Ronald Blythe sees the contradictions in a funeral held in the spring


Chilly spring rains, pear blossom clotted on the bough, damp cat, seeds to sow, and a new name to paint on the incumbents board. The reassuring prayer of a mower that starts at first pull. And Easter everywhere. So why not preach on immortality? But first of all, I must get those boyhood visions of graves' balancing rather grim porcelain blooms and hands in glass cases out of my head. "Immortelles", they call them. Rained on, spotted, rusted, they did a turn.
The Quaker hymn "Immortal love for ever full, For ever flowing free" does more than this because "Faith has still its Olivet, And love its Galilee." Thus we re-map our village. Drenched sticky buds are about to burst. Sheep complain or rejoice - it's hard to know which - in sodden grass.
Taking a country funeral on a wet spring morning is a contradiction in terms. The high language of heaven rules out low thoughts. At the Easter sepulchre, itself a dusty answer, the message is: "He is not here. He is risen." Just a heap of linen. And lavish piles of linen here, white as snow. And an angel whose face was like lightning.
And then - maybe because Adrian is getting rid of the last signs of winter outside - this changing of the familiar figure of Jesus, the rabbi-healer, into a gardener, unrecognisable to those who knew him best.
The gardener-Christ entranced Julian of Norwich. She came upon him as he was receiving orders from his master, and dressed roughly in a "single white coat, old and worn, stained with sweat, tight and short. . . threadbare . . . ready to fall apart at any moment.
"Outwardly, he looked as if he had been working hard for a long time, but to my inner understanding he seemed to be a beginner, a servant who had never been sent out before. Then I understood: he was to do work that was the hardest and most exhausting possible. He was to be a gardener, digging and banking, toiling and sweating, turning and trenching the ground, watering the plants the while.
"And by keeping at this work he would make sweet streams to flow, fine abundant fruits to grow; he would bring them to his lord, and serve them to his taste. . . I thought that in the Lord there was everlasting life and every goodness, except the treasure that was in the earth. And that treasure, too, had its being in the wonderful depth of his eternal love."
Julian's thoughts on the cultural divinity don't come amiss when I watch gardening TV, but it is strangely upsetting that Christ's terrible death was begun in a garden - maybe one in which he had enjoyed watching gardeners at work. Gethsemane.
It was there that he became "sorrowful and very heavy". And it was in the garden that he asked his Father to let this cup pass from him - this appalling fate. It was springtime, and new life was everywhere. He, too, was youthful. Passion - interior suffering. The intensity of the hymns.

Samuel Crossman wrote his "Love unknown" - he had been reading George Herbert - over the hill near here. Tragic language meets in time and place, and above stripped altars. But the spring birds do not speak it. They are noisy with nests and partnerships, and pure life. And the horses on the hill do brief, cumbrous gallops, disappearing and reappearing over the horizon. And this for no apparent reason.  (11th April 2014)

