January 2021

A late offering, for which I apologise, and a hastily written one. There have been many calls upon my time, too many of which involve peering at a screen.

Reasons to be cheerful

1. January, drear, dark, dry, sempiternally long January is at an end. When I say ‘dry’ I mean in the sense of abstinence from alcohol. Certainly, and emphatically, not dry meteorologically.

2. There are signs of spring. Towards the end of January there is a shift in the light which tells us we are past the deepest darkness. At last the mornings are growing lighter apace with the afternoons. Although my snowdrops are not in flower, their dark green pointed leaves have broken the surface of the saturated ground, and the usually later primroses are already blooming on south-facing banks, and even beside the paths through the woods.

3.The birds are singing; not the full territorial spring symphony of mating and nesting, but the over-wintering residents are tuning up in the mornings. There is a particularly noisy song thrush in the trees opposite, two insistently repetitive great tits, my garden robin and wren, the melodious blackbird, and many others. Flocks of fieldfares settle on the fields and fly up again in one swooping movement, and a lark rose high over me as we walked on the flat and windswept airfield. Rooks circle and caw, and the crows’ “parp parp” sounds like ancient klaxons.

4.Making marmalade, the annual new year treat that fills the house first with the sharp tang of cooking citrus, and then with the sweet comforting warm smell of caramelised oranges. I thought this year that the Seville oranges might be scarce because of Brexit difficulties with imports, but they appeared on time, the lumpy rather shabby-looking oranges, which remind me of walking through small towns and villages in Andalucia and Extremadura in the autumn, the ground littered with them, split and squashed beneath my boots.

4.There are moments of transcendence. As we came home across the Common one frosty morning the rising sun caught the wing tips of the hunting barn owl, and – fleetingly – transformed them into a translucent roseate gold. Such instants of grace illuminate a whole day, and number among the blessings which must be counted if we are to survive these strangest of times.

Among these reasons for optimism, the fact that we have had some “real” winter weather appears to sit oddly, for who would want frost and snow? Last year there was scarcely any frost, and climate change promises more warm wet winters. But frost and snow should be the norm, and there is a comfort in the right order of things in a changing world. We had quite a blizzard, turning the landscape monochrome, and piling up the snow on the window sills. As they say round here, “that snoo.”

Hard frosts are a joy, freezing the ankle-deep mud into sharp ruts and ridges, almost more painful to walk on than rock, but allowing passage along  impassable footpaths and over fields usually too claggy to contemplate. We return on these mornings, boots and paws clean and dry. The dog rolls ecstatically on icy grass. These are the champagne days, bubbling and fizzing with the energy that comes from the all-too rare sunshine and blue sky. As with everything good, it seems, they do not last.

All-too rare. For, surpassing even last year’s record totals, the rainfall has been constant and heavy, and the sky louring and dark all day, the clouds pregnant with water in unprecedented quantities. People are saying “I’ve never seen it like this, not in all the years I’ve been here.” Walks involve long detours to avoid floods, the roads are awash, and I have lost count of how often I have had to pump out my drive so the postman can come up dry shod. Farmers cannot get on the land – except for one neighbour who gets his tractor out before daybreak on days when the frost is hard, and ploughs then.

Our morning path

It would be peculiar, and in a way disrespectful, not to mention the wider context of this January. The new year had scarcely begun when we were locked down for the third time in ten months. A combination of social mingling and travelling at Christmas, and a new variant of Covid 19 – of swift and fierce contagion – had hospitals all but overwhelmed, and deaths reaching record levels. One day more than 1800 bereavements were recorded. Maybe we are becoming war-weary and inured to these losses, the daily statistics, unless they affect us personally. But whoever thought to see so many deaths in one day in peace time? One Covid denier (“It’s just ‘flu”) has now seen three friends die, and at last urges prudence. And yet still, despite lockdown, rules, strictures, fines, horrific scenes nightly on our televisions, still the disease spreads.

Covid is cruel. Its selection of those victims most viciously attacked seems arbitrary. But the irony and the tragedy is that the very ways human beings connect – through speech and touch – are the vectors of disease and death. We can unwittingly kill those we love the most, or they us, and the burden of guilt and loss will last for decades.

Some readers remark on the melancholy tone of these chronicles. These are tragic, difficult times. But I’ll move on to my favourite theme – Suffolk. I live about 20 miles from Sutton Hoo, the subject of the film “The Dig”, released last week. It is a film very much of two halves, and the first – before the excavation is swamped with archaeologists and cluttered with box office undercurrents of love and sex – is beautiful. It is as muted and undramatic as east Suffolk itself, gently hinting at a metaphor of both things and feelings hidden and under the surface.

Basil Brown and Ralph Fiennes (from The Times)

Ralph Fiennes transforms himself into an old Suffolk “boy” to play Basil Brown, the self-taught archaeologist, astronomer, and polymath. Fiennes has the Suffolk accent – those slow diphthongs – absolutely right (regional English accents portrayed on the screen are so often cringe-making). When I first came to Suffolk in the early Seventies there were many in the village who dressed exactly as Fiennes/Brown in the film, who cycled long distances if they needed to go somewhere, who spoke the same, stood the same, moved the same. This is the Suffolk of Harry Becker, of “Akenfield”; and I have watched the first half of the film through three times now, gazing at the facsimile of a lost age, and a lost world, the nostalgia all the sharper because of the uncertain times we are living in.

“After Becker”

Most of my life is indeed lived through a screen now, for lockdown perdures, and there are at least another five weeks of isolation to come. Friends, family and colleagues live in my computer; entertainment comes on a different screen. I little thought, three and a half years ago, when I started this monthly record that I should be recording a global pandemic, and that my world would have shrunk to the confines of garden, Common and the fields and woods around them.

December 2020

Now is the passage which leads to a new year, it is a blessed time of rest, and not a little indulgence. The earth sleeps. Midwinter. We look forward to a new beginning.

The signs are there already. The dawn is no longer silent. We go out, torch in hand, into the dark and cold, with Venus bright ahead in the south east if we are lucky. The owls are busy hunting, their eerie calls the first sound that greets us. On the Common we see the barn owl gliding low, pale and ghostly. Then the squawk and whirr of a pheasant disturbed; a blackbird’s call of alarm as we pass by. Light comes late and slowly, and now there is a constant twittering of small birds in the hedges. They know the year is turning. In the garden the spring bulbs have already pushed their green tips through the earth. Is it possible that light is seeping back?

Signs of hope. Never were they more needed.

Reader, many commentators are reminding us of the Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times.” The times are indeed so interesting, so darkly confused, so unlikely to yield certainties in this uncharted territory of pandemic, that any comment from me on them would be otiose.

However, in case some future archivist, fossicking through the internet offerings of 2020, chances upon these chronicles and requires some context, I will just say that December 2020 was the month when the pandemic just got a whole lot worse: a new strain (B117), virulent amongst the young particularly, has proved itself up to 70% more transmissible than its older cousin, the one which emerged a year ago and with which we were just beginning to feel familiar. It has hit us, with soaring rates of infection (as I write more than 53,000 in the past 24 hours), at a time when the United Kingdom is about to be dealt another  grievous, but self-inflicted, wound: Brexit becomes a reality at 23h00 GMT on 31 December when the transition period ends. I weep bitter and angry tears of loss: the country I have called home for years, and whose literature, language and culture were more familiar to me than my own now regards me as an alien, a foreigner from a “third country.”

