Ronald Blythe is struck afresh by the words of a familiar hymn

Lovely but sad days. The leaves fall, the sun shines, in church we muster for the Remembrance. It has become a kind of saints-day, filling the aisles with its devotees. We turn to its memorial, and I say its liturgy. Its words are by the librarian-poet Laurence Binyon, and were published in The Timeslong before the Western Front massacres had begun. "They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old."
As a boy, I used to think that these soldiers would have found this cold comfort, and would have very much liked to have enjoyed a long life. But their melancholy suits the Georgian language of the Remembrance. We sing Isaac Watts's "O God, our help in ages past". Charlotte Brontë has a girl, "her voice sweet and silver clear", sing it in Shirley. Our voices, though darkened by time, do justice to this masterpiece. And so the service goes on, inside and outside. I preach on poppies, botanical and symbolical, blood-coloured and bloody.
It was the Jewish poet Isaac Rosenberg in "Break of Day in the Trenches" who released, as it were, our emblematic poppy, the one we button-hole. A rat touches his hand "As I pull the parapet's poppy To stick behind my ear".
Flanders was traditional farmland. Corn and its wild flowers had grown alongside there for centuries. Just as its birds sang above the din, so did its poppies bleed in its mud. The imagery seems to grow more intensely every Remembrance, and my sermons ever more botanical.
But our greatest time-hymn, "O God, our help in ages past", says more and more to me about mortality and immortality. Or so I find. It is grand, sonorous, truthful, accepting, tragic yet comforting, and it first appeared in Wesley's Psalms and Hymns in 1738. A poignant verse was left out long ago, but it uncannily suggests the Western Front:
Like flowery fields the nations stand
Pleased with the morning light:
The flowers beneath the mower's hand
Lie withering ere 'tis night.

Too far to walk, we drive from our church to a steel memorial by the side of the road. It is to the American airmen who came to Wormingford on St Andrew's Day in 1943. Some 200 of them were killed - too many names to read out and halt the Sunday traffic racing by. Their colonel, almost a hundred, sends a message from the United States.
My father, a teenager at Gallipoli, refused to attend these rites, the band playing, the mayor in his robes, the snowy war memorial in the little Suffolk town. Once central, it has long been put at the side of the road so as not to delay a flood of cars. Otherwise you would have taken your life in your hands.
I say Binyon's words all over again. They float in the mild air. I remember my friend John Nash, who painted both the trenches and the Second World War docks, and Christine, his wife, who ran a canteen at Portsmouth for the sailors. John told me that 1939 never meant as much to him as 1914. His brother Paul painted the Battle of Britain, the Heinkels and Spitfires like stars in the Kent sky. And so it continues, the reality and the dream.
Between services, I rake up fallen leaves, mostly from the giant oaks which stare out of the valley into the next parish. They are all in line, their roots in the everlasting stream, their tops spying Little Horkesley.  (21st November 2014)

