IT HAS been one of those bursting-with-life May weeks, thus the
apologetic smiles of the old friends in the obituary column of the
newspaper. "We didn't mean to go in May!" A memorial service will
be announced later. I see their houses, hear their voices. It will
need practice to live without them. But May, when there is so much
to do! The white cat has no patience with death. She chooses a warm
brick wall to purr on. Nine lives, of course. But she can't count.
Neither can I, for that matter. So I do my accounts for the
accountant, small sums from great matters. I listen to Fauré and
The cousins from Kent turn up - "No, we have never been to
Aldeburgh." So off we set to the Suffolk coast, where the
temperature drops. I show them Benjamin Britten's grave. Imogen
Holst's, too. There they lie in the vast churchyard, one behind the
other. But these deaths are mine, and cannot be shared.
The sea glitters. It has a gravelly voice. It rakes the pebble
beach. Victorian ladies, bent double, searched it for amber on
Sunday afternoons. Amber comes from the Arabic for a yellowish
resin that is derived from extinct conifers. Sometimes, an insect
has been trapped in it, like a jewel that once ran and breathed.
Amber comes from ambergris. Aldeburgh women wore hefty necklaces of
this fossil. But, to me, every stone on the beach was precious -
told a tale.
The North Sea rocked its flint shore about restlessly all day,
all night. Yet it was full of plants. Their roots went deep, and
were beyond disturbance. We went to the bookshop, of course.
Aldeburgh has a great bookshop, and a great fish-and-chip shop.
What more could one ask for? But, like this week's papers, it is
full of the names of the departed. Walking in the churchyard is
like being at a party where one needs no introduction.
The wide church is bright with polished brass and flowers. I
visit the bust of the realist poet George Crabbe, and the window to
Britten by John Piper, and everywhere there are memorials to my
friends the Garretts.
It is an uncloudy place with everything hard and bright. All the
drowned fishermen have been immortalised by oceanic movement. This
is where I was taught botany, and how to walk against the wind.It
was Bank Holiday, but not festive. A mild gale polished us up. In
the Moot Hall I gazed on the mayoral portraits, and imagined Peter
Grimes's trial - his sentence to be the borough's scapegoat on the
marshes. One brave young man dived into the sea and made a
Back in Wormingford, I take matins, and learn that only God can
order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men, although I
must love what he commands, and desire what he promises. Faith
often asks this. That we should want what God offers. And then
comes St James's unforgettable reminder that "Every good gift, and
every perfect gift cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom
there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning." Constancy.
That is the thing.
In Aldeburgh Church, I sat briefly where I sat when I was young.
Rehearsals rather than the finished music filled my head,
perfection not being achieved until endless practice. Britten,
tireless, edgy. The ghosts of great gales and hardships. And always
the marine light, the aerial version of endlessly polished flints,
and a gift worth having.