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Word from Wormingford

30 May 2014

Ronald Blythe travels to the place 'where prayer has been valid'

TO LITTLE GIDDING, the three of us. "You would find the hedges White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness." And, of course, we did.

Long ago, I attended T. S. Eliot's memorial service in Westminster Abbey, and heard Sir Alec Guinness read this third Quartet from the pulpit. It was written during the Blitz, and that fiery turmoil could not have been further away than pensive Huntingdonshire. My aunt Daisy Upjohn lived there. So did red kites.

It remains a county of non-emphatic things, such as the unlisted flower that my botanist friend, Stephen Garrett, found in a dried-up pond. It was a long drive by track and motorway. And there was the dull façade, which I have never found dull at all, and the bumpy evidence of human presence in the grass, and of God's presence everywhere. You can see for miles.

The hospitality of plainness is what is offered - is what the little king was offered. And how strange for him to be in Cromwell-land! Where the entire book of Psalms was recited daily. Now and then, I have sat in the chapel and thought I could still hear the holy drone.

The east window once contained a rarely depicted Joseph of Arimathaea, but now it frames greening trees, which wave against the glass. The seating is collegiate, the east end, font, and commandments enduring brass. Outside, John Ferrar's tomb tilts. I want to stay for hours, but our hired car must be returned by six, and so we join the workers on their way home, we and the red kites. Pilgrimages are like this. An effort, a prayer, a conclusion.

Back home, the white cat sits where we left her, on the disintegrating brick wall. Ivies and moss hold it together. She always waits until the sun warms it up. She meets us with restrained joy, and a lively appetite; a holy animal. Adrian comes to cut the grass.

I remember having dinner in London with Valerie, Eliot's widow. It has been pouring with rain, and when she takes her coat off she is covered with - sapphires.

"Mrs Eliot!" I say.

"Cats, dear," she explains. A homely Yorkshire woman.

In "A Dedication to my Wife", Eliot wrote:

To whom I owe the leaping delight
That quickens my senses in our wakingtime.

There are photos of them, not young, not old, smiling into the camera. I never asked if she had been to Little Gidding. I said I knew Yorkshire, a little. An American publisher and his wife were giving us dinner at the Dorchester. It was all so unlikely, yet happening. Like life itself.

I watched the last train to Suffolk make its drenched way. The night was light. Rainwater streamed down the carriage window. Footballers got out here and there. I felt wide awake, too. And now, all these years later, I can't remember what we said or what we ate. Just damp clothes and sapphires in a London hotel, and a generous American publisher helping us on with our coats. "It was before your time," I tell the white cat. Although she is no spring chicken. How beautiful she is, how perfect.

In my T. S. Eliot poems, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats is sandwiched between Four Quartets and Murder in the Cathedral. I expect he decreed this. The wills of poets are adamant - famously, where Valerie was concerned. Solicitors, too, follow instructions. But writers tend to lose the way, going off at a tangent, chasing hares. Dreaming. Trying to think of what somebody said 40 years ago, and not of sapphires in the rain.

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