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Word from Wormingford

26 August 2016

Ronald Blythe considers Prayers Written at Vailima and Wormingford

CHRISTOPHER, the New Zealand bishop’s son, arrives to take pictures of my old farmhouse. While no man from Porlock, he’s always best free of interruptions. The poet Stevie Smith suffered from writer’s block, and prayed for a man from Porlock when stuck for words. Not that I could ever believe that language failed her.

Christopher and I have plenty to say about Picture Post, which very ancient readers of the Church Times might remember. One of its great photographers was my old friend Kurt Hutten, who, with his wife, during my youth kept the only warm house in Aldeburgh. I was a very warm companion of their huge dog, Beau, who pulled me over the shingled beach until I discovered some word that would bring us both home. I was mildly terrified by this dog. “He likes you,” his owners would say.

My cats are too busy liking themselves to have too much love for me, but, now and then, a tender­ness fills their enormous eyes; were it to reveal an even greater beauty, it is impossible to state.

I use — frequently for matins because of their beauty — Prayers Written at Vailima by Robert Louis Stevenson. His widow describes how a Samoan war council summoned the whole island to evening prayer. They sang Scottish hymns set to “very wild and war-like tunes”, and wore fresh flowers in their hair. “Sometimes a passing band of hostile warriors, with blackened faces, would peer in at us through the open windows.”

How unlike Wormingford. Here, the August trees have been granted a leaf or two, but the days verge on high temperatures and Roger’s opulent flowers in the sanctuary verge on the exotic.

The congregation and the remnant of a choir come teogther in the chancel to join the seven Churches of Asia and other lands. We stop at the seven golden candlesticks, although my heart is as white as snow. We sing George Herbert, and I preach on Little Gidding, where the church has a golden font and the Ten Command­ments are carved in sounding brass. The immense tomb of the Ferrar brothers would appear to block the entrance to what, in effect, was the chapel of a Cambridge college, where everyone sits facing each other, seeing and yet not seeing his neighbour, and hearing how Jonah leaves the whale’s belly to find dry land.

But I remember words of George Herbert which suited me: “And now in age I bud again, After so many deaths I live and write; I once more smell the dew and rain, And relish versing.” Or, in other words, of continuing liberation; but the creatures — the horses on the horizon, the cats on the windowsill, the spider upside down on the beam, the unseen birds calling — com­municate their own stories. George Herbert said: “He that finds a silver rain, thinks on it and thinks again.” Which is what happens to writers generally.

My old friend Tony Venison, late of Country Life, is coming to tea and is bringing cake.

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