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Word from Wormingford

02 November 2006

wormy from standing

CAMBRIDGE in November. I have bumped there on the country buses to celebrate our birthdays, Jane’s and mine.

This is an ancient custom. We are each other’s oldest friends in every sense of the term, and in this instance ritualistic, going over the same ground, resuscitating those who have gone before, arguing a bit, forgiving a lot, and firing off cheerful declarations of affection.

She will cook us a fine dinner; but before then we are to inspect the refurbished Fitzwilliam Museum to find out where they have put our favourite things.

Being 90, Jane is autocratic. Charming young attendants bring a wheelchair, and I drive it from gallery to gallery, from lift to lift, from Brueghels to Freuds, the great glass doors being swung open before us. And, of course, as Jane has a special veneration for them, we have to pay our respects to the Roman emperors, older friends even than I.

No time to dawdle. No time to catch my face in a Roman mirror or read the labels. The latter restriction suddenly reminds me of being taken to the Sydney Aquarium by my brother, and being slowed down by all the information. "Come on! There’s no time to read." With Jane in the Fitzwilliam, I notice that there is plenty of time for the emperors and their battered noses.

We have tea in the new and marvellously roofed restaurant, Jane now enthroned in the wheelchair, pretty girls in attendance, and surely a curator hovering near. "Do you believe in heaven?" Jane asks during dinner: "I don’t." She has arranged "one of those ecological funerals", but with "bell, book and candle, of course". Of course.

I take my usual November walk round Cambridge before coming home. It is perfect, the grey-gold stone, the lingering smell of fireworks, the leaves on the college lawns, the undergraduates in Ryder & Amies measuring themselves for gowns, the persistent whiff of Reformation in Great St Mary’s, the vast glories of the Botanic Garden peeping through its gates, the dark Backs, the worn walls, the risky old men on bikes, the autumn alleys, the beautiful faces, the new hopes.

Then the ride to Bury St Edmunds, bus-talk like a parrot house. I make a dash to the cathedral to sit in my stall for a few minutes. It has a new cushion embroidered with a quill pen, not a computer. It is the feast of St Leonard, my birthday saint. He was a French hermit whose official Life is historically worthless. Like his Lord, he did his best "to open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house".

The Wormingford roads are slippery with leaves and shallow puddles. The days are alternately dull and brilliant. We tidy up the grass round the American war memorial for the laying of the wreath. Far too many names to read out, but we will listen to "ours" in the church and sing hymns redolent still of the Great War, and I will receive the British Legion standards at the altar, and push the mourning and guilt forward into the current conflict, as I fear the Church will do until kingdom come.

What God makes of it all, one dare not imagine. Best just stick to the poignant language, the perennial rite, the ineradicable memories, the strange sense of love.

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