A flower prompts memories of a bike ride

As always, the fritillaries halt me in my tracks. Since I search eagerly for most seasonal treasures, I have never understood why a small group of them under the walnut tree are not seen until they wave at me to stop. They are about a foot high, and stand up well in the not-quite-mature spring grass. Each bloom has six matt, lustreless petals, and it declines rather than droops, with dark threadlike stalks. Every April and May, from time immemorial, they show themselves in my orchard to remind me of what I have cometo think of as their native land - Framsden, in Suffolk.
It is there, at the long pasture in the dell, which is covered with these speckled, bell-shaped, vaguely sinister blooms - the British species of genus Fritillaria liliaceae. It was an hour's bike-ride from my house, and a proper pilgrimage for a member of the Wild Flower Society. And Mrs Fox, tall, elderly, and generous, standing at the gate to welcome us where snake's heads grew.
For 50 weeks her long meadow was no more than two acres of dank grass, with a lush drainage ditch severing it; but when the fritillaries came, it turned into the Plains of Enna when Persephone set foot in them. There they were - hundreds, thousands of them, some a papery white, but most a muted purple colour with the reptilian markings that gave them their nickname. Nightingales sang over them. There was a cold wind blowing, as well as these mysterious spring flowers.
It would have been a Saturday afternoon when Mrs Fox was at home. There were so many of them that we never knew where to tread, and when we left she would give us little fritillary bouquets. This was the time when country people believed that the more you picked the more they grew - a policy that rioted when it came to bluebells.
Fritillaries were so called by the Romans after their dice box, or shaker, which was one of the few personal belongings that a soldier carried around. This, and a chequer-board. "And they crucified him, and parted his garments, casting lots, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, They parted my garments among them and upon my vesture did they cast lots."
Matthias succeeded the tragic Judas by the luck of the draw. The rattling dice-boxes decided great matters. And here is this dicey flower, with its suggestive markings, among the primroses every year in my garden - often a meal for blackbirds if I don't protect it.
I will keep those that Mrs Fox gave me until they shrivel to nothing on my desk, but I never pick mine. I walk to them, and watch them. And tread around them. Tidying up a "Rambling Rector" rose so that it knows its place; hanging up a fallen apple branch; raking sodden leaves; and hearing the rooks carrying on, thinking of Framsden and Mrs Fox and her countless snake's heads. -"Put them in water as soon as you get home, dear. They'll last: you'll see!" And her joyous dog - "Get you down!"

I must make a proper remembrance of Framsden, and place a single snake's head on the windowsill, but the March wind, how icy it is, and the nesting birds, how they sing! And the continuity of all things. At matins, we sing the Benedicite: "O all ye fritillaries, bless ye the Lord. Praise him and magnify him for ever.  (4th April 2014)

Ronald Blythe's features are moulded in clay in the hands of a sculptor


Every now and then, whatever hour it is, getting up becomes an imperative. I have never worked out why. But I am at the window, looking out at the moon, which is staring in. It appears yellow, and lopsided, throwing huge shadows and light barriers across the river valley in equal proportions. You could read by it. Certainly a night for a walk.
But I return to bed, to think about Amos, a favourite of mine, and who must be talked about on Sunday. He was, you will recall, a young fruit-farmer from Tekoa, who shouted out fearful warnings, disturbing the beautiful liturgy of the temple. He and Jeremiah were a couple well matched. Too eloquent for their own good. Apologising for his oratory, Amos said that he was not a prophet, only a gatherer of sycamore fruit. But why shouldn't Lent sackcloth and ashes arrive in his words? Penitence is something which is honed down, and which makes dust in the process.
This week, the sculptor Jon Edgar arrived to make a terracotta bust of me. No dust. It takes two days. It brings me back to earth. Not only my features, but my very soul - not to mention my age and personality - fly between his hands.
Every now and then, he takes a leap in my direction, as if to see that I actually exist. To prove it, I take him to a pub and give him lunch. I feel that although he has only just arrived, he knows me only too well. How is this?
Then back to the ancient farmhouse, and the flying clay, and my divine-like emergence. He dances about; I sit still. The hours pass. The white cat watches. Soon I will be fired, hollowed out, and mounted. Fragmented yet entire. I feel moved and honoured, yet, at the same time, vulnerable.
I tell him about the imagery of the potter in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, of which he has never heard. This pleases me, because it allows me to philosophise on his art. I am actually able to show off. I repeat some of this poem by heart. Edward FitzGerald, the author, was buried near my house when I lived near Woodbridge, and had, like many Victorians, difficulty with conventional Christianity, and found an acceptable version of life in this old Persian poem.
Thus the potter and his model passed the time; the latter awed by the swift hands that were making his face. Dare I make some tea? How is it that Jon, the terracotta sculptor, can not only draw out my face, but my experience - even something akin to my soul?
Lamentations for Lent, of course, and in this tragic book the following: "The precious sons of Zion, comparable to fine gold, how are they esteemed as earthen pitchers, the work of the hands of the potter!" But when God shapes us, are we not heavenly? And when Jesus uses his own spit to create a healing clay, what then?
Jon, the clay sculptor, takes my image away to fire it. I feel very Etruscan: both fragile and lasting.
"Do you use special clay?" I ask.
"No, ordinary clay," he says.
But not ordinary hands or eyes, if it comes to that.
He accepts a sip of sherry - no more than a robin - and takes me back to Sussex with him. There is hot sunshine on the old brick wall where he has been. Like the children in the burning fiery furnace, I will emerge angelic. Eventually, I will return, having been dried for a month; for his kiln fires me at 900° Centigrade.  (28th March 2014)

