A FROSTY post-Christmas. The valley is white and stark. Place-names become unbearably eloquent about the way in which evil contrives to rationalise itself across the centuries.
Having just said the Innocents collect at matins — “O Almighty God, who out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast ordained strength, and madest infants to glorify thee by their deaths” — I hear that five little sisters have been killed in Gaza. Herod, after all, was only safeguarding the state.
The newsreader then mentions Askelon. “Publish it not in the streets of Askelon,” says David. “The beauty of Israel is slain. . .” He is mourning his friend Jonathan.
It is John Milton’s 400th birthday. Blind like Samson, he is “eyeless in Gaza”. The never-ending cruelties of these small nations, the scandal that the Palestinians should still be landless, the mystery that the personification of Love should have been born among them.
Joachim arrives from Berlin. It is Hannukah, the feast of light, and he places the minora on the dining table. At matins, Pam has read from Genesis something about a burning lamp, but I am surreptitiously searching for the prayer that goes, “Eternal Lord God, the same yesterday, today, and for ever . . . we ask your help in forgetting the mistakes of the past,” although wondering if this is a good thing. Anyway, how can we, when the news is full of Gaza, Askelon, and Herod’s Bethlehem? Places taken up with so much weeping in scripture and in our time.
It is fearfully cold, and we burn shiny hazel logs. The white cat sits on Joachim, and never on Ian. On account of his new pullover. A smart Wine Society “plum pudding”, the gift of my agent, steams away. The ancient house remembers other Christmases, ones when what went on in what the farmers called the Holy Land was a closed book. The misdeeds of Ipswich may have penetrated its remote rooms, but little else.
A gig like Great-uncle Ned’s may have whizzed them the couple of miles to church, gleaning a mite of gossip on the way. Smoke would have wavered from every chimney, and bells would have pealed through the frigid air. Bare hedges would have rattled. There could have been skating down by the watermill, thus shouts and laughter.
Inside, the church would have been, well, as “cold as Christmas”, the sermon hurried and carols unsung, the greenery piled around, a pair of candles sputtering. It was the labourers’ only day off.
But now I am well into 2009, and into clearing a glade in my wood. This is such a wonderful task that I toil until the late afternoons when the light fails and the fat pheasants screech, “Go in! We want to roost!” And the badgers shift.
This February, thousands of snowdrops will be fully seen under the trees, not to mention silvery runnels where springs come to the dark surface. Duncan or somebody has patched the holes in the track. So no longer that great lurching of cars at the top. By March, I should be as tidy as — but no name, no names. Let our good deeds go unsigned.
I have been writing about a Book of Hours, one of those lavish aids to prayer with terce, nones, etc. on the middle of the page, and lusty pruning, scything, etc. in the margins, the latter in full blue, green, and gold-leaf illumination. Life in the Middle Ages, as now, was non-stop. On your knees in church, on your knees in a ditch. I have actually been on my knees with a scrubbing brush where the Dyson cannot reach. These bright brick floors!