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Features > Pastimes >

Word from Wormingford

Ronald Blythe imagines Saxon ploughmen tilling the fields

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IT IS NOT quite warm enough to sit outside, although here I am, reluctant to admit this. The afternoon sun appears five minutes each hour. There is no wind, just an October stillness trapped and waiting. Ash leaves sail down like perished hands. Bells ring, although from what direction it is hard to say, the river being in one of its oblique moods and carrying sounds from where it is not made.

Peter-Paul the composer is on his way. The mysterious satchel will be riding on his shoulders. Sustenance for a three-mile tramp? The latest score? I must not ask. He will be passing Wiston Mill, passing Garnons, looking about him as he does. The homeward commuters are fuming on the A12 but as yet I do not know this, living as I do in another world. A gas tanker — leaky, they think — blocks their weary way.

  The white cat teeters along a wall, piteously calling for food — anything will do — smoked salmon, cream; heaven knows that it never asks for much in exchange for being so beautiful. I finish reviewing new books about trees for the TLS, adding up the words and fixing the pages together.

Peter-Paul appears. He has a satchel on his back and big clumping shoes. He has been surprised by a heron and gratified by a buzzard. I give him cake and tea. He can’t sit on the garden chair because it has collapsed; so he squats on the doorstep and talks about music in novels, rather disapprovingly. “Why do they do it, these fiction writers, tell stories about musicians when music itself is rather beyond them?”

  I say that the characters in a quartet or a quintet, or an entire orchestra, if it comes to that, offer the novelist an enclosed group on which to work. Think of The Archers, I nearly add, but think better of it.

The first novel about music I ever read — in my teens — was Maurice Guest by the Australian writer Henry Handel Richardson, who was a woman. It was about a love affair at the Leipzig Music Academy. Suddenly remembering it, my heart stands still, as they say, and I have a huge longing to read it all over again. Is it in the house? Unfortunately, Peter-Paul has left before I can stun him with this wonderful tale. Next time.

Gordon the churchwarden arrives to collect thankful items for Harvest Festival. I supply baking pears and honey, plus the usual instructions that he, great servant of Christ, does not need. Have I any time? No. Should I turn some of my Discoed-Presteigne lecture on ploughing into a Harvest sermon? Why not?

I imagine the Wormingford fields being ploughed with Saxon bullocks, the poor animals plunging up and down our hills, the ploughmen, their legs cross-gartered, singing lost songs. Or simply swearing, the share splitting the amaranthine flints. The latter now and then edge their way up in the track, sharp as razors.

And — now I am in a fanciful mood — I see a Roman from Colchester, half a dozen miles south, and not cooped up in his wall, taking a nice walk on what was once my land, and seeing what I see: the swerve and dip of it, the unchanged contours of it, the same nip in the autumn air of it, and, of course, the pencillings made by the plough across it. And in his temple a thankful pile of sheaves to Ceres from it. His Celtic predecessors went further. They put an ear of corn on their pennies.

So now to the thankful pulpit.

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