WALKING down the farm track with bare legs, I am careful not to annoy the inhabitants of Mining Bees City. I pass the sloes where the Little Owls dwell, the ripening elderberries, and the heroic oak that must have rooted when George Herbert was singing to his lute — although not here, of course — and the freshly cut corn.
Dull, warm weather, and the faint buzz of a machine. “If you came this way, it would always be the same. . .” I get up very early, and walk straight out, and go to bed very late, in smudgy starlight. I should be working in between, but I drift. I take matins. Friends who have moved away are coming back. Friends who cannot sell their house are staying put.
One might say that torpor prevails, but I find myself energised by all this inaction, and I “read” for my next book. Many years ago there was a literary scholar who, we were told, was “reading” for a biography of Christopher Marlowe, a task so delightful that he thought, “Why write it? All that trouble.” So he sat in libraries, getting to know more about the poet than anyone alive, though not publishing it. It was a form of modesty. He was never accused of sloth.
Anyway, the nice stuffy month August proceeds. The white cat observes it from her roost in the greengage trees, hardly deigning to come down when I rattle the Whiskas tin. David’s tomatoes cling to toppling canes, and cucumbers miraculously appear. They flourish luxuriantly in scripture. Zion was a garden of cucumbers, if you recall.
My garden needs weeding with a vengeance. The grapevine decorates the telephone wires, and orchard grass touches the greengages. I scythe in a dilatory fashion, and a youthful neighbour mows enthusiastically. And, as Keats put it, “no birds sing”. They are saving their voices for Africa. Even the harvester did little more than mutter a ghostly cry from another age when it tells me “They are cutting!” All I can hear is a buzz which is less imperative than that of the mining bees.
I say Maurice Wood’s prayer in church: “Make us like a city set on a hill whose light cannot be hidden; so that men and women and children may find Christ as the light of the world, and his Church as the family of the redeemed, and eternal life as the gift of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
I tell the congregation about a novel by Sylvia Townsend Warner. She and I had been brought together when she lost her lifelong partner in a little flurry of mourning letters. More creative, where I was con-cerned, were her marvellous short stories. She had one of those clarion Englishwoman voices that spoke of suffering as much as genius.
On a dark November afternoon I had taken her to a dank churchyard to show her Edward FitzGerald’s grave. We had East Anglian roots. Her light was unhideable. Having mentioned her after all these years, I must go in search of her on the short-story shelf. She was published in The New Yorker, that peerless magazine. To turn its glossy pages is a mixture of worldliness and blissfulness — probably caused by the price of what is for sale in its margins. Somewhere in the house, mouldering in some stately corner, there must be a pile of New Yorkers full of Sylvia’s stories.
The sun beams as I write this, and shines through heavy rain on to my fine weeds, scrubbing my flagstones and greengages.