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As long as one English field lies against another


Image: Visions of Paradise, Marina Schinz

HV Morton became an international celebrity by scooping the world's press in the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb. Returning to England in his early 30s, he began a driving tour of English villages, countryside, and cathedral and market towns. In 1927, he published In Search of England. By 1931, less than ten years before World War II, In Search of England was in its fifteenth edition. It is now in its 40th.

Peering inside the blue edition of 1931 with the gold roses embossed on its cover, I felt as if I were looking into a lost world - one that I could love, but also doubt and feel uncomfortable about, at the same time I wished it were the world I lived in - while knowing that for all our troubles I am happiest living now.

There is mystery in Morton's book. Somehow these fierce, kind people with their odd burial customs have created a peaceful and beautiful whole greater than themselves. Rather than dismissing them, as they have been often and arrogantly dismissed, I would like to take Wendell Berry's advice, and stay awhile.

In case you wanted to stay awhile with Morton in England in the summer, and see what truth you find, I've excerpted a few pages -

I met him in the churchyard. He was carrying a basket of eggs, and I could see that he was, although not wearing a clerical collar, the vicar; a man, I judged, about sixty, red-faced, muscular, white-haired.

'Dreadful, dreadful!' he said sadly, looking out over the tombstones, some cut with eighteenth-century inscriptions, some leaning together, some propped up with posts, many covered with green lichen or half-obscured by the long grass that grew between grave and grave. I thought it rather strange that a man whose mission in life is to teach the joys of the world to come should express painful emotion at the sight of his own graveyard; and I ventured to tell him so.

'Well, you see,' he said. 'My trouble is that the people of this parish lie buried ten and twelve deep in this little plot of earth; and the worst of it is that they like it! If you look over the wall you will observe a fine meadow. That is our new graveyard, and it has been ready for use for us for twelve years, but no one will hear of being buried in it. I greatly fear that I must take legal measures to shut the old churchyard - an Order in Council or something - and make them accept the new meadow. I hate to do it. I do really. A great blow to them!'

'But what,' I said, 'is their objection?'

He looked at me and smiled.

'It is, perhaps, difficult for you, a stranger, to understand. You see, we are, in this little hamlet, untouched by modern ideas, in spite of the wireless and the charabanc. We use words long since abandoned - why, only to-day I heard a little girl use the word 'boughten' for 'bought'. My parishioners believe firmly in a physical resurrection! They believe that a trumpet will herald the end of the world, and that the bones in this churchyard will join together. So you see they like to be buried on top of their fathers and grandfathers, because they will rise together as a family. It is, to them, more friendly. Clannish in life and clannish in death. It is a very old and primitive idea. I know other country clergy who are in the same, as it were, box.'

We walked slowly through the churchyard towards a grey house that stood smothered in trees.

'Do come in and drink a glass of cider. I make it myself; my own apples, my own brandy cask.'

It was cool in the dark hall, and we went into a long room. Beyond the windows was one of the loveliest gardens imaginable, a tangle of magnificence; roses falling in white cascades from old walls, pink roses flinging their rich sprays over arbours, and the air was heavy with the scent of flowers and loud with the sound of bees. There was a movement on the lawn.

'Was that a hare?'

'That wicked little beggar again!' cried the vicar. 'He comes and dances there every evening, confound him, for he makes a dreadful hash of my garden. Really I must think about finding him a good home, the little rascal!'

He cast a quick glance towards a gun rack.

'How do you like the cider?'

'It's rather like Sauterne,'

'Ah, you have a palate! it is good; it is, in fact, excellent! The bouquet is delicious - just smell - and hold the glass against the window - look at that cloudy amber! My own apples; my own brandy cask. Have another glass?'

'It is, I believe, stronger than Sauterne.'

'Indeed it is.'

We walked through the garden talking about the modern difficulty of being happy.

'Happiness,' said the old man, 'is a compound of simplicity, love, and philosophy and, of course, faith. One must believe in something. I'm not preaching at you, am I? If so tell me to stop! Lack of faith is a modern spiritual disease, and people, it seems, are only just becoming aware of it. How happy I am; how glad I am to be alive to work here among children, flowers, and fruit. I love the children of this parish; I watch over them like a benevolent eagle, if that is a permissible simile. To me, of course,' he added whimsically, 'all of them up to the age of forty are children, for I have held them all in my arms when they were babies. How old do you think I am?'

'I should have said sixty.'

'I am nearly eighty. Then I have my flowers, my fruits, and my fishing rods. What more can an old man want? It is very quiet here. We are far from the pain of cities, the complexities. Life is reduced here to a simple common denominator. The men are on the land. Now and then a girl goes away to service or to marry a man in a town and she returns with skirts up to her knees to astonish us for bit, thinking us old-fashioned and stodgy. But are we? Our foundation is so solid. We are rooted in something firmer than fashion. We believe things too, I see to that! Our simple sins, such as they are, are sins all flesh is heir to, and like all human beings, we need kindness sometimes more than advice or censure. Oh, I know that so well. . .How the greenfly has got into those roses, damn them!'

'You must have seen great changes here in your time.'

'Yes and no. It's easier to get about now. We go to London once in a blue moon. You must have seen us with our mouths wide open in Piccadilly. . .Unless I net those cherries there won't be one left! Look at those birds!'

Over the meadows drifted the smell of hay. We could see in the field beyond the garden a man and a woman knee deep on the stack.

'My churchwarden! I often rocked that great, big, hulking fellow to sleep in an old wooden cradle shaped like an ark!'

We walked round, and beyond the garden, field lay against field, marching together to the hills. The church bell struck the hour as we came unexpectedly to the little Norman porch.

