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Word from Wormingford

08 July 2016

Ronald Blythe on a poet of Cornwall

TODAY, I found myself thinking of my old friend Charles Causley. He’d be looking around my ancient house and saying, But you can’t live here! But I do live here, Charles. With all this garden? Charles detested gardening.

When we met in Cornwall, he would take me to see such sights as Sabine Baring-Gould’s grave, for the Virgin under the east window of Launceston Church, into whose stone lap we would throw pebbles.

Charles was a schoolmaster who taught at Timothy Winters’s school. He’d also served in the Royal Navy for six years, a plight he was witty about. Our Cornish encounters inevitably led to the kind of adventures that only Charles could devise. They were poetic and funny.

Once, I remember we strayed into a village wedding. Like those scriptural guests, we were improperly clad: ourselves in jeans and everyone else in hired tails. Apologetically, we began to make our exit, but the bridegroom, who may have recognised Charles, said, No! So we danced with the bride herself: a lovely girl, straight out of a Thomas Hardy novel.

But it was Baring-Gould’s grave that both awed and fascinated Charles. Here was the author of “Onward, Christian soldiers”. Here, too, was someone from Essex whom Charles thought I ought to meet. It was made of 1920s white marble. Charles touched it dutifully, then entered the church and picked up this mighty hymn on the organ, now and then glancing around nervously as if the author might be striding up the aisle.

But mostly we sat in the Launceston pub and talked about our work. He had done his teacher-training at Peterborough, from where he had biked into the John Clare country.

When it was suggested that he should become president of the newly created Clare Society, he said, No, an East Anglian like me should have the honour. And so, every year, for much of my lifetime, I have given the Clare Lecture. Until today, that is; for all good things must come to an end, particularly presidencies. So three Great Oaks are to be planted in John Clare’s birthplace: one for him, one for Edmund Blunden, and one for me. They will grow vast at a spot called Swordy Well.

Blunden lived in Long Melford, close to my birthplace. We met now and then. I thought of him because of the TV programme On the Western Front, and of his great book Undertones of War, which he published in 1928. He once gave me some lecture notes in his wonderful handwriting. Later, I would help to unveil the memorial plaque to him from the house in Long Melford, which Siegfried Sassoon gave him. It was a mile or two from where my teenage father set off for Gallipoli.

The art of such connections is to hold fast to a shared past, while living vividly in the present, each new morning being such a gift. Or so I find. Also, Christopher is here, to size my orchard; so that this summer’s seed will fall into the damp earth. And last summer’s climbing roses must be pruned. Two new cats, named Alice and Dinah, watch all this nervously.

In church, I preach on the elemental nature of God’s giving. Then I let Charles Causley take me back to his Cornwall and our youthful dance at the strangers’ wedding, and the music of its violins. And his address returns vividly to me — 2 Cyprus Well, Launceston, Cornwall.


Ronald Blythe’s new Wormingford collection, Stour Seasons, is now available from Canterbury Press, £14.99 (CT Bookshop £12.99).

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