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A costly resin reminds Ronald Blythe of smells from his childhood

“BRIGHTEST and best of the sons of the morning”, we sing, and the pale Epiphany sun shines on us. Reginald Heber was part-Cheshire and part-Oriental, and his hymn fills the church. A little file of myrrh from the forest lies among the debris of the kitchen shelf. It is a gum resin which is produced from several plants, and is one of the ingredients of incense. But it is not cheap.

“Say, shall we yield him, in costly devotion, Odours of Edom and offerings divine? Gems of the mountain and pearls of the ocean, Myrrh from the forest or gold from the mine?” The British Empire was in full flood, and its religions became increasingly exotic. Jesus had become the Star of the East, although “vainly with gifts would his favour secure”.

That marvellous perfume would vie with, in our case, the smell of a farm. For Marcel Proust, it would be the delicious scent of a little cake; for myself, it still was the nice smell of our childhood pigsty, and that of our greengages, which would vie with Bishop Heber’s incense.

The enclosed smell of East Anglian churches seems not to have altered an iota since I was a boy. A dedicated historian of their architecture and literary associations, I would push open the doors and immediately be engulfed in that riotous mixture of hymn books and furnishings, altar flowers and carpeting, robes and things like this which haven’t changed a bit since my boyhood.

Except, of course, the faint, deadly whiff of gas, which has never quite gone away. And, of course, Sunday-best clothes, although it is a long time since they gave up their special fusty grandeur. My first primroses vie with the Epiphany scents. And my first encounter with religious uncertainty was when the neighbour of a shopkeeper in a little town made the then shocking confession that there lived more faith in honest doubt . . . than in half the creeds.

I remain a philosophical believer. Multiple faiths of the Raj were unable to supplant Bishop Heber’s worship of Christ: in fact, they appeared to strengthen them. He was a poet whose certainties remain acceptable to us. They lie alongside these “odours of Edom”. They are starlit, like my clean East Anglian fields. Across which, in a certain light, I can see Stoke by Nayland church tower.

Blackbirds scuffle for old Christmas cake on the uncut lawns, and so Christmas departs, and the Epiphany remains, and Lent lies ahead.

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