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Word from Wormingford

06 February 2015

Ronald Blythe reflects on those whom we live and travel with

"I THINK I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained," the American poet Walt Whitman wrote. And placid was a word for the English countryside which John Constable loved.

Having seen it in riot when the farmworkers rose against their starvation wages, with rick-burnings and protest, he looked back at the peaceful Suffolk scenes of his boyhood when they were called peasants, and there seemed to be a God-given order between the classes.

Some years ago, when I was staying with my brother in New South Wales, we drove along the shore of Botany Bay, and we spoke of all the poor people, men and women, who had been shipped there from our own Suffolk world on the hulks that had brought African slaves to Bristol. Such journeys were equivalent to a flight to the moon.

Meanwhile, on my right in the plane sat a fault-finding woman for whom nothing was right. "Isn't it amazing that we can now cross the world in a day," I said. She looked at me as if she was about to report a lunatic. So I went on reading Barbara Pym, and looking out of the window. What she wanted was an ally, but I sank myself in the passing clouds, and said no more.

Literature is filled with dreaded fellow-travellers. Now and then they are prophetic. Returning to London from Suffolk, John Constable said "How do you do?" to the person sitting opposite, remarking on the beauty of the countryside, who answered, "Yes, sir. We call it the Constable country."

On the whole, I like looking out of the window in trains, especially en route to Cornwall, which once took five enchanted hours from Paddington. Or en route to Edinburgh, looking up especially at Durham on its mighty rock, and then across the sands to Lindisfarne, seeing saints all the way.

Walkers past my farmhouse are quite an event, and a human voice is a rarity. But the great trees - ashes, chestnuts, fruit trees - are already begin to sound with birds. February is upon them, a miserable month in books, but far from it during our current seasons.

The trouble with those popular poems of the seasons is that they no longer say what is happening now. Certainly, almost none of the traditional tasks. In fact, living in what must have been for hundreds of years a "tay", or "tigh" (Suffolk-Essex border language for some stranded farm), I often feel the landscape itself asking to be ploughed and sown when the green tips are a mere hint on the trees.

But the bulbs are up, thousands of them, and have certainly gone forth and multiplied. So now there has to be the last great clear-up, the final raking of the grass, the first tidying of the beds, the noting of the dead among the living, and, best of all, the promise ahead.

Unimaginably, Lent is in the offing. Sometimes, I think how relaxing it would be to live near a cathedral, and to have the Church's year all worked out, beautifully and professionally, and laid before me, although our parish magazines present each village with its distinct personality and liturgy almost miraculously, and fine creatures as well as fine folk are liveable-with in all three.

"Where am I on Sunday?" I sometimes ask. Where, indeed? At this moment, having held back for as long as it dare, the sleet rattles down in frozen rain-rods.

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