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Word from Wormingford

13 November 2015

Seasonal melancholy blends with the sadness of war, says Ronald Blythe

A MELANCHOLY day it might be to some: the light failing, the wind rising, the fallen leaves heaping up; but I find it purposeful, and a day with a mission — to conjure up a fresh way to say the same things at the Remembrance.

The service is a kind of Georgian valediction. It is perfect as it is, and any attempt to modernise it would be ruinous, and thus the full church; for it grows in popularity, and the congregation troops a half-mile to the war memorial to hear me repeat, “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.” I think to myself: “But they would have preferred to grow old.” For who wants to die at 25, or whatever?

This heresy entered my head when I was a boy, standing by father on what was then Armistice Day, and he not long before this a teenager in the 5th Suffolks at Gallipoli. For some, it was Churchill’s worst error, and the Australians in particular suffered the most from his decision to make war on this front. Its sadness continues to penetrate the final weeks of the year.

Rupert Brooke was in the same Dardanelles-bound convey as father when an insect sting killed him. The ship pulled in to the isle of Skyros, and a band of naval ratings went ashore to dig his grave. His beauty and patriotism romanticised the beginning of the First World War, after which came the machine-gun slaughter of the trenches, poison gas, and the criticism of a very different voice, that of Wilfred Owen.

Thus, for those of my generation, the intense sadness of those now far-off days continues to mingle with the natural melancholy of the countryside, as the farm track disappears beneath a rustling ocean of mainly oak leaves.

I was taught in my youth not to level every seedhead, but to enjoy their black potency as, gaunt and febrile, they scattered next summer’s promise everywhere.

And so, once more, I read the names on the war memorials, one for each village, and a trumpeter sounds the Last Post, and Colonel Easten says: “For your tomorrow, we gave our today,” and somehow this now ancient rite acquires a living force — enough to strengthen it for another 12 months.

The grass must be mown. It grows apace. The guttering of the cat-slide roof has to be cleared out, as must the trench around the farmhouse. Sodden nettle-beds must be scythed, and the hedges trimmed. All this in a wet but warm climate. In East Anglia, snow and ice usually wait until after Christmas, although drifts and Jack Frost windows are becoming things of the past.

I doubt if the seven horses on the hill opposite have known a snowstorm; now and then the white pony kicks up her heels in a kid of skittish recognition of what, for her, must seem like perpetual summer. Walkers reach the lake and turn their maps this way and that, look through binoculars, and trudge on. They peer politely through the hedge at my house, and are both admiring and critical, maybe. For who can tell?

The house stares back, as it has done since Shakespeare’s time. It is named after John Bottengoms, c.1375. But a plaque says John Nash RA. Sometimes I imagine that I hear his little car rattling down the track, full of fishing gear, and easel, and the weekly shopping.

At this autumn moment, however, all is still; the November palette is subdued, and the birds are reduced to a dozen walking seagulls. To think, I tell myself, that you once ran everywhere! To catch the bus, to see an aunt, or for no reason at all. Now, I ask myself: “Should I take a stick?”

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