It could (just) be worse for there is a trade deal of sorts, but the wound comes from the limitations to our children’s future, to employment, to human rights, to freedom to work and travel, to security, to who we are in the eyes of the world, to our culture, to our heritage. And for what? For our “sovereignty” – which was never in question. We have become a small-minded island, inward-looking, xenophobic, mean, insular. Community always – always – trumps isolation.

I fear that lockdown and the Covid constraints of the highest level tier 4 produce an effect in microcosm on me – and doubtless on many others who live alone – similar to that of Brexit on our country. This year has taught me that community not isolation is essential if one is to be healthy, or ‘whole’ – a better word. Without this contact we are wounded, we do not flourish cut off and alone. For some this may be a mortal wound. Soon, I fear, going out ‘normally’ will be so abnormal that it will appear frightening for many; we shall have to learn again how to be social, how to behave without fear of infection, how to be in the company of others.

I find my Book of Common Prayer (1662) and look for the prayer “In the time of any common Plague or Sickness” (did they know how much worse it would be three years later?):

O Almighty God, who in thy wrath didst send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron; and also, in the time of King David, didst slay threescore and ten thousand, and yet remembering thy mercy didst save the rest; Have pity upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sickness and mortality; that like as thou didst then accept of an atonement, and didst command the destroying Angel to cease from punishing, so it may now please thee to withdraw from us this plague and grievous sickness; though Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

We have already surpassed the three score and ten thousand deaths.

Of course most of us no longer believe that sickness is some sort of divine retribution visited upon mankind for sin (though I have met some loony Evangelicals who do), but we do know it is a consequence of our actions. Until we respect nature, no longer destroy the habitat of wildlife and cease to eat wild species, we shall continue to see these zoonoses develop, and some will be deadly. I fear this plague year will have taught us little.

Added to this grim picture here in East Anglia there have been serious floods. All along the river Waveney, which forms the border between Norfolk and Suffolk, unprecedented water levels have been recorded. The Shotford bridge on the road to Harleston (just in South Norfolk) was closed for fear of collapse as the river rose over it. I have never known that in the decades I have lived here. A friend at Bungay was evacuated from her home on Christmas Eve. Driving down to Fressingfield early that morning I was flagged down by a walker, warning me I should not get through the 300m-long flood where the beck had broken its banks.

On all counts I am among the lucky ones, truly blessed in that I can stay safe and warm in my home, with the company of a dog who keeps me laughing and an aged cat whose dementia drives me to distraction. Little need to go out except in my daily attempts to tire the dog, and I shall now start to consume the contents of my bulging “no-deal-Brexit” box, assembled over long months of apprehension. I am sitting pretty but alone, sovereign but solitary in my kingdom.

And so in these down days between Christmas and New Year, this liminal time of waiting while the earth sleeps in the depths and darkness of midwinter, I adopt my ‘normal’ practice and celebrate the feast. I do no work other than the necessary tasks of winter – carting logs, sweeping leaves, a bit of tidying up. We go for long walks, and although I think it wrong to drive in order to walk we go to the sea, the heath and the forest for a change of scene, to breathe different air, and to avoid…the mud.

The mud! Reader, I fully understand that sometimes I see my glass of blessings as half empty (a Facebook ‘friend’ chirpily reprimanded me recently), and I furthermore am conscious of the fact that any mud encountered on Suffolk walks is as nothing as compared to that of the trenches 1914-18. However, it begins to get one down. It comes in differing varieties: there is the liquid mud as slippery as ice, where keeping one’s balance requires intense concentration and a strain on the knees and ankles; there is the deep glutinous mud which sucks at the boots, holding them fast, dragging them from the feet, often leaving them behind, necessitating a filthy hobble back to retrieve the one which has disappeared into the morass. There is the claggy mud of a ploughed field where the farmer has not reinstated the footpath, and which results in a kilo or two of weight dragged on each foot. And then there is just…mud…acres and acres of it, churned by the passage of many feet, paws and hooves. I put the dog in the shower. She is not impressed.

Reader, what can be said that has not been said? We must let the past, and in particular this year with its losses, its bereavements, its sickness and strangeness, go.

I apologise that I have really nothing of value to say, other than to wish you a happy, safe and healthy new year. The road goes on.

October & November 2020

So, hands up who noticed there was no October? I’ve heard of only one so far, which suggests to me that it probably is time to stop soon.

So what happened to October? The absence was mainly because I decided to spare my readers yet another month of complaints about rain. There are only so many ways one can describe wet, and the daily drenchings that dampen the spirits, the mud that mires the mood as well as the boots and paws. The times we live in are difficult enough without inflicting this moaning on others.

Another reason was that I write these chronicles at the end of the calendar month, and at that point in October I had deserted Suffolk, its fields and woods, and my garden for a week on the Northumberland coast, a week away from work, from bills and attendant anxieties, from routine – and, as it turned out – from rain.

The path to the beach

I had searched, with strict criteria, somewhere to stay: it must of course welcome my dog; it must be quiet with no noise of neighbours; and it must be within easy walking distance of those vast empty beaches of golden sand that stretch for solitary miles. And I found it – a small stone cottage, a mile from the sea, with its own track to the beach over farmland, and to the nearby village.

And so we spent a week, the dog and I, walking and walking and walking – across the expanses of sand shining silver in a low sun, over dunes and fields, to tiny fishing villages, to castles dominating the cold North Sea, proud on their promontories. And every day the sky was full of geese flying south, squadron upon squadron, their eerie creaking cry as the formations passed overhead the companion to all our walks.

The skeins were high against the sky, and it was difficult to tell what breed they were, but I think from their pattern in flight that they were Brents.  Brent geese migrate in family groups, flying in wavering lines or flocking loosely together. They seldom fly in V-formation. These groups stay together from one breeding season to the next. They search for marshland, coastal grassland or farmland to rest and feed on, before pushing onwards.

These Brents breed in northern Russia and spend the winter in southern and eastern England. They nest on the boggy Arctic tundra, where the severe climate allows them only about two months of good weather in which to raise a family. By mid-September, they have left their breeding grounds, and arrive in large flocks on our shores from early October. They spend the winter feeding on eelgrass in estuaries and on crops in adjoining fields. In April they leave and head north once more – east to Siberia. They stop off along the Baltic coast before reaching the Arctic in early June, just as the snow and ice is beginning to thaw. 

We probably saw pink-footed geese as well, for we were within sight of Lindisfarne, where they arrive from Iceland. Barnacle geese too can be seen in huge numbers with up to 30,000 passing through. There is something mysterious – primal – in these mass movements of birds, called by instinct, by  forces within themselves to fly huge tracts of our planet, twice a year every year.

If a dog can be aware of the concept of ‘holiday’ I am sure mine was during that week. At home she has, as I frequently remind her, a pretty good life: daily long walks, freedom to gallop across fields in the dawn, a garden for interminable games of ball, food, warmth, and my abiding love which forgives all her sins. But here she is an only child, having social contact with few other dogs, and she longs for that. When I saw her bound onto the beach the first afternoon the joy was plain to see, and it was worth the 350 miles for that moment. Every day she ran, she chased whole packs of other dogs, and was chased in turn, she stole balls and obediently gave them up, she frolicked in the sea, jumping waves, rolling in the sand, racing up and down the dunes. I don’t think it is anthropomorphising to say that this was a happy dog.

