How is it that daffodils appear so suddenly, Ronald Blythe wonders

Collecting the post, there they were, where they had been since time immemorial: my wild daffodils under the plum tree - the ones that Dorothy Wordsworth drew her brother's attention to. Although he did not acknowledge this when he wrote, "And all at once I saw a crowd, a host, of golden daffodils."
But their immediacy is true enough. One day, there is just fresh spring grass; the next this golden host, nodding and waving in a chilly breeze. And loud birdsong above them. And the white cat padding through them. And the horses looking through the hazels at them. And then Narcissus Pseudonarcissus. It descends from the medieval Latin affodile, our Lent Lily. How long have they been here, this Wordsworthian patch that spreads? A cold coming they had of it.
Passion Sunday. I take matins. "Were you there when the sun refused to shine? Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble. . ." And, in this instance, passing from the mental sufferings of Jesus as he went the way of the cross. You did not have to walk very far from Jerusalem, or from any Roman city, to see the crucified. It was: "Keep the peace, or this is what will happen to you." I often think of this when we give each other the Peace in church. "The peace of God, David, Merial, Mrs. . . I've forgotten your name."
Passion Sunday first appeared in the Book of Common Prayer in 1928, so what shall we sing? The sumptuously sad "O sacred head"; the unsparingly painful "When I survey"; "My song is love unknown", which a neighbouring priest wrote for the men in his parish. All of them, and a bitter anthem, and that last glimpse of Jerusalem before the sight faded from those dying eyes. No cheerful goodbyes at the church door.
Floods of crocuses. Scaffolding round the tower. Then carloads of flowers for Easter Day waiting to take over. Early in the week, lunch with a young prison chaplain, myself wondering - marvelling, indeed - at his quiet ability. "But then I couldn't do what you do," he says, simply, and I think of the multiplicity of the Church.
Now that King Richard's bones have been translated from a car park to Leicester Cathedral, the author of Don Quixote, the first novel, is to be suitably laid to rest. Miguel de Cervantes was almost contemporary with Shakespeare. Don Quixote de Mancha sends up the knightly quest, and is the originator of many of our popular sayings. The following were all said in Spanish before we borrowed them: "Time out of mind", "A finger in every pie", "Put you in a pickle", "Thank you for nothing", "No better than she should be", "Within a stone's throw of it", "Give the devil his due", "You've seen nothing yet", "I begin to smell a rat", "My memory is so bad that I sometimes forget my own name."
But there are sayings of his that deserve a new currency: "Youngsters read it, grown men understand it, and old men applaud it." Which sent me to the bookshelf to heave down my own, two-volume copy, in French, with wonderful drawings, sometimes two to a page, dated 1836. My name is scribbled in it.
One of Cervantes's sayings is: "Can we ever have too much of a good thing?" Enthralled, it is well past midnight when I put the Don to bed. "Mum's the word."
In the morning, I hurry breakfast to see the eclipse, but invisibility reigns. "As well look for a needle in a bottle of hay" (Cervantes).  (27th March 2015)