A pungent odour takes Ronald Blythe back to his book-polishing days

A wild October morning. Bottengoms is calm in the front and tempestuous at the rear, where the trees I planted a lifetime ago meet the sky. Leaves race past. Birds protest. Or maybe they are simply exultant as they are blown about.
Tidying a bookshelf, trying not to read, I am taken back by the scent of an ancient volume to Archbishop Samuel Harsnett - that local boy made good. In a niche in Colchester Town Hall I sometimes look up to him as an autocratic priest who takes his place among our worthies, but for me was little more than a Proustian odour, until I decided to find out why he was there, high above us in his robes and Lambeth hat.
The closest I got to this Archbishop of York was polishing his books. They had been buried in tea chests during the war in case Hitler got hold of them and became an Anglican. There were some 800 volumes, including Caxton's edition of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, and their leather covers had to be rubbed with a foul preservative that the British Museum had recommended. Some of these books had belonged to Luther and other Reformers.
So I sat, day after day, in the Harsnett library, polishing them up, now and then catching some spidery hand, perhaps of the Archbishop himself, as it descended in the margin. And now, in my old house, a tumble of books releases this preservative smell.
Who was this Harsnett - apart from being the owner of these volumes? Who was he, apart from being a famous local boy? Just up the road, in Ipswich, another local boy had become Cardinal Wolsey, and he an Ipswich tradesman's son. Wolsey loved a bit of pomp. He built Hampton Court Palace, and was very nearly Pope.
Alas, it all tumbled down - not Hampton Court, but the dizzy height itself. Wolsey was on the road when he heard of it, sick, perched on a mule, glad to be taken in by monks. "Had I but served my God with half the zeal I served my King . . .", he murmured. And what of the college that would bear his illustrious name, in Ipswich? It would get no further than the gate.
Archbishop Harsnett and Cardinal Wolsey, now a stack of sticky books, and another local boy polishing away. All that vellum - calfskin; all those frontispieces on which the deity shared space with lordly churchmen.
But I have become fond of Harsnett. He was not an easy person. He founded Chigwell School, which continues to grow apace. But, although he himself had abandoned what he called the painful trade of teaching, he licensed books for the press. Once, he licensed a book without reading it. But if it was anything like some of the books in his own library, whose slippery covers I was polishing, I could sympathise.
These days, a new book smells good. Often, when I buy one, I open it at random, outside the bookshop - a novel, perhaps, or a collection of poems - and the essence of what is in it reaches my nose before it finds its way to my brain.
The great publishing houses have hardbacks that possess a distinctive scent. Not so with paperbacks, although those that one can buy in church porches reek a little of abandonment, of never being loved. The other day, a pressed flower that I had picked in Scotland fell out of a book. I returned it to its tomb in Dylan Thomas's poems, where it marked no particular place, but had left a small stain.
Now we have put the clocks back, and brought reading forward. I bank up leaves in the garden. They are mountainous, but they will rot down, blacken, smoulder, given a chance. Below them, a cold stream hurries to the river without a pause, brighter than any old book could ever be.  (31st October 2014)

Ronald Blythe marvels at the CV of one of the Apostles

A golden day for St Luke, one of my heroes. I talk about him at matins to a thin-on-the-ground congregation. Luke, the New Testament's Renaissance man, doctor of body and soul, artist, travel writer - everything. Also the birthday saint of the Greek-English boy who lives up the road, and who, at the moment, is choosing which university to apply to.
It is Luke's "little summer". The garden, while fading, is burning into life. I am reading Colm Tóibín's The Master for the second time, sitting in the garden and nursing the white cat. Ash leaves sail down on us. An unseen farm vehicle clatters behind my wood. The postman bumps down the track. Birds sing as best they can, their soloist fled to Africa.
Among Luke's qualifications, he was a physician of the soul. Think of being able to put this on one's CV. He wrote both his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles in demotic Greek - the language they spoke in the market-place. But he was astute, taking them to "the most excellent Theophilus", presumably a publisher.
I like to think of Theophilus unravelling them: first, the adventures and words of the Redeemer; then a marvellous traveller's tale as Christ's life and words were sent on their journey.
Luke's biography is plainly written. He never married; he was Paul's young helper; he wrote his Gospel in Greece; and, some believed, he walked to Emmaus with the Lord after the crucifixion for the first holy communion. He - Jesus - would have gone on but for that hospitable "The day is far spent."
"Lighten our darkness," I say. Was Thomas Cranmer referring to the brightness/blackness of the Reformation? Or was he thinking of what Veni, Creator Spiritus describes as "the dullness of our blinded sight"? These questions arise after my having returned from my ten-yearly visit to the optician to have my glasses renewed. The optician is in his twenties. He stares into my eyes with a torch: "Look left, look right, look up, look down. Read as far as you can. Choose your frames."
I feel that he should have complimented me for being able to see at all, let alone see some of his letters. But he is there to give sight, not praise. His own eyes are child-bright. He is reading a very long novel, he says. I know the feeling.
I go to Marks & Spencer's and buy fruit, snowy underwear, a voluminous dressing-gown, and much else. I feel sensible and extravagant. I walk past the wall which the Romans built when St Paul and St Luke were tramping from Antioch. The traffic is climbing round it like insects: the packed school buses, the commuting cars. A medieval church clings to it for dear life.
Flags fly. Students hump homework. A young man takes out a trumpet and his friends fall about laughing. When the music is unexpectedly fine, they lapse into an admiring silence. On the way home, the taxi driver tells me: "You're the first today." I tell him that I am sorry. "Don't be sorry," he says.
I spare him the muddy farmtrack. There are sloes and hips in the tall hedge. The white cat meets me part of the way, not too pleased with my absence. The harvest is sugar beet, the wheat having gone what seems like a lifetime ago. Little streams feed the river - the Stour, which John Constable painted all his life, and mostly in London; for we take our native places with us wherever we land up.
I don't need new spectacles for these old scenes. I peer at the cat through them, and she winks back. I read Tóibín through them. Can he be any brighter?  (24th October 2014)

