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Word from Wormingford

23 May 2014

Ronald Blythe visits a beach where everystone tells a tale

IT HAS been one of those bursting-with-life May weeks, thus the apologetic smiles of the old friends in the obituary column of the newspaper. "We didn't mean to go in May!" A memorial service will be announced later. I see their houses, hear their voices. It will need practice to live without them. But May, when there is so much to do! The white cat has no patience with death. She chooses a warm brick wall to purr on. Nine lives, of course. But she can't count. Neither can I, for that matter. So I do my accounts for the accountant, small sums from great matters. I listen to Fauré and Britten.

The cousins from Kent turn up - "No, we have never been to Aldeburgh." So off we set to the Suffolk coast, where the temperature drops. I show them Benjamin Britten's grave. Imogen Holst's, too. There they lie in the vast churchyard, one behind the other. But these deaths are mine, and cannot be shared.

The sea glitters. It has a gravelly voice. It rakes the pebble beach. Victorian ladies, bent double, searched it for amber on Sunday afternoons. Amber comes from the Arabic for a yellowish resin that is derived from extinct conifers. Sometimes, an insect has been trapped in it, like a jewel that once ran and breathed. Amber comes from ambergris. Aldeburgh women wore hefty necklaces of this fossil. But, to me, every stone on the beach was precious - told a tale.

The North Sea rocked its flint shore about restlessly all day, all night. Yet it was full of plants. Their roots went deep, and were beyond disturbance. We went to the bookshop, of course. Aldeburgh has a great bookshop, and a great fish-and-chip shop. What more could one ask for? But, like this week's papers, it is full of the names of the departed. Walking in the churchyard is like being at a party where one needs no introduction.

The wide church is bright with polished brass and flowers. I visit the bust of the realist poet George Crabbe, and the window to Britten by John Piper, and everywhere there are memorials to my friends the Garretts.

It is an uncloudy place with everything hard and bright. All the drowned fishermen have been immortalised by oceanic movement. This is where I was taught botany, and how to walk against the wind.It was Bank Holiday, but not festive. A mild gale polished us up. In the Moot Hall I gazed on the mayoral portraits, and imagined Peter Grimes's trial - his sentence to be the borough's scapegoat on the marshes. One brave young man dived into the sea and made a splash.

Back in Wormingford, I take matins, and learn that only God can order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men, although I must love what he commands, and desire what he promises. Faith often asks this. That we should want what God offers. And then comes St James's unforgettable reminder that "Every good gift, and every perfect gift cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning." Constancy. That is the thing.

In Aldeburgh Church, I sat briefly where I sat when I was young. Rehearsals rather than the finished music filled my head, perfection not being achieved until endless practice. Britten, tireless, edgy. The ghosts of great gales and hardships. And always the marine light, the aerial version of endlessly polished flints, and a gift worth having.

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