Ronald Blythe prepares for the oilman to bring a year's worth of warmth

Raw spring days. The wind whistles through the thin hedge. There is a profusion of birds and primroses. Duncan's fields have been polished by cold rains. I rake up ancient leaves, for the oilman cometh. The small tanker, bringing a year's warmth, will float to me on a bed of leaves, and the driver and I will fervently pray for a safe delivery, for the tractor not to be called on. He has a glass of milk. He has been a soldier, and has a way with enormous vehicles. I am safe until next April.
Writing is a static activity. Artists move about, shifting this way and that. My friend John Nash stood with his back to the north light from ten until four every day, regular as clockwork. Sandwiches arrived at one sharp; tea was by the fire, or in the garden. When he and his wife went to Cornwall or Scotland twice a year, he cleared a place in the studio for me to write. But I wrote outside in the garden when it was hot, and downstairs by the Rayburn when it was cold.
The great rural poet John Clare often wrote in hiding, lying low in a field or under a hedge, so that the neighbours could not see a ploughman engaged in matters which were none of his business. But he compared himself to the nightingale who "hides and sings". He led a double life in the village, although eventually it became a marvellous single existence of traditional labour, and the right words to describe it. Those who had previously written about the land and its seasonal demands had rarely put a hand to it; after Clare, it would be different.
Much of my writing is done on a rickety kitchen table under a fruit-tree, although indoors I write with my back to the window, as the view is distracting. Somehow, this is no view when I am in it. And especially when digging and raking, keeping my eyes on the ground. Now I must make the sweet-pea wigwam.
My friend Tony Venison is due. Learned and appreciative, for many years his gardening column in Country Life guided us all. We met in the garden which Sir Cedric Morris created at Hadleigh, a few miles away, and Tony has inherited both its workaday genius and its spell. We will sit in the pub and go over our past.
Mutuality is a marvellous thing, especially when it is controlled by a shared learning - although here I have to confess that mine has stopped somewhere at the elementary stage where gardening is concerned. But I am an expert and tireless, or uncomplaining, weeder. According to religion, Paradise, a sheltered garden, is where we should be. My first botany was in one of those Bibles which did not end with Revelations, but with a list of plants. And I sometimes hear God questioning us as we enter Paradise: "My beautiful Earth; why didn't you enjoy it more, its trees and flowers?"
Lent is a kind of fertilisation of the spirit. It is the time when we have to find the space to let it grow. Its desert must bloom. I find that simplicity, not self-denial, is the better aid for this. It is what the Quakers tell us. I have just given a talk in their meeting house in Sudbury, Suffolk, my home town, and felt quietly blessed all the time.  (20th March 2015)

Ronald Blythe feels pity for the cold suffered by the homeless Saviour

Raw spring days. Early walkers squelch down the farm track, calling my name through the budding hedge. There is a profusion of birds and primroses. Sharp rains have hit the ploughing. Equally sharp winds tear through the trees. I might as well be bare, for all the protection of my clothes. It goes right through you, it does, as we say, year after year.
My saffron is out in force, making me think of one of the most beautiful of Essex place-names. Ancient farm lawns have flowers before grass. In March, there are muddy edges, not a stripe in sight. Blackbirds bounce about, robins take an oblique look at the world. Humanity might pause to consider a housing shortage, but every other living thing simply makes the shelter it needs. John Clare's poem "The Nightingale's Nest" is the best-observed account of this homemaking, and should be an example to us all. I once read it at a naturalist's funeral, as it seemed to embody both an earthly and a heavenly shelter.
The homeless Christ shivered during the bitter Palestinian nights, envying the snug creatures in their burrows. Young soldiers like my father, brought up on blazing views of the Empire, were nonplussed by their experiences of the Holy Land at night and at noon, unable to comprehend a temperature which could swing from Arctic to heatwave in a day. He used to say that there was nothing about this in Sunday school.
But I have always felt a pity for the homeless Saviour, and a special love for that little family of sisters and brother who took him in, listened to him, and fed him, and remembered that he was human as well as divine.
Tramps were a common experience of my Suffolk boyhood. Both men and women pushed laden prams from workhouse to workhouse. Gypsies had no part of this. Proud to the point of arrogance, they wouldn't have a house if you gave them one. They wintered in Epping Forest, or in the wilds around Norwich. Clare summed them up - he envied their freedom, and was taught to play the fiddle by them, but realised that he could never be one of them. Between him and the Romanies, a great gulf was fixed. He wrote: "'Tis thus they live - a picture to the place; a quiet, pilfering, unprotected race."
It took us a long time to distinguish tramps from Gypsies - not that they would have cared. They were at ease in the world. Walking across the fields, I would see where they had been, the ashes of a fire, the sordid evidence of a squat, the beaten grass, the human litter. And I would think of those 40 years when Israelites trekked over Sinai, and, as we said, "Joshua the son of Nun, and Caleb, the son of Jephunneh, were the only two who ever got through to the land of milk and honey." What a litter they would have left in their wake! And then - in sight of the Promised Land! Jordan!
We know a little of the baptismal river where the followers of Jesus had the old life washed away, and where "the dove descending breaks the air."
Clare's famous trek was from Epping to Northampton, with bleeding feet, some 90 miles. It would end in a lunatic asylum. But his song would never end. Everyone who loves the English countryside hears it still, and especially in springtime. It vies with that of the birds and winds, the soundless flowers, and should tune into the rural work pattern. Only, as far as I can see, nothing is done; only an April walk on a Sunday afternoon. The same feet that will hurry to the station to work will tread my track for an hour or two. "Lovely day," they call out.  (13th March 2015)

