"The effete vocabulary of summer / No longer says anything." (Wallace Stevens - 'The Green Plant')

Returning to the rain and wind in England from my summer sabbatical in sunny Provence these lines of Stevens's ring very true for me as I have always been suspicious of remaining in moods, times and places that are no longer present to one. That does not mean I am wilfully forgetting or ignoring the many memories of the last four months but it does mean that one has to weave them into the vocabulary of the present season.

Most of our time away was a sheer delight and it has to be said that the family Salles, Carol-Leigh and Robert, their children Claire-Louise and Chloe, their dog Chippie and their two cats Caramel and Hartie) were hosts welcoming beyond all our expectations. They truly opened up their home to us and leaving them was more than a tad emotional. Thank you, O delightful Salles!

But, as some of the readers of this blog will know, my wife Susanna's sister in New York suffered a serious cerebral haemorrhage in July and remains seriously ill in a nursing home just outside the city. For Susanna this meant many hours of distressing telephone calls and then a two-and-a-half week visit to the USA. When you realise Susanna's sister has no health insurance you can begin to imagine the whole extra layer of nightmare that attended her visit. The health care professionals involved have been excellent - many thanks to them for that - but, to my American readers, please do continue to campaign for universal health care.

As I often mention William Blake wrote that joy and woe are woven fine and his observation reminds us we are being foolish if we imagine there can be any period of time (such as a sabbatical) that is pure un-alloyed joy. Life just isn't like that. It is worth observing that Stevens concludes his poem cited above by noting that the green plant he speaks about "Glares, outside the legend, with the barbarous green / Of the harsh reality of which it is part."

Outside humanity's many false dreams of salvation (its legends) reality is harsh. This fact must be acknowledged and faced up to and certainly not swept under the carpet of false philosophizing or theologizing. The odd (and perhaps frightening) thing is that, if we really want to live in this world with genuine unsentimental access to meaning and beauty, then we have to learn to fall deeply in love with harsh reality. Stevens beautifully expressed this thought in a late poem called The Rock: "It is not enough to cover the rock with leaves. / We must be cured of it by a cure of the ground . . .". In an excellent book about the philosophical aspects of Stevens's verse called Things merely are (Routledge 2005) the philosopher Simon Critchley writes:

"What seems to be at stake in 'The Rock' . . . is the desire to be cured of the desire for poetry - which returns to the theme of therapy and gives it an unexpected twist. This is what Stevens means by 'a cure of the ground'. That is poetry can endlessly make 'meanings of the rock', but if these meanings are nothing when set against the rock, then they are worthless, they are gaudy baubles. The cure, then, is the rock itself, 'the main of things'" (pp. 83-84).

So, as I prepare my first church service since mid-May, I sit here meditating on how one might weave the rock, the harsh reality, into the vocabulary of this present season so that the green leaves I try to set growing do not turn out to be mere gaudy baubles. It has to be said that religion hasn't got a good record in achieving this . . .

But, just before the vocabulary of summer is truly lost, here is a little video of me (on bass) and Toto (on banjo) sitting in with a trad jazz band in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue playing Do you know what it means to Miss New Orleans on a hot summer's night.