Wednesday, 3 April 2013


I was out on the allotment about 6 o’clock in late March, thinking about our walk the evening before. We had wandered out, in the gloaming, to a 17th century secluded Quaker burial ground and returned in a gathering owl-light. It was easy to imagine Quaker candles flickering in draughty casements, as the western gleams grew ever fainter in the vast sky-scape.
I had just read Richard Mabey’s “Turned Out Nice Again” before leaving for our Painswick ramble and we talked about his reference to Coleridge’s ‘Playbills’ notion: ‘announcing each day the performance by his supreme Majesty’s Servants, the Clouds, Waters, Sun, Moon, Stars.’ I mentioned that I thought that my own sensibility and susceptibility to the impact of the intrinsic beauty of the sky, in daylight, appeared to be more acute at this time of the year and just before dusk.
These memories returned to me the next evening on the plot, as I leaned on my fork and gazed westwards. The tracery of the branches of the trees and the silhouettes of the chimney stacks all added to the wistful feeling of a lingering spring transition from sombre afternoon to mournful evening. At this point, I began to find it easier to recreate the lives of those 17th century radicals we had visited the day before than I had when in situ, the day before. My imagination was belatedly vivid. This was odd. Why?
The time of the day was one factor– fading light stimulates the flight of fancy. But that hadn’t happened the evening before, so what was different today? My musing led me to the idea that perhaps such historical empathy can be triggered by practical and solitary activities - the same types of daily jobs done by our ancestors for time immemorial. Here I was digging down deep and it was hard graft in inclement weather, not a recreational bit of playing – was this the reason why it was becoming easier to visualise past lives and present revenants?
 Reading, studying and talking, necessary as they are, might just be helped by the occasional bit of solitary hard graft once in a while; spade and fork aid historical imagination. A sort of archaeology of the mind opening the museum doors of perception sort of thing, I suppose. Evening light: dig for memory.

Rolled-sleeve, break-back, pounding chest,
Up here, just below Butterow West;
Where I dig and plant and study and sow,
While neighbours wander to and fro,
Past rusting barrows, ramshackle sheds,
Oil drums, baths and compost beds,
With sticks and string to seed-space measure
For next year’s crops to plot and treasure,
As rain drops drip on mouldering fruit,
And deep-dug spade and couch grass root,
While I look down to canal and town,
And railway shed Great Western brown,
And watch the ghosts of gramp and dad:
“Breathe the air ‘fore it’s breathed on lad”,
By the stretched-out cloth on tenter-hook,
Proud Stroud scarlet where the ghosts just stood,
And feel the past pulse through my veins,
Digging the future, in mist and rain;
A time to come and times past-present,
This is my harvest on Rodborough allotment.

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