WHAT Coleridge called "the
secret ministry of frost" was given early this morning. At 5 a.m.,
they say. The garden stiffens, the blackbirds catch the crumbs that
fall from the blue tits' table. The air is as sharp as a knife. The
bare trees creak. The sky scuds about. The postman skids. I burn
Keith, who mends the old
house, looks for indoor jobs. Christmas is coming. But the High
Street is restrained. In the public library, which was built as a
corn exchange, a shelterer from the winter blast complains about
the modest heating. But the village bus is moderately cosy. My
track crackles underfoot. We sing:
O come, thou Dayspring, come
Our spirits by thine advent here.
Although, as a matter of
fact, my spirits are not low. Holy music keeps them high. Advent
song is the best of all. It has something to do with its being
better to travel hopefully than to arrive (Robert Louis Stevenson).
I often include his prayers when I take evensong. He wrote them for
his household in Samoa; so I have to translate them to a cold
climate. The fresh flowers that his people put in their ears at
morning would have been wilting. And that Edinburgh voice - and the
fleeting breath! He was 44 when they carried him to the hilltop. He
said that every man was his own doctor of divinity, in the last
resort. He said that we underrated the duty of being happy.
In an unfrozen afternoon, I
do a bit of raking. Rough toil brings the best warmth. Bottengoms
is sheltered. At midnight at this time of the year, the stars blaze
down on it.
Homing planes pretend to be
one of them. People are putting on their seat belts, putting their
books away, feeling for the ground. My Australian nephew Michael
will be looking for business class after bankers' meetings. How he
gets about the universe! My house was old before Sydney
I had taken him to where his
father and I cycled as boys, to where we climbed Suffolk church
towers. "Come you down, you little varmints!"
All the churches smell the
same - a pot-pourri of damp books, lasting flowers, and holy
garments. And indefinable "presences". Out of season and in season,
they are jolly cold. Wooden and marble knights. Last Sunday's hymns
on the board. Worn steps. Last Sunday's lessons waiting to be
re-read. Philip Larkin's marvellous words to enchant me. And how
wonderful to be old and to take no notice of progress. To read the
poets and not the theologians. Although one must stay awake in
Advent, as St Luke insists. "Stay awake! I say." Else one might not
hear that Love, the guest, is on the way.
I take in the tender plants, take cuttings, take care not to
over-water them, having scrubbed the rustic pots. One or two
geraniums are in bloom; so they are given a last scarlet show on
the piano. The central heating in the sitting-room has been turned
off, and I am surprised that they don't freeze. The pictures stare
coldly from their icy frames. I fetch the winter curtains from the
cleaners. What else? Stay warm! I read Elizabeth Bowen's stories.
Old friends for December. And thank God that you have not inherited
an Irish country house.