Ronald Blythe reveals the source of his knowledge about the Holy Land

This delectable springtime continues. Lunch in the garden on Sunday after matins. All the birds operatic. The horses on the sloping meadows benign. The Wordsworthian daffodils under the budding fruit trees making a show. "They make a show," an elderly woman said as she planted asters. But no show in church. Lent is plain fare.
I must remember to see the hares' boxing-match over my horizon. Sparring would be a better word to describe their activity. Meanwhile my badgers hump and trundle themselves through the orchard to the cold-running stream, leaving a highway through the shooting grass. As for daffodils, they have lost all sense of proportion, and wave everywhere, trumpeting their worth to the skies.
At the poetry society, Andrew and I pay homage to Mrs Girling, a Georgian lady who founded our school 100 years before the 1870 Education Act. Where would we have been without her? I think of John Clare being taught to read and write in the vestry, and of boys such as Thomas Bewick who were encouraged to draw on the smooth surfaces of the stone floor in church. Or, much earlier, the women who taught themselves to read from chained Bibles. I got the hang of the Holy Land as I pored over the maps at the back of Revelation during Canon Hughes's sermons.
William Hazlitt wrote tenderly about such things as he saw his old father, a man who had suffered greatly for his radical stance, "withdrawn from the world of all of us".
He goes on: "After being tossed about from congregation to congregation [he was an Irish Unitarian minister] . . . he had been relegated to an obscure village, where he was to spend the last thirty years of his life, far from the only converse that he loved, the talk about disputed texts of Scripture, and the causes of civil and religious liberty.
"Here he passed his days . . . in the study of the Bible, and the perusal of the Commentators - huge folios, not easily got through, one of which would outlast a winter! . . . glimmering notions of the patriarchal wanderings, with palm trees hoveringin the horizon, and processions of camels at the distance of three thousand years . . . questions as to the date of creation, predictions of the end of all things; the great lapses of time, the strange mutations ofthe globe were unfolded with the voluminous leaf, as it turned over. . .
"My father's life was comparatively a dream; but it was a dream of infinity and eternity, of death, the resurrection, and a judgement to come."
I have always loved this passage by Hazlitt, a young man who no longer believed what his father believed. The most honest and inits way shocking example of this dilemma is, of course, Edmund Gosse's Father and Son. One needs to be brave to read it.
Turning to the altar, I say "I believe", thankful for the formula but never analysing it. Credo. Somewhat lost in it, like old Mr Hazlitt's camels, is my love of Christ as it journeys on from year to year, expanding, narrowing, leading ahead. Liturgy takes me over deserts. And then there is George Herbert's "dear prayer", with or without words.

"Let us pray," I say to the familiar faces which look towards me, and they gently acquiesce. The other Sunday I said Robert Louis Stevenson's prayers - the ones he said in Samoa - and they suited us very well, talking as they did to God and his "household".  (21st March 2015)

Ronald Blythe recalls a dear friend, as he attends her funeral
















ASH WEDNESDAY: even Joel wails in the wilderness, "Repent, repent!" The white cat slumbers on a paid bill, the sun hot on her breast. The horses converse under the bare may-tree. The garden is covered with flowers. The spring has come.