Ronald Blythe watches as February tries to detach itself from winter

[Image: Shelly Robinson]

“Midwinter spring is its own season,” T. S. Eliot said — aptly, for this moment. Certainly, there is no other time like it. The bright deceiving sun, the growth which is unlike any other growth.  I savour it to acknowledge its fleeting presence. My Garrya blooms lopsidedly: all tassels one side, just leaf stubs the other.  But countless saffron, and accusing heaps of withered leaves.  So I must make a start, as they say.  Making a start is harder than all the rest put together.  Tremendous birdsong, hurrying ditches, patches of warmth. And Ash Wednesday just over the hill.

I look back on glimmerings of mortality when I kneel before the priest, and he before me, as we draw crosses on our foreheads in the sanctuary.

Lent, the lengthening of the light, may have begun with the fast that preceded baptism.  They say that it was very strict.  Barely a bite before vespers.  Fish gradually crept in. Purple vestments, and no alleluias.  All this grew unobserved, until John Henry Newman.  I recall my surprise at seeing sackcloth hiding the glories of the sanctuary at Southwark Cathedral, and my strengthening of faith as a black woman knelt before it in what seemed to be a great silence.  One is supposed to see only Christ, but often it is the Saviour in others.

And, of course, I re-read the Four Quartets.  The Blitz was wrecking London when they were written.  Their Cockney chat interleaves a New England comprehension of London in a now classic sense, and, far away, at Little Gidding, I am reminded that “Midwinter spring is its own season.”

Which is how it is at this moment, the final days of February attempt- ing to desist from all connection with what at school we sang as “Winter mild and winter drear, surely wintertime is here.”

“We will pay for this — you’ll see,” they used to say in the village.  But no longer.  Weather is more to be an experience on the screen than in the dash between car and building.  As boys, we walked miles in gale and snow, half-skating, fully puffing it out, our boots elevated by ice soles, our breath preceding us, “In the dark time of the year”.

At midnight, calling in the garden for the white cat, the planes fly over, tipping a little towards Stansted as seat belts are fastened and novels are closed, and the universe itself tilts.

Yet there is almost no sound, and the planes are so near to each other that it is hard to see how they can drop like vast flakes on to the Essex countryside.

My aspens shiver, and my neighbour’s horses have an impromptu Derby in the night air, galloping from hedge to hedge.  The only thing these creatures do in their entire lifetime is to give a girl a ride on a Sunday morning. Otherwise, they converse, stand stock-still, and, of course, think.

They stand beneath oaks that the farmer planted when his men were at Gallipoli, or ran off to be slaughtered by Wellington.  My telephone line threads through them.  The returning birds will soon be resting on them, their mouths stuffed with this year’s home.

Once it begins, March is a race.  My hyacinths are polished stubs, and last year’s litter must be combed out of this year’s buds.  Lent must be released from the Prayer Book once more, and its severity felt, if only gently, “seeing that we have no power to help ourselves”. 

