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Word from Wormingford

19 January 2011

Ronald Blythe toils at his desk, but is aware of changes outdoors

POTHOLES have appeared in the track, and along the lanes. I re­member how shocked I was to bump over them in Manhattan. Snow and ice, and now rain, have achieved their sieve-like purpose.

Not to mention the last-minute descent of the oak leaves, which until yesterday blocked my winter river. Toiling in the half-light, banking the sludge, I freed the flow. Robins and wheatears helped. It was warm, almost sultry, and I liked to think that I could smell the spring. Not a soul about, the afternoon sky black and streaky gold, the silence medita­tive.

Then, hours at my desk. I am putting 30 years of John Clare essays into a book. The wonderful poet of the fields looks up at me, saying: “Is this right? Are you sure?” The 30th essay has yet to be written. What more can I say? I may call the book “At Helpston”. Titles are so commit­ting. I have seen his birthplace only in summer, and have to take his word for what it looks like in January. Taking a writer’s word is the least one can do.

A Helpston friend gave me his asylum photo for Christmas. It was taken by Mr Winter from Derby, in 1862, two years before his subject died. I see the photographer floating the plate in his darkroom, and the wary smile surfacing. Clare’s eyes are youthful behind the cotton-wool brows, and his forehead rises like the Alps. He is challenging the lens to capture his likeness — holding back on it, as it were, as we sometimes do.

On Monday, we all went to St Mary the Virgin, in Dedham, to wel­come the new Bishop of Chelmsford to our deanery. “There is nothing at Dedham to hurt the eye” (Pevsner).

The Bishop’s name is Stephen, and his being held up by a crash on the A12 allowed me to renew my acquaintance with memorials that shower the walls. His advice to us was to “go forth” and not to hide away in our beautiful, and now comfortable, buildings. Take your purse and scrip, buy a sword, and then go forth.

Being the age many of us are, we have gone forth and returned home. Nevertheless, old evangels have their uses; so no excuses. This is the last message to the Dedham and Tey deanery before it is merged into Colchester. But Dedham Church — what a marvel! The clothiers built it immediately before the Reforma­tion — just got it done before the new direction. The grandeur of it! The forest of oaks, the seams of stone, the furlongs of glass in it. And, just ahead of me, a local grammar-school boy named John Constable. He cer­tainly went forth.

People who garden long to do it in January. They know it is foolish, but the ache is there — to make a start. Plants themselves, once you get close to them, deny that there is nothing doing. Everything is doing. Rest itself is a kind of doing. It is something I assure my lazy self. And when I hear friends confess to their not rising until eight “because it is still dark”, I am shocked.

In one of Clare’s poems, a father forces his teenage son out into the snow to feed the animals while he turns over, so to speak. The boy whistles, blows his fingers, calls. In Helpston, the young go forth with a song. What else can they do?

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