*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

Word from Wormingford

by
05 October 2012

Ronald Blythe looks back over a past fond friendship

AS I SORT papers for the British Library, a toppling pile of letters from Cornwall says something like: "We dare you to read us; for here is your early self." They are from the poet and novelist James Turner, my first writer-friend, mentor, and, I suppose, hero. He looked unheroic in his indeterminate tweeds, and with his bonfire of a pipe.

He and his wife, Cathy, had moved from Suffolk to Cornwall in the 1950s, thus this huge correspondence. He wrote in a gothic hand or on a gothic typewriter. Publishers fell before him. Critics were consigned to hell. My own work was put through the mill. But he never lost his power over us, the youthful group of artists and writers he had left behind in East Anglia; and, once a year, whether at Christmas or in summer, I would take the blissful Penzance train to stay with him in a series of stone houses near the Atlantic Ocean.

So I began to re-read the answers to my letters. They would end abruptly in May 1975, when I once again travelled west, but to a funeral. Alone but for the youthful rector, I took James to Truro to be cremated. I read his poems in St Teach's. All the way - about 30 miles, and in an early heatwave - I saw signposts pointing to our walks, the Cheesewring, St Juliot - where Thomas Hardy courted his wife, and where, bewilderingly, after her death (for their marriage sounds to us anything but happy), he set some of the greatest love poems in the language - to slate-floored pubs, where we talked books by the hour, and where he urged me to leave "cold old East Anglia and to come west".

Thus the day passed with little getting done. I had forgotten how cross he could get. People who had long dropped out of sight re-entered the present. So busy were we with them that it is a wonder either of us got anything done. James broadcast from Plymouth on gardening. He wrote self-confessed thrillers to finance his poetry; he made the usual freelance living.

In my early 20s, he and I read Herbert in Suffolk churches. His voice was perfect for this. And my favourite photo of him is where he sits in a deckchair, holding the works of Thomas Traherne. "Take something from the library to remember him," Cathy said. So I took this.

His Anglicanism was '20s Lancing Chapel, plus Herbert and Traherne, plus a certain chilliness. We always seemed to kneel in the dampest corner of a church for the eight-o'clock communion, which in Cornwall was frigid. He needed to get away before "all them" - the 11-o'clock congregation - appeared.

He had tuberculosis, which his wife called bronchitis just to soften it a bit. He thought that tobacco did it good. He typed away in what I thought in those days was a nice smelly fog. They were psychics, and when they moved house they needed or looked for a good haunting as the rest of us required good plumbing.

Two close friends could not have been less alike. Yet this letter-hoard is proof of our devotion. His wild romanticism also required that I placed his ashes beneath a rock on Bodmin Moor.

"Don't throw them into the wind," they advised, "or you will find some of them in your turn-ups."

 

 

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear alongside your letter.

Church Times: about us

The Church Times Podcast

Interviews and news analysis from the Church Times team. Listen to this week’s episode online

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)