Ronald Blythe seeks a Nature Cure

[Image : Anne Lee]
A green sequence of natural rather than supernatural meditations preoccupies my early Lent, each following the next in the way dreamings do, and stimulated by exquisite February days.
First to arrive is Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure, with its echoes of John Clare’s experience and of our years of talk. To be healed by skies and fens and flowers and knowledge of these things — how wonderful.
Of course, there is nothing new in these remedies. There they are, just being outside, and free for the taking. I took some big doses an hour ago as I wrenched up nettle stalks and bird-cherry suckers from the edges of the top lawn, and listened to linnets. How well I felt — and still feel. But it is marvellous to have this well-being all set out in chapters, and set to music in words.
Alongside Richard’s testimonial to nature, for there is always an alongside reading with me, I read another nature cure called The House of Quiet by A. C. Benson (1904). What good writers depressives are. I remember William Cowper. My love of his hymns sometimes creates grins in the choir. He was suicidal, but nature in the form of vulnerable hares showed him a trembling world that his God sustained:
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; 

the clouds ye so much dread 
Are big with mercy, and shall break 
In blessings on your head.

Cowper liked writing in his greenhouse, where his current hares could play around in safety. He would be there when the frosts were over — “When the plants go out, we come in” — and he preferred the natural history of Olney to smart resorts such as Margate, which he likened to a Cheshire cheese full of mites.
But A. C. Benson’s The House of Quiet — the old book that fell out of the bookcase just when I was reading Nature Cure, and  murmured, “Read me” — turned out to be the work of a depressive at one remove. A great many confessions in those late Victorian years were at one, or even two, removes. Their authors invented scapegoats on which to pile their failings and feelings. 
Arthur Benson, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s son, no less, and Master of Magdalene, Cambridge, was a depressive who used bicycle rides throught nature to cast off the black dog. And they did. He and my friend Richard Mabey were healed by the same East Anglian flatlands, the one concealed by the etiquette of his day, the other gloriously open, but both beautifully descriptive of their regenerative property. Except that Benson is frightened by woods, which for him can be “near the confines of horror”; also still water. He must have open country and running streams. All in all, he reveals a large man with the terrors of a child still.
My third nature-cure-seeker has to be Richard Jefferies, who is young but consumptive, and far from depressive. He died, aged 39, in 1887, a Wiltshire farmer’s son who, while not a Christian, possessed a vision of nature (which included his own body) which the poet Elizabeth Jennings be-lieved matched that of Thomas Traherne.
Richard Jefferies’s The Story of My Heart is an exultant, unhidden paean to nature, and one that accepts the naturalness of death. It is a hymn to joy, and a dismissal of time. Christ taught the disciples to live in the Now, to step out without a penny, to be alive — really alive. As does Richard Jefferies, when he is dying with the wind and sun on his face. 

Ronald Blythe remembers hearing hymns sung by Cornish fishermen

St Paul tells the Church to put on love as though it was a garment; to wear it so that the world can see it. As both a Jew and a Roman, he was entitled to wear the recognisable dress of both nationalities. In the same edict, he commands the followers of Jesus to "Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs."
There was a time when this order appeared to have been forgotten; it was then passionately restated by St Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan who had not been baptised when he was made a bishop by acclamation. His "O Jesus, Lord of heavenly grace" was sung every Monday.
Ambrose is called the father of church music in Latin Christianity. St Augustine said: "How greatly did I weep in your hymns and canticles, how moved I was by the voices of your sweet-speaking church! The voices flowed into my ears, and the truth was poured into my heart." This singing was imitated by almost all of its congregations.
We accept 18 Ambrosian hymns and four Ambrosian poems as authentic, but it was their combined sound and language that continued to add to make "songs of praise" the only aspect of Christianity known to most people.
Some hymn-writers possess a special reverence for many of us - a devotion that we hold on to all our lives. When I was in my twenties, the poets R. N. Currey, James Turner, and W. R. Rodgers, and I "spoke" hymns in the big, cold East Anglian churches, usually without so much as a by your leave. And I was 19 when I first heard the magnificent Methodist hymn-singing in Cornwall when, on a Saturday night, fishermen perched on the window sills of pubs to sing "O for a closer walk with God", and St Bernard's passionate "Jesu, the very thought of thee" - a hymn that, some believed, had helped to civilise the world.
George Herbert famously made little of his poems, and told his friend to burn them if they were no good. Sensibly, this friend had them printed by the best publisher in Cambridge.
"Our" local hymns are "Hills of the north, rejoice!" and "My song is love unknown" - the first set by Martin Shaw, and the second by John Ireland. Its author, a youthful curate in the 17th century, was deprived of his living, but still ended up as a dean. All that remains of his country church is a big stone and a wide view. My mother's favourite hymn was "My glorious Victor, Prince Divine, Clasp these surrendered hands in thine."
Hymns tumble in and out of the books, and Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861) was "a task of much labour", the preface confesses, not to mention much copyright, much cutting, and, eventually, much popularity. An old friend, Alan Cudmore, is my authority on hymns. I also love Thomas Hardy's mention of them. Once, when his lovers were strolling past a Dorset church, they heard a new hymn being practised. It was "Abide with me".
The Salvation Army's all-conquering weapon was the band-led hymn. Unfortunately, there are hymn-book-makers who do not allow their ignorance of literature to stop them meddling with some great hymns.
The Jews' peerless hymn-book is Psalms: all 150 of them carry the singing through the heights and depths of human existence. It was sung through the Holocaust. It is a pastoral one, but it never dates, and it is Christ's own songbook. It is hard not to "hear" him and his family singing from it.  (20th February 2015)

