CATCHING Thomas Hardy's name on the News - something about
building opposite Max Gate - returned me to Dorchester. I had been
helping to edit the New Wessex Edition of his works, and the kind
woman who now lived in the great writer's house invited me to see
it. Others, including Virginia Woolf, had seen fit to mock it, but
I found it perfect.
Few houses had been so adequately designed to contain a literary
spirit. Hardy's brother had built it for him, unearthing Roman
graves in the process. Tess and all the other great novels drew
sightseers to it from the very start; so a barrier of conifers was
planted to hide it. Conifers, being what they are, did more than
what was required of them, creating a sadness; and Hardy would
sometimes stand at the iron gate in the evening, longing for a
But what particularly enthralled me, as I was taken from
polished room to polished room, was the quiet contained time of
their clocks. I was taken back to my childhood in Suffolk, where
there were old houses without radios, only the tick-tock of a fine
clock. No other sound. And, of course, in Hardy's case, and in such
a modest dwelling, the chatter and singing of servants. He wrote
The Dynasts to their merriment as they played ring-board below.
Bottengoms Farm is lucky to hear church bells, and fortunate to
exist beyond traffic. The great heat has revved up the dawn chorus.
With the windows wide at five in the morning, I listen to a full
orchestra. Then, suddenly, it stops. There is silence except for
the ticking of a clock, measured: a many-wheeled heartbeat to tell
that the ancient interior still breathes. Now and then an old beam
catches its breath, and there is a sharp retort. A momentarily
trapped bird beats against the glass; a butterfly wanders on a
Giving my annual lecture to the John Clare Society, I tell it my
favourite time chestnut. Dumas rushes from his study to cry "I have
finished The Three Musketeers!"
"But dinner won't be ready for another hour," his wife says.
So he goes back in and starts The Black Tulip.
But, as the Preacher says, there is a time for everything. How I
love it when he tells me that "a dream cometh through a multitude
of business." The heatwave will have them nodding in the City, and
wilting in white shirts. The Wren churches will be cool, the Thames
on the boil. The cars will be burning; the pigeons will seek
fountains. My aspens, like Hardy's firs, present a forest to the
sun. And a whispering concerto to me.
I lie below them, putting on a show of "business", but dreaming
away. I have to preach to the Readers at the Cathedral, but not
until Saturday; and to the parish, but not until Sunday. For every
service there is a season.
The white cat stirs in the cool grass. For every noon, there is
Whiskas. For every late July, there is Jonathan to cut the track,
to fell the tall grasses and thistles, and to slice off the rise
between the ruts. In July, I am ceaselessly letting myself out, as
Not that, like Hardy, I fenced myself in, for I have done little
or no planting. My growth simply comes up of its own accord, and to
its own luxurious timing. Every summer without fail for centuries,
creating luxuriance, idleness, and this heavy silence. What
business has work at such a moment? But I must prop the tomatoes
up. I have to make what Solomon called a dinner of herbs.