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Word from Wormingford

15 January 2009

Ronald Blythe reflects on children in Chekhov and at the Epiphany

POSSIBLY the frozen fields put me in mind of him, but I find myself immersed in Chekhov’s short stories, a paperback that the book­seller found for me in his storeroom. He apologised that it should be such a flimsy edition. But it is per­fect.

There is a painting of an onion-domed village church on the cover, below which two women chat in the snow. It is 1944, and millions were perishing on the Eastern Front. Should it happen to be the Epiphany, the Magi would have been forbidden entrance to the church. Outside, everything is waiting.

I read a story called “Children”, one of Chekhov’s best, thought Tolstoy. It is marvellous. The grown-ups have gone out, and the servants are cutting out a dress in the kitchen. Four girls and a boy play an unnamed game for copecks. The girls are ladies; the boy is the cook’s son. It is 1886. Yet it is now. It is the noise of any game, and it could be going on in any stuffy computerised bedroom at this moment, the un­fairness, the absorption.

In the village, I hear of a friend’s children tobogganing. Wormingford is hilly and slippery and immensely cold. It is Twelfth Night, and dread­ful lights will vanish from the gardens. In church, china kings and cows will be wrapped in tissue paper.

Someone has protested about the infantilising of the Epiphany. It is full of children, of course, all those boys being carried up the Temple steps for registration, and soon to be murdered. John and the Christ-child. But it is not a childish feast. Never need one be more grown-up to comprehend it. It is all about recognition. It is about God and man finding themselves in the same situa­tion. Was not life easier when they knew their place?

During the Epiphany, early on in this new light, St Paul advises us both to accept and to celebrate our differences. “Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love.” Few commands have been more ignored. He had walked and sailed all over the Roman world, and had seen how the empire had been able to absorb every kind of person, and some bizarre religions. Was there a moment when he thought that, if he set out the claims of this one in Rome itself, it would receive a similar tolerance?

Rome was an enlightened civilisa­tion. Greece had passed on its un­ques­tionable light to it. But then comes this blinding light, with its blinding conviction of a higher authority than Caesar. No emperor was going to put up with that. And so the stamping out of this light began. But it was wildfire, luminous, travelling, flaring up there just when it had been put out here. Eventually, sovereigns in England would think it an honour to walk in the footsteps of the Magi who offered gold to a poor child who manifested God on earth.

Religious light is a form of dark­ness to some. “Science gives off a clearer light,” they insist. Others see a dual illumination, the one inter­preting the other. I see a steady light, and the brightest and best of the sons of the morning. It is light enough.

My parents told me that my first word was “dark”. They were carrying an oil-lamp from room to room in the old house, and, as people do, one of them said, “How dark it is!” And the other said, “Yes, how dark it is! What a dark night!” And this several times. And the baby echoed, “Dark”. This was not thought to be pro­phetic. Or, as they were waiting for “Dad”, ungrateful.

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