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Word from Wormingford

26 July 2013

Ronald Blythe enjoys a traffic-free silence, and a clock's ticking

CATCHING Thomas Hardy's name on the News - something about building opposite Max Gate - returned me to Dorchester. I had been helping to edit the New Wessex Edition of his works, and the kind woman who now lived in the great writer's house invited me to see it. Others, including Virginia Woolf, had seen fit to mock it, but I found it perfect.

Few houses had been so adequately designed to contain a literary spirit. Hardy's brother had built it for him, unearthing Roman graves in the process. Tess and all the other great novels drew sightseers to it from the very start; so a barrier of conifers was planted to hide it. Conifers, being what they are, did more than what was required of them, creating a sadness; and Hardy would sometimes stand at the iron gate in the evening, longing for a visitor.

But what particularly enthralled me, as I was taken from polished room to polished room, was the quiet contained time of their clocks. I was taken back to my childhood in Suffolk, where there were old houses without radios, only the tick-tock of a fine clock. No other sound. And, of course, in Hardy's case, and in such a modest dwelling, the chatter and singing of servants. He wrote The Dynasts to their merriment as they played ring-board below.

Bottengoms Farm is lucky to hear church bells, and fortunate to exist beyond traffic. The great heat has revved up the dawn chorus. With the windows wide at five in the morning, I listen to a full orchestra. Then, suddenly, it stops. There is silence except for the ticking of a clock, measured: a many-wheeled heartbeat to tell that the ancient interior still breathes. Now and then an old beam catches its breath, and there is a sharp retort. A momentarily trapped bird beats against the glass; a butterfly wanders on a wall.

Giving my annual lecture to the John Clare Society, I tell it my favourite time chestnut. Dumas rushes from his study to cry "I have finished The Three Musketeers!"

"But dinner won't be ready for another hour," his wife says.

So he goes back in and starts The Black Tulip.

But, as the Preacher says, there is a time for everything. How I love it when he tells me that "a dream cometh through a multitude of business." The heatwave will have them nodding in the City, and wilting in white shirts. The Wren churches will be cool, the Thames on the boil. The cars will be burning; the pigeons will seek fountains. My aspens, like Hardy's firs, present a forest to the sun. And a whispering concerto to me.

I lie below them, putting on a show of "business", but dreaming away. I have to preach to the Readers at the Cathedral, but not until Saturday; and to the parish, but not until Sunday. For every service there is a season.

The white cat stirs in the cool grass. For every noon, there is Whiskas. For every late July, there is Jonathan to cut the track, to fell the tall grasses and thistles, and to slice off the rise between the ruts. In July, I am ceaselessly letting myself out, as it were.

Not that, like Hardy, I fenced myself in, for I have done little or no planting. My growth simply comes up of its own accord, and to its own luxurious timing. Every summer without fail for centuries, creating luxuriance, idleness, and this heavy silence. What business has work at such a moment? But I must prop the tomatoes up. I have to make what Solomon called a dinner of herbs.

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