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Word from Wormingford

30 September 2016

The changing season leads Ronald Blythe to think of two artists


THERE are degrees of summer passing and of autumn arriving, subtle though they can be. Walking in the garden early, there are a few fresh leaves on the grass, but, at the same time, a promising warmth. I remember that it is a quarter day, when farm rents were paid. Quarter days, as they were called, were fixed in 1480. They are: Lady Day (25 March), Midsummer (24 June), Michaelmas (29 September), and Christmas (25 December).

They talk of Michaelmas daisies, and I remember their tall show in Cambridge college gardens, their shades of blue and their great height — and I think for the first time how strange it is that there are no Michaelmas daisies here. Next year!

Peter is edging the stone path. I hear a scuttling of rabbits, and feel the cold inside my shirt. Someone has sent me a packet of Victorian drawings of our village, thinking they could be by John Nash, who lived in my house; but they were made before he was born.

He came here, his wife said, because of the different soils in the two-acre garden. It meant that he could grow all kinds of things, but she wondered how she could exist in an ancient house through which a stream made its way to a pond, while her husband exulted in the aban­doned orchards and forsaken beds. He was an official Second World War artist at that time, in Scotland, and she was running a canteen for the troops.

He would eventually cut out a palette-shaped flowerbed here, and she would cycle to and fro from Colchester to scrub brick floors, persuade men — including German prisoners of war — to decorate Tudor rooms, banish rats, and hang curtains. The result was what one might call “Eric Ravilious”: he was a young friend of theirs. Stationed in Iceland, one day he flew away, never to be seen again. He was 39. His witty drawings are perfor­m­ing at this moment.

This unemphatic September afternoon would have matched his watercolours. When he vanished from Iceland, and the dreaded telegram arrived, Christine Nash cycled nearly 20 miles to comfort his widow. It was a fragile world, costing little in pounds, shillings, and pence, and everything in love and friendship. A Ravilious draw­ing, meticulous in its brushwork and vision, describes it perfectly.

As a boy, I remember cleaning paraffin lamps and stoves — not to mention ashtrays, because they all smoked. I never did, and not for any moral or health reasons. It never occurred to me to do so.

September spiders climb the bath­room pipes. One is marooned in a vast enamel universe at this moment. I take them into the gar­den, where they run off in what seems to me an insect exultancy. The cat sisters are almost too beauti­ful to describe; they keep each other warm.

I find a lesson for matins. Jesus asked the Pharisees “What do you think of Christ? Whose son is he?” They answered, “David’s”. After this, “neither durst any [man] from that day forth ask him any more”. We sang “God is our hope and strength,” and our blackbirds flock south.

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