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Word from Wormingford

01 August 2014

Ronald Blythe always wanted to be alone - and now, in a way, he is

WHEN, giving a hostage to fortune, I recklessly announce that I do not take holidays, meaning that I don't have a fortnight in Spain, or Felixstowe, the reply is: "But your life is all holiday!" So much for the years at the desk.

This country was all holy days until the Reformation, after which you were lucky to get time off for Christmas. Bank Holidays began in 1871, when banks were closed for one day a year. In Thomas Hardy's novels, you got a day off only if some minor mishap - a whitlow on your finger - prevented your working - although, in the old half-dreaming, hard-working countryside, skiving was an honourable art.

As a boy, I would vanish into the long grass, so to speak, to read and escape jobs. As country children, we had our jobs, and mine included milking goats, running errands, and looking after small brothers. I longed to be alone, like Greta Garbo. And now I am - alone with three parishes.

Their wants are part of my happiness, something that puzzles my friends. I have long stopped worrying about repeating myself when I talk to them Sunday after Sunday. Sometimes I read to them, sometimes I teach them. The lesson-readers take such trouble. I could listen to some of them by the hour.

It is Isaiah now, peerless prophet. And a lengthy one, thank goodness. He flourished, as they say, in the eighth century BC. And what a writer! His wonderful book begins with human desolation, and ends with the new heavens and the new earth. His God tells him: "Be glad, and rejoice for ever in my creation."

"I know I should be happy, if in the world I stay," we sang in Sunday school. Not, of course, on the News, which is as unhappy as journalists can make it: a sad entertainment on the hour. But human nature's balancing propensities defeat such expert gloom, certainly when the sun shines as it does at this moment, hotting up the roof tiles, and driving the white cat under the sheltering leaves.

I am re-reading Virginia Woolf's The Waves. "The sun struck straight upon the house, making the white walls glare between the dark windows. Their panes, woven thickly with green branches, held circles of impenetrable darkness.

"Sharp wedges of light lay upon the window sill and showed inside the room plates with blue rims, cups with curved handles, the bulge of a great bowl, the criss-cross pattern in the rug, and the formidable corners and lines of cabinets and bookcases." Just as now, this minute. Nothing need be changed in the description. The virtue of such writing is to show us all over again the beauty of the ordinary, the commonplace.

Washing dries between two plum trees. The postman rattles down the stony track. But fewer walkers than in days gone by. It has been a public road since Alfred the Great or John Bottengomes, c.1375. It tilts towards the River Stour, with pastures on one side and crops on the other. I know its every flint. They shine in the July sun, just as they do in the spring rain.

The summer birds sing, but I am bad on birdsong, try as I might to identify it. "But that's a goldcrest," the old friend tells me, although it will merge into "birdsong" the minute she leaves.

The Old Testament is terrible on natural history. I learnt some of mine reading the Palestinian information at the back of my Bible during sermons. This when I was a child. I am all attention now, of course. But the summer does make one drift off. It is partly what it is for - meditation.

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