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Word from Wormingford

01 May 2015

Ronald Blythe sings to the sound of a harp, and goes to a bluebell party

TO THE Alde Valley for its festival. The harpist accompanies evensong; the poet George Crabbe was Rector here. They say that, having drummed scripture into the members of his congregation, he would take them for a botany lesson round the parish. He wrote Peter Grimes, and could not bear to be far from the sea.

Now it is the artist Maggi Hambling who brings the Suffolk sea inland, getting up early every day to catch the incessant fall of waves upon shingle. Her sea pictures hang in the barn to create a kind of silent roar.

We all go to festival evensong in Crabbe's church, and sing harvest hymns to harp accompaniments. I was churchwarden here ages ago. It is one of the seven parishes cared for by a woman priest. Crabbe would preach until the light failed, then stand on a bench and cry "All go home."

But I am home, and still have familiar faces and windows, tombstones, and the roses I planted long ago to prove it. That remaining part of life that goes on flowering when one has moved away is present. There are sheep in the walled park, and maybe the descendants of the climbing roses on the orange bricks. The harpist plays Beethoven and harvest hymns.

Outside, the temperature drops, and fields of rape glare as the day darkens. Back home in the Stour Valley, profitable crops of this oil plant are full of sleeping animals.

We prepare for the bluebell party at Arger Fen, which naturalists believe is a fraction of the wild wood of prehistoric England. We rode there on our bikes when we were boys, gathering huge sheaves of bluebells for no sensible reason. They would trail from our handlebars all the way home. Nightingales still sing above them.

This is the nightingale's song. What would the harpist have made of it? It is in my bird book, and I quote: "A liquid tweet that's a loud tak, a soft, very short tuc, and a harsh kerr of alarm. The song is rich, loud, and musical. Each note is rapidly repeated several times; most characteristic notes are a deep bubbling chook, chook, and a long piu, piu, piu, rising to a brilliant crescendo."

It sings day and night from deep cover. It quite likes to be accompanied by a lawnmower, or a piano being played by an open window. Both John Keats and John Clare did it proud; the latter more scientifically, Keats the more tragically.

At the moment, rooks are carrying away hunks of stale bread. The white cat observes them languidly through glass, growling when their presence becomes intolerable. Birds at dinner under her very nose! And a bumble bee thundering away on the wrong side of the pane.

In church, I say the disaster prayers. All of us have heard the earthquake news. None of us is able to comprehend it. Guilt, compassion, and a sense within ourselves of an inadequacy - and even despicableness, for not being blown apart by it - returns time and time again as we go about our routines, which a small cheque does nothing to appease.

They say that Mount Everest - that sacred height - is defiled by climbers' litter. It was named after Sir George Everest, the Governor General of India during the Raj. For the local people, it was sacred; for the rest of us, it continues to be a challenge: us and our rubbish. We tend to forget its fault - that clashing of plates, those vast rifts, those many deaths.

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