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Word from Wormingford

03 October 2014

Ronald Blythe takes Virginia Woolf down from the shelf

A PENSIVE morning. Adrian is mowing the grass, up and down, round and round. The white cat watches from her wall. The postman crashes along the farm track; the horses gossip on the hill. The brook splashes to the Stour. The sky is colourless. Wild geese flow over in echelon and outriders, whirring away.

The radio becomes alive - somebody is talking about Virginia Woolf, and jogs my brain. The friend who is showing me Sussex slows down, and there, on the left, is Monk's House. Hesitantly, for Leonard Woolf has been dead only a month, we steal through the gate and stare into the window.

A long table and a chair initialled "VW", half-opened parcels, pot plants wilting, dumpy cretonned chairs, a fadedness such as rooms get when everyone has departed. And near by is the lane to the river. I thought of Virginia filling her pockets with stones before she reached it.

Her passing has always been summed up for me by Sidney Keyes, who was killed in the Western Desert:

Over that head, those small distinguished bones
Hurry, young river, guard their privacy;
Too common, by her grave the willow leans
And trails its foliage fittingly.

Except they buried her under the garden elms, and they, too, were dying as we shut the garden gate. Her guests were long gone: Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, Morgan Forster, Maynard Keynes, her husband, Leonard, the servants who sang, the whole Bloomsbury nation.

But when I find my copy of The Waves, although a stream of press-cuttings pours on to the floor, the novel itself flows on in all its careful beauty. It was a 1947 Christmas present. I re-read a few pages. Surprisingly - I had forgotten - the story begins in Suffolk, but soon wanders up to Virginia's beloved London, each character coming to the front of the stage, as it were, and presenting himself. The writing is spare, yet filled to the brim because of what it suggests.

But it won't do, just after breakfast. Chores await; letters beg replies; the telephone which had broken down has been invisibly mended. Calls come in. Had I forgotten? You were going to tell us about Laurie Lee. Black coffee and dark chocolate. And matins on Sunday for St Matthew.

He was old moneybags in the old windows, a crudely attributed apostle. His was the most despised of all occupations, a Jew who not only collected the Temple tax, but also that which his nation had to pay to the Roman Empire. He had actually purchased the right to collect it. And here was Jesus, associating with such a person. How could he! Even his reply - "It is the sick who need the doctor" - failed to satisfy them.

And it could not have been welcome to Peter, Andrew, James, and John when the Lord invited Matthew to join the little group, and it would have taken some time for them to accept him, let alone love him. He was "called" in Chapter 9 of his Gospel. Jesus had been on one of his healing walks and sails, "and as he passed from thence he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the seat of custom, and he said, 'Follow me.' And he arose and followed him."

No giving notice to the Romans. No selling his converted licence to another would-be publican. No hesitation. "He arose and followed him." Matthew and his Gospel and fascinating examples of renewal. Autumn feeds renewal. Decay nourishes life.

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