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Word from Wormingford

by Ronald Blythe

Posted: 21 Nov 2014 @ 12:15

Ronald Blythe is struck afresh by the words of a familiar hymn

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LOVELY but sad days. The leaves fall, the sun shines, in church we muster for the Remembrance. It has become a kind of saints-day, filling the aisles with its devotees. We turn to its memorial, and I say its liturgy. Its words are by the librarian-poet Laurence Binyon, and were published in The Times long before the Western Front massacres had begun. "They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old."

As a boy, I used to think that these soldiers would have found this cold comfort, and would have very much liked to have enjoyed a long life. But their melancholy suits the Georgian language of the Remembrance. We sing Isaac Watts's "O God, our help in ages past". Charlotte Brontë has a girl, "her voice sweet and silver clear", sing it in Shirley. Our voices, though darkened by time, do justice to this masterpiece. And so the service goes on, inside and outside. I preach on poppies, botanical and symbolical, blood-coloured and bloody.

It was the Jewish poet Isaac Rosenberg in "Break of Day in the Trenches" who released, as it were, our emblematic poppy, the one we button-hole. A rat touches his hand "As I pull the parapet's poppy To stick behind my ear".

Flanders was traditional farmland. Corn and its wild flowers had grown alongside there for centuries. Just as its birds sang above the din, so did its poppies bleed in its mud. The imagery seems to grow more intensely every Remembrance, and my sermons ever more botanical.

But our greatest time-hymn, "O God, our help in ages past", says more and more to me about mortality and immortality. Or so I find. It is grand, sonorous, truthful, accepting, tragic yet comforting, and it first appeared in Wesley's Psalms and Hymns in 1738. A poignant verse was left out long ago, but it uncannily suggests the Western Front:

Like flowery fields the nations stand
Pleased with the morning light:
The flowers beneath the mower's hand
Lie withering ere 'tis night.

Too far to walk, we drive from our church to a steel memorial by the side of the road. It is to the American airmen who came to Wormingford on St Andrew's Day in 1943. Some 200 of them were killed - too many names to read out and halt the Sunday traffic racing by. Their colonel, almost a hundred, sends a message from the United States.

My father, a teenager at Gallipoli, refused to attend these rites, the band playing, the mayor in his robes, the snowy war memorial in the little Suffolk town. Once central, it has long been put at the side of the road so as not to delay a flood of cars. Otherwise you would have taken your life in your hands.

I say Binyon's words all over again. They float in the mild air. I remember my friend John Nash, who painted both the trenches and the Second World War docks, and Christine, his wife, who ran a canteen at Portsmouth for the sailors. John told me that 1939 never meant as much to him as 1914. His brother Paul painted the Battle of Britain, the Heinkels and Spitfires like stars in the Kent sky. And so it continues, the reality and the dream.

Between services, I rake up fallen leaves, mostly from the giant oaks which stare out of the valley into the next parish. They are all in line, their roots in the everlasting stream, their tops spying Little Horkesley.

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