and bees are everywhere. They said it would thunder and lightning before dark, but it didn’t.
The Pentecostal day went on burning. David watched bats. I wrote a sermon. But “Comforter” — how inspired! O Comforter, draw near. At Whitsun, in a white world.