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 Times long 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.
Knees attract Ronald Blythe‘s attention after a craftsman’s visit
JESUS, Peter, Paul, and Stephen all knelt to pray. “Strengthen the feeble knees,” Job prays. Now and then in scripture there are apologies for not being able to kneel down. The great novelist Henry James suffered agonies from what was lightly called writer’s cramp, but when his brother William fixed him up with a typewriter – and someone who could work it – his readers were not at all pleased. Dictation had ruined his famous style. He soon found a new one, however.
But arthritis was a common hazard, and was given dismissive names – tennis elbow, the screws, etc. A craftsman from Norfolk arrived to relay my 18th-century brick floor, a large, kneeling, skilful man, who smoothed the original underlying sand and chalk tenderly before resetting the slender tiles, wiping them with a mite of wax and leaving them with little sign of generations of hobnailed boots, something that he had done since he was 15. He wore leather knee-caps. “Yes,” he admitted, “my knees are killing me!” Like Job, he was submissive.
People once hid occupational aches and pains for as long as they could. Anything to stay out of the workhouse. No longer able to follow his trade, John Clare’s father sat on a bank, chipping stones to surface the lane.
And now, a brilliant writer told stories to James’s secretary, a young Scot who was a shorthand-typist. It was the first time that he had worked with another person sitting beside him, and with a clatter, not a noiseless nib. Visitors glance at my Olympia typewriter with alarm, and then at shelves of books with some respect. And carbons? They think of Caxton.
The leaves are sailing by at quite a rate; the November sun is warm. The white cat picks her way through the debris, and the horses discuss the climate on the hill. None of these animals have done a day’s work in their lives. Now and then, they are engulfed in gulls. I am engulfed in digging up a little apple-tree from where it has seeded itself by the front door, to put it in the orchard. I rock it gently, loosening its roots. Like us, plants must breathe and grow. Inside, the dreaded filing awaits. Oh, for James’s saviour. I remember an ancient joke: the typist returns with the letter and tells her boss: “I couldn’t spell psychology; so I drew it.”
A talk on the radio accidentally chimes with James. I am back in New York with the London plane-leaves whirling by, and the windy city is “blowing your head off”. It is one of the world’s best walking cities where one can step it out. Life, that is. It is mathematical. No wonder Americans find European towns bewildering and illogical. And the way in which we prop up clearly done-for old buildings instead of pulling them down! They shake their heads. Just imagine what London would look like had it not been for the great fire.
At this moment, I am thinking of what it looks like now, particularly in the parks, on this lovely November morning, and from the top of a bus, maybe. Lunch on the steps of St Paul’s. Evensong for the few at four. Golden Bath stone, townie pigeons, the Thames a Turner.
Writers are often allowed a memory like a haversack, a pile of unsorted experiences from which they can pull out something to suit the day. We are asked to remember William Temple. Short-lived, alas. St Leonard, too, who was a hermit. These lives flutter in my head and need anchorage. In our churchyard, the stripped trees are rooted in the dead, but full of life.
How’s your memory? As we get older, we collect more experiences to remember, and yet that’s when our memory starts to deteriorate… it’s not fair! There are many ways of trying to improve our memories of course; writing things down; brain-training exercises; quizzes, more reading and the like. But there’s nothing more likely to remain in our memories than something we wish hadn’t happened – such as the loss of a loved one, an unfortunate event – or a war.
November is a month of remembering, as we celebrate All Saints’ Day with All Souls’ Day, Guy Fawkes (though many don’t know the story, never mind remember it!), and of course Remembrance Sunday, a day which grows in significance every year. We all have different and unique memories, and will therefore feel very differently about the events of this month.
Is there a way we should feel? Does the Bible tell us, or guide us? In Isaiah 46:9, God says “Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other.” It’s really important to keep in mind all the major events of our lives which have brought us to the present day – events in our own lives and those around us which have shaped our circumstances and very existence. And God calls us to remember that He has been part of all those events, too – and that His memory doesn’t fail!
St. Paul tells young St. Timothy to “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my Gospel” (2 Timothy 2:8). The extent of our faith will continue to depend on an awareness of what Jesus has done for us; but even if we were to lose our faith, He will remain faithful to us (2 Timothy 2:13), as He has promised to remember us. And better than that, we know that we are loved by Him and accepted by Him because He “remembers our sins no more” (Hebrews 8:12). That doesn’t mean the Lord forgets; He has decided to put them out of his mind, as a positive act of forgiveness. In the same way, we forgive others (Mark 11:25), even though we cannot expunge them from our memories.
So may the Lord guide us throughout this month of November, as we do something really important – we remember together, so that the whole community may recall the past, celebrate the present and have faith for the future.
Yours in Jesus
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.
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 whatVeni, 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?