For T. S. Eliot, it was the Ash Wednesday of 1930 as he asked:
    Who walked between the violet and the violet
    Who walked between
    The various ranks of varied green
    Going in white and blue, in Mary's colour,
    Talking of trivial things . . .

Waiting for the funeral to begin, dressed in our robes under the vast arch, we talk of the sky-high builders of the church as they cling to the scaffold ropes, carving an angel here and there, or painting glass for the clerestory.
It is Stoke by Nayland, where, as boys, we climbed the tower to see if you could really see the sea; for this is what they said. The verger would holler "Come down you young varmints!" But on and on we would go, round and round, until we hit the firmament on high.
The cortège arrives. It is Marjorie, dear, dear friend. Marjorie, who settled her husband down after he had taken the service with "Dear, you did well." And a glass of sherry. And here she comes, hidden in lilies. Both departed and present. For that is what death does: it takes you away and leaves you here. For:
    Here are the years that walk between, bearing
    Away the fiddles and the flutes, restoring
    One who moves in the time between sleep and waking, wearing 

    White light folded . . .
The doors of this church are worth a journey; for they are white light folded. Angels, archangels, and princes made silvery by the Suffolk air soar as we enter.
How odd it is to stand at the lectern and talk about Marjorie, who should have been cooking our lunch. I hear her in my head. She should have been saying: "Dear, you did well." But there it is, this going and staying.
From the corner of my eye, en passant, I catch the tablet to Canon Clibbon, whose daughter read poetry for me at the literary society. Ash Wednesday, maybe. All this a long time ago, as Eliot said.
I read Joel, who interrupted the temple services with his passionate oratory, his white-light-folded words.
The garden waits, or rather it grows like mad. The birds sing. The grass waves. Spring is a green ocean racing on and on. Wordsworth's little daffodils gather under the nut trees. The mud in the track shines between flints. The priest will mark my brow with ashes from incinerated palms. Dust I am, and to dust I will return.
After the funeral, we talk about Omar Khayyám in the pub. He was good on dust. Rose dust, human dust, stardust. Starving before Lent, on account of two consecutive funerals, I devour the sandwiches and feel well and very much alive. As one does in the presence of the dead. It can be their final gift, their making us grateful for the sun.  (14th March 2014)

Ronald Blythe is happy to leave choices over new plumbing to the expert

The urgency of late-February days. Winter dawdles, but spring can't wait. Last week's mud is this week's flower-drift. Acres of snowdrops run amok in the wood. And the birds sing. Heavens, how they sing! But in the village, whenI say "Isn't it glorious?" or something like that, it is: "We'll pay for it - you'll see."

The screen is awash with other people's troubles: water inside and out, boating dogs, swimming cars.I pray for them. On the high field, Jean's horses gallop around in blankets and pretend that they are en route to Agincourt. 

Certainly, everything is on the move. I should be gardening, gathering sticks, crying "Order!" But plenty of time for that. In church, it will soon be Quinquagesima, with its warning: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal."

In the Gospel, "Jesus of Nazareth passes by." As indeed I trust that he does at this moment in this lovely weather. Make the most of it, cry the sceptics. Keith does. He says that it is a good day to put in the new loo. He shows me a loo booklet, and I tell him to choose. Whatever needs replacing in an ancient house, it is always best for someone like Keith to choose. His eye takes in the whole structure, never just "fashion". 

Also, he knows how the water runs in every old house in the village - which is never straight from the tap. It takes a long journey from the Midlandsto East Anglia before it even thinks of a tap. I am starting on a new book, and a pile of books must be read before I write "Page One". They totter about in the study, crying "Me next!" Like children. It is called studying. Studying is bliss. I have known writers who spent their lives doing it, and who have never written Chapter One. There used to be grants for doing this, which ran out long before its birth pangs. Reading before you write a word for other people to read can be spread out, can last a lifetime. And you will have the notes to prove how busy you have been.

