BLISSFUL Mediterranean days, only in Suffolk. Friends from Oxford celebrate them with me at Aldeburgh. I take them to see Benjamin Britten’s grave in the churchyard. Beside him lie Peter Pears and Imogen Holst — the triumvirate who created the festival just after the war, and who employed me as a kind of sorcerer’s apprentice.
But, first, matins at Little Horkesley. The church is cool and dreamlike. Aldeburgh is framed by the gothic porch which stretches out into the main road. Just a single swimmer in the sea, everyone else is making themselves comfortable on the shingle. The weather is hot but airy. We have lunch at the Cross Keys inn, where I used to write stories, hugging the fire in the winter.
It is Trinity 11, and we hear the way of God’s commandments to share his heavenly treasure, in which the Pharisee and the publican give us lessons on prayer. I find a prayer from the 1973 Bangkok mission conference. It is one of perpetual gratitude, including our gratefulness for our own individual contributions. At Aldeburgh, there is a parade of this distinctiveness — suntanned crowds and myself included. The cats, too, enjoy it. English summer, although slow to arrive, has an extraordinary nature.
Meanwhile, my little owls at the top of the farm track fly about over the pastures where the horses graze, now and then dipping their thirsty heads into the water tank, one wearing a long false tail with which to swipe flies. July and August can be scratchy months.
It was in August 1828 that John Clare wrote to Robert Burns and Robert Bloomfield as men with sunburning excellence, with little comprehension of his own standing as a great rural poet. He also saw “the holiday-enjoying face” which, somehow, we miss when we read about his world, although William Hazlitt is critical about retirement and the destruction of a days-old work pattern of toil from dawn to dusk.
August is when harvest blooms. The fields in which my house has burned for hundreds of years hiss with warnings. The blades — whether that of the scythe or the combine — inevitably approach. There is no escaping them, and Clare’s slight physique would have been no excuse.
He once wrote to his friend and publisher John Tyler about “John Clare the thresher and neglected rhymer” as being “the only two comfortable periods of his life”. He was once offered freedom from agricultural toil, but refused it, knowing that, for him, the fields and meadows and the writer’s study could not be more divorced: they were a single unit.
He and a friend would arrive at the Bluebell Inn with plants and precious papers filling their pockets; and these were gathered usually on a Sunday. He was polite about religion, but admits that “when I went to church I could scarcely refrain from sleep”. So he went to the countryside instead. He found God there. He made an inventory of nature, and it kept him sane in the madhouse.
His village was surrounded by the wild land he loved. It is called Emmonsales Heath, and at the back of it the English countryside will be ploughed up during the Second World War. Clare mourned its passing in his day.