Ronald Blythe tidies up the garden and feels a new energy

The artists John and Christine Nash called their inner circle "the dear ones" - not from any feeling of exclusivity, but of management. Over the years, they had taught and belonged to various art movements in East Anglia. They had taken a practical part in everything from the Wormingford Dramatic Society to the Aldeburgh Festival.
John Nash, too, had been a plantsman and a musician. Looking through the windows from which he would paint on a winter's day, using its glazing bars to line up a drawing or a watercolour, I see more or less the same scene that he saw: a palette-shaped flower bed, my far neighbour's hilly pasture, some bone-idle horses, and greening ash trees. No traffic, but Tom's little plane might saunter past like the aeroplane in a child's storybook, archaic yet up to date. Nothing happens, yet everything happens. The scene is restful, yet vital.
Alan, a friend from my boyhood, arrives. We don't talk about our past but of this present, topping up a few mutual experiences of old age. We love the old liturgy, of course, but really know very little about today's Church. It's a mistake to try to keep up with trends where prayer is concerned: it must try to cope with those horrors of the world which are always with us, as Jesus said they would be; yet it must acknowledge that there is truth in the newness of love every morning.
I sometimes try to imitate a Jewish friend who returns to his room after breakfast to say his prayers, only I say mine washing up. And sometimes in the garden. And particularly now that I have cleared the grass of sticks and black leaves and debris, and step gingerly between purple saffron and the tracks made by badgers, trying, as always, to make up my mind whether it should be a wild garden or a proper garden - one that doesn't attract concern about my age, and its being too much for me.
As far as I can tell, nothing is too much for me, although I rule out the annual farm walk. But don't I walk to fetch the milk? To fetch the post? To fetch anything? Many years ago, this would have been a house of endless errands, of children bred to fetch and carry. Of never going empty-handed.
But how many of them, over the centuries, wouldn't have been struggling down the stairs at this hour of the day to feed stock before feeding themselves. How many would have crept from their beds in this very room where a typewriter clicks.
A long time ago, two youths arrived to fix the telephone, and one of them said, wonderingly: "Listen, Tony. A typewriter!" - a then rare Olympia. The parish, the diocese, the Church, print a library every day. And to think there was a time when it took a week or a month to draw a capital letter.
Outside, everything is energised - including myself. But also free. Even the silvery Saviour and his angels and apostles, carved on the church doors at Stoke by Nayland by some contemporary of Chaucer, have a spring glitter.
George Herbert was strict when it came to opening a church door. At Bemerton, we open the same door as he opened, and we drink from the cup from which he drank. At Wormingford, we step down into the interior, each worshipper letting a little of the spring in, a fragment of birdsong which joins our psalms.  (13th February 2015)