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Word from Wormingford

09 September 2016

Ronald Blythe recalls feeling cold as a youth, on a visit to Aldeburgh

WE DRIVE to Aldeburgh. The weather is like the Ephesians: neither hot nor cold. I show my friends three graves in the church­yard — Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, and Imogen Holst. There they lie, close in death.

The sea flashes through the gothic porch and on to the house where M. R. James, the author of our greatest ghost story, “Oh, whistle, and I’ll come to you,” lived. I passed it every day in my youth — a fine marine residence, as such Aldeburgh man­sions were called. The church is scintillatingly clean, all polished and shining. There is a lovely memorial window by John Piper for Benjamin Britten, and any number of lichened stones for drowned fishermen. Long ago, they lit bonfires on the tower to guide sailors home.

We have fish and chips in the pub where I sat by the fire in the winter, writing short stories. The shingle rattles outside. I wore a duffle coat and several yards of knitted scarf when I walked on the marsh paths. Should I meet Ben, it was etiquette not to speak, because he was at work, music filling his head. Ditto with Imogen Holst, who was orches­trating this music as she lunched at the Cragg Sisters Tearoom for 3s. 6d. Writers rarely forget the economy of their beginnings.

Laurens van der Post wrote his books in the lookout tower. The only warm house in Aldeburgh belonged to that wonderful photo­grapher Kurt Hutton, where Euro­pean standards prevailed. It is odd how the cold of one’s early years blows through one’s memory. I’m never cold, now.

Off to church, where I see the cyclamen in its full white blossom under the tall holly tree. Cyclamen always makes me think of the flowers that D. H. Lawrence released from gardening and set free to fill the human soul. It does this in many churchyards. Its lesson to me is not to miss anything; to keep my eye to the ground as well as to the past, and to the future.

It is time to tidy the back of the house, which stands in a waterless moat and has a famous catslide roof made of pantiles, and many totter­ing roses below in which, in that rich mulch, one might almost trace the birth of next spring’s flowers. The ancient horse ponds, too, are both gathering this year’s debris and next year’s bloom. My song thrushes are now fully established as duet­tists, never missing a note. A neigh­bour comes to warn me of the October hunt: a ritual that scares everything, but destroys nothing.

At matins, I preach on gardening, beginning with Mr Middleton, the radio gardener. The bookshelves burst at the seams, although, with George Nicholson’s wonderful Illustrated Dictionary of Gardening, 1889, there really is no need to add any further volumes. I wish I had thought of it for my Desert Island Discs, instead of Boswell. It has glorious colour-plates protected with tissue, and, together with Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica, makes all the rest of garden writing obsolete — although who can say this, when gardeners yet unknown may be as wonderful with a pen as with a spade.

Philosophy and faith come into it. Voltaire’s advice to “cultivate your garden” is never more needed in our world: one that so often seeks to destroy the human spirit. Or so it seems.

Did Christ sometimes visit a non-tragic Gethsemane — a cultivated spot where the flowers and olives were a pleasure, and his family and friends sat in their shade? In that green masterpiece Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich makes the Lord a gardener.

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