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Word from Wormingford

11 March 2016

Ronald Blythe wonders how railway commuters pass the time

SUMMER afternoon, summer afternoon — Henry James’s favourite words in the English language. Only it is a spring morning, with the snowdrops fading and a squirrel having breakfast on an old stone trough, carrying tiny scraps of bread to his mouth and bushing out his tail, and surveying the as-yet-unedged flower beds with a glittering eye.

I re-read some of Colm Tóibín’s marvellous novel The Master, in which Henry James now and then finds himself in English or Italian gardens less on summer afternoons, for this was when he wrote, but in English country houses. Then I begin work.

Then Andrew arrives, and we have lunch at Assington, the next-door village where we blackberried as boys. The rain pelts us, and the badgers’ track to my house is criss-crossed with their journeys to the ditch. Lots of birdsong. Lots of Wordsworth’s daffodils beneath the apple trees. It was his sister Dorothy who drew his attention to them, when he was sunk in verse, as he so often was. “Look, William, a host of dancing daffodils!”

What for Sunday? The virtuous young man who had sold all he possessed, and given the money to the poor. What else must he do to enter heaven? Once, in Cornwall, I saw to my surprise a plaque to Jacob Marley — him who was weighed down with ledgers and “business” in Charles Dickens’s story. The wicked young author had used a friend’s real name.

I suppose that today’s young Marley would be dragging computers around and searching for wisdom among his season tickets. But, as trains never fail to set my imagination at work, I don’t doubt that all the platforms from here to Liverpool Street are full of silent prayer and unbusinesslike thinking. Inside the carriage, it is another tale, as laps nurse profits and loss.

When I travel — which is seldom these days — I cannot bear to see landscapes passing without a glance. And should the journey be to Scotland, I look up in the profoundest sense to Durham as it passes by, and after it the sacred coastline where St Cedd and the Celtic Christians would lay the foundations of the English Church.

My first visit to Durham was to carry my godson to the cathedral, pausing at St Cuthbert’s tomb en route. Long ago, I met someone who, although booked for London, couldn’t bear to pass Durham without a closer look, and broke her journey to enter this shrine, although her ticket said nothing of the sort.

I always take care not to miss John Clare’s Helpston. The great nature poet saw them bring the line through his beloved wood, destroying everything in its path. His only train journey would be in his coffin, when his body would travel home from the asylum.

Railways play a special part in literature — one might say, a mighty part. However frequently its characters might be seen off on platforms, they are rarely out of sight where the imagination is concerned. Tolstoy would die in a rural station master’s house; and, to my mind, the greatest railway film ever is The Lady Vanishes.

Now and then, when the wind is right, and I am in a certain corner of the garden, I hear a kind of elfin hoot. It comes from the Marks Tey-Sudbury branch line as City friends make the last miles home. Mark was a medieval knight. How amazed he would have been to see his name shining away on our short travels, this Norman lad of the East Saxon forests and marshes. Timetables have immortalised him; tickets have made him expensive; carriage windows have made him a visionary.

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