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Features > Pastimes >

Word from Wormingford

Ronald Blythe recalls a youthful encounter with a philosopher

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LONG ago, I worked in a wonderful library. It contained not only the usual stock of reference books and what was called the Local Collection, but a kind of Gentleman’s Library from the 18th century, and Arch­bishop Samuel Harsnett’s Library, an eclectic selection of books, among which was The Consolation of Philo­sophy by Boethius which Chaucer had translated and Caxton had published.

As a young man, I was mesmer­ised by this beautiful work. It lived in a safe, and was wrapped up in a yellowing copy of The Times, and I handled it gently without white cotton gloves. Like some of St Paul’s Letters, Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, and Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, it is among the great prison-writings, many of which would not have been written out of prison.

It came to mind the other Sunday morning when, getting ready to take matins, I heard John Gray being philosophical on the radio. He men­tioned Michel de Montaigne, of course. And, suddenly, with philo­sophy in the air, everything became, if not possible, endurable. Children should be taught philosophy at an early age. The old should take to it like honey. Politicians should not only never be without it, but able to speak it.

And then there is this marvellous word “console”. “O divine Master,” begged St Francis of Assisi, “grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be under­stood as to understand, to be loved as to love.”

At this moment, I am being con­soled by Jim Ede, who knocked together a row of Cambridge cot­tages and turned them into a perfect art gallery. You ring the bell to enter. Ede sleeps in the shade of a little hilltop redundant church near by, keeping his eye on the Alfred Wal­lises.

Kettle’s Yard is a perfect exercise in modesty, of what one person required in paintings and drawings. The artists who made them were pushing against the limits of their day, and were visionary, or looking ahead. But now we look back on them, and with such gratitude.

Antony and I pass quietly over the brick floors as scudding showers and lances of occasional sunshine break against Ede’s windows, looking at everything he found necessary by way of art: the Christopher Woods, the Winifred Nicholsons, the Gaudier-Brzeskas, and, of course, a whole fleet of rocking Cornish boats by Alfred Wallis. The pictures are unlabelled; so the visitor, unless he or she reverts to the little guide­book, has to go by pure recognition.

And then, home, to similar brick floors and casements, small treasures and simplicities. And to finding out who Harsnett was — he who added to his mostly Reforma­tion library a sixth-century volume, The Consolation of Philosophy.

Well, he was a High Churchman, who, in 1628, followed George Montaigne as Archbishop of York, a scholar (and somewhat difficult priest) who loved beauty in worship, and who at that time needed all the philosophy he could get. And who left all his books to his native town, Colchester, so that a 21-year-old could browse among them.

I see him reading Boethius, and being brought to a halt by sentences such as this: “In every adversity of fortune, to have been happy is the most unhappy kind of misfortune.” Not only Caxton, but Elizabeth I translated this wry masterpiece.

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