Borderland, by Ronald Blythe

Fields of vision
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

This third volume of Blythe's Wormingford trilogy, covering the period 1999-2004, finds the diarist nimbly engrossed in the routines of a settlement where the daily newspaper has to be fetched and the water supply depends on the annual ministrations of the Ipswich well-inspector. Holed up in his ancient house, Blythe features as a kind of ghostly registrar, forever pondering the discrepancies between the scenes of old age and the rural life he knew as a boy. The biggest change, he deduces, is silence. Here in the world of shiny agribusiness, the fields are attended twice a year, songbirds have flown, and the ploughman - that staple of English literature since Gower - has ceased to homeward plod his weary way.

Not all these absences are to be regretted. In the wake of the 20th-century flight from the land, an unexpected charity has come to characterise the meek cottages, peopled now by gnarled old-timers and commuting settlers. "The hissing gossip, the cruel laughter, the persecution even of the recent past" have gone the way of overgrown greens and swarming children.

But Blythe has an even sharper eye for continuity, those unshiftable stones that have stood by the wayside since the days of Redwald and Sutton Hoo. The walk to the post office takes him past a former workhouse built in the year Queen Bess died. As news of the Iraq war leaks into radio schedules and exercises the minds of his church congregation, he notes that "a farmer could have knelt in this self-same room and asked to be saved from the Spanish Armada and the Pope".

The twitch on the thread goes far beyond Suffolk. Hearing about American serviceman found playing Monopoly by the Kuwait roadside, he reflects that "Nearby, and probably unknown to them, is the site of the Garden of Eden." The religious sensibility that lies at the heart of Borderland is advertised by its literary name-checks (Clare, Kilvert, Rose Macaulay, above all George Herbert) and its concern, in an ageing community winnowed by death, to find appropriate ways to discuss human feeling. Roving in the churchyard, where centuries-old tombstones and chintzy modern catafalques go side by side, he laments "the absence of the old religious language".

With five years of jottings (most of which originally appeared in the Church Times) compressed into a single January-December timescape, a certain amount of repetition was perhaps inevitable. In any case, this is not a book to be read consecutively.

Almost every page produces some delicate stylistic shading: a visit to present poetry prizes at a school in Dartford once attended by Mick Jagger, where he gets talking to Old Rubber Lips's venerable father; kittens rollicking in the snow "like deceived girls making for the workhouse"; a mourning family "listening in the kind of vacuum which occurs when the reality of what is happening becomes too great to bear".

What is left of the Anglican literary tradition might sometimes seem to be a matter of faintly austere versifying from the school of C H Sisson, R S Thomas and Geoffrey Hill. Here in Wormingford, wonderful to relate, the Kilvert/ Herbert line of world-struck Anglican prose is still going strong, down among the mildewed hassocks and the unrelenting Jutland wind.

D J Taylor's 'Orwell: the life' is published by Vintage

Comments