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Word from Wormingford

22 February 2013

Ronald Blythe is used to the snow and the mud of the highlands

OLD friends in an old bedroom, having an old conversation. Thin snow outside. It is St Valentine's Day, and the Pope is resigning. Fancy that. But why not? we say, knowing nothing about it. How weary he looks. Weariness is something we understand.

Hyacinths topple and sway like censers, but we maintain our equilibrium. Like my ancient house, this ancient house stares east into a partly blocked view; for we dwell in the "Suffolk-Essex highlands", an unexpected countryside to most people. Snowy newspapers, snowy sheets. The housekeeper enters with milky coffee. Holy pictures on the walls. Then home through the churned-up mud to Bottengoms, and a further extension of the same territory.

I am judging a children's poetry competition for St Edmundsbury Cathedral. Pre-puberty poets are best. On the radio, the Poet Laureate holds forth on the Song of Solomon. Apparently, they thought twice about including this ravishing work in the canon. How glad we are that they did. The white cat sleeps on the cooker.

After lunch, I brave the winds, and cut a drain so that the water in the track can run freely. A green woodpecker comes to have a drink. Should a walker have passed, I would have said: "Spring will soon be here," or something equally brilliant, but no one comes. I rake until I cannot see. Then I go back to the poetry competition to balance the pros and cons, as a judge must. It is a solemn thing to sit in judgement.

Jean's horses tumble about beneath the catkin hedge to keep warm. The snow becomes a brief blizzard. All this on St Valentine's Day. My archaeologist neighbour calls to say that they are digging by the river - by the ring burials - and I imagine our slender ancestors chipping away at flints, and singing, maybe.

Quinquagesima has come and gone, the day they buried George Herbert. I choose his version of the 23rd Psalm for my Lent One. I hear his lute. One's religious memory has a way of retaining things that our mature beliefs can find embarrassing, or of great value, if inexplicable. At Sunday school, I faced a long framed text whose words have become lost, but whose background - a picture of boats sailing on Galilee - remains thrilling to this day. Although, even then, I knew that as art it was terrible.

Not like the medieval wall-painting in Wiston Church, below Bottengoms, in which this same scene takes place with masterly conviction. And yet, at the same time, with no great meaning. And how hard it is to get the doggerel choruses of infancy out of one's head. Memory is both a ragbag and a treasure house. It doesn't know the meaning of taste.

I remember going to D. H. Lawrence's Eastwood, and seeing the then dilapidated chapel where he attended Sunday school, and in which he had sung "Galilee, sweet Galilee, where Jesus loved so much to be" and how these words and their tune would stay unforgettable, although it was easy to rid himself of Christianity.

Paul suffered dreadfully from not being able to forget Saul. His mind had been trained to contain both the best and the worst. An honest memory is the only asset we pos- sess that can show us the self that God recognises. The Epiphany exposes us, as well as enlightens us. Sundials say "I tell only the sunny hours" because it is all that they can do. Given half a chance, our memories would do the same. But life would not be half as interesting.

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