I haven’t put the digital equivalent of pen to paper in this blog since the end of September 2021. People ask me why not, and the answer is simple: I have nothing to say. I still do not, but it is a given of the denizens of Facebook that they believe themselves and their photographic records to be worthy of note. Mine is not, but it is the ongoing story of an elderly widow in rural East Anglia.
I started in summer 2017, and there are only so many times one can say something fresh about the changing seasons or rhapsodise about the beauties of Suffolk land and shore. I could of course write on personal despair about what our country has become, or the increasing constraints of age, but I was frequently accused of being too gloomy (though some fans appreciate an elegiac tone), and one reader begged me to write only on sunny days.
Had I obeyed this injunction I’d have been busy at my keyboard during 2022, a year characterised here in Suffolk by lack of rain and an abundance of sunshine. It is likely to be the warmest year here since records began. Dry winter was followed by a dazzling and drier spring, a searing summer which lingered into an autumn of such warmth that flowers bloomed out of season and little birds rashly nested. It was an unrivalled year for fruit and nuts. Under every oak was a crunching carpet ankle deep in acorns. The leaves clung to the oaks till December brought a freeze of an unusual severity in this warming climate. Earth was indeed hard as iron, and I had to teach the dog to drink indoors (normally she will drink only from watering cans, buckets, and foul ditches) as the ice was too thick to break.
Readers acquainted with this chronicle will know that I am most frequently out walking in the purity and innocence of the very early morning, and this year has brought daybreaks of heart-aching beauty. I thought nothing could equal them. Could my remaining days offer more? But there I go again…
So I present here a pictorial canter through 2023 in north Suffolk, with brief excursions elsehwere.
During the winter I had two portrait commissions – both unusual – to keep, as they say, the wolf from the door. One was to create a portrait from old photos of the great-uncle of an acquaintance, a major in the Rifles during the South Africa campaign and during the Great War. The other was done from sittings via Zoom (not easy – colouring and contours eliminated by the computer camera): one of us in Suffolk, the other in Canada. I believe the sitter now to be a dear friend, and we finally met in October when I handed over the picture. I loved doing these.
Spring brought more opportunities for painting: a chance to paint a Suffolk Horse (inaccurately called ‘Punch’) an endangered breed; and then – on a rare wet day – in Walberswick.
In rural Suffolk there is virtually no choice but to heat an old house by oil, with the moral angst engendered by the use of fossil fuel. In early summer I ordered a year’s worth, which cost me well over 10 per cent of my entire annual income. Disquiet and anxiety about the cost of living were somewhat allayed by the surprise offer of work: to help deliver the Kent Pilgrims Festival which would take place in late September. The work was far more than anticipated, and kept me chained to my computer and dripping sweat on the keyboard throughout the hottest part of the year. But it paid the bills.
And no rain fell, and no rain fell, and the mercury climbed ever higher. The dog and I were out by five each morning to savour the relative cool, but by seven the heat was too much. There were dire warnings on the radio and tv – old people must stay indoors during the heat of the day. The dog did not need telling; she refused to put her nose outside the door, and had to be coaxed to drink ice cubes.
My own harvest also came early. Many crops had suffered from the drought, though copious watering took hours each evening. Tomatoes flourished as never before.
Autumn brought little relief, rainfall was still almost non-existent here in Suffolk, and temperatures remained high. But it was exceptionally lovely.
In November the dog and I went for our week’s holiday in Northumberland. It is worth the long car journey and the cost to see her delight as she races along the broad beaches, plays with other dogs, frolics in the sea. But even there, the most northerly county of England, in the penultimate month of the year, the temperatures were abnormally high, the sea a deep sapphire, the sky cerulean …and I regretted bringing my thermals.
And then, quite suddenly, we froze. I wrestle with inner conflict – I love the crisp cleanliness, the lack of muddy paws, the winter sun rising over a landscape of frost, the possibility of walking off piste across fields before sunrise. Yet always present is the knowledge that there are those sleeping rough, those who cannot afford heating and whose children must go hungry.
Et in Arcadia ego… The Four Horsemen ride over our land, their pace is faster, more menacing. Did their dark presence cast a more-than-usual brilliance onto the beauty of nature? War, famine, pestilence and death are not far away. Throughout the year there has been a growing sense of unease and foreboding. There has been war in Europe, and our screens nightly show us destruction and death. A flood of refugees left Ukraine in the early months of the war, welcomed – for the most part – by compassionate people all over Europe and beyond. But they are white and fair and look like us. Not so the sad and desperate who pay extortionate amounts to the passeurs to be ferried in sinking inflatables across the Channel, only to be herded -if they escape drowning and hypothermia – into stinking disease-ridden detention centres, and threatened with deportation.
The heat and drought of which I have written will, the meteorologists say, become the norm. Even in England there have been destructive wildfires.
Famine stalks many southern lands, the result of unprecedented drought. Hunger and its child war will increase the flow of refugees travelling north. We have known pestilence over the past three years, bringing death at worst and isolation at best. At the time of lockdowns I dismissed the effects on mental health – for me at least, as I am used to and at ease with my own company. Yet I know now that – although I must be one of the very few in the country never to have had Covid – that it has changed me. The facility for being with people (never my strong suit) has been corroded. The outside world and its denizens can seem like the enemy. I doubt Covid has finished with us yet: worrying variants have been detected in Asia, and the precipitate ditching of the Zero Covid policy in China may unleash the tail of the dragon upon us.
Here, and particularly in the east of the country, another plague rages – avian influenza. The poultry farms of East Anglia have been decimated, farmers have had their stock wiped out; many will go out of business. My supplier of Christmas turkey, three fields distant, lived a knife-edge existence after there was an outbreak a kilometre away. For those who do survive it will change their method of husbandry.
And death. There is always death. At my age one is aware that it creeps ever closer; so many funerals to go to. And of course one death in 2022 stands out – that of the Queen. You do not have to be a monarchist to have felt its effects. For most people in this country Elizabeth Windsor was the only monarch they have known. I vaguely remember her father dying and the sombre feeling that descended, if not on our household then certainly on that of my maternal grandparents who used to stand, loyally, throughout the Crown’s Christmas speech. Her passing, though of course not a surprise, was a shock. It still is, and throughout the political chaos of the last quarter of 2022 I have wanted her to come back, with her steady calm when it felt as though there were no hand on the tiller.
I must mention, though it pains me to do so, the constant backdrop to the year in the UK. From the grubbiness and sleaze of Partygate through the sexual shenanigans of various Tory MPs to the lunacy of the Truss-Kwarteng budget which brought the markets and the pound crashing down; through five education secretaries, four chancellors, three prime ministers, two Tory leadership coups…the list – the omnishambles – goes on.
But I will end with a photo of what, or rather who, banishes this gloom and despair and disquiet: my companion, and my constant joy.
Happy 2023 to everyone.