A shaft of light fell through the western windows across a stiff company of knights lying spurred in full mail, their hands at rest upon their breasts. There were ladies, too: alabaster pale ladies whose hair was dressed in a forgotten mode, whose ringed fingers were held together in prayer.

'The Jocelyns,' said the vicar, with his hand on a stone sword hilt. 'They died fighting long ago. There is a man of the same name working on a farm near, but he spells it differently. I often think he looks a bit like Sir Gervais who went on the third Crusade.'

There were coloured coats of arms on the wall, and, high up, hanging precariously by a nail, an ancient helmet with a badly dented visor. The sunlight slanted upward till it lay in a bar across the face of the nearest knight and lit the thin, long fingers of his lady.

'Would you care to stay the night, and we could have a talk?' said the old man. 'To-morrow is our harvest festival and you might like to. . .'

I told him that nothing would give me greater joy, and I think that my sincerity pleased him. My room in the old vicarage was small and white. There was a coloured picture of the Duke of Wellington on the wall dated 1812, put there in a moment of patriotism over a hundred years ago on the eve of the last great war but one. When I looked out of the window I saw the hare dancing on the lawn, beyond lay the stubble field, gold in the sunlight with a few rabbits lolloping on the edges. Over the window drooped a screen of tight red roses, full of a sound of wings and swinging slightly with the weight of bees.

In a warm twilight we sat down to dinner with the windows open to the lawn, he at one end of the long oak table that had fed his family, I at the other. Half-way through the meal the aged housekeeper paused in her services to light two candles on the table. We saw outside the hush of evening deepen. There came into the sky that rich gold flush that precedes a harvest moon. A moth fluttered in and charged the candle. In the silence we could hear a dog barking miles off. It seemed that all the beauty of the world had been gathered up into the Hand of God.

'And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.'

His voice came slowly and softly beyond the candlelight, and we both looked again out to the fields.

'I am rarely honoured with a visitor,' he said, rising, 'so we will celebrate our meeting.'

Slowly, and with a reverence that was habitual to him, he carried from the sideboard a cradle in which lay a very ancient bottle:

'This port,' he explained, 'is older than I am. I have only a few dozen bottles left. I keep it to cheer me in my solitude. An inheritance.'

He then removed the glasses from the table and replaced them by two elegant Georgian wine glasses.

'A good wine,' he said with a smile, 'must not be insulted by a young glass.'

We held the wine to the candlelight, bowed slightly to one another and drank. I thought that I had never seen a finer picture than his kind, experienced face in the glow of the two candles, the dark oak panelling behind his white head as he lifted the little glass of dark red wine to his lips.

He talked of his people, of their fields, of the lord of the manor, poor now as a church mouse but rooted to the land. He would have liked me to have met him, but he was away healing the sins of his ancestors at a spa. But an old type. He loved his acres. He could not afford his birthright in society unless he sold land: and he could not sell his mother, could he?

'When he dies,' said the vicar, 'I suppose they will sell to pay the death duties and then. . .'

He did not finish.

'I suppose,' he went on, 'I have lived for so long in old England that I cannot visualize a change. Nothing has changed here. Our last big sensation was in 1066, when the first Jocelyn grabbed the manor. But we soon got over that. We even followed him on a crusade or two and joined his descendants under the walls of Harfleur. Now and then we sent a son to the city to represent us in the larger life - by the way, I wonder if it is really larger? For centuries we have prized the same prejudices - we still hate a man from Spennithorpe - and we have grown up as naturally as any currant bushes out there, century after century. We were, you see, locked up here together with our fields and our imaginations, making our own songs and dances until the world outside sent us a gramophone and the latest murders every Sunday morning. Even that has not altered us much: the newspapers are only another kind of fairy story about the world outside. Our fields are the same as they always were, and we are the servants of our fields. We are happy because we have rarely known discontent. And, as I told you, we believe every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.'

We walked out into the garden, and the moon came up.

A Sunday hush lay over the field and wood: a silence broken only by the song of birds and the drone of insects. The church bell rang.

The little church was full of corn sheaves. Apples, picked for their size and colour, washed and polished, stood in a line against the altar rails. Above the empty pew of the absent squire, barley nodded its gold beard. The church smelt of ripe corn and fruit. Some one, I wonder if consciously, or just by chance, had placed a posy of flowers in the stiff, stone hands of Sir Gervais. He lay there with his thin, mailed toes to the vaulting, his sword at his side and in his hands this offering from his own land to warm his heart in a Norman heaven.

There was a discreet procession up the nave, until the tiny church was full, the women in black, the men unhappy in collars, their great hands burnt red with the harvest sun. The children made eyes at the apples and whispered.

The old vicar mounted into the pulpit and talked to his people about the harvest and God's harvest, as I knew he would. His wise eyes, that knew all their sins and the sins of their fathers, and loved them perhaps because of those sins, moved over them as he spoke; and I noticed a subtle change in his manner. As he addressed them he talked with a faint country accent and I realized then better than before how well he knew his people. The little organ whispered down the nave:

To Thee, O Lord, our hearts we raise. . .

The church emptied. The noon sun fell in bright spears of colour over the old Jocelyns; beyond the porch was a picture of harvest set in a Norman frame. The rich earth had borne its children, and over the fields was that same smile which a man sees only on the face of a woman when she looks down to the child at her breast.

I went out into the churchyard where the green stones nodded together, and I took up a handful of earth and felt it crumble and run through my fingers, thinking that as long as one English field lies against another there is something left in the world for a man to love.

'Well,' smiled the vicar, as he walked towards me between the yew trees, 'that, I am afraid, is all we have.'

'You have England,' I said.