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Word from Wormingford

07 February 2014

Ronald Blythe gets to grips with the garden, and clears the moat

THIS year's first day's gardening. Mostly mulchy raking. Robins for company, of course. Clouds like serial duvets overhead. A wintry serenity, and everything still. In the village, "We'll pay for this." What with? Being a devotee of the "now", I pass on.

I clear the gravel moat that I dug round the old house ages ago to dry it out once and for all. What a success! It is snug down under. I am reminded of my friend John Nash's delight in painting inside gravel pits and similar abandoned workings, and of his tenderness towards rusty machinery, flywheels, cogs, boilers, corrugated iron - cast-off things which once sprang into life, and which shelter below the landscape. His was, on the whole, a pre-plastic universe.

Endless snowdrops, each one so pure, so perfect. Candlemas bells was what they used to call them. The Gloire de Dijon roses will bloom from year to year without ceasing. But a good time for mud, which is everywhere. It, too, is rich, in its way.

Haphazardly, in one of those drifts of daydreams where one thing leads to another, I find myself back in Coleridge's cottage at Nether Stowey. Having just thrown a sheet over my geraniums, I am sitting in the small room where he rocked his baby son with one hand, and wrote "Frost at Midnight" with the other. He was writing as he would never write again.

His youthful friend Wordsworth, up the road, was doing the same. They were making a book, Lyrical Ballads, which would change English poetry. Walking about at night instead of in the daytime, they caused scandal. They could not pay their bills. Who were they? Call the police! So much of our greatest literature was fashioned on the hoof. Or in the extreme opposite, prison.

St Paul might not have written his Letters if he had been allowed to preach. John Bunyan's preaching was all too dangerous; so they put him in a cell to stop it. So he wrote endlessly, The Pilgrim's Progress, The Heavenly Footman, intoxicating walk-books. They were long walks through Bedfordshire.

Alan and I once followed in Bunyan's steps, and noted where he had translated his native county into a route to God. For instance, the far-off Chilterns were the Celestial Mountains; and the mansion where Bunyan had to mend the pots and pans became the House Beautiful. We stood in its tragic wreckage, imagining its music, its talk, the paintings on its walls, its flowers, its boys and girls. Its life.

I have always found ruins perfect for putting together what no longer exists. Houghton House, ruined, speaks as it never could if it was whole.

Bunyan's prison cell was close to the river where, on the bridge at curfew, a trumpet sounded to put Bedford to sleep. For him, it would suggest "the trumpets sounding on the other side" of the Lethe. Does anyone read Bunyan now? Whenever I ask, it is: "Oh, we did it for A level." Set books are necessary, but those we discover for ourselves are more important.

Our ancestors read the Bible, the Prayer Book, and Bunyan, and little else. They lived by allegory and storytelling, by what they understood to be the literal truth. Their journey was with the Comforter in The Pilgrim's Progress.

Bunyan was a strong man, who had to shoulder an anvil wherever he went. His genius was to correlate the walking Jesus with his walk to work - with everyone's walk to work. Today's Christian, no doubt, accompanies him on the commuter train. A large part of the day is in getting to the workplace; so it has to be more than this.

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