As we walked down to the village each morning we passed what must have been the results of an effort by the entire population to celebrate Hallowe’en, with 20 or so decorated grisly and ghoulish figures lining the grassy path. I offer three examples:

Our efforts in Suffolk are less scary, and more in the spirit of public service:

On our walks I often meet the elderly farmer who constructed Pumpkin Man (he who brought us “Hidden camaras” and “Greengageges”). He is the source of much local knowledge, history, and can tell stories about all the native residents of our two villages. One day in October before Hallowe’en he hailed me from afar:

Him: Do you believe in the paranormal?

I hurried towards him, and as soon as I was near enough the dialogue went like this:

Me (cautiously): Well, I think there are unexplained things…

Him: I’ll tell you what happened to me last winter.

Me (thinks): We’ll be here for a while.

Him: I was up here one morning last winter just as it was light, and I saw this man with a round head and waxy complexion. And, do you know, he was wearing little diddy swimming trunks and a white vest.

Me (politely): How strange! Did he say anything?

Him: “Rood!”

Me: Rude?

Him: Yes, He said “Rood! Where’s the rood?”

[I should interject at this point for those unacquainted with the Suffolk accent that a long ‘o’ sound is pronounced ‘oo’ and conversely an ‘oo’ sound is pronounced ‘o’, so that if one went to school in Scole, it would be said “I went to skole in skool.” When someone dies there is a fooneral.]

Me: Rood?

Him: The rood, that rood over there.

Me: Oh…the road!

Him: That’s what I said. And I shooed him where the rood was.

Me: And then what happened?

Him: He disappeared. He just disappeared. I turned round and he was gone.

I must report that on none of our matutinal excursions have I ever seen a waxy round-faced man in diddy swimming trunks, and I suspect this was either an attempt at a Hallowe’en scare, or the old chap had seen a party-goer the morning after from a nearby venue. Who knows.

Now as I write we are coming into the true dark of the year. The days have been drear with fog, and scarce light all day. Fierce winds earlier in the month have whittled the trees bare, and their skeletal shapes loom out of the murk. We are condemned to solitude, and imprisoned alone in this darkness, in this second period of lockdown to control the virus which has ruled our lives for most of the year. And Covid Christmas forces a choice: loneliness or a potentially lethal togetherness.

We need light, any light; light from the sky, light at the end of this long, long tunnel. But it is Advent, and that points to a greater light, “And the darkness comprehended it not.” For many it will be hard to glimpse.

September 2020

Michaelmas Day 2020

The raindrops roll relentlessly down my study window; it is raining so hard that the rods of water bounce off the ground; the cloud hangs low over the miserable fields.

Is it a feature of advancing age that my life is increasingly ruled by the weather? Its effects on both mind and body feel so dominant, more than merely that I live in a profoundly rural area where the seasons dictate work, and weather rules activity. It certainly forms the subject of this blog. Maybe one day some digital archivist will unearth it as proof of our changing climate.

We have had, give or take a few windy and rainy days, six months of summer. The constant rains of winter ceased a week or so before full lockdown began at the vernal equinox, and the good weather continued with meteorological precision till the day of the autumn equinox. It has been a blessing which has mitigated the effects of the restrictions imposed on us to limit the spread of Covid-19. Meetings have taken place out of doors; church services have been held with the doors wide open to air the interior; meals with friends could be eaten in the garden.

Bad weather coming

Everything now has changed. Here in the east bitter northerly gales swept down the coast to buffet us. Heavy rain such as we have not seen for half a year turned dust to mud within hours. It is cold. It is not, after all, that this is unexpected, but that the promise of winter arrives with the threat not only of wet and cold, but of more stringent regulations in the face of rapidly rising cases of the virus, more hospital admissions, and the beginning of an upturn in daily deaths.

The first three weeks of September were golden and warm, summer clinging on till the last moment with dreaming misty mornings and shimmering hot days. There is always a tinge of poignancy in the knowledge that these days are numbered, and for me a twinge of pain, for this perfect weather recalls that of another September, 34 years ago now, when our lives changed for ever.

Mid-month the heat was building, and the dog and I went on what must surely be the last of our dawn excursions to see the sun rise over the sea. The regular reader will say there is nothing remarkable in that, but there was something that morning which took me beyond the usual joy in the loveliness of Suffolk shore and fields. As the sun rose through the mist I was conscious that I was in one of those liminal moments, a profoundly spiritual time, when darkness is vanquished by the light, and the animal world with its crepuscular creatures once again gives way to human noise and activity.

We walked through the dew towards the shore, along a path diamond-spangled with spider webs. Out of the brume an inquisitive calf loomed into view.

 In places in the hollows cold and lingering wisps of mist wrapped their chill around us. A slight rise in the path and the air was suddenly warm, a memory of the heat of yesterday clinging to the banks.

With no warning sound there was a crashing through the trees to our right parallel to the path, and red deer – five, six, maybe even seven, galloped alongside for a while. And then – then – we stopped stock still in our tracks. In front of us for one fleeting moment was a stag. He paused, his noble head with its many branched antlers held high and still, and then he was gone, leaping over the undergrowth to re-join his hinds. It was over in a second – no time for the camera on my phone for I was restraining the dog. But the encounter somehow signified more than this thrilling glimpse of one of the largest land mammals in the UK. It was the meeting of two worlds at the secret time of dawn, a timeless moment of mystery, an outward and visible sign of a special grace – of having witnessed something beyond my world, gone in a heart beat, but imprinted for ever in my mind’s eye. I felt more moved than I can say, almost that I could happily cease then and there to live, so that nothing following could ever mar or taint the memory.

There is a passage in the childhood book “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame when the two animals, Rat and Mole, are searching through the night for a lost young otter. Rat hears the ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn,’ and knows an intense longing which I think is akin to what I felt:

“It’s gone!” sighed the Rat, sinking back in his seat again. “So beautiful and strange and new! Since it was to end so soon, I almost wish I had never heard it. For it has roused a longing in me that is pain, and nothing seems worthwhile but just to hear that sound once more and go on listening to it for ever.”

We continued into the rising sun, the sound of the sea gentle ahead of us. Across the dawn sky a skein of geese rose from the pools and flew south. And then we followed the shore north to the coastguards’ cottages, and back across the purple heath, and through woods of birch, pine and beech, dappled now by a radiant September sun. I have walked many thousands of miles through Europe – over mountain ranges, arid high plains, endless forests, battlefields of long ago, and gentle pastures – but somehow this walk will never be surpassed in memory.

On either side of them, as they glided onwards, the rich meadow-grass seemed that morning of a freshness and a greenness unsurpassable. Never had they noticed the roses so vivid, the willow-herb so riotous, the meadow-sweet so odorous and pervading. Then the murmur of the approaching weir began to hold the air, and they felt a consciousness that they were nearing the end, whatever it might be, that surely awaited their expedition.

Not my photo, but could this be the group I saw?

In case, reader, you are disputing that I saw red deer, I should note that the herd around RSPB Minsmere is the largest in the British Isles outside Scotland. The gentleman I saw will soon be fighting for his position, for in late September through October the stags return to Minsmere for the annual rut.

I have mentioned Minsmere and Dunwich frequently in these chronicles. Readers outside the area may be less aware than those who live nearby of the threat posed by the proposed construction of Sizewell C and D to the north of the ‘B’ power station, bordering the RSPB reserve, with a “campus” by the beautiful hamlet of Eastbridge. Posters from local opposition groups proclaim a threatened 600 lorries a day on our narrow roads and lanes.

