I LOVE provincial art galleries. It is amazing what hangs on
their walls. Is that a real Picasso? And who is this painter no one
has ever heard of? It is so captivating.
This week, I went to the Minories Art Gallery, in Colchester, to
see the permanent collection, which I knew existed, but had
forgotten. And there they were - the artist friends of my youth,
and of the Suffolk-Essex countryside I had known. Also, the ghostly
assemblies I joined in a stately townhouse just after the war. I
usually went with John and Christine Nash, who themselves belong to
another day: John, who never looked at the paintings, and chatted
away to old friends; and Christine, who sat in a tall window,
I took in the exhibition appreciatively, longing to paint, not
at all longing to write. It had been the generous custom of the
artist to give a work to the gallery, and these, from having been
tucked away so long, were now a kind of autobiography. Each
picture, even if it was a portrait, brought to life another face,
another room, another time.
There was Sir Cedric Morris, tall, his scarf tucked through a
silver ring. There was my friend John Bensusan-Butt, cousin to the
Pissarros. There were the poets James Turner, W. R. Rodgers, and R.
M. Currie - all a generation older than myself, but we did not
constitute an East Anglian collective: we were just local people
who spread our wings after the war.
And, most importantly for me, there was the emergent Aldeburgh
Festival, and its founders, Benjamin Britten, Imogen Holst, and
Peter Pears. What there was not was wages, just little handouts and
big improvisations. Simplicity was the thing. I walked and biked
everywhere. I edited the wonderful programme books - collectors'
items now - and did everything from setting out the stacked chairs
to persuading the Suffolk priests to allow concerts to take place
in their beautiful churches.
One of them forbade applause, and I still dislike the often
excessive clapping of some concerts. There should be a few seconds
at least, after the last notes of Schubert or Bach, to translate
the audience to another sphere, but not this battle of palms and
Everything took place in Aldeburgh itself in those days. But the
spread of music across the marshes to Snape altered everything for
the better. The entrepreneur Newson Garrett had built a vast
maltings there in the 19th century, as well as emancipating women -
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was his daughter - and the entire
business of concert-going was transformed by Snape.
My particular friends were Denis and Jane Garrett. He an
exciting botanist, his wife a loving head of social welfare in
Cambridge. Oh, brave new world! It was run on a shoestring - but a
highly professional shoestring. I wrote stories, walked miles, got
used to the sea, and became a writer.
At this moment, I am rereading that Essex masterpiece, J. A.
Baker's The Peregrine. Once read, constantly read. One
could call Baker a mid-20th-century John Clare. There is nothing
like this bird book in the whole of English natural history. Its
ravishing prose and scientific force remain mysterious. It was
written by a rather ill young man as he cycled in the rivery
countryside around Chelmsford. Each evening, he would translate his
birdwatching jottings into brilliant prose. He died in 1986, having
carried birdwatching into English literature.