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Word from Wormingford

14 December 2012

Music keeps Ronald Blythe in high spirits as Christmas approaches

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 ash logs.

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  and cheer
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 existed.

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.


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