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Word from Wormingford

23 January 2015

Ronald Blythe recalls how, in a silent garden one night, he gazed at the sky

MARKET DAY. The village bus twists and turns through the lanes. On it are old folk, students, workmen, the woman who reads paperbacks all the way. There is an Italianate villa where the naval rating who helped to bury Rupert Brooke en route to Gallipoli lived; there is the hill where Martin Shaw composed "Hills of the North, rejoice". And there, across the liquid landscape, is the little house where my aunt spent her life making lace for the altar.

But, in the market town, the stone griffins on the church tower maintain their watch, seeing off goblins and foul fiends. I sense a new feeling of things not being as prosperous as they were. And, as always, faces from boyhood appear in the old street - not phantom features, but young faces grown old along with my own, especially in Waitrose.

The Epiphany proceeds. The Queen joins the Three Kings in the Chapel Royal; and in our three ancient parishes we sing and pray the journeying liturgy. Soon, we will be walking into Lent. Last midnight I wandered around the garden, staring at stars, and followed by the white cat. Stansted planes flew silently through golden clouds. An extra quietness prevailed. Snow was out of the question, and winter was no more than a name. But I checked the oil tank, and it answered with a half-full clunk.

Then came the clearing of desks for this year's work. Only not quite yet. Let January get into its stride. Hear some music. Answer letters. Remember that Keith is coming to decorate John Nash's studio, now my bedroom. He went to it every day at ten o'clock, and came down from it at four o'clock. His easel fronted a north light, and there was a single 40-watt bulb to encourage it. We never entered without permission, and he never left it without a kind of sadness. It was never swept or dusted, and cocoa-tin lids piled with ash were rarely emptied.

When he went away to fill up the sketchbooks, he cleared a space for me in which to write. But I never worked in his studio with its north light and half-light, but always in the sunshine. His pupils would enter this room with reverence, looking forward to the time when they, too, would attain its murk and hereditary litter and spiders' webs. For it takes an age to create one's own peerless dust and muddle.

I was once told the tale of Gustav Holst's reaction to the new composing room which his wife made ready for him when he was away. Glorious it was, with great windows on to the beautiful Thaxted countryside. But they said that he never wrote a note in it, and sat by the hearth in his old house, as he always did. His suite The Planets might soar to the skies, but it was created by the hearth.

Benjamin Britten worked in a window which faced the sea, and which at times was sprayed with it. But the local stationer sold postcards of the window, and, when visitors to Aldeburgh stood on the sea wall to watch him, he had to find a hiding place.

William Hazlitt, the great essayist who longed to be an artist, insisted that no one should approach an artist at work - that something sacred was happening at that moment. I once read "Kubla Khan" in the room where Coleridge had written it, rocking his baby son to sleep at the same time. Nash walks to his studio in my room every day.

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