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Word from Wormingford

16 May 2014

Ronald Blythe discusses immortality over a portion of fish and chips

CHILLY May days. Lilacs cense the mown lawns. Blackbirds do their best. Horses stay still and converse. The church smells nice. I gaze anxiously at the ashes - will they escape the plague? The oaks are in full leaf, and the Stour valley is wondrous to behold.

John and I go to the Thatchers for fish and chips, and to look at the immense view. We discuss the Etruscans to muzak, and the insatiable human need to be immemorially entombed. The Churchyard Handbook is not much help in this direction. It is generally believed that we will be remembered for 40 years after we are "gone". But the car park is full of comings and goings above the Iron Age bones. Fresh hedges are green walls, and Mount Bures' church spire thrusts into a low sky.

My existence straddles two dioceses: Chelmsford, and St Edmundsbury & Ipswich; but, since I can't drive, they are as unreachable as Rome for all practical purposes. Friends return from them with tales of wondrous singing and preaching. Long ago, I used to imagine what it must be like to live in a close where every day was a procession.

Down at the farmhouse, life is a procession of a writer and his cat. Today, the pair of us pause at the glorious sight of the vast laburnums in full bloom on the long walk. "Look thy last on all things lovely," Walter de la Mare said. Not that I feel the approach of Last Things - rather the reverse, but no one should miss May or its flowering shrubs.

I once carried an armful of lilac into my grandmother's cottage when I was a boy. Pandemonium. "Take them out - take them out!" Then, "Poor child, he doesn't know any better." She was a Suffolk countrywoman born in the 1870s, and a lover of evensong, and her existence was rich with superstitions. When she saw television for the first time, she said: "There is something I want to know: can they see us?"

Spring brings her near. It was less securely Christian than the winter, particularly Maytime. But the bumble bee trapped in the window would give her unwanted messages. Now and then, Canon Hughes would sit with her of an afternoon, on his round of old ladies, his Welsh and her Suffolk voices winding in and out for the destined half an hour.

The Blythe graves tumble about in the village churchyard, their stones hardly legible. When I took an American cousin to see them, he was indignant at the wild scene. I explained that this was the wildflower bit of the churchyard, to do with saving the planet, or something. He was not appeased.

He stared at the humps and bumps of his relations, and I remembered a poem by Thomas Hardy, in which a London churchyard was destroyed to make way for a railway terminus. Thus peasant dust from centuries past made way for our relations, and theirs would hold a name briefly - 40 years, maybe - after which the faces of the dead would vanish from memory. The youthful cousin doubted this, too.

But the immortality of certain wildflower sites - bluebells, for instance - is something I cannot doubt or rationalise. The Tudor woman Joanna Sturdy, who cast two of our bells (she took on the business after her husband died), would have seen our Arger Fen bluebells, I am sure. Anyway, the Maytime rite of going to see them is never neglected. There they are, in all their jazzy blueness and multitudinous splendour. Just where they were when we were ten.

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