I HAVE always, to some extent, responded to Shakespeare’s answer to the work ethic — only such a description of toil did not exist in his day. “Who doth ambition shun And loves to live i’ in the sun. . .” “And turn his merry note Unto the sweet bird’s throat.” A songthrush’s throat? A robin’s throat?
I do, indeed, love to live in the sun, especially in this wonderful September weather. But it plays havoc with my writer’s discipline, such as it is. It has just growed, like Topsy, without plan or purpose, the words putting themselves in order on the page. Behind them, keeping them straight, are the day’s demands: the liturgy, the shopping list, the delayed answers to often wonderful letters, and fragments of songs.
One of the latter is a little hunting song which we sang as children, and which might suit a neighbour who has called to tell me about the October meet. Absolutely against blood sports as I am, I can hardly grow indignant about today’s rituals. But, given the autumn dates, I make a note to keep the cats in. Bloodless as these hunts will be, a shiver runs through the valley when the bugle sounds, and the neighbours, clad in pink, and 40 or so horses and as many hounds pour down the farm track.
Andrew is scything the orchard, his blade cutting its way under the fruit trees, and he himself tall and elegant beneath the plums. In orchard terms, you get some and you lose some. There are fewer neighbours than there used to be, calling out things such as “Rather you than me.” Passing strangers always feel the need to be witty about ordinary things. But their gardens are immaculate, and their season tickets at the station are astronomical; whereas I haven’t taken a train for ages.
The rail journey is better for me, more enchanting: Paddington to Padstow, the joy of it. This is the line that Betjeman immortalised. Comfortable under his pork-pie hat, he sang the miles to Cornwall.
I travelled for Christmas rail journeys in the holidays, and, on September days like this, it is good to stay on the Suffolk border. Suddenly, the west country would run out, and princely Cornwall would declare itself. When old friends go to heaven, and rail tickets for them cease to be valid, the long journeys are cut out of our diaries.
Their repetition was part of the excitement. The other day, I thought how odd it was to take the train to St Ives with no one waiting. Ages ago, my hosts were clad in duffle coats waiting for me. They were as anxious to know about Suffolk as I was about Bodmin Moor. On Sunday, I was taken to the early service in a slate church with damp hymn-books. And all this long before Poldark.
My friends would boast of warm Februarys in Cornwall, but I found them chilly, with drizzle. On Boxing Day, we had wine with Malcolm Arnold, plus a foot-long pie. And between these festivities I would walk on the dizzy headlands, thinking of Thomas Hardy.
He met his wife in Cornwall when he was repairing old churches, and, when she died in 1912, after what most of his world called “an uncertain marriage”, he wrote the marvellous poems which we all read with awe. If nothing else, they describe the unexpected nature of love.
Once, on a picnic in Cornwall, this extraordinary couple lost a picnic glass in a Cornish stream. Once I put my hand in this stream, half believing that it would fall into my hands. But it did not, and it is there to this day. No sooner do I imagine Hardy than I love to read him all over again, to enter his universe and be caught up in his language. He was criticised for abandoning the conventional church services of his day, but just read his Winter Words. Remembering that Hardy came to Suffolk, Benjamin Britten set these winter words to music. It was a marriage of Suffolk and Dorset.