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Word from Wormingford

29 July 2016

The July heat reminds Ronald Blythe of family visits in the past

“SHALL I compare thee to a summer’s day?” asked Shakespeare. Impossible. An English summer’s day is unlike anything else in the world. A dragonfly from my old horse pond who has only a day to live wanders past in its deathless way. Black-and-white cat sisters take refuge in shadows. The russet tiles on the monumental back roof are like an oven. The Rudbeckia stares over old red walls. The horses keep the flies off each other. It is very still — almost contemplative.

I tell the horses about William Burkitt who was at our church long ago: a Puritan minister whose house was a little lending library when I was a boy, with shelves of Baroness Orczy and Jeffery Farnol novels. How shocked he would have been. Just below the Croft, the River Stour glitters. I remembered the amazing heat of New South Wales, and felt that of Suffolk, and thought how different they were. Almost caressing.

I preach on stillness — a favourite subject, and one that hardly requires recommendation to the old friends who surround me in the chancel. Back home, the holidaymakers on the screen are still as they burn their way to the French coast. A picnic in an East Anglian meadow would have been bliss in comparison.

It was on July days such as this when Father would take us to have Sunday tea with his mother. She amazed us with her homemade bread and butter as she held a loaf against her stout bosom and sawed slices from it. We had to add our own butter and jam. When she had had enough of us, she would peer anxiously out of the window and see a thunderstorm approaching. “If you hurry, you’ll get home before it starts”.

Boys and girls were given short shrift in those days, and farm people liked their Sunday-afternoon sleep. In the winter, arrangements such as fire irons shone like solid gold. In the summer, her grate shone like ebony. Her clocks ticked our lives away. She would stroke our faces with the back of her hand, and tell us that we were the image of our father.

We passed a ruined cottage on the way home, and made a ritual at its well, dropping flintstones through its wooden cover. There would be a long frightening pause before it hit the water. “Don’t go near that well,” they said. But we did. And I have to go near my own well these days, otherwise there would be no flow from the taps. Friends who live in sensible houses praise my drinking water. “It hasn’t done you any harm,” they say.

In church, we sing William Cowper’s “O for a closer walk with God,” and I see him being comforted by Mary Unwin and also by his pet hares. Now and then he would lose contact with his Saviour and reach out with frightened hands. His Saviour came and went like someone who would only give him a little of what he craved. He was nervous like the hares, trembling, but with bouts of certainty in the goodness of God and men. It was “Return, O holy Dove, return.” And so it did, intermittently; for so, too, did it fly away.

I often think that the dragonflies are more constant. The July afternoon sky gives them their brief universe. What fine creatures they are, jewelled and polished and quivering with light. The big ones are called hawkers, the small ones are called damsels, and their newts are known as naiads. Their lives are short and lovely and celebrated.

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