Although not even this can be as blissful as sitting by the bookcase and taking out, volume after volume, the words of Ivy Compton-Burnett, say. Her severity will make you feel that you are working. Her characters, usually mothers and sons, speak with barbed tongues, and the servants like their mistress. The one who takes the flak is the lady's companion - as a rule, that is.

This novelist left her money to keeping her books in print. And not to undeserving young people of the Society of Authors. For which I am thankful. She was never much interested in the coming of spring, or what went on outside her grim house - often a companion who couldn't take the flak on her way to the railway station. With my passion for reading, it isn't any wonder that the fire goes out for want of feeding, and the white cat takes to sleeping in a plaited fish-basket, all crunched up and hid away.

Though illiterate, she is intellectual. She sees me as an absurd creature always at her beck and call - like one of Miss Compton-Burnett's butlers - Whiskas to the ready. Her servants come and go, unable to stand the pace. But I fetch and carry for my cat for ever. Her fine eyes say: "Well done." Then back to the fish-basket. "Charity suffereth long, and is kind." (7th March 2014)

Ronald Blythe makes up his mind where he is in the liturgical year

It being too good to be inside, I check the oil tank, walk the muddy paths, and survey the snowdrops, which are legion. They clothe the rises and the hollows in their thousands, with their matchless whiteness and their sudden appearance. One day it is sodden undergrowth, the next this purity of flowers.
The birds rustle around; the sky shines. Four young horses race around the field, their coats flying. In church, I have to make up my mind whether it is after the Epiphany, or before Lent. I preach on the showing of Christ.
Religion can be neither darkness nor light, just cloudy. And there is this fading away of the brightnessas the years gather. Amos - a favourite of mine - cried: "I may not be a theologian, but I can see that things are not what they should be!" But who was going to take notice of a noisy young fruit-farmer out in the sticks? But I love his voice. It is new and non-liturgical. And beautiful. Very clear.
In mid-Epiphany, we have St Paul on his restless travels, church-founding, magisterial. Confident - Tarsus bred men of letters. It was on the old caravan route from Asia to Europe. Tent-making in such a city was a profitable trade. We read about him during the Epiphany because the blinding light of his conversion meets the greater light. He was on the road because his deliverer had said: "I am the light of the world."
On his way, Paul had met Timothy, a man of mixed race, with his Greek father and Jewish mother. So they walked on, the pair of them, teaching what the friends of Jesus had taught them.
When Paul reached Troas, he had a vision - more light. Someone in his head was begging him to "come over into Macedonia, and help us." Leave your native east, and come to Europe. Why not? He had a Roman passport. First, he and young Timothy made for Philippi, where Paul founded perhaps his favourite church: "I thank my God for every remembrance of you," he would say in his letter.
His first encounter with a Philippian was near the water's edge. Walking to it on the sabbath, he had found a women's prayer-meeting in progress. He and Timothy sat down and took part. This was St Paul's first Christian activity in Europe. One of the women was a businessperson named Lydia. Having heard Paul preach Christianity, she is the first named European to become part of the Church: this woman who sold purple cloth.
His next encounter was with a girl who had been forced into fortune-telling because of her profitable madness. Along with the gospel came the light of reason. "Be affectionate with one another," Paul told the infant Church.
He foresaw the multiplicity of behaviours that must enter a universal faith - it takes all sorts to make a world - and yet "Be kind to one another." The Church must not be monolithic, but various. Because Lydia ran a house church, she could be described as the first Christian priest in Europe, if one might be fanciful.
On a spring-in-winter day, with the Stour bursting its banks, a formlessness takes over the familiar landscape; something uncontrollable is in power. Pretty rivers swell into terrible giants. Water, water everywhere, although no rain to speak of. My ditches roar. And all these snowdrops! And the wild duck wherring over.  (28th February 2014)