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Word from Wormingford

22 August 2014

Ronald Blythe takes in his late-summer garden, leaning on a new stick

ELEGIAC days. I have been given an ash-plant walking stick that John Masefield cut from a hedge on the Western Front. He was a medical orderly. I lean on it in the peaceful August garden. The poplars sing in hushed voices. It has gained a polish where hands have held it, and a ferrule. I try it out on the long walk, and it sends up summer dust. "Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you," Jesus said. Excellent advice.

In church we remember 4 August 1914, first silently, with Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending, and then with touches of compline. I read Rupert Brooke's "Safety" and "The Soldier". His safety lies in the indestructible heart of things. Very soon, in the same fleet as bore my teenage father to Gallipoli, a mosquito would take his life. He was 27. And here am I, old in the old garden, eating raspberries, telling tales to the white cat, thinking of what to say on Sunday.

There are celebrated dragonflies here. I forget why they are celebrated, but naturalists call on them and they sometimes enthrone themselves on my bare skin, gossamer, shimmering. "August for flying," they say. Roses tremble beneath them. "August for the people," W. H. Auden said. August for lazing, say I. I am no good at this, however, which is just as well, considering the state of my desk. But I adore the sounds of August, its orchestral winds, its midnight creaks, its loud birds, its noises off - i.e. the sound of other people's pleasures. And the splutter of my neighbour's little aeroplane as he takes a look at our valley.

They are harvesting here and there, not that anyone is interested. The most disturbing in today's farming year is the total lack of interest in the harvest. In church, Harvest Festival is a kind of apology for ignoring the fields. All is safely gathered in, the tinned peas, the outsize marrow, the magnificent flowers. And there is gratitude, of course. The appalling things we see on the evening screen make me feel lucky. And goodness itself is commonplace, or should we say ordinary?

And while we know a good deal about each other in the village, our lives are too expanded these days for us to feel that we are "observed". Think of John Clare, who had to hide away in order to write. But then writers are very odd people.

New Zealanders come to see me, and carrying gifts. They call the earth tremors there "the shakes". They are rebuilding Christchurch Cathedral, and not entirely of cardboard. The loss of the beautiful Victorian architecture four years ago brings tears to our eyes. We mention John Selwyn, who took the gospel to New Zealand, teaching himself Maori on the ship.

I tell them of my old friend Christopher Perkins, who taught at Wellington Art School, and whose work is now in the National Gallery. As a youth, I sat for him as St John, dressed in a sheet. It was for a Dorset reredos. I remember his sketchbooks, with their pages and pages of New Zealand towns and settlements, the wooden houses and tin roofs, and their sense of being far away. As far as you could go. And particularly the Scots.

They - these visitors - were on their way to Scotland, making me feel envious. It is almost the time when the Highlands' scent of heather is so seductive that it makes one long to emigrate. But the white cat says "Know your place." Which I try to.

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