By Patrick O’Sullivan
The past is another country, they say, and this is especially true of the summers of old: the skies a deep mesmeric blue that might have been imagined centuries before.
Our tiny little field by the house may have been the hay meadow, but it was so much more besides. It was the place where the fairies played their football on warm moonlit nights. There was nothing strange in this, I suppose, for the fairies domain, the old ringed fort was just a few fields away overlooking the bay.
There it rose up against the skyline, it’s magic circle of trees ever and always looking out across the tide, its ancient grandeur enhanced every evening by the glow of the setting sun.
It was a place of mystery and stillness, the accumulated stillness of years and decades and centuries: wild roses among the mosses and lichens that painted its walls. It never occurred to us to ask why the fairies overlooked so many larger fields in favour of our much smaller one.
No, we never tried to rationalise it at all, but if we had asked about it, I’m sure we would have been told that the fairies being diminutive themselves liked things on a smaller scale, hence the attraction of our little field to them.
It wasn’t just some vague tradition though, this story of the fairy footballer’s, for those of the older generation had the names of more than one witness. They told of how one such or another was passing the road very late at night , invariably giving the reason for their lateness so that it all seemed to sound so much more plausible still.
Sometimes I think that whereas adults deal in probabilities, children deal in possibilities, which makes them far more open to tales of wonder and magic and enchantment. The fairy football games were always played on moonlit nights, another detail that sounded perfectly reasonable so that it became the easiest thing in the world to picture the fairies togged out in their football gear: the moon shining down on the dewy grasses and shimmering too in the bay beyond.
That was the way with the fairies. They may have been mischievous at times up to all sorts of pranks when it suited them, but they had it seemed very human attributes too. There was nothing they liked better than a good game of football so that rivalries between neighbouring forts were as keen as any between neighbouring parishes of the human kind.
There was another fort, a few fields further off, connected as it was according to tradition to the main fort overlooking the bay. It seemed doubtful, therefore, that the inmates of this second fort were rivals of the first. All that was certain was that the fairy matches were as hotly contested as those of their human neighbours.
Apart from football, the fairies loved music, song and dance: all of which it seemed gave witness to their poetic and creative spirit. This was why they valued so highly the achievement of singers, musicians and storytellers, not just among their own kind but human kind too.
Inevitably they had enchanted tunes of their own, tunes which they jealously guarded and tried to keep to themselves. Sometimes one of these tunes was almost unwittingly overheard by some local musician of note who then became famous for his knowledge of the fairy tune.
The character of the fairies of course said much about the people who imagined them, their creators investing them with an imagining and a love of all things fanciful that clearly rivalled their own.
I don’t know that we thought about it too much but when we gave up the field in the lateness of evening, it was as if we were surrendering it again to the fairies and their kind.
Or maybe it was the other way round. Maybe they were the ones who lent it to us during the daytime, taking possession of it again when the moon hung like a silver apple in the sky.
All of this makes me think that every single field, no matter how big, no matter how small, has a secret history of its own: a history long since embedded in popular culture and tradition. It is a history not just of human involvement in the field, but also of the wild, of nature itself shaping it and moulding it over time.
There was the time when the hare gave birth to her young in a grassy corner of her own. The hare’s nest, or form, was no more than a flattening of the grasses, but the young, the tiny leverets, were the sweetest, most endearing things imaginable.
They might have come straight from a storybook, though I doubt if any story, no matter how well crafted and told, could rival the living beauty of nature itself. We never wondered what the fairies made of them, but surely like us they were glad of them too.
It was no great wonder though that I was reading about wildlife in magazines and books, for the field, the little fairy field of summer had a magic all of its own.