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Word from Wormingford

by
17 October 2014

Ronald Blythe retreats indoors as a downpour batters the house

THE classic rainy day: the sky a liquid colourlessness, the trees drenching sieves, the farm track a river, the fields just dull and wet. The old labourers "saved" for such a day because, unable to work, they would not be paid. Four horses soak it up, the streaming day; whether indifferent to it or enjoying it, who knows?

Cocooned in the old house, I have to settle down to it as it rattles the windows and surges through the guttering. Field-wise, it could not have come at a better time. October was dry as a biscuit, and the dusty winter wheat had been aching for a shower; but this downpour! It is not unlike Australian rain. One minute I was baking, the next drowning. No point in running for shelter. In any case, it had been thrilling: the heat suddenly all washed away, and oneself as wet as a surfer.

The Duke of Norfolk's magnificent tomb in Framlingham Church has a Genesis frieze that includes Noah's Ark. Benjamin Britten liked to take children to see it. He turned it into one of his Church Parables, Noyes Fludde, with a marvellous setting of "Eternal Father, strong to save". I remember singing it for the first time in Orford Church, long ago. William Whiting wrote it for Hymns Ancient and Modern, in 1860. Britten's version is heartbreakingly plaintive, slow, and sumptuous.

He would have seen the memorial to a Victorian crew in Aldeburgh churchyard, and would have more than once witnessed the lifeboatmen launching their new boat to rescue some vessel, maybe some holiday yacht that had not understood the North Sea's power: from being leisurely, it had become imperious, throwing craft and men about like toys. We lesser mortals watched. Watching is a coastal profession. Also a Christian imperative.

St Matthew reports Jesus as saying: "When it is evening, you say, 'It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.' And, in the morning, 'It will be stormy today; for the sky is red and threatening.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given it except the sign of Jonah."

Jesus refers to this sign more than once; so what is it? That he will be returned to life and not swallowed up? The island nature of Britain has given its Christianity a flood-based imagery. They say that our coast may have lost three miles in a thousand years. Certainly, its dwellers spent much of that time keeping the sea out. But the inlanders would not have noticed, or minded - and in many cases would never have seen the sea.

Those who lived by it were farmers and fishermen by turn. Some were marshmen, and a different breed altogether. Think of Peter Grimes. There cannot be many sea views framed in a Gothic arch as at Aldeburgh. It is how it first presents itself to the traveller to this town. The road to it once ran through the arch like a grand canopy. Or saw it as a divine approach to sea wealth or sea desolation. The great sea poet George Crabbe's severe parents lie beside it.

Like St Luke, Crabbe was a medical man and a voyager. Or, rather, the voice of those whose business was in deep waters. Both scientifically and spiritually, he took its measure. Luke's Acts of the Apostles set the lakeside faith sailing through the centuries, finding harbour here and there, but then restlessly taking to open water. The Aldeburgh fishermen meditate (chat) by their boats by the hour.

 

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