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Word from Wormingford

22 April 2009

Ronald Blythe< looks at something familiar with new eyes

SHAMEFULLY, having mislaid my path in dear familiar Ipswich, I am reduced to asking directions. Three tall ancient men sunning them-selves by a wall regard me before answering. They have the thin, polished cheekbones that Suffolk males possessed before modern diet obliterated them.

One of them asks, “What would you be looking for there?” What indeed. The winner of a new literary prize should be the reply. But I mumble the name of a library. “Second right up there.” Of course.

The bliss of idleness after the statutory half-century of toil, the indescribable touch of an April sun on old skin. Country towns bring them out, these morning groups. The low murmuring of their talk is like the sound of the mining bees in the bank of my track. “Poor fool,” they will be telling each other. “Doesn’t know his way to Tavern Street.”

I had been taking Ipswich in, and discovering how fond I am of it. The Orwell coldly shining, the floor of St Mary-le-Tower glittering like a skating rink, the candy-striped market stalls, the extraordinary number of late-medieval houses, the muddling crowds, the Buttermarket, its airs and graces — all county towns have their airs and graces.

Quite a lot of what I had been seeing is what Wolsey would have seen as a boy. Anne, helping to judge the literary competition, says: “What I can’t understand is why these business types want all this money. I mean, what is the point of it?”

Why did Cardinal Wolsey want so much property, and he a priest? And he a thin Ipswich lad all fattened up to speak for the Church. “Came a cropper, didn’t he,” that old chap by the wall might have remarked. Often all that is remembered about someone is their fall.

Sloe-blossom powders my lane. Mowing, I suddenly think of the Queen singing John Mason’s wonderful “How shall I sing that Majesty Which angels do admire?” in which the poet tells God:

Thou art a sea without a shore,

A sun without a sphere;

Thy time is now and evermore,

Thy place is everywhere.

For worship, magnificent or simple, has a way of not ceasing when the service ends, but repeats itself for days afterwards. And so I am still in St Edmundsbury Cathedral, at the royal Maundy service, and the Queen is four lay canons to my right, and the Beefeaters, the Children of the Chapel Royal, and almost 1000 of us are singing this fine 17th-century hymn to Coe Fen all over again.

Its author was a strange man — ecstatic at times, but thrilling in the hymn book. And Bury, like Ipswich, was milling with crowds. And, should the sun come out, so would old men, to stand by warm walls and see what was going on, and to give directions. “All streets are theatres,” I wrote long ago. When your time comes, it could be pleasant to find where it is standing-room only.

Rape is giving the landscape its annual Midas touch. Soon it will be a yellow universe. That is where it is not a silvery-grey world, for horrible plastic preserves acres of crops from late frosts. “But there you are!” as an old friend used to say.

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