More than 5600 different animals, plants and fungi have been recorded at Minsmere – more than on any other RSPB reserve and amongst the highest number of any nature reserve in the UK. Minsmere’s habitats include four of national conservation priority: reedbeds, lowland wet grassland, shingle vegetation and lowland heath. These habitats support a wide range of bird, plant and invertebrate populations of international conservation importance.

Among the diverse wildlife are nationally important populations of bittern, marsh harrier and avocet. Other wildlife in the wetlands include otter, water vole, kingfisher, specialist wetland plants and many rare dragonflies and other invertebrates. Across the heathland there are many rare species making a home, including nightjar, woodlark, Dartford warbler, adder, natterjack toad and silver-studded blue butterflies.

As well as its importance to today’s wildlife, Minsmere has played a significant role in wildlife conservation throughout the years. The reserve was the springboard for the recovery of both bittern and marsh harrier in the UK and, alongside RSPB Havergate Island a few miles down the coast, Minsmere ensured the successful return of breeding avocet to the UK after an absence of more than 100 years.

Unexpected meetings bring hope and pleasure. Online friendships can bring strangers together. I learned that a fellow pilgrim, who walked the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome two years after I did, and who is a member of the pilgrim organisation for which I work, was walking between East Anglian Cathedrals – Peterborough, Ely, Bury St Edmunds and Norwich. He must surely pass through Diss and onto the Boudicca Way? Yes, he would, and accordingly the dog and I walked a stretch with him one hot afternoon, through the gentle south Norfolk countryside, along lanes that time forgot, across meadows, over a gurgling stream, to little churches standing alone in their landscape. As pilgrims do, we had a lot to talk about.

Who could have thought, when I was young, that there could be virtual friendships? Virtual meetings and video conference calls? We used to joke as we answered our old-fashioned landline telephones, anchored as they were by a cord to the wall, that it was a good thing we couldn’t be seen the other end.

What else to say of September? We learn to live with uncertainty: everything changes and yet nothing does. Life goes on, but hedged around with questions – have I got my mask, my hand sanitiser, my vinyl gloves, with me? How many people can I meet at any one time? And where? Is the person behind me in the queue too close? Will we be locked down again? How will we get through a long winter without the comfort of friends and family?

The cycle of life in the country, the harvesting, the ploughing, the sowing, continues no matter what, and earths us, telling us – if we care to listen – that life goes on, and amid the pandemic gloom there will always be moments of transient grace – a bird that sings, a golden leaf that floats down in front of us, a noble stag at daybreak. I leave you with Sylvia Plath.

Black Rook in Rainy Weather

On the stiff twig up there

Hunches a wet black rook

Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.

I do not expect miracle

Or an accident

To set the sight on fire

In my eye, nor seek

Any more in the desultory weather some design,

But let spotted leaves fall as they fall,

Without ceremony, or portent.

Although, I admit, I desire

Occasionally, some backtalk

From the mute sky, I can’t honestly complain:

A certain minor light may still

Leap incandescent

Out of the kitchen table or chair

As if a celestial burning took

Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then –

Otherwise inconsequent

By bestowing largesse, honour,

One might say love.  At any rate, I now walk

Wary (for it could happen

Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); sceptical

Yet politic; ignorant

Of whatever angel may choose to flare

Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook

Ordering its black feathers can so shine

As to seize my senses, haul

My eyelids up, and grant

A brief respite from fear

Of total neutrality. With luck,

Trekking stubborn through this season

Of fatigue, I shall

Patch together a content

Of sort. Miracles occur,

If you care to call those spasmodic

Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait’s begun again,

The long wait for the angel,

For that rare, random descent.

August 2020

But, you will say, she was going to stop; she said she had nothing more to say. She said July would be an end of Common or Garden in Suffolk. And she did mean it. However, dear reader, vanity has yielded to the flattering requests to continue, but I do so on the understanding there can be little new, and doubtless much repetition of previous years.

Cue a threnody to the departing glories of summer, to the hot days and stifling nights, to the dusty stubble fields, to a time of ease and bounty. I think that’s what you have come to expect from me at this point in the year.

Little is “normal” about this year. The word itself is in too-constant currency since we all became aware of Covid-19 and its effects on our daily lives. There is much talk of “getting back to normal,” or “the new normal,” but maybe it is a word whose use should be curtailed, for when we says things are no longer “normal,” we mean that they are not as they once were, familiar, and enshrined and defined as the status quo ante in our memory.  In truth, there is no “normal” – normalcy – for life is perpetual change. It’s just that this year the change has sprung out and whacked us in the face.

Our weather has certainly not been “normal” this month, producing extremes of heat, then exceptionally dark and humid days, then storms and gales. Yet extreme is what we must become accustomed to as the warming of the planet produces our new normal. And this “normal” we have inflicted on ourselves.

Bank Holiday weather

As I write, in the dying days of the month, meteorological summer is thrashing its tail here in the east, doing a good imitation of autumn. So that’s a bit of “normal” – the security of the familiar, for the bank holiday here has produced weather we all recognise and are used to: lashing rain, wind, cold, and a weeping greyness that seeps into the soul. Normal August bank holiday. This, when all else is changing and passing, is how it is meant to be. We all grew up to expect it – the shivering seaside, the rain-soaked cricket pitches.

A hot day dawns

Hard then to remember the beginning of the month, when day after day – or so it seemed – we sweltered in scorching heat. Sleepless and sweating after a restless night, I went once again with the dog at sunrise to seek some breath of air at the sea. I thought that at 5.30am we should have Dunwich beach to ourselves.

Far from it: as we descended the steep shingle bank to the sea we had to dodge huddled human forms in their sleeping bags. Already families were swimming. We walked north as far as Walberswick and back, and then we both swam, the dog not leaving my side in the unusually balmy water of the North Sea.

This last idyllic taste of summer disappeared abruptly with violent storms. One night as we went out before bed we were surrounded 360° by constant flickering lightning. And after the storms came the wind, violent and destructive. Such is the exposed position of my house and garden that a gate was torn off its hinges, and yet again I lost a pane from my new greenhouse, despite its new more sheltered site. The old one was razed by storms Ciara and Dennis in February.

Heat and dust are now a memory, replaced by rain and cold, and the first log fire to cheer the chilly damp. Back to “normal.”

Harvest is finished, a poor yield this year, especially of wheat, after the water-logged fields of the winter and the extreme drought of the spring and early summer. I was going to say all is safely gathered in, but one farmer over whose land we often walk in the early morning is notoriously slow to cut. Year after year the good weather comes and goes, while his crop waits to be flattened by downpours, laid, and beginning to sprout before he stirs himself and his combine.

This year I have noted several fields of oats, which had become a rarity. They are tolerant of the damp conditions which obtained till mid-March, can be planted with more flexibility of timing, and are good as a break crop to help control the dreaded black grass. An oat field is a beautiful and a graceful thing, the grains translucent and shimmering. That they were once more common is attested by the wild oats on nearly every field margin (the top-most picture this month shows an example).

Because we walk our two hours so early in the morning to avoid heat, the young dog requires some exercise later in the day. A ball suffices for endless and insatiable amusement. To stimulate her brain and make her work we have, in previous years, done several scent work courses, during which she graduated from finding a felt mouse stuffed with catnip (easy) to detecting a hidden £5 note (quite skilled), an activity which I feel should be encouraged. When we lose a ball she is relentless in her quest to find it. In October she will be introduced to mantrailing. Perhaps she will find me a man…

Dogged searching

After taking a visiting daughter to the station in nearby Diss (over the border in Norfolk) the dog and I once again walk part of the Boudicca Way, of which I wrote in June. We pass a lane leading to the village of Burston, and I am reminded that the first weekend of September usually sees the Burston School Strike Rally, habitually attended by the major Trades Unions, and addressed by the great and the good – and leaders – of the Labour Party. But not this year of course; this year there is no normal, and Covid has claimed another cancellation.

