Letter from Roger Tarbuck, April – May 2019

I’ve mentioned before that R.S. Thomas, the Welsh Poet, was Rector of the church we attended in the parish of Manafon, before he became famous. It was many years later that I learned that our Mr Thomas had become one of the most prominent Welsh poets. He’d gained a reputation as a dour person and as a poet whose work is very austere, so I was surprised to learn that he wasn’t known for jollity because, to us children in school and in the Sunday school and to those of us who joined his cubs group, he was always pleasant and friendly.

He was taking us for a walk one Sunday afternoon in May, when he remarked on how beautiful the season was, in an effort (I now know) to waken our senses to the delights of nature. Then suddenly he burst into song: “There was a lover and his lass, in springtime, in springtime,” and so on, with all the hey dinga-dinga-dings in place, right to the end. This made us feel rather awkward, because we took nature for granted and enjoyed every season without grown-ups singing about it. Regardless of the fine singing tradition of the Welsh, at our school we hated it and were embarrassed by it so much that, when our despairing teacher tried to encourage us to sing, she used to put her ear right up to our lips. It did her no good.

I now know why the Rector sang: it was the force of the season, the force of life itself. I can appreciate now how wonderful the spring was when it made even Mr Thomas break into song and share that joy with us, leading our small minds to a consciousness of the wonder and glory of the season. We needed to be told about it, and my awareness of the season took a step forward on that sweet afternoon so long ago. The wide-eyed dream of childhood had carried me, unknowing, through the seasons. Each one had its fruits: Christmas, birthdays, holidays, snowball fights, Bonfire Night, pantomimes and visits to the circus. Each of these, and more, had punctuated the rhythm of my life. I unmindfully blended into nature, loving birds, flowers and animals, and felt an affinity with trees and adored them like big grown-up friends. Winter or summer, it was all the same to me. But Mr Thomas roused something in me when he sang his ditty. I knew that this was spring! It was slow at first, but from then I began to be really conscious of the cycle of the year. I had the added joy of anticipation not just of special days but of the arrival of the seasons. I remember being out with a friend and saying, “I can smell the spring, Dennis. I can feel its rapture!” And Dennis, being a little older, replied: “Oh, shut up. It’s still only February.” I was a step ahead of myself, but knowing – I mean really knowing – that you are experiencing something wonderful, heightens the experience, whether the experience is happening now, or its golden light is waiting on the horizon.

After many years in Newcastle, we came down to Surrey to be near our family. Five years later, I said to my brother, “I’m not yet familiar with the birds down here. Listen to that one. It goes on all day.” Now, I’d always wanted to hear a nightingale. I’d only heard Percy Edwards the impressionist, imitating the bird on the wireless – never the real thing – and I wondered why I hadn’t heard one in Surrey. Then, one day, while fiddling online, I found the song of the nightingale, and it turned out to be that very bird that “went on all day”. And so it does, from late April to mid-June. He (yes, he) sings his heart out for much of the time from sunrise to dusk, knocking off now and then for a rest, then back to the task in hand – the 220 variations, forsooth! Sometimes we can hear up to three or four nightingales, each in his own territory, as they try desperately to attract a mate.

This is what I’m trying to say: how much more I enjoy hearing that bird sing, now that I know it’s the one that I wanted to hear all my life; and how much more I mindfully enjoy the coming of spring, with the snowdrops and daffodils, the crocuses, the catkins and the pussy willows. The silver birch and the weeping willow sway their tresses gently, as the season eases its way towards summer. This is spring, and I have a higher consciousness of it and feel my relationship to it more than I could ever have dreamed of, all those years ago, when Mr Thomas sang so freely and opened our minds to his joyful way to heaven.