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Word from Wormingford

19 February 2016

Ronald Blythe enjoys the early spring, and winter with War and Peace

A FEBRUARY spring. I walk in the garden so as not to miss its special splendour. Robins sing their heads off, doing duty for birds that are still far away in Africa. The lawn paths are so full of saffron that I am careful not to tread on them. The orchard has a stark quality, still, but not that barren look that usually governs it in late winter.

Dorothy Wordsworth’s wild daffodils — the ones which she pointed out to her brother — have actually been in bloom long enough for them to show a faint fading. But the little stream that feeds the Stour has a chilly sound. Badgers having their evening drink are making a lane beneath the walnut tree. So part of the early Lent discipline is being observed, and part of it is out of step with what is expected.

My winter has been entirely contained in the marvellous BBC series of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It is a near-impossible task to reveal nobility of character, but the young actors did. I wanted everyone I knew to see this masterpiece, but they were watching something else. It reminded me of how, in Brueghel’s painting of Icarus, “everything turns away Quite leisurely from the disaster,” as W. H. Auden put it.

I frequently find myself turning away from the horrors of the moment. Calvarys were the commonplace of Roman cities, and his mother and a handful of close friends watched the Christ die. “Is it nothing to you who pass by?” But then, the news has to be essentially bad to be noticed by the newsmen, or else it cannot be news.

Tolstoy’s War and Peace is more than news. The film brilliantly reveals this. It has a haunting quality which kept returning to me all the week. Like a song which one cannot get out of one’s head. Not that I wish to see it ageing. Repetition could destroy its original purpose: that of bringing the essence of a great novel into my imagination. Now and again, I have asked someone if they have read some book that has meant everything to me, and they answer: “We did it for A level.” I am silenced; but the weekly repetition of the liturgy in a country church never stales. Yet now and then, should the organist not turn up, and we say the familiar language alternatively, something new is heard. Similarly, at evensong in the cathedral, the congregation sings the hymns, but listens mostly to everything else.

In the parish church, they sing everything. The exceptions, of course, are weddings and funerals — a full house, and only a handful of people sing. School assemblies, with their morning hymns, have long vanished, and with them much poetry, the kind which answered or challenged the questions which life threw at one.

At the moment, my old hedge, shaking with catkins and saffron, makes me think of the woman who ran a purple-cloth business in the Bible. I have to go to John Clare if I want to know what happens in the final days of February. Not even the fat robins or the white cat in the window has heard a word of it. They promise a frost, however; so I throw an old tablecloth over the cutting which I’ve stood outside.

I should be looking through a glass darkly, and not through sunshine. An unidentifiable bird is singing away. But the first March winds are little more than a caress. When I was a boy, the village people groaned about days like this, or said that the calendar should stop telling lies. But this was when you couldn’t get up the farm track due to the mud.

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