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Word from Wormingford

Ronald Blythe cultivates stillness

EVERY three or four years, I demolish the jungle that thrives where the old farm buildings stood: the blackberry tangles, the white-nettle stalks, the dead branches dangling in the willows, the humps of sedge which obliterate the stream. And then heaven help publishers, churchwardens, telephoners (no mobile), and all disturbers of the peace.

And it is at this moment of the year that time does its trick of being both past and present, just as it famously did for T. S. Eliot at Little Gidding, and just as it does for each of us, if only for a fraction of a second. “It seems, as one becomes older,” says Eliot, “That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence” — and the farmyard makes a nonsense of sequence as I chop it down to the old brick footings.

Of course, it may be because of the rushing of so much blood to the head as I saw and slash that it is 1704 or even 1204; or because the Beagles are all over the place, howling and tooting, or because the trees keep time without knowing it, or because the spring birdsong is the first movement of a work that at this minute doesn’t know where it is going, or because of the repetitive nature of countryside tasks, that, to quote Eliot again, old men “must be still and still moving”. This is something I have witnessed in the fields all my life.

It certainly is a pity to go indoors. There are twigs between my jersey and shirt, and in my boots, tickling away. The cat has taken refuge from the Beagles and will be in the piano. Outraged pheasants crash from thickets, and, if I listen carefully, I should be able to hear hedgers and ditchers and March ploughmen even if they are lying low in the churchyard — or even an old parson or two on their rounds. Certainly, St Andrew’s or St Peter’s and St Paul’s bells (the ringers cannot be in two churches at once), which have done duty for Catholic and Protestant alike in their time.

We say Compline in the three parishes in turn. The old churches are on their best behaviour, pretty chilly, severe, the huge moon glaring at them. We approach them warily, more not to fall over toppling tombs than to avoid our adversary, who is prowling around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. We sing, “Keep all disturbing dreams away,” and I read from Michael Ramsey’s Be Still and Know, a favourite Lenten meditation.

It is about the prayer life of Jesus and Paul, and is lucid and beautiful. Also intimate. “Resting, seeing, loving and praising,” writes the Archbishop: “these words describe not only the goal of heaven, but the message of Christianity in the world. The world has lost the way of resting, seeing, loving, praising. Swept along in ceaseless activity, the world does not pause to consider. With no resting and no considering the power to see is lost.”

I have to review a tape of Suffolk dialect for a poetry journal and sit on the study floor switching on and off, writing my criticism down, re-winding a phrase, listening for all I am worth. The familiar accent fills a room where it was heard for centuries. Here comes Robert Bloomfield’s The Farmer’s Boy; here comes George Crabbe’s grasping woman farmer; here comes a fragile song from a medieval voice. “In the end which is no end praise will be the last word” — St Augustine.
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