Ronald Blythe watches as February tries to detach itself from winter


[Image: Anne Lee]

“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)

Ronald Blythe reflects on those whom we live and travel with


"I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained," the American poet Walt Whitman wrote. And placid was a word for the English countryside which John Constable loved.
Having seen it in riot when the farmworkers rose against their starvation wages, with rick-burnings and protest, he looked back at the peaceful Suffolk scenes of his boyhood when they were called peasants, and there seemed to be a God-given order between the classes.
Some years ago, when I was staying with my brother in New South Wales, we drove along the shore of Botany Bay, and we spoke of all the poor people, men and women, who had been shipped there from our own Suffolk world on the hulks that had brought African slaves to Bristol. Such journeys were equivalent to a flight to the moon.
Meanwhile, on my right in the plane sat a fault-finding woman for whom nothing was right. "Isn't it amazing that we can now cross the world in a day," I said. She looked at me as if she was about to report a lunatic. So I went on reading Barbara Pym, and looking out of the window. What she wanted was an ally, but I sank myself in the passing clouds, and said no more.
Literature is filled with dreaded fellow-travellers. Now and then they are prophetic. Returning to London from Suffolk, John Constable said "How do you do?" to the person sitting opposite, remarking on the beauty of the countryside, who answered, "Yes, sir. We call it the Constable country."
On the whole, I like looking out of the window in trains, especially en route to Cornwall, which once took five enchanted hours from Paddington. Or en route to Edinburgh, looking up especially at Durham on its mighty rock, and then across the sands to Lindisfarne, seeing saints all the way.
Walkers past my farmhouse are quite an event, and a human voice is a rarity. But the great trees - ashes, chestnuts, fruit trees - are already begin to sound with birds. February is upon them, a miserable month in books, but far from it during our current seasons.
The trouble with those popular poems of the seasons is that they no longer say what is happening now. Certainly, almost none of the traditional tasks. In fact, living in what must have been for hundreds of years a "tay", or "tigh" (Suffolk-Essex border language for some stranded farm), I often feel the landscape itself asking to be ploughed and sown when the green tips are a mere hint on the trees.
But the bulbs are up, thousands of them, and have certainly gone forth and multiplied. So now there has to be the last great clear-up, the final raking of the grass, the first tidying of the beds, the noting of the dead among the living, and, best of all, the promise ahead.
Unimaginably, Lent is in the offing. Sometimes, I think how relaxing it would be to live near a cathedral, and to have the Church's year all worked out, beautifully and professionally, and laid before me, although our parish magazines present each village with its distinct personality and liturgy almost miraculously, and fine creatures as well as fine folk are liveable-with in all three.
"Where am I on Sunday?" I sometimes ask. Where, indeed? At this moment, having held back for as long as it dare, the sleet rattles down in frozen rain-rods.  (6th February 2015)

