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.
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.
Ronald Blythe finds inspiration in the prayers of a writer from the past
HAVING wheeled barrow-loads of mulch from the so-called back lawn – a rich kingdom for snowdrops – so that the mower can have its way, I begin to shape the summer. Snowdrops and snowflakes for Candlemas onwards, and both for the feast of the Purification.
It is a mild, bright January afternoon, and the horses opposite break into little gallops every now and then. Yesterday, all three parishes ate great piles of food in the old village school, where above our talk I could hear the chanting of the alphabet and the seven times table, the stamping of winter boots, and the singing of the morning assembly hymn.
At today’s weddings and funerals, those under 50 embark on them with much uncertainty. Now and then I go to Robert Louis Stevenson for prayers – those that he wrote to his Samoan household. I imagine his Edinburgh accent becoming fainter and fainter as his tuberculosis fed on him.
His widow said: “With my husband, prayer, the direct appeal, was a necessity. He was happy to offer thanks for that undeserved joy, when in sorrow or pain, to call for strength to bear what must be borne.”
I don’t know about undeserved joy. Like grace, joy is there for the taking. We all deserve a bit of it, and if we miss it, it is mostly our own fault. Mrs Stevenson said: “After all work and meals were finished, the pu, or war conch, was sounded from the back veranda and the front, so that it might be heard by all. I don’t think it ever occurred to us that there was any incongruity in the use of the war conch for the peaceful invitation to prayer.”
I found Stevenson’s little book in a tumbledown shop where a big dog lived. An unattended bookshop on the other side of the road was filled with treasures, and customers dodged the traffic to buy them. Then another copy arrived; so they sit together with my sermons, and Samoa and the Stour Valley make common prayer.
Long ago, when our faith was young, the Epiphany was celebrated as Christ’s baptismal time. Four hundred years later, it became the feast of the Manifestation of Jesus as the Christ or redeemer of the Gentiles. A flood of divine light poured through the universe to make him plain to us. St Paul found it all rather a puzzle, this light which lightened every man. This light that began as a star, and continues to illuminate everything we do or say.
And then there are the words that Thomas Hardy loved more than anything else in the Bible, and which are written on his memorial window in St Juliot’s, Stinsford. He was probably flinching from noisy preaching and the pulpit generally when he heard that the Lord was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake or the fire, but in the still small voice.
It is often in silence that God speaks to us. At the same time, we must not hide away like Elijah in a cave, but stand on a mountain top. Listening is a very grown-up thing to do. To be a good listener is wonderful. Poets and novelists have their ear to the ground – and to the skies. And maybe especially at the Epiphany illumination of so many mysteries. During it, we read one of the most beautiful of all stories, a boy being called by his name, Samuel, by his God.
Ronald Blythe looks out at a winter scene that is neither ‘wild’ nor ‘drear’
TWELFTH NIGHT. Shakespeare wrote his play for it, and King James and everyone crammed into Whitehall to see it. A boy sang “Come away, come away, death,” and there was confusion of roles and gender.
It is enchanting at this moment: the old rooms are full of sunshine. The white cat frets at robins through the glass. It is a morning of great stillness and promise. The land-scape is bleached and waiting. The meadows are melting, and the ponds glitter. As children, we sang “Winter wild, and winter drear” in what were then bitter post-Christmas days – an out-of-date song from what I see now, which is a quietly beautiful landscape warming up.
Gardening comes to mind. Planting bulbs suggests itself. There is even that sweet scent that April brings. I hold a tiny phial of frankincense to a friend’s nose, and say “Smell.” Then I carry wood ash on to the bonfire site. Someone here would have done this when the boy sang “Come away, death” in Whitehall.
I tend not to make New Year’s resolutions for fear of breaking them in February. But a new book begins to create its own order for the weeks ahead. At the moment, everything is out of date – the parish magazine with its pages of Christmas happenings, in particular.
I am always amazed by these publications, by what goes in them at all seasons, and what priests, churchwardens, bell-ringers, flower-women, organists, and the laity for miles around are up to. Those who organise things in parishes are still on the rota. Immortal, they are. Incumbents may come and go, but Peggy or Bob are still on the list for something or other. And the Lent readings are out.