Many have not heard of the Burston School Strike, which lasted from 1914 to 1939, conferring an enduring fame on this tiny south Norfolk village, and making it a symbol of Socialism. I knew nothing of this before I worked on a local newspaper back in the 1980s. This is the story of the longest strike in UK history.

Tom Higdon and his wife Annie were appointed as teachers at the Burston and Shimpling Council School in 1911, but had previously worked as teachers at Wood Dalling School, also in Norfolk where – as Christian Socialists – they had objected to the poor conditions, and about the employment of children by local farmers, which interrupted their education. Many of these farmers were also school managers so the Higdons’ activities created social tensions.

Eventually, the Norfolk Education Committee gave the Higdons the option of dismissal or employment at another school. They transferred to Burston where they found conditions for many labouring families were similar to those at Wood Dalling. Tom Higdon gained election to the parish council at Burston in the hope of making improvements, while Annie repeatedly made requests for better conditions at the school.

Local farmers objected, as did the Revd Charles Tucker Eland, the local rector and chairman of the school managers, a man of plentiful income and considerably less compassion. Allegations of pupil abuse were made against the Higdons in 1914 and they were subsequently dismissed. Many of the children and their parents believed the allegations to be fabricated, and on 1 April 1914 Violet Potter led her fellow pupils out on strike to show their support for the Higdons.

A separate Burston Strike School was established on the village green for those pupils and parents who refused to send them to the official council school. Many labour organisations supported the Strike School and eventually enough money was raised to build a permanent schoolhouse. It opened in 1917. The strike ended in 1939 when Tom Higdon died.

And so tomorrow autumn starts. There is much work still to be done, harvesting, picking, processing. We hear little of the Brexit talks, buried in news of a rising tide of Covid cases, of holidaymakers quarantined, of schools returning to an uncertain future. But what seems certain is that we may be in for a very rough time soon, if the talks yield no good trade deal and the end of the Transition Period coincides with a wave of Covid and winter ‘flu. Out to the garden, then; off to the hedgerows…

July 2020

July 2020

You see strange and wonderful sights when you walk, and particularly when you walk early in the day. Some of these encounters bring us to within touching distance of those animals who live so close to us, but who for the most part remain unseen. We see signs of their existence, but – as with neighbours in cities – we rarely meet. Sometimes, however, it is the eccentricity of our human nature that stops me in my tracks.

I offer this photo as an example of the latter, glimpsed one morning in a Suffolk wood. Unless, of course, this is not human whimsy, and I have stumbled unknowingly on the Little Folk…

As for the former, the dog and I – walking down a track around 6am – came face to face with a badger. This was a marvellous encounter, for in my three score years and thirteen I have seen only one badger, a shabby and mangy specimen late at night on the outskirts of a southern French town. British Brock however  was a splendid creature – sleek, fat and groomed. We glimpsed him at the same moment, the dog and I. She stiffened, and quivered, straining forward. I stood absolutely still.

Badgers are extremely short-sighted for they are nocturnal and live mostly underground in their setts. Brock trotted on towards us, unconscious of our presence, and then – at the correct social distance of two meters – halted, peered myopically at us, saw a wolf-like hairy dog in front of his face,  realised the full horror of his situation, did a swift U-turn, and disappeared back down the track at a shambling canter. Such encounters make my day.

What of July? It has been what my father would have called a mouldy month. After the Mediterranean spring has come a British summer: dark, gloomy, windy and often wet. On the dry days harvest is in full swing. First the oilseed rape, and early in the month the combine turned in to the field beside the house – a great lumbering roaring mastodon that sent straw and dust flying and the earth shaking. I am glad the rape has been cut for once it has flowered it then smells of rotting cabbage until harvest. Rape stubble though is vicious: sharp calf-height stalks prevent walking over the field, unless you want bleeding legs. Even the dog declines to chase a hare far through it.

After the rape, the barley and the wheat, and the fields of gold disappear into the monstrous jaws of the combine . The distant rumble of the engine accompanies me to sleep, and the clatter and roar of the tractors hauling grain through the small hours  then wake me again. The air smells of straw, a scent I love, a smell of summer – and of adolescent holidays spent at stables.

My own harvest is abundant: every day I pick and process, pick and process. The early days of lockdown this year have taught us that food security is vital, and the Brexit negotiations don’t seem to be going too well. We are not surprised. It seems both right and somehow sacred to work my small parcel of land, and – insofar as possible – live from it.

A hill of beans

These final few days of July have seen a return to sun and heat.

Once again the dog and I go and walk by the sea in the brief hours of cool before the sun is high. Between the tiny hamlet of Eastbridge and the beach we see the ponies often – but wrongly – called Tarpan horses, a name which comes from the Kasakh or Kyrgyz for wild horse.. They certainly have the look of the horses in cave paintings: dun with the characteristic dark eel stripe down the back, stocky, a thick neck and a thick, often standing, mane.

Strictly speaking, these are not Tarpans, but Koniks, a breed created by Polish horse-breeders to resemble, as closely as possible, this extinct wild horse of Europe. Although they look and behave much like Tarpans, they are a separate breed, since it is impossible to re-create an extinct species/breed.

They were brought to these marshes by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, for they are at home in wetlands, where they graze the reed-edge and fen vegetation and create tussocky areas that are favoured by birds such as snipe and teal.

Nearer to home the horses on the Common managed somehow to bridge the cattle grid, and one misty morning I saw four of them walk in procession, led by the dominating white mule, up the lane to disappear down a grassy headland behind a hedge. They were too far off for me to do anything about it, and besides that mule is not to be messed with. Have they returned? The Common looked strangely empty, with only a few mares grazing. I return to painting them over and over. I could draw a horse with my eyes shut, and they have been my subject since childhood. A meagre claim to fame aged 11 was to have a painting of the rumps of two heavy horses ploughing tour the country as the result of some long-forgotten competition.

High summer segues into late summer, and there is a hint of autumn in the chill of dewy mornings. The long grasses are dying back, and when cut for hay smell sometimes inexplicably of liquorice. Leaves have long since lost their freshness. Despite the sporadic dampness of the month the paths and fields are dusty. The year is past its youth, past even its middle age, and the poignancy of August is that it is the beginning of the end, the year slips into old age, and soon we shall descend once more into the darkness.

It is now three years since I started these chronicles. Each year the same flowers grow, the same birds sing, the same crops are cultivated. Each year the weather is either good, bad or indifferent. I feel – as witnessed by the above – that I have little to say, and last month there was an accusation of trying too hard to write poetic prose. “You really went for it,” said a friend. And so I think it is time to stop.

Thank you for reading.

June 2020

Five forty-five on a morning already hot, the hottest of the year so far.  The dog and I walk south along the shore, by a gentle sea whose soothing suck and drag over shingle induces a sense of peace, and of rightness with the world. The sun, still close to the horizon, makes a silver pathway across the water.