Ronald Blythe retreats indoors as a downpour batters the house

The classic rainy day: the sky a liquid colourlessness, the trees drenching sieves, the farm track a river, the fields just dull and wet. The old labourers "saved" for such a day because, unable to work, they would not be paid. Four horses soak it up, the streaming day; whether indifferent to it or enjoying it, who knows?
Cocooned in the old house, I have to settle down to it as it rattles the windows and surges through the guttering. Field-wise, it could not have come at a better time. October was dry as a biscuit, and the dusty winter wheat had been aching for a shower; but this downpour! It is not unlike Australian rain. One minute I was baking, the next drowning. No point in running for shelter. In any case, it had been thrilling: the heat suddenly all washed away, and oneself as wet as a surfer.
The Duke of Norfolk's magnificent tomb in Framlingham Church has a Genesis frieze that includes Noah's Ark. Benjamin Britten liked to take children to see it. He turned it into one of his Church Parables, Noyes Fludde, with a marvellous setting of "Eternal Father, strong to save". I remember singing it for the first time in Orford Church, long ago. William Whiting wrote it for Hymns Ancient and Modern, in 1860. Britten's version is heartbreakingly plaintive, slow, and sumptuous.
He would have seen the memorial to a Victorian crew in Aldeburgh churchyard, and would have more than once witnessed the lifeboatmen launching their new boat to rescue some vessel, maybe some holiday yacht that had not understood the North Sea's power: from being leisurely, it had become imperious, throwing craft and men about like toys. We lesser mortals watched. Watching is a coastal profession. Also a Christian imperative.
St Matthew reports Jesus as saying: "When it is evening, you say, 'It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.' And, in the morning, 'It will be stormy today; for the sky is red and threatening.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given it except the sign of Jonah."
Jesus refers to this sign more than once; so what is it? That he will be returned to life and not swallowed up? The island nature of Britain has given its Christianity a flood-based imagery. They say that our coast may have lost three miles in a thousand years. Certainly, its dwellers spent much of that time keeping the sea out. But the inlanders would not have noticed, or minded - and in many cases would never have seen the sea.
Those who lived by it were farmers and fishermen by turn. Some were marshmen, and a different breed altogether. Think of Peter Grimes. There cannot be many sea views framed in a Gothic arch as at Aldeburgh. It is how it first presents itself to the traveller to this town. The road to it once ran through the arch like a grand canopy. Or saw it as a divine approach to sea wealth or sea desolation. The great sea poet George Crabbe's severe parents lie beside it.
Like St Luke, Crabbe was a medical man and a voyager. Or, rather, the voice of those whose business was in deep waters. Both scientifically and spiritually, he took its measure. Luke's Acts of the Apostles set the lakeside faith sailing through the centuries, finding harbour here and there, but then restlessly taking to open water. The Aldeburgh fishermen meditate (chat) by their boats by the hour.  (17th October 2014)

