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Word from Wormingford

25 January 2011

Ronald Blythe’s vision is tested, and is not found wanting

I AM at the optician’s. We sit in a shop window, in various degrees of darkness and light. We are being framed at vast expense, or, in my case, being updated. We go to tiny rooms, and read the chart. The optician, who is about 25, won’t have to do this for donkey’s years. He has lustrous eyes, like a Gainsborough portrait.

The black discs drop in and out; the giant letters dwindle to nothing­ness. “What do you see?” What a question. He cleans my old specs, to my shame. “Your sight hasn’t changed much.”

About four feet below us runs the road along which the Emperor Claudius was driven to his temple, where he would be made a god. But I am in the optician’s chair, not the barber’s chair, and I must not distract his attention with this kind of local information. So I sit, stock-still, as the letters diminish, tumble about, tell him things about me which I will never know.

I think of the Revd Patrick Brontë having his cataracts removed with a knife. Charlotte held his hand. The bandages were removed after a month’s blindfold, and, glory to God, he could see. She began to write Jane Eyre in the lodgings, while all the time there lurked the terrible possibility of sightlessness for the rest of his days. The Manchester life clattered below. I wait for the bill. My expert sight-giver says, “Next.”

The old high street is drab. The cuts are having their effect. Sale, sale, sale — but no customers. The bravura town hall is white in the afternoon sun. St Helena, clasping the True Cross, stands on top of it. She was Romano-British and the mother of Constantine. Is she the patron saint of archaeologists?

She would remember morning coffee in the restaurants below, the dressed shop windows, the departed elegance, the public library service — marvellous, this — and the gentlemen-only bar at the Red Lion, where a Manet-like lady kept a roar­ing fire. All gone, all gone.

Should the cuts come within a stone’s throw of our public libraries, let us all cry out. Increasingly, the Government seems to have its eye so firmly fixed on the red that it can no longer see the wealth on the opposite page. The young never-employed — through no fault of their own — laugh in doorways. The regiment from the barracks is in Afghanistan.

I write in the mornings; that is, when I am not in one or other of my market towns, seeing economic sights and visiting their fine public libraries; and I pull the garden round after lunch, so that the bulbs won’t be put to shame in a week or two.

Frost has broached one of the springs that everlastingly bubble beneath the Big Field, and a spark­ling new stream finds its way to the Stour. Alas, this cannot go on. My head turns to hardcore, to fill-in, or whatever. This year and wherever, water thinks that it can do what it likes.

How the robins sing! How the catkins shake! How once more that vengeful man on the Damascus road hoves into view with his list of vic­tims. And that “Why are you doing this?” — a question we all might ask ourselves. And then that blinding stab of the Epiphany light, and the subsequent helplessness. Then the turnaround.

I de-mulch the snowdrops.

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