Ronald Blythe celebrates a friend's birthday with songs and champagne

The autocratic nature of a great frost - it imposes its will on the winter itself. I am aware of this before I draw the curtains. Below the old farmhouse, the Stour Valley has hardened and whitened at its command, and become another place. Not a sound, not a hint of what existed before the frost.
Flowers bloom - a flood of snowdrops and a splash of primroses, plus some final roses - but do so at attention. The horses have gone in from the cold, and the walkers have come out, their arms swinging and their talk carried by the clarity of the cold.
A dear neighbour gives a party. It is her 100th birthday, and a card from the Queen is pinned up in the Victorian schoolroom where we used to hold our PCCs and every other village parliament, the famous Wormingford flower show, and every other social get-together. We drink champagne and sing, see little difference in ourselves, wonder who the children are, and feel a kind of parochial love for each other.
A stranger, seeing my name on the church noticeboard, says that he has never heard of a lay canon. I think of the canons of my youth, who wore little rosettes on their big black hats, and of bishops in gaiters. Those were the days! The day darkens, and we bump our way home over the sleeping policemen who stop us racing up the track.
Neighbours, hurt by time, rotate in my head. And, of course, we all wish that Gordon had been with us; for, although he has been dead these many winters, it somehow does not seem right for him to be absent. Towards the end, he became worried about recognition in heaven - how a handful of particular people, including his wife, would "see" each other there.
Epiphany is the "seeing time", of course. And, of course, "In the heavenly country bright Need they no created light." So I preach somewhat poetically on this lustrous theme.
I think of poor young Reginald Heber, who, the Church of England insisted, should convert India, when, like certain priests, ancient and modern, he would much rather have lived out his ministry in a country parish.
My mother loved missionaries. Her lifelong example was Sister Joan, who taught our faith in Ceylon. The women she converted made my christening robe. When, in old age, Mother sailed to Australia, and the ship called at Ceylon, it was like stepping on to a holy land. She bought a small brass bell for me there.
It shares a window ledge with a Stone Age tool I found on the high ground of Wormingford, and a splinter of medieval glass from the bombing of Julian of Norwich's chapel in Norwich. Faith is often fragmentary. So, in a sense, is farming, and certainly life itself.
But not the Epiphany light. It should guide us into Lent. I remember a print of Holman Hunt's, The Light of the World, which hung in my bedroom when I was a boy. I feared it more than I liked it: the carrier of the lantern so tall and strange, the two crowns, one of shining gold, the other of thorns. But, later, I discovered that it was painted in an English garden - one not unlike mine, a bit prickly, needing some keeping in order, and in which robins and blackbirds sang at all times of the year. Although not now, not in a hard frost, not in a landscape that is momentarily soundless.   (30th January 2015)

Ronald Blythe recalls how, in a silent garden one night, he gazed at the sky

Market Day. The village bus twists and turns through the lanes. On it are old folk, students, workmen, the woman who reads paperbacks all the way. There is an Italianate villa where the naval rating who helped to bury Rupert Brooke en route to Gallipoli lived; there is the hill where Martin Shaw composed "Hills of the North, rejoice". And there, across the liquid landscape, is the little house where my aunt spent her life making lace for the altar.
But, in the market town, the stone griffins on the church tower maintain their watch, seeing off goblins and foul fiends. I sense a new feeling of things not being as prosperous as they were. And, as always, faces from boyhood appear in the old street - not phantom features, but young faces grown old along with my own, especially in Waitrose.
The Epiphany proceeds. The Queen joins the Three Kings in the Chapel Royal; and in our three ancient parishes we sing and pray the journeying liturgy. Soon, we will be walking into Lent. Last midnight I wandered around the garden, staring at stars, and followed by the white cat. Stansted planes flew silently through golden clouds. An extra quietness prevailed. Snow was out of the question, and winter was no more than a name. But I checked the oil tank, and it answered with a half-full clunk.
Then came the clearing of desks for this year's work. Only not quite yet. Let January get into its stride. Hear some music. Answer letters. Remember that Keith is coming to decorate John Nash's studio, now my bedroom. He went to it every day at ten o'clock, and came down from it at four o'clock. His easel fronted a north light, and there was a single 40-watt bulb to encourage it. We never entered without permission, and he never left it without a kind of sadness. It was never swept or dusted, and cocoa-tin lids piled with ash were rarely emptied.
When he went away to fill up the sketchbooks, he cleared a space for me in which to write. But I never worked in his studio with its north light and half-light, but always in the sunshine. His pupils would enter this room with reverence, looking forward to the time when they, too, would attain its murk and hereditary litter and spiders' webs. For it takes an age to create one's own peerless dust and muddle.
I was once told the tale of Gustav Holst's reaction to the new composing room which his wife made ready for him when he was away. Glorious it was, with great windows on to the beautiful Thaxted countryside. But they said that he never wrote a note in it, and sat by the hearth in his old house, as he always did. His suite The Planets might soar to the skies, but it was created by the hearth.
Benjamin Britten worked in a window which faced the sea, and which at times was sprayed with it. But the local stationer sold postcards of the window, and, when visitors to Aldeburgh stood on the sea wall to watch him, he had to find a hiding place.
William Hazlitt, the great essayist who longed to be an artist, insisted that no one should approach an artist at work - that something sacred was happening at that moment. I once read "Kubla Khan" in the room where Coleridge had written it, rocking his baby son to sleep at the same time. Nash walks to his studio in my room every day.  (23rd January 2015)