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Word from Wormingford

29 June 2010

Ronald Blythe listens to the sounds of a hot, still summer’s day

A PEERLESS summer day. A little figure, sexless at this distance, whirls an ancient haymaker around on the slope. Its click-clatter joins that of my old typewriter. Once, a pair of youthful electricians paused in their work to tell each other, “Listen, a typewriter!” Listen, I tell myself when the haymaking pauses, larks! And there they are, perhaps a couple out of sight but never beyond hear­ing.

The haymaker stacks bales in oblongs that deserve to be entered for the Turner Prize. Creamy florets of bloom cover the elder bushes, and the radio, should it slip over from music, speaks of billions. Always billions. There is trouble ahead, mark my words.

But it is summer in England; so walk in the present. The great apostles Peter and Paul, and the wary Thomas command the calen­dar. Some would have me pray for rain, but no fear! Oh, true hot June — do not dampen it. The white cat stretches under roses, talking in her sleep or possibly praising God. Who can tell?

To think that, as I speak, thousands are queuing at airports in search of the sun. It is here in the Stour Valley, heating up the willows, the water, Tom’s herd of Lincolns, church towers, and silvery acres of onions, Neolithic flints, and gravestones.

Summer nights are still. After the Red Sea had drowned his pursuers, Moses saw his enemies “as still as a stone”. This was one of the passages that Dame Diana Collins flinched from reading at Mount Bures. “Oh, poor innocent horsemen; oh, dear horses!” But Miriam danced to the timbrel. And then they all walked on to Elim, with its 12 wells and 70 palm trees, and thus to the wilderness of Sin. Where they whined and com­plained. For such is human nature.

Diana and her husband, Canon John Collins, helped to lead black South Africans out of apartheid. I would see them at Mount Bures, but with no visible evidence of their greater role. Last Sunday, walking in the churchyard, I found the grave of their hedge-cutter, a mighty man with the shears. He lies alongside his mother, who died in the act of pour­ing him a cup of tea.

Stillness is always to be sought for. It is enchanting. The great prophet Elijah, pursued by the wicked Queen Jezebel, and terrified, hears God speak in a still, small voice after listening to him in thunderous ex­pectation of his command.

These still words were Thomas Hardy’s favourite in the whole of scripture, and they are engraved on his window in Stinsford Church. The New English Bible has: “And after the fire, a low murmuring sound”, which suggests to me that the modern translator had been reading E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Caves boom, echo, distort, or tell unbearable truths. They are hollow, but not still.

At midnight, the Valley is tremulous with summer movement, and yet at the same time profoundly still. The mill pool, if you listen hard, will, now and then, faintly splash with rising fish. And sometimes a wind that you cannot hear will disturb the dragging leaves at the water’s edge, or make the corn talk dryly or the sleeping birds settle more com­fortably. A minute orchestra plays in order to create stillness. Nature’s still, small voice precedes the fire of the dawn chorus, and is worth lying awake for. Elijah went to see his suc­cessor, and found him ploughing.

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