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Word from Wormingford

15 November 2013

For Ronald Blythe, a photo brings to mind his father, a soldier

REMEMBRANCE Sunday. The old chaps - I include myself - come to sing "I vow to thee, my country". The church aches with Georgian sadness. Medals glitter. Memory holds the door. In the pulpit, I repeat myself unashamedly; for we all like to sing and hear what we have heard and sung before. The November day, too, is carefully unoriginal. I doubt if anyone present can put a face to the names on the war memorial.

Jesus was against looking back: "Remember Lot's wife!" And, beautifully: "The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, lest the darkness overtake you; he who walks in darkness does not know where he goes."

The victims of the First World War certainly hadn't a clue where they were going, Father included, a teenager at Gallipoli. From a Suffolk farm - to this! He stares at me from the piano, a boy who had never heard the news; for the East Anglian Daily Times merely added to the mystery.

I say the names on the war memorial yet once more. Then mount the pulpit to read the whole of "They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old." Laurence Binyon wrote it almost before anyone had been killed, in September 1914. He was a middle-aged librarian who would have been amazed to know that a verse from his poem would be quoted in every church in Britain once a year. Later, we all fill the pub, glad to be alive. Conkers glisten in the churchyard grass.

The Westminster Abbey librarian Laurence Tanner once showed me the letters from George V about burying an unknown soldier just inside the great west door. And what a business it was to find a spot that had not been buried in before. The Great War will soon be a century ago. Re-reading Ted Hughes's translation of Beowulf, I thought that, although war should not become poetry, it does. And none more so than the Great War, in which millions lost their one and only life.

Mark's Gospel describes Christ's almost logical acceptance of war: "When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. . ."

But I am alarmed at what seems to be a human realistic acceptance of, say, the trenches to come. On Remembrance Sunday they are bathed in the lovely language. Their disgrace is silenced by poetry and music.

This year, we have the added reminiscence of real Paul Nash trees, the recent gale having lopped off branches along the lane. Wind-torn trees look as wounded as shelled trees. Splintered boughs are uncannily like fractured bones. Chainsaws whine in the distance, one while we sing Isaac Watts's "O God, our help in ages past", that perfect commentary on Time.

I put the garden straight, pick grapes, pick up pears, chide the white cat for watching me through a window and never in all his life doing a stroke, and breathe in the nice rottenness of autumn.

I suppose the young labourers on the First World War memorial must have tramped to Bottengoms to tidy up after a storm. So many hands then. So few shillings. And one of the same pear trees. And endless sticks and logs for the fire. And the cool stream running to the river on and on without a break. Constant movement, endless stillness. And those brief lives on the war memorial. . .

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