The dog (I can no longer say “the young dog” for she is now nearer four than three) has till now never cared for water – apart from standing hock-deep in slimy and stinking ponds. It is odd, considering each of her parents is from a race of water dogs. Today, though, is different: she discovers the joy of swimming. Taken by surprise by the sudden shelving of the shore, she has no choice but to swim. She is surprised; she likes it: “Look, mummy! Look at me! I’m swimming!” And then I cannot get her out of the water – she frolics, she cavorts, she plunges, and …she swims.

We had driven towards the sunrise to Dunwich – a staccato journey, braking constantly to avoid hares zig-zagging, small rabbits playing, pigeons lumbering into flight, a muntjac, and two cock pheasants fighting, oblivious to the motorised danger. On our way back, driving with car windows down, through the shade of Dunwich Forest we hear nightingales.

Midsummer… The scents of midsummer: mown grass, honeysuckle, privet, roses, young barley on the breeze, the delicate perfume of field beans in flower. Midsummer…. The winter barley has turned and soon Suffolk will be a sea of gold. Midsummer…nights never truly dark.

Midsummer. On cue comes the St John’s Wort for the Nativity of St John the Baptist, a quarter day which signals that the year is half over. It is always a poignant moment when the solstice is past, the point of sunrise ceases its slow drift northwards, and nights begin to lengthen. More perhaps than at New Year we look both forward and back; this year more than most.

A gardener, of course, is always – Janus-like – looking forward and back, learning from the successes and failures of past sowings; looking forward to harvesting the result of hard physical toil. A gardener’s job today is always to create tomorrow out of yesterday.

Midsummer is that moment of transition, and now at this tipping point of the year I can start to eat the result of past labour – broad beans, peas, chard, courgettes, potatoes, beetroot, lettuce, onions, herbs, artichokes. The “front” garden, too, is at its best. For two or three weeks each year (as I never fail to note in this chronicle), my flower beds give a passable imitation of a real cottage garden, the abundance of flowers hiding and disguising the weeds.

At the beginning of the month, with the first tentative steps out of total lockdown, the glorious sun and warmth which had lasted all spring deserted us. New month, new weather once more. The sky became grey again and rain could be smelled on the wind before it came. It was cold as only June in England can be. A fire was lit.

With the partial liberation we learn to place the words “socially distanced” in front of any activity involving another person or persons. On a grey windy day I met a friend for a socially-distanced walk, and we explored part of the Boudicca Way, a walking trail which links Norwich station southward to Diss, meandering – seemingly back in time to the 1950s – through the gentle South Norfolk countryside, sometimes on lanes innocent of traffic; sometimes by a river, across a ford, through pastures and meadows. We sat a while outside the tiny isolated church of St Andrew, Thelveton. No sign in the lane proclaimed its presence to passers-by; no notice told us to which saint it was dedicated. The only company was a meadow of cows and calves, guarded by a bull; the only sound was birdsong. And yet the churchyard was neatly mown, the graves tended, the headstones upright and clean.  

Boudicca, or Boadicea, was of course the legendary flame-haired warrior queen of the Celtic Iceni people. Boudicca’s husband, Prasutagus, was king of the Iceni (in what is now Norfolk) as a client under Roman suzerainty. When Prasutagus died in 60 CE with no male heir, he left his private wealth to his two daughters and to the emperor Nero, trusting thereby to win imperial protection for his family. Instead, the Romans annexed his kingdom, humiliated his family, and plundered the chief tribesmen. While the provincial governor Suetonius Paulinus was absent in 60 or 61, Boudicca raised a rebellion throughout East Anglia. The insurgents burned Camulodunum (Colchester), Verulamium (St. Albans), the mart of Londinium (London), and several military posts. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, Boudicca’s rebels massacred 70,000 Romans and pro-Roman Britons, and cut to pieces the Roman Ninth Legion. Paulinus met the Britons at a point thought to be near present-day Fenny Stratford on Watling Street and regained the province in a desperate battle. Defeated, Boudicca either took poison or died of shock or illness.

Statue of Boudicca and her daughters at Westminster Bridge

Hard to think of all that slaughter as we walked the irenic green lanes.

In a few days the major part of our Covid incarceration and enforced inactivity will come to an end. Only hindsight will tell us whether we are unlocking too soon for safety, too late for the stricken economy; whether there will be spikes, second waves, more deaths, more disaster. Three months, which at the beginning might have seemed to some too long a sentence, have for me flown past. And now, reviewing, the question forces itself upon me: “What have I done with them? What have I actually achieved in this unprecedented period?”

And the best answer I can give is that of the Abbé Sieyès, priest and political theorist under the French Revolution, who – when asked what he did during the Reign of Terror – replied “J’ai vécu.” I survived. Maybe it seems obvious, looking back, that the majority of us would survive, but three months ago we looked on appalled at the Four Horsemen riding over the land. The Grim Reaper stalked us, and any careless contact, a touch, a cough could spell sickness and death. He may yet come back to get us.

What have we done with it? Have we re-evaluated? re-assessed? Have we promised that things will be different? that we shall live simply, travel less, save the planet, enjoy our loved ones, eat local produce, grow our own food, reduce stress, change our priorities? I hope so, but I am pessimistic, for I know that real behaviour change takes at least six months to become rooted in our lives.

We can now, cautiously, breathe again – for a while at least, and the existential questions recede. Time now for other worries to take over: a dear friend anxious about her octogenarian husband’s memory lapses; another who lives in a marriage of coercive control. “For better for worse…in sickness and in health.” Today we hear of a likely spike in the number of divorces after couples in three months of lockdown were forced to confront realities often evaded by long hours at work. Happy are those who can say “J’ai vécu” after years of marriage.

A friend has called these chronicles “melancholy.” Maybe that is because I am pessimistic about human nature; maybe because I am all too aware of the swift passing of the seasons, and thus that there are few remaining years for me. I don’t feel sad, only occasionally wistful for the chances missed, the graces resisted.

But hey! Who could be melancholy with the prospect of a haircut in a few days!

May 2020

Time passes. The days merge. My hair grows.

And there I could end my record of the month of May 2020. A torpor has descended; tasks are postponed – a Covid procrastination, for  why do them today when tomorrow will be the same, and the day after? I feel fixed and unmoving in a no man’s land where time – though it passes both pleasantly and all too rapidly – also seems immobile.

My world has shrunk. Lockdown has confined me to those very places of which I set out to write: my garden, the Common, and the fields and woods beyond. Outings are rare in the extreme – a slow puncture to be mended; chicken feed to be collected. I watch, distantly, the easing of restrictions, and neither want nor need to join in the emerging of the herd.

It would be wrong but easy to think that life was passing by unlived, that this year – one of the perforce few remaining – was being wasted, devoid as it is of the usual rush and bustle. The lived moment is life, and the value we put upon it – good or bad, pleasurable or painful, solitary or social – is just that, our subjective take.

Nonetheless, we are human and we experience pleasure and pain, however small our world has become. For me, blessed as I am, May has brought great pleasure…and a little pain. It has been the sunniest May since meteorological records began in 1929, and the driest in 124 years. Day after day the sky has been a Mediterranean blue and the sun has beaten down upon an increasingly parched earth with a dazzling intensity. From time to time there have been violent and rough winds to shake the darling buds, and these have served to dry the land still more. I have never seen grass burned brown in May before.

The old country proverb once again holds good:

Oak (on the left) in leaf before the ash (on right)

Oak before ash, we shall have a splash.

Ash before oak, we’re in for a soak.

Even a splash would be good….

