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Word from Wormingford

17 August 2012

Gravestones should be indecipherable, says Ronald Blythe

"FOR, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone," Brian reads, bringing me up with a start, for these are the words I had carved on John Nash's tombstone. But lichen is eating them up. Not that the artist would have minded. His gardening friend brought a great spray of blossom to his funeral, but took it back home afterwards.

These rites soon become fragmentary, these graves indecipherable. It is as it should be. Massive Georgian memorials rise from the mown grass and tell us nothing. Today's marble tells us what The Churchyards Handbook says, little more. Hart's tongue takes refuge in the crevices of a table-tomb so that the mower won't get at it.

At Little Horkesley, I meet a teenager in a crash helmet laying flowers on his father's neat mound. "He was 40," he tells me. "So young," I reply. "Yes, so young," echoes the helmet. A motorbike lolls by the hedge.

As the poets have said, a country churchyard - and in every country - is still the most contemplative spot on earth. Dust to lichen, to thought, to acceptance.

The other garden, the one with runner beans and bedraggled roses, is drying itself out. I read No Name by Wilkie Collins in it, an amazing novel, set in Aldeburgh, and a lesson to us all. The parents of Magdalen and Norah have for- gotten to change their will; so all the money goes to an uncle. Norah does nothing, but Magdalen does everything she can, fair and foul, to get it back.

It was written in a tall clapboarded house a few yards from the sea - and only a few steps from a little balconied cottage where Margery Sharp wrote The Foolish Gentlewoman. Everywhere, fugitive, compelling fiction is created. Late in the evening, I would pass Sharp's balcony and see her in the lamplight smoking a cigarette, or playing cards with her husband at a little table, the day's work done.

My day's work is far from done, and I close No Name with a jolt. Just because there is no one here to tell me, that doesn't mean that this is not the time to relax.

A long way off, the athletes have been strenuous, and the City negative. I turn to music. There was a time in this old farmhouse when if you wanted music, you had to sing a song. I put on Herbert Howells - the music he wrote for his little dead son. It is seriously beautiful, not so much sad as elatedly tragic. And profoundly English.

I look in the lectionary for what I have to say and do on Sunday. And think. It says Jeremy Taylor, Florence Nightingale, and the Blessed Virgin Mary. It says: "Take your pick." It says that the long, long Sundays of Trinity are with us at last. It says you preached on that last year. One altar candle will burn up, and the other will hardly burn at all.

But light will fall on Jane Austen's great-aunt's slab in the sanctuary. A second marriage brought her here and out of her way. Not that she would have read her niece's novels. She went too soon for that.

I plead, for the chancel-bound collection of us, God's defence, he being the author of peace.

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