St John’s Day, Midsummer Day, has come and gone, bringing to the nature diarists’ community, as the country folk call us, melancholy thoughts of the inexpugnable passage of time and of the already declining year. In our neighbourhood, St John’s Eve is a time when age-old customs, elsewhere, alas, confined to the mists of antiquity, still flourish even in these prosaic days.
Young men and maidens, not to speak of some in neither category, forsake their clubbing to dance in the woodland glades, undeterred by ghostly commercial travellers, doomed to play solo whist among the trees for all eternity, who scarcely interrupt their play to hurl traditional insults from another world.
It is different with the watercolourists who, following another ancient custom, come trooping out from the neighbouring town to set up their easels in the woods, industriously sketching everything they see, including the indignant dancers. Many of them are retired schoolteachers recommended “remedial art therapy” by their psychiatrists, distressed gentlefolk and ordinary people lately released into the community.
All take their orders from the big, ginger-haired old fellow who seems to be their leader. From my library window I watched through powerful field glasses as he rallied them amidst the dancers, lashing out with outsize paintbrush or sharp-edged paintbox and generally giving as good as they got.
He encouraged them, too, with anecdotes of eminent painters he seems to have known well: how he and Turner saw off a gang of criminal art dealers in Petworth Park; how he and Edward Lear, attacked by bandits while painting in Albania, put them to flight by endlessly repeating Lear’s limericks.
The village folk regard him with superstitious awe. He lives, so the talk goes in the Blacksmith’s Arms, in a rambling old mansion “way out t’ other side o’ Simpleham Great Park”. He is said to be a “gurt old ‘un for t’ book learnin’.” Some say he is writing a “Book of All Known Knowledge”. Some say he is the king of all nature diarists. All believe he is a powerful enchanter.
When I called at the inn the other day, there was an animated discussion about him, carried on, of course, in the genuine old British Composite Pandialect. Jack, the retired poacher told how, when laying a trail of sultanas to trap pheasants, he had seen the big man sitting in his enchanted garden, where creatures of the wild, deemed to be extinct in other parts of England, came to his call: the speckled linnet, the ringed dotterel, the corncrake and the wolf. Jack swore he had once seen an Andean condor perching on the enchanter’s shoulder and whispering secrets in his ear.
Old Frank the waspkeeper, who has a tendency to live in the past, and contributes a “Wasp at War” feature to the local newspaper, thinks the master watercolourist is a German or even Japanese spy, using watercolours to signal to enemy airmen. All believe he and his watercolourists are creatures of ill omen, and that to speak to them brings misfortune.
Though I am inclined to smile, I am sure there is a profound rural wisdom here, far beyond the grasp of your average know-all urban intellectual.