Wet grass and windfalls remind Ronald Blythe of a childhood treat

Angelic days. Two feet of white cat stretch out in the sun. But the first ash leaves sail down, wavering in the air before landing. The grass is soaking wet and ruled with badger trails. Undaunted blackbirds sing as though it is May. It is warm and bright, yet at the same time a little sad. The orchard smells of rotting falls, and I think of Aunt Aggie's triangular orchard and its tall hedges and padlocked gate - a kind of Suffolk Eden after sinful boys had been driven out.
Now and then we would be admitted, led by Aunt with her stick, to find an apple in the dank grass. Wiping it on one bosom, she would give it to us. "Eat it on the good side, dear." All the picked apples would be laid out in Eaters and Keepers order in the apple-room to scent her clapboarded cottage out until Christmas at least, when it would reek of home-made wine and cake.
In the village churchyard, a suckling was splitting her gravestone, and moss was devouring her name. All around her Blythe and Allen humps posed problems for the mower. There used to be crab-apples and bullaces in the churchyard hedge. And over it the cries of Acton United on Saturday afternoons. They vied with the rookery.
Peace, peace the gravestones whispered hopefully. But Bottengoms is comparatively silent in October, that yellow month. And full of flowers: late roses, self-heal all the year round, and summer plants reluctant to call it a day.
The artist John Nash taught me to look at seeds, to value their shapes, to regard them aesthetically as well as horticulturally. Or deadheadedly. "They are part of the life of the plant, don't forget." The friend who comes to mow the lawns, when asked what he thought of the garden, said it was "unusual".
And never more so when October thins it out, and yet at the same time fills it with senescence. And such warm weather! As for the churchyard horse-chestnuts, the ones the Victorian priest planted in the 1890s, they celebrated conker time with their usual glossy panache.
The conkers lie in their exquisite casings like Fabergé jewels. I put a few in my pocket after matins for old times' sake. I think of boastful "tenners" and "twentiers", long ago.
To this day, I carry a conker scar on the palm of my right hand: I was skewering it when it skewered me. Our churchyard horse-chestnuts are a wonder. The village would not be the same were they felled. "Lift up your hearts! Life up ye conker trees!" And the rooks agree.
To Norwich Cathedral to see the new windows. No glassy saints but their realm of pure colour. Visit them at once if you are in Norfolk. John McLean, who made them, reminds us that colour is the most emotive aspect of church windows, but it was George Herbert's lesson, 
A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heaven espy

that continues to teach us how to approach them, and never more so than this pure-colour addition to religious art. "I feel I had permission for the quadrants of colour tumbling across the design," the artist says
One thinks of Matisse, and then of so many things that one would not have thought of in a Norman cathedral before. Stunning, captivating, loaded with prayer colour.  (10th October 2014)

Ronald Blythe takes Virginia Woolf down from the shelf

A pensive morning. Adrian is mowing the grass, up and down, round and round. The white cat watches from her wall. The postman crashes along the farm track; the horses gossip on the hill. The brook splashes to the Stour. The sky is colourless. Wild geese flow over in echelon and outriders, whirring away.
The radio becomes alive - somebody is talking about Virginia Woolf, and jogs my brain. The friend who is showing me Sussex slows down, and there, on the left, is Monk's House. Hesitantly, for Leonard Woolf has been dead only a month, we steal through the gate and stare into the window.
A long table and a chair initialled "VW", half-opened parcels, pot plants wilting, dumpy cretonned chairs, a fadedness such as rooms get when everyone has departed. And near by is the lane to the river. I thought of Virginia filling her pockets with stones before she reached it.
Her passing has always been summed up for me by Sidney Keyes, who was killed in the Western Desert:
Over that head, those small distinguished bones
Hurry, young river, guard their privacy;
Too common, by her grave the willow leans
And trails its foliage fittingly.
Except they buried her under the garden elms, and they, too, were dying as we shut the garden gate. Her guests were long gone: Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, Morgan Forster, Maynard Keynes, her husband, Leonard, the servants who sang, the whole Bloomsbury nation.
But when I find my copy of The Waves, although a stream of press-cuttings pours on to the floor, the novel itself flows on in all its careful beauty. It was a 1947 Christmas present. I re-read a few pages. Surprisingly - I had forgotten - the story begins in Suffolk, but soon wanders up to Virginia's beloved London, each character coming to the front of the stage, as it were, and presenting himself. The writing is spare, yet filled to the brim because of what it suggests.
But it won't do, just after breakfast. Chores await; letters beg replies; the telephone which had broken down has been invisibly mended. Calls come in. Had I forgotten? You were going to tell us about Laurie Lee. Black coffee and dark chocolate. And matins on Sunday for St Matthew.
He was old moneybags in the old windows, a crudely attributed apostle. His was the most despised of all occupations, a Jew who not only collected the Temple tax, but also that which his nation had to pay to the Roman Empire. He had actually purchased the right to collect it. And here was Jesus, associating with such a person. How could he! Even his reply - "It is the sick who need the doctor" - failed to satisfy them.
And it could not have been welcome to Peter, Andrew, James, and John when the Lord invited Matthew to join the little group, and it would have taken some time for them to accept him, let alone love him. He was "called" in Chapter 9 of his Gospel. Jesus had been on one of his healing walks and sails, "and as he passed from thence he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the seat of custom, and he said, 'Follow me.' And he arose and followed him.