In fact this year the darling buds of May had all opened and burgeoned well before the month began, for at an estimate most vegetation seems four or five weeks ahead of where it would have been a few decades back. The chestnut candles are long since dimmed; the hawthorn had dropped its blossom by mid-month – the indecent smell of it gone now.

The barley has “eared up,” as we say round here, and the million filaments shimmer in the morning light. The wheat begins to grow tall, blue-green. The uncut roadside verges frothed briefly with bridal cow parsley, and the starry white flowers of the pungent wild garlic have faded. The elderflower is out; dogroses cascade in the hedgerows; ox-eye daisies dance in the breeze. Summer races ahead, outstripping spring.

This early flowering and seeding brings with it another sort of lockdown for me: the grasses are seeding and hay fever limits the time I can spend out of doors. On our morning walks I set out, duly medicated and sprayed and eye-dropped, in dark glasses, and my eyes and nose smeared with Vaseline. The dog precedes me through the long grass me sending up golden clouds of pollen dancing in the low sun.

Summer has come early; the electric lime green of spring matured too quickly. Soon the glory of morning birdsong will fade, little by little, unnoticed, till suddenly one morning we hear… silence. The lark may still sing high on the wing, and a yellowhammer may still announce “Little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheeeeese,” but that exuberance and joy (how we love to anthropomorphise the aggressive avian macho mating defence of territory!) will be gone till next spring. And thoughts come unbidden – shall I live to hear it? Live in the moment. Live in the moment.

The continuing pandemic, and the feckless floundering of our government, have sent me to my bookshelves for my ancient copy of Camus’ “La Peste” (The Plague), gathering dust since university more than half a century ago. The plague in the novel is generally taken to be a metaphor for the rise of Fascism, though some read it as a diatribe against capitalism and materialism. Given the current situation, especially in the United Kingdom, it can equally well be read as a literal account.

The infection comes to a town that is obsessed with business, a place where the sole object seems to be the pursuit of wealth. The authorities are slow off the mark, reluctant to act because of the economic consequences and the reputational damage to the town. Mitigation measures are mired in bureaucracy, until, as fevers spike and bedsheets are soaked from night-sweats, there is no choice but to quarantine the town: “We should not act as though half the town were not threatened with death, because then it would be….We must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him. What’s natural is the [virus]. All the rest—health, integrity, purity—is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter.”

Businesses complain about being closed down. Social distancing is not properly observed. There are hoarders and profiteers. Before long, hospitals are overwhelmed; medical supplies are scarce; a makeshift quarantine camp is established; and the police do their best but are sometimes heavy-handed. The cast of characters is eerily familiar: the Prefect who begins in denial (“There are no rats in the building,” as the rats die all around them), but then has no choice but to bow to the expertise of his medical advisers once the exponential spread of disease becomes apparent; the chap who tries to escape the lockdown, heedless of the risk of spreading infection beyond the walls. It could have been written in the past two or three months as we witnessed the Cummings and Goings of our masters.

Aristotle argued that, thanks to the gift of language, man is destined to be a social and therefore a political animal. Today I, and many, live in the paradox of an enforced solitude whose window on society is perforce through a screen, mediated by a cacophony of voices – politicians, pundits, scientists. We see the world through a television screen; we see our friends and families through a computer screen. Through a glass darkly to a world where we can look, but we cannot touch.

Can I end this month’s chronicle on a note of optimism? I can say that the number of cases in this country has fallen, that death rates are down, that the first tentative steps of a return to previous existence are being taken by some. I can say that some of the seeds I sowed in early spring are already providing food, that the rest will soon follow; that baby birds are fledging; that there is a foal on the Common.

April 2020

The year rushes on, but down a path no-one in living memory has travelled. Where it goes nobody knows. There is no road map.

I do not wish, in a blog of my privileged life in rural Suffolk, to make this into some latter-day journal of a plague year, and those who know me will guess at my feelings about mistakes our leaders may have made in facing this crisis. History alone will give us a clear perspective. Moreover, it feels indecent this month to write of glorying in the beauties of this most lovely of all springs when all around there is illness, death, suffering, poverty, domestic violence. Unseemly indeed, when we read of – for example – a young NHS worker stabbed to death, just before the funeral of his father, who died from Covid, by a gang wearing medical-type masks.

It seems so distant from this paradise where we are untouched by it all, isolated from the realities of pandemic Britain, and yet not far away there is a hotspot of Covid deaths and hospitalisations. Despite these, there seems to have been a shift from a month ago, when fear stalked every outing, when the slightest slip – a door carelessly touched, a cough from someone in a queue – could spell sickness and maybe death. Lockdown in deep Suffolk has bred a potentially dangerous sense of immunity from it all, insulated from the intensive care units with their exhausted and ill-equipped staff, from the full mortuaries, from the breeding grounds of disease and death that are our old people’ homes. Here I am cocooned and cared for – a supposedly vulnerable septuagenarian. The drawbridge is up; the portcullis down.

And, as such, I live in a world which has shrunk to the confines of my garden and to the Common, and walks beyond far over the fields, long walks beginning with the sun which rises ever earlier on what has been an idyllic world. Those solitary miles with the dog have seen the transition from early spring with trees still skeletal to full leaf, from bare earth to greens which no artist’s palette could ever capture, filtering the early light. The primroses are now drowning in the rising lushness of new grass, the cowslips abundant on banks and in meadows after a winter of rain, the orchids on the Common bright magenta among the yellow of buttercups. Now the blackthorn in the hedges has given way to the may, with its sweet sickly smell of death. A barn owl glides silently before me along the field edge. A buzzard hunts. And all around  the birdsong of the morning is uncorrupted by man-made sound.

These pure days of dawning blue and gold were like Eden before the Fall.

April was a month of virtually no rain, a month which marked a transition from waterlogged fields and paths of mud to iron-hard, bone-dry cracked earth. The garden turned to dust and needed watering every day. The garden…always a preoccupation, but in this month of isolation it became a daily ritual, a guardian of sanity, a saving grace, and a promise of the future. The present circumstances convince me more than ever of the necessity of growing my own food.

The beauty of the spring garden lifts the heart and soul when the news is grim:

It is of course impossible not to reflect on what is happening beyond the bounds of my eremitical existence. Although nobody living has experienced anything like this pandemic, it seems there is little new under the sun. Daniel Defoe, who was only five during the Great Plague of 1665, wrote his “Journal of a Plague Year”, based on contemporaneous accounts. It sounds so familiar: “The infection was propagated insensibly, and by such persons as were not visibly infected, who neither knew whom they infected or who they were infected by.”

And again:

” And finding that I ventured so often out into the streets, he (a friend) earnestly persuaded me to lock myself up and my family and not to suffer any of us to go out of doors that we could keep within doors entirely…And here I must observe again, that this necessity of going out of our houses to buy provisions was in a great measure the ruin of the whole city; for the people catched the distemper, on these occasions, one of another.”

The face of London, Defoe tells us, was “strangely altered,” and Pepys, who was an eye-witness, marvels at how empty the streets were, before deciding it might be more prudent to stay at home:

“But now, how few people I see, and those walking like people that have taken leave of the world…. I to the Exchange, and I think there was not 50 people upon it and but few more like to be, as they told me, Sir G Smith and others. Thus I think to take Adieu today of London streets ….”

Pandemic London (photo Sophie Raworth)

I myself have been out very little. I have no need. But on the rare occasions I have driven anywhere (out of necessity to the vets for the quarterly flea and worm treatment) I marvel at the empty roads. I drove six or seven miles and saw one car. Spooky, weird, disquieting, the end of days.

