Ronald Blythe’s “Word from Wormingford” column in the Church Times lightens the greyness of a Monday morning. Reaching English letter boxes on a Friday morning, it is three days later before his words arrive in rural Ireland. Of course, they could be read online, but that would rather spoil the experience of writing that is almost tactile. It seems appropriate that his ponderings should come as black print on white paper, hard copy that reflects the physicality of the Suffolk countryside he so often describes.
Blythe’s words transport his readers to medieval churches where those who comprise the meagre congregations are likely to be the last to embrace the faith once received. His words carry one through landscapes imprinted with centuries of memories. One encounters poets and painters and sculptors and writers along the way, and, of course, priests. Were Ronald Blythe forty years younger, one wonders if the pictures he weaves would be possible. Had he grown up in the 1960s and 1970s instead of the 1920s and 1930s, his experience of rural England would have been very different and his experience of the church even more so.
What, of course, does not change, is the natural world he encounters, and he has a keen eye for every detail of the passing seasons. Perhaps growing up in a world without electronic distractions and motorised transport brought a greater awareness of what was to be seen all around, for anyone prepared to look. Perhaps, also, it took an effort to learn the name of each tree and plant and flower and bird, to know when each would appear, and which were worthy of comment.
Growing up in rural England forty years later, perhaps we lacked the discipline or imagination of Ronald Blythe. The primary school teacher would take us for nature classes, learning petals, and sepals and stamens and the different sorts of plant, but we were not really interested. Spare time was not spent the Ronald Blythe way, riding bicycles along lanes between hedgerows taking in the beauty and diversity of what surrounded us. Bicycles were for going somewhere or, if not engaged in going somewhere, for racing. Fields were not places where one might identify flora, they were for playing football with jumpers as goalposts, or cricket with a single bat and improvised stumps. Even those activities declined as television and pop music and the other novelties of the late 20th Century reached our rustic community.
Looking back now, there is a feeling of regret. Our games and our viewing left us nothing lasting, gave us no perception of what lay around, no vocabulary with which to express our appreciation of everyday things. Ronald Blythe is exceptional, but perhaps his generation will be seen as one of the last to be able to find words for beauty.