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Word from Wormingford

24 July 2015

Ronald Blythe wonders how a farm labourer dealt with summer heat

THERE is at the heart of faith — all faiths, maybe — a serenity, a great quietness. It is why people have faith in God, his ultimate silence questioning our noise. We look for that peace which is beyond our understanding, but often in a rackety fashion. And we listen, not for some huge divine command, but for the still, small voice that Isaiah heard.

Once, watching the haj on television, I found myself marvelling how a million or more men and boys — no women — could so individually make the pilgrimage to Mecca without touching, as it were. And also how they stayed so fresh and white, as they trod the burning sand. Lawrence of Arabia hidden in snowy Arab robes walked it — the infidel in the midst.

An East Anglian heatwave has been putting these fanciful notions in my head. There is a great deal of birdsong, none of it complaining. Each early evening, I carry well-water to the big stone pots, pick a few stems of rhubarb, look at my lawns and then at Wimbledon, feel the dry paths under my bare feet, and think of the heat in scripture, and those gritty sandals of the prophets — and, indeed, of the Lord. All the prophets and disciples would have been covered up against it. Christ in his seamless robe. Who gave him this lovely garment? Someone who sheltered him from the sun — and the cold.

In years gone by, the upper classes took care not to get a tan. It made them look like peasants. “Fear no more the heat of the sun,” a brother told his sibling in Cymbeline; for “Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney sweepers, come to dust.” My house was built when Shakespeare was alive. It makes little sounds as it bakes. Greenfinches get in and have to be shown out. Hollyhocks touch the roof.

How did the poet John Clare deal with summers such as this one? Making my way to his annual festival at Helpston — once in Northamptonshire, now in Cambridgeshire — I re-read him on the season.

 

Rich music breathes in Summer’s every sound
And in her harmony of varied greens,
Woods, meadows, hedge-rows, corn-fields, all around
Much beauty intervenes

 

I like beauty intervening. It does so all the way to Helpston, the poet’s birthplace. It is my 32nd visit to talk about him, and usually on the gardens and fields where he briefly toiled. For they would lock him away in the madhouse for years and years, summer after summer, where, sprawling and hidden in the July growth, he would write. He had so much to say! And everything both factual and fanciful about summer.

In his July, everyone was outside — and not to get some sun. This was not an option. His July birthday arrived when nothing much could be done, outside or in, falling as it did between hay and corn harvests. So he could read and write in the sun.

When they put him in the bin, he took the summer with him, feeling the prickly mown grass against his shirt and the sun full on him. They allowed him a good library of more than 50 books, but not much paper. The blazing summers succeeded each other, firing the asylum walls. He was an honoured inmate. But he should have been outside in some uncultivated spot, watching swallows and paddling in the River Nene.

Madhouses — his word for them — are ovens in July. As are all prisons. A breath of air is all their inmates ask for. And birdsong.

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