I have no need to move from the confines of house and garden because I have kind friends who bring shopping. I don’t need much. I am so blessed: I have a well-stocked larder, home-grown produce still in my freezer, and I am still working my way through a big No-Deal-Brexit Box amassed at the end of last year when it looked as though there could be shortages. There could still be, for in the focus on the present pandemic we edge, blindly and seemingly inexorably, to a situation where no trade deal with the EU can be secured before the end of the year.

And friends have brought cake and chocolate, exchanged at the gate – two metres apart – for eggs and plants. There were Easter eggs, too.  I grow tubby, and there is no-one to see. Hard to have the grace always to receive and accept, and not to be out and doing. I think of Calais where refugees now go without hot meals or the means to keep themselves safe, and where the clearances and brutality continue. Watch and pray, send money. It is so passive.

The fragrance of the rape field beside the house swirls round the garden, vying with the lilac. It has been the most poignant and beautiful of springs.

April 2020 will be remembered by us all. I can do nothing to alleviate the suffering that surrounds us, save to stay – obediently – at home, protect the NHS and save lives. Watch and pray.

March 2020

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

“The only traffic I hear is ambulances,” said my daughter in London. In rural isolation here that stark sentence brings home the threat.

Writing anything at this time seems redundant, but life continues. The cycle of the year keeps turning.

A month of two halves. The first, a phoney war situation when nothing had changed, but a creeping awareness of menace coming closer, and with it that the scenes of deserted streets and overwhelmed hospitals and rows of coffins in makeshift mortuaries in Italy and Spain – then France -might soon be our own normality. The second, when suddenly it was upon us, with hundreds of new deaths reported every 24 hours, the populace confined to their homes, the elderly told to stay put for four months, and a government scurrying to catch up with what should have been done so much sooner.

New phrases are on everyone’s lips: lockdown, self-isolation, social distancing. “C19”  is no longer a shortened form for the nineteenth century, but something deadly which stalks us, waiting for one careless moment, one slip of our guard.

It seems somehow irrelevant to write of the ‘old’ normal.  The recent past, the beginning of March, seems long distant, as alien to our present way of being as that of a previous century. But maybe recording life and times is still important.

The old normal

In like a lion came March, with tempests of wind and even more rain – a continuation of our dark and drenched winter. Work took me to France the first weekend of the month. As Eurostar sped me to Paris, and another sleek and  smooth TGV raced me to Reims, I saw fields under water and trees down as they were in England, the similarities smoothing out the shock of the speed of travel.

France, ahead of the UK in its number of Covid-19 infections, was definitely nervous. No-one shook hands; no-one kissed; Friday night restaurants and bars were nearly empty; hand sanitiser was much in use. I felt compelled rather self-consciously to wipe down the seat tray and arm rest of the trains.

Despite the advancing virus, the meeting in Reims went ahead. I was there as an observer, representing my organisation, and made a brief speech presenting it, with many expressions of fraternity in this post-Brexit age. I was treated royally, which was quite humbling – and surprising, given the usual French jibes of “Who burned Joan of Arc?” when faced with the English. Champagne apéritifs, dinner, lunch, a private tour of the cathedral and Art Deco Carnegie Library. Walking along a street past the Archbishop’s former residence I caught sight of a knocker on the main door…I wonder if some frustrated former archbishop commissioned it specially…

The Archbishop’s knocker

That same week I went to a talk in a neighbouring village about owls. Owls, I learned, are now big business, farmed like puppies as must-have accessories and pets, thanks to the popularity of Harry Potter and Hedwig, his snowy owl. The tame talking owl Archimedes, belonging to Merlin in T.H. White’s “The Sword in the Stone,” is surely a prefiguring of Hedwig.

My childhood reading of this book gave me a love of owls, and hence I went to this talk. Alas, children discover that the owl their parents were persuaded to purchase is no Hedwig, and must be cared for. Thus many end up in sanctuaries, and cannot be released into the wild. A barn owl and a tawny owl were present to illustrate the talk. On my walks I see many barn owls hunting silently in the twilight of dawn and dusk, and I hear tawny owls most nights, but I had never come so close.

I was allowed to hold the barn owl, and stroke her softly with the back of my finger. My reaction to her beauty and to her proximity surprised me. I had to fight back tears.

On one of the last days of our freedom (oh, if only we had known it was about to be so curtailed) the dog and I went to Dunwich, and walked along the shingle shore towards Walberswick. Hard to think of it as once a busy port, with its many churches now long sunk in the invasive sea. Dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, Dunwich once stood proud as the capital of the kingdom of the Eastern Angles, at its mightiest in the 14th-century matching London for size. It was a seat of power for the Anglo-Saxon bishops for centuries, an international port, and the Domesday book of 1086 puts the population at over 3000.

That day the sun shone. And with the sun came rapidly that wonderful opening up to life which is the spring. The land dried, winter mud and mire soon just a memory.

The mildness of the winter meant the greening came early. There were primroses and violets and cowslips and oxlips and birdsong and blue skies. The land rejoiced. My heart rejoiced.

And then came lockdown.

The new normal

It would not be unfair to say that earlier in this crisis the government (still cock-a-hoop no doubt with its resounding new majority and having “got Brexit done”) did not respond in any way commensurate with the situation, with what had been apparent to anyone who could see the straws in the wind. Covid-19 appeared in December in China. We have long known a pandemic was overdue; and the Cygnus crisis simulation three years ago proved the NHS – underfunded for years – would be unable to cope.

Government messages started to come thick and fast. First we heard that we must all be exposed to the virus to confer “herd immunity,” though it meant many elderly and vulnerable would die. This survival of the fittest policy made economic sense – no burden of care for the elderly, no blocking of beds in the NHS, no pensions to pay out….but it was fairly quickly dropped, for it showed a shocking disregard for the sanctity of life, and I – as a septuagenarian – didn’t feel quite ready to take one for the team. Besides, herd immunity is conferred by vaccination not widespread contagion.

Then we oldies were told we must isolate ourselves for four months to save our lives – the very lives which a few days before were to be recklessly dispensed with – and to prevent our health service being overwhelmed. This was swiftly followed by a general lockdown.

The lane is silent. A car is a rarity. There is a background drone of tractors finally able to get on the land and drill spring crops and the regular reports of the bird scarers. But otherwise all is silent . The builders on the site next to my property along the lane have gone, and it is mercifully quiet now the pile drivers and excavators have stopped, and machinery stilled. The dominant sound now is the high note of the skylark.

I choose to live isolated, surrounded by fields and fresh air, and in general I am happy with my own company, and that of a cheerful and enthusiastic dog. I grow much of my own food, and I am busy with  work and many projects. I am thus blessed more than most in our current circumstances, but the prospect of being cut off from all community for months is daunting. No-one knows what will happen; what the future will be for ourselves, for our loved ones.

As I start to wake the garden up and sow seeds these symbolise tiny expressions of hope: when this germinates and grows and bears fruit the plague may have passed us by.

Growing anything, but specially food crops, earths us and roots us. It declares a continuity from the past to the future. We are performing the same actions, the same gestures on the same days of the year as our ancestors did, and future generations also will. It shows us our place in the scheme of things, in the cycle of birth and death, and it helps, at this time when grief or death may come suddenly and surprise us, to understand this.

Dark times ahead?

The reader will, I trust, forgive me. I updated this particular software and have been rather unsatisfactorily and unaesthetically getting to grips with it.