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Word from Wormingford

29 May 2015

Ronald Blythe considers finishing a book, and biblical botany at the feast of Pentecost

PUTTING a finished book together is at first a formidable task, but a satisfying one. Pagination, chaptering, index, and, above all, entitling must be tackled one by one. And, of course, there has to be a dedication. There was that old bombshell - "I dedicate this book to my dear wife, without whose help it would have been finished in half the time."

I write by hand, type, then file the handwritten and typed pages, and put them in my manuscript cupboard and forget about them; for I am a fan of the present, although with a head full of the past.

It was Oliver Goldsmith who wrote best about being an author. He may have used a quill pen, not a computer, but today's writer cannot quibble with such lasting truths as, "one writer, for instance, excels at a plan or a title page, another works away on the body of a book, and a third is a dab hand at an index." How he would have adored my photocopier, on which the white cat sleeps in her unscholarly moments.

Pentecostal days. My vast trees murmur in the valley wind. Late last night, walking in the warm garden, I listened to an owl conversation, or duet. There is an Elizabethan poem about its ancestor which I am fond of, "Sweet Suffolk Owl". Even today I may see the River Stour as Owl Country. Now and then, I see them flying low; their impenetrable disc-like faces say nothing. Little Owls, Athene noctua, perch in my ancient track, creating commotion as I appear. They were introduced to England in Victorian times, and they make low mice-hunting sweeps across the dark fields.

Christopher, the New Zealand bishop's son, helps me to tie back a vast climbing rose which had escaped its constraint and tumbled to the earth. He climbs my new ladders and is perilously secure. The rose fights back. He looks at his hands and says, "It is only blood."

He lectures on photography, and we look through tattered albums. Young faces, centuries old, stare back at us, beautiful women, sturdy youths, and elegant folk in frock coats and huge coats. Or naked in the river and obviously immortal. Christopher ties the rose to the wall with special knots that the Scouts taught him, and he is lost in budding flowers. I stand on the bottom rung, steadying everything, I like to think, but nearly gesturing. I remain useless until I make the tea.

In church, I read 1 Peter 1. It is about being born again, clarified, made new in Christ. And there is that exquisite verse in the burial service, "For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away. But the Word of the Lord endureth for ever."

As a naturalist, I know that grass seed falls and grows all over again. But biblical botany has to offer a different text. And I never forget my childhood flower letters in the encyclopaedia at the back of my Bible, tucked away with colourful maps of the Holy Land, and the Roman Empire; the meaning of names and dates were a wonderful escape route from sermons.

The only sermon I can remember at this devout time was in a Suffolk church, half-empty after Christmas, when a retired bishop, his enormous sleeves billowing on the pulpit-ledge, spoke on the Good Samaritan, with fluency and love. There was a death-like cistern in the church, which made a sound like the Pentecostal flames, as they wavered about the heads of a new Church, and which made everything mysterious.

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