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Word from Wormingford

14 November 2014

Knees attract Ronald Blythe's attention after a craftsman's visit

JESUS, Peter, Paul, and Stephen all knelt to pray. "Strengthen the feeble knees," Job prays. Now and then in scripture there are apologies for not being able to kneel down. The great novelist Henry James suffered agonies from what was lightly called writer's cramp, but when his brother William fixed him up with a typewriter - and someone who could work it - his readers were not at all pleased. Dictation had ruined his famous style. He soon found a new one, however.

But arthritis was a common hazard, and was given dismissive names - tennis elbow, the screws, etc. A craftsman from Norfolk arrived to relay my 18th-century brick floor, a large, kneeling, skilful man, who smoothed the original underlying sand and chalk tenderly before resetting the slender tiles, wiping them with a mite of wax and leaving them with little sign of generations of hobnailed boots, something that he had done since he was 15. He wore leather knee-caps. "Yes," he admitted, "my knees are killing me!" Like Job, he was submissive.

People once hid occupational aches and pains for as long as they could. Anything to stay out of the workhouse. No longer able to follow his trade, John Clare's father sat on a bank, chipping stones to surface the lane.

And now, a brilliant writer told stories to James's secretary, a young Scot who was a shorthand-typist. It was the first time that he had worked with another person sitting beside him, and with a clatter, not a noiseless nib. Visitors glance at my Olympia typewriter with alarm, and then at shelves of books with some respect. And carbons? They think of Caxton.

The leaves are sailing by at quite a rate; the November sun is warm. The white cat picks her way through the debris, and the horses discuss the climate on the hill. None of these animals have done a day's work in their lives. Now and then, they are engulfed in gulls. I am engulfed in digging up a little apple-tree from where it has seeded itself by the front door, to put it in the orchard. I rock it gently, loosening its roots. Like us, plants must breathe and grow. Inside, the dreaded filing awaits. Oh, for James's saviour. I remember an ancient joke: the typist returns with the letter and tells her boss: "I couldn't spell psychology; so I drew it."

A talk on the radio accidentally chimes with James. I am back in New York with the London plane-leaves whirling by, and the windy city is "blowing your head off". It is one of the world's best walking cities where one can step it out. Life, that is. It is mathematical. No wonder Americans find European towns bewildering and illogical. And the way in which we prop up clearly done-for old buildings instead of pulling them down! They shake their heads. Just imagine what London would look like had it not been for the great fire.

At this moment, I am thinking of what it looks like now, particularly in the parks, on this lovely November morning, and from the top of a bus, maybe. Lunch on the steps of St Paul's. Evensong for the few at four. Golden Bath stone, townie pigeons, the Thames a Turner.

Writers are often allowed a memory like a haversack, a pile of unsorted experiences from which they can pull out something to suit the day. We are asked to remember William Temple. Short-lived, alas. St Leonard, too, who was a hermit. These lives flutter in my head and need anchorage. In our churchyard, the stripped trees are rooted in the dead, but full of life.

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