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Word from Wormingford

05 August 2016

Ronald Blythe reflects on the country silence and gifts of creation

“BE NOT afeard, the isle is full of noises,” says Caliban. And so is my ancient garden. At first, one hears nothing, just the old country silence. And then, like the instruments of an orchestra, the sounds introduce themselves: the summer wind in the trees, the quiet rush of the water supply, scuttling rabbits or fox.

The postman is in his van. He delivers Peter Hall’s film for my book Aikenfield, made a lifetime ago. It goes on the shelf which contains future tasks. I’m reading my old friend John Nash’s book English Garden Flowers (1948). The foreword deserves quoting. Anyway, I long to hear the long-silent artist’s voice.

“The 12 flowers illustrated here were drawn before the recent war, which interrupted the production of the book for many years. They had no point in common beyond the fact that they were all grown in my garden in Buckinghamshire. The soil in that particular part of the county was not a kindly one, and, on demobilisation, the wilderness that confronted me after five years of neglect was enough excuse for me to move to one of the small, rich valleys of East Anglia and start another garden.”

This has long been my garden, left to me by the artist. His botanical watercolours are superb, as are the descendants of his flowers. I walk about introducing myself to them: the Jerusalem Sage blocking the way, the Mermaid tea rose on the wall, the Crown Imperial in all its majesty.

At Matins, I say a great thank you for the gifts which have come my way. “We praise you, God our Father, for the richness of your creation and for the uniqueness of each person and for what sustains and renews our cultures.” The garden is in ceaseless renewal and so, I trust, am I.

I sit outside and read until the cats scrawl on the page. I look up the epistle for Matins, the one in which God’s gifts are lavishly, rather than evenly, distributed. Pheasants make a commotion, as does the postman. The silence then returns.

Bach soars away in a distant room. I am pretending to write, the cat making the reality impossible. That’s what I think. The gospel has Christ in his anti-market mood in the temples. The temple is new and beautiful, but commerce is already making it grubby, and he is upset. Nothing disturbs him as much as defilement.

The August garden goes on growing below its rug of weeds, and the hill field is blue with flax. Nothing whatsoever is being done, and what John Clare would have thought, I can’t imagine. A farm without work. A farm without a harvest. A farm without people. Although he would have welcomed a farm with a writer, and a writer is no longer in hiding; and he sits outside blatantly with a pen in his hand. A writer who must now go inside to think of what to say on Sunday, and “running the way of God’s commandments will be a partaker of his treasure”.

I do not have to explain this to the animals, of course. Returning to John Nash’s English Garden Flowers, I read that “the habit of Jerusalem Sage is rather lax, that its leaves fly out, giving the impression of birds’ wings.” An enchanting watercolour of periwinkle reminds me to cut back the massive cushion of this plant which blocks the path. They used to grow periwinkle on graves, and criminals wore it on their way to the scaffold. But today we liken it to the propellers of a plane. It looks as if it will take off.

Jerusalem appears a second time this week, not as a plant, but as a city that makes Christ weep. Like my flowers, it will flourish and fall to the ground.

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