Bottengoms, my old farmhouse, was always on the edge of things. Balanced between Suffolk and Essex, and between two parishes, and in a valley between two quiet steep hills, it must always have had a life of its own. As I do not drive, kindly neighbours bump down to take me to where I have to be on Sundays, not best pleased to get their sparkling cars muddied.
I have discovered a pre-First World War parish guide to the area, with photos of church interiors, and Edwardian naves and chancels, with a psalm, hymn, and matins still up on the board. I see bursting hassocks, paraffin stoves, and just a few roses in brass vases on the altar. But also a photograph gallery of keen young curates and irascible rectors.
I gaze into their pale faces and think of not far-away Flanders, but of congregations in their Sunday best, and I hear the old hymn-singing, full and loud, and I see local names everywhere. And the gentry in front and the labourers at the back. And I see the heavy altar frontals, plus flimsy heating. In boyhood, it was “Put another jersey on if you’re cold.” But I have no memory of being cold in church. I suppose the beauty of holiness kept me snug.
In St Gregory’s, there was the mystical hissing of the gas system. And in the vestry, there was the decapitated head of an archbishop, named Simon, who was murdered during Wat Tyler’s rebellion. Perhaps the local monks brought it to Sudbury hoping to set up a shrine with a profitable following. But all it got was a crowd of choirboys looking in the glass to comb their Brylcreemed locks.
The archbishop’s vacant gaze looks back at their young faces. His face has seen Rome, Paris – everything, everywhere. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Ronald Blythe leaves the detritus of Christmas and makes an annual visit
MY GREAT frost poem is Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight”. “The frost performs its secret ministry, unhelped by any wind.” And so it did last night. The pasture was brittle and bright, the horse ponds on the point of being ice. A new year distanced itself from Christmas despite the papery litter and the still-bursting larder. And there is a sense of looking much behind and looking for much to come. The garden is sheltered, with roses in a kind of everlasting bloom. Just a few of them, their petals darkening but not falling. Notes and scribbles for a new book have taken over the Christmas-card territory, and what cards still stand upright are ritually flattened by the white cat. The wrecks of turkey and pudding have taken over the fridge. We make our annual journey into Suffolk, to a pub called The Peacock. There are as many fine dogs and pretty children as drinkers, and a brick bridge over a small river – one we biked to as boys. A writer named Julian Tennyson, grandson of the poet, wrote my favourite East Anglian book here. He intended to return to become a Country Life author after the war, but the Japanese battles claimed him. He always carried a verse from his grandfather’s In Memoriam in his pocket as a talisman. Leaving The Peacock, I touched the bridge that Julian had crossed so many times, remembering him and his brief existence. It is the Epiphany, a confident time for the Church. Its Psalm 72 is full of presents. They are piled high. Heaps of corn, shaking fruit, blessings galore, and two Amens. And a new light with which to illuminate a new path. The Magi walk it; gold, frankincense, and myrrh perfume it. Its three Kings arrive from Tarsus, Arabia, and Saba, and are on their way. A sumptuous time for the carpenter’s son. But our valley rattles with bare boughs, and owls are about. I do the ironing and filing. The guests go for a long walk; the white cat goes to sleep; the horses stand close in the stable. No one works. In John Clare’s winter poems, shepherds blow their hands and sing. Church bells take a rest. And getting and spending come to a stop. Winter always revived those who lived in my farmhouse, by January light and lamplight, and in a world of great shadows and great draughts. Victorian photographs show women in shawls, and men in knee blankets. You dressed up for it. Door curtains shivered, thatch warmed under snow. There were secret scufflings of rats, and all-too-public winds. You burnt in front and froze behind. Winter took you off if you weren’t careful. But, as it was a good two miles from my house to church, you arrived as warm as toast. There are a few New Year hymns: Timothy Dudley-Smith’s “Child of the stable’s secret birth”, and his beautiful “Nunc Dimittis”, although the carols run on. I am a great admirer of St Paul’s letter to his young friend Philemon. I read it in January. Philemon, you remember, owned a young slave, Onesimus, who ran away – a capital crime. St Paul complicated matters by telling Philemon that, as he had become a Christian, his slave was now his brother. And the apostle returned the slave to his owner with a logical note – one that, had all followers of Jesus obeyed it, would have made much of the slave-trade impossible. Imagine receiving a slave for a Christmas present.