ELEGIAC days. I have been given an ash-plant walking stick that
John Masefield cut from a hedge on the Western Front. He was a
medical orderly. I lean on it in the peaceful August garden. The
poplars sing in hushed voices. It has gained a polish where hands
have held it, and a ferrule. I try it out on the long walk, and it
sends up summer dust. "Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness
come upon you," Jesus said. Excellent advice.
In church we remember 4 August 1914, first silently, with
Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending, and then with
touches of compline. I read Rupert Brooke's "Safety" and "The
Soldier". His safety lies in the indestructible heart of things.
Very soon, in the same fleet as bore my teenage father to
Gallipoli, a mosquito would take his life. He was 27. And here am
I, old in the old garden, eating raspberries, telling tales to the
white cat, thinking of what to say on Sunday.
There are celebrated dragonflies here. I forget why they are
celebrated, but naturalists call on them and they sometimes
enthrone themselves on my bare skin, gossamer, shimmering. "August
for flying," they say. Roses tremble beneath them. "August for the
people," W. H. Auden said. August for lazing, say I. I am no good
at this, however, which is just as well, considering the state of
my desk. But I adore the sounds of August, its orchestral winds,
its midnight creaks, its loud birds, its noises off - i.e. the
sound of other people's pleasures. And the splutter of my
neighbour's little aeroplane as he takes a look at our valley.
They are harvesting here and there, not that anyone is
interested. The most disturbing in today's farming year is the
total lack of interest in the harvest. In church, Harvest Festival
is a kind of apology for ignoring the fields. All is safely
gathered in, the tinned peas, the outsize marrow, the magnificent
flowers. And there is gratitude, of course. The appalling things we
see on the evening screen make me feel lucky. And goodness itself
is commonplace, or should we say ordinary?
And while we know a good deal about each other in the village,
our lives are too expanded these days for us to feel that we are
"observed". Think of John Clare, who had to hide away in order to
write. But then writers are very odd people.
New Zealanders come to see me, and carrying gifts. They call the
earth tremors there "the shakes". They are rebuilding Christchurch
Cathedral, and not entirely of cardboard. The loss of the beautiful
Victorian architecture four years ago brings tears to our eyes. We
mention John Selwyn, who took the gospel to New Zealand, teaching
himself Maori on the ship.
I tell them of my old friend Christopher Perkins, who taught at
Wellington Art School, and whose work is now in the National
Gallery. As a youth, I sat for him as St John, dressed in a sheet.
It was for a Dorset reredos. I remember his sketchbooks, with their
pages and pages of New Zealand towns and settlements, the wooden
houses and tin roofs, and their sense of being far away. As far as
you could go. And particularly the Scots.
They - these visitors - were on their way to Scotland, making me
feel envious. It is almost the time when the Highlands' scent of
heather is so seductive that it makes one long to emigrate. But the
white cat says "Know your place." Which I try to.