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Word from Wormingford

13 March 2015

Ronald Blythe feels pity for the cold suffered by the homeless Saviour

RAW spring days. Early walkers squelch down the farm track, calling my name through the budding hedge. There is a profusion of birds and primroses. Sharp rains have hit the ploughing. Equally sharp winds tear through the trees. I might as well be bare, for all the protection of my clothes. It goes right through you, it does, as we say, year after year.

My saffron is out in force, making me think of one of the most beautiful of Essex place-names. Ancient farm lawns have flowers before grass. In March, there are muddy edges, not a stripe in sight. Blackbirds bounce about, robins take an oblique look at the world. Humanity might pause to consider a housing shortage, but every other living thing simply makes the shelter it needs. John Clare's poem "The Nightingale's Nest" is the best-observed account of this homemaking, and should be an example to us all. I once read it at a naturalist's funeral, as it seemed to embody both an earthly and a heavenly shelter.

The homeless Christ shivered during the bitter Palestinian nights, envying the snug creatures in their burrows. Young soldiers like my father, brought up on blazing views of the Empire, were nonplussed by their experiences of the Holy Land at night and at noon, unable to comprehend a temperature which could swing from Arctic to heatwave in a day. He used to say that there was nothing about this in Sunday school.

But I have always felt a pity for the homeless Saviour, and a special love for that little family of sisters and brother who took him in, listened to him, and fed him, and remembered that he was human as well as divine.

Tramps were a common experience of my Suffolk boyhood. Both men and women pushed laden prams from workhouse to workhouse. Gypsies had no part of this. Proud to the point of arrogance, they wouldn't have a house if you gave them one. They wintered in Epping Forest, or in the wilds around Norwich. Clare summed them up - he envied their freedom, and was taught to play the fiddle by them, but realised that he could never be one of them. Between him and the Romanies, a great gulf was fixed. He wrote: "'Tis thus they live - a picture to the place; a quiet, pilfering, unprotected race."

It took us a long time to distinguish tramps from Gypsies - not that they would have cared. They were at ease in the world. Walking across the fields, I would see where they had been, the ashes of a fire, the sordid evidence of a squat, the beaten grass, the human litter. And I would think of those 40 years when Israelites trekked over Sinai, and, as we said, "Joshua the son of Nun, and Caleb, the son of Jephunneh, were the only two who ever got through to the land of milk and honey." What a litter they would have left in their wake! And then - in sight of the Promised Land! Jordan!

We know a little of the baptismal river where the followers of Jesus had the old life washed away, and where "the dove descending breaks the air."

Clare's famous trek was from Epping to Northampton, with bleeding feet, some 90 miles. It would end in a lunatic asylum. But his song would never end. Everyone who loves the English countryside hears it still, and especially in springtime. It vies with that of the birds and winds, the soundless flowers, and should tune into the rural work pattern. Only, as far as I can see, nothing is done; only an April walk on a Sunday afternoon. The same feet that will hurry to the station to work will tread my track for an hour or two. "Lovely day," they call out.

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