I HAVE two calendars: one for the church, one for being a writer. Early July means Trinity services, and a 90-mile drive to Helpston to talk about John Clare. The latter includes a long stretch of what was the Great North Road, along which the great rural poet walked with an empty stomach and bare feet after escaping from a lunatic asylum in Epping. But now his words flood the English countryside with light.
He called his native village dull, but at this moment its Barnack-stone church, cottages, and barns, its rectory, farms, and market cross — on the steps of which he would have sat — are bright in the warm sunshine.
Hollyhocks topple against warm walls, and the pub in which he toiled as a pot-boy is crowded with the likes of us. Morris men and women dance on the tarmac, and, being a good fiddler himself, he would have liked our music.
This year, I talk about Edmund Blunden. He had met a man who knew a man who had spoken to Clare. It was like knowing a man who had danced with a girl who had danced with the Prince of Wales. And I had known Blunden.
He had come to Long Melford, near my Suffolk birthplace, where Siegfried Sassoon had bought him the Mill House on which I had unveiled the plaque to him and then talked about him in the marvellous church. Blunden had been appointed Oxford Professor of Poetry, but his pleasure to me was that he had read Clare’s words to his men at the Western Front.
He once gave me his notes after a lecture. We were waiting for the London train on Colchester Station, and he pushed them into my hand. Beautiful writing in brown ink. We sat at his feet at Long Melford Bull, and remembered ancient rhymes:
For the wicked old women who
Have turned to a tea-shop “The
How little one remembers all the talk, the recollections, the happiness of being in certain company. Even the voices. Blunden’s belonged to a previous age.
They say that St John lived to be very old, and that young men would ask him how Jesus spoke. And all he would say was, “Little children, love one another.” Nobody thought to say how he looked. St John, they said, was beautiful, or that one might gather as much. But, as Shakespeare said, “Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.”
Our churchyard must be all of a millennium old, and full of such dust, but its face, as it were, is perpetually fresh and flowering. No hint of mortality. Just summer’s growth.
My song thrush sings “tchuck, tchuck, tchuck” all day long in the garden. It has a spotted breast and a brown back. Nobody replies. There is a delicious rain, and tall plants fall about under its persistence. It is fine but drenching, a kind of liquid sultriness. The sweet peas clamber up their canes to meet it. Sopping wet, I potter about, thinking what to say on Sunday, and what to write today.
Our dear churchwarden has died — just left us, as one might go through a door. And too quick for us to feel anything. Feeling will come. A few days ago, he was bringing me the offering and waiting for my little bow. And I was hoping that the last hymn would see him back to his seat. And then he was in the vestry, and I was signing the register and squashing my robes into the case.
And a mile or two away, the song thrush, a loud and musical bird, was proclaiming “tchuck” to high heaven. For such is a summer’s day.