No giving notice to the Romans. No selling his converted licence to another would-be publican. No hesitation. "He arose and followed him." Matthew and his Gospel and fascinating examples of renewal. Autumn feeds renewal. Decay nourishes life.  (3rd October 2014)

Ronald Blythe succumbs to late-summer sloth

The classic September days take their time as they succeed each other. No hurry. They are turning Old Master-gold. Come out and do nothing, they say. A nine-months-old baby calls and bumps about on his bottom, talking in Czech and English, but it is all double Dutch to me. He lives in the Barbican. High up? Low down? Is there grass? "Oh, yes." I have only his parents' word for it. His round blue eyes shine.

The white cat lies on the garden wall, taking it all in. Chiff-chaffs talk monotonously in their thicket; otherwise the late summer quietness prevails.

Alone, I call my sloth "meditation". The postman brings proofs of an essay I have written about Laurie Lee, something that has to be read without reading, as it were, so as not to miss a mistake. I pick up falls in the orchard: Victorias, apples - the latter are fit only for the birds, but the plums are bursting and delicious. And too many to devour at this stage; so I put them into plastic bags for the fridge.

Coming down to make the morning tea at six, I encounter a Miss Muffet-size spider attempting to climb the sink Alps, and carry him to the doorstep. I always mean to study spiders, but there is so much to do, so little time, as they say. But I am discovering a method of sorting out small blocks of time for this or that, although the Lectionary is no help.

A long time ago, I read the wrong Trinity collect, and, at the door, a farmer's wife said that it had quite spoilt her worship. I nearly replied, "I don't believe you," which I didn't, but I thought better of it, and looked contrite, even wicked.

We had a Church of Ireland priest who had the Bible borne before him on a red cushion as we processed in, which I thought most beautiful; but she did not. "It quite spoilt my worship."

Little spoils mine. The centuries of words and music and silences keep me on the illimitableness of what might happen during a country service. "I spy strangers," we all say, should such grace us with their presence. From my seat, I watch some of them plundering their way through the Book of Common Prayer, others helping. "Lord, we beseech thee to keep thy household the Church in continual godliness . . . to the glory of thy Name." Both in and out of the building there is our inescapably grand history, our wildflowers, our views.

David arrives to split up the willow logs that he cut last winter. They tumble musically as the axe falls. He builds them into shining walls inside the old dairy. It is impossible to feel what the coming cold will be like. But "sufficient unto the day" etc., Jesus said. "Don't look back: remember Lot's wife." And don't look forward: live for today.

Children always look forward, and have no idea about living for today. Who would, with so much to look forward to, and maths to be solved before tomorrow? I like to read old diaries to find out what Parson Woodforde, for example, was doing in his Norfolk parish at this time of the year. Eating, of course; but what else?

10 September 1783. "I walked to Church this morning and publickly baptised Mr Custance's little Maid by name Frances Anne. After I had performed the ceremony, Mr Custance came to me and made me a present wrapt up in a clean piece of Paper. We stayed up at night till after 11 o'clock on account of its being a total Eclipse of the Moon." That evening, he had lost nine shillings at cards. Turkey and a goose for dinner. The Bishop of Norwich affable. A single parish. Two cheeky servants.  (26th September 2014)