RAW spring days. Early walkers squelch down the farm track,
calling my name through the budding hedge. There is a profusion of
birds and primroses. Sharp rains have hit the ploughing. Equally
sharp winds tear through the trees. I might as well be bare, for
all the protection of my clothes. It goes right through you, it
does, as we say, year after year.
My saffron is out in force, making me think of one of the most
beautiful of Essex place-names. Ancient farm lawns have flowers
before grass. In March, there are muddy edges, not a stripe in
sight. Blackbirds bounce about, robins take an oblique look at the
world. Humanity might pause to consider a housing shortage, but
every other living thing simply makes the shelter it needs. John
Clare's poem "The Nightingale's Nest" is the best-observed account
of this homemaking, and should be an example to us all. I once read
it at a naturalist's funeral, as it seemed to embody both an
earthly and a heavenly shelter.
The homeless Christ shivered during the bitter Palestinian
nights, envying the snug creatures in their burrows. Young soldiers
like my father, brought up on blazing views of the Empire, were
nonplussed by their experiences of the Holy Land at night and at
noon, unable to comprehend a temperature which could swing from
Arctic to heatwave in a day. He used to say that there was nothing
about this in Sunday school.
But I have always felt a pity for the homeless Saviour, and a
special love for that little family of sisters and brother who took
him in, listened to him, and fed him, and remembered that he was
human as well as divine.
Tramps were a common experience of my Suffolk boyhood. Both men
and women pushed laden prams from workhouse to workhouse. Gypsies
had no part of this. Proud to the point of arrogance, they wouldn't
have a house if you gave them one. They wintered in Epping Forest,
or in the wilds around Norwich. Clare summed them up - he envied
their freedom, and was taught to play the fiddle by them, but
realised that he could never be one of them. Between him and the
Romanies, a great gulf was fixed. He wrote: "'Tis thus they live -
a picture to the place; a quiet, pilfering, unprotected race."
It took us a long time to distinguish tramps from Gypsies - not
that they would have cared. They were at ease in the world. Walking
across the fields, I would see where they had been, the ashes of a
fire, the sordid evidence of a squat, the beaten grass, the human
litter. And I would think of those 40 years when Israelites trekked
over Sinai, and, as we said, "Joshua the son of Nun, and Caleb, the
son of Jephunneh, were the only two who ever got through to the
land of milk and honey." What a litter they would have left in
their wake! And then - in sight of the Promised Land! Jordan!
We know a little of the baptismal river where the followers of
Jesus had the old life washed away, and where "the dove descending
breaks the air."
Clare's famous trek was from Epping to Northampton, with
bleeding feet, some 90 miles. It would end in a lunatic asylum. But
his song would never end. Everyone who loves the English
countryside hears it still, and especially in springtime. It vies
with that of the birds and winds, the soundless flowers, and should
tune into the rural work pattern. Only, as far as I can see,
nothing is done; only an April walk on a Sunday afternoon. The same
feet that will hurry to the station to work will tread my track for
an hour or two. "Lovely day," they call out.