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Word from Wormingford

by Ronald Blythe

Posted: 02 Jan 2015 @ 12:14

Ronald Blythe leaves the detritus of Christmas and makes an annual visit

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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.

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