21 September 2012


Art of the apothecary

YOU will be pleased to learn that Team GB's haul of medals at the Olympics was matched by the Pridmores' at the Portslade Horticultural Society's 2012 Flower and Vegetable Show. To be sure, our "Longest Bean" fell far short. But, given the competition, our fourth prize for a "Dish of Fruit", unlike a fourth at Oxford, was far from ignominious.

Our "Trug of Vegetables" ("arranged for effect", as the rules stipulated) won third prize - a bronze to be proud of. But the show-stopper, for which we were awarded first prize, was our "Vase of Herbs". Herbs, of course, do not only season food: they have many medicinal properties. Such is the proven excellence of the Pridmore herbarium that I am proposing to turn apothecary. In this venture, I shall be guided by Culpeper's Complete Herbal of 1653.

Among my opening promotions will be Stinking Motherwort ("let such as be rich keep it for their poor neighbours"), Dodder of Thyme ("most effectual for melancholy diseases"), and Goat's Rue ("sudorific, alexipharmic, and very refreshing to wash the feet of persons tired with over-walking").

Prospero's magic

THE Olympics sent me back to The Tempest, Shakespeare's "farewell to his art". Haunting lines from the play, which once I taught to A-level students, were spoken at the opening ceremonies of both the Olympic and the Paralympic Games. The Tempest shatters the artificial distinction we draw between the things we suppose are illusory, and those we like to think are real. We imagine that what happens on the stage and what occupies our day-to-day lives belong to two separate worlds. The curtain falls on a fantasy world, but then -out of the theatre and on to the bus - we're back, so we delude ourselves, in "the real world". The epilogue to The Tempest denies us this comforting illusion. Prospero, his charms "all o'erthrown", appeals to us, the audience:

   As you from crimes would pardoned be,
   Let your indulgence set me free.

Prospero has held everyone captive by his enchantments. At the last - "to the elements be free" - he has let Ariel and the rest go. Now, in his Nunc Dimittis, he pleads to us, sitting in the stalls, for his own deliverance.

The play goes on beyond the limits of its five acts. Prospero's story merges with yours and mine. It is up to us whether Prospero gains the freedom he, too, longs for, and returns safely to Naples. It is all so like Mark's Gospel, another unfinished drama that becomes our own. Is Jesus risen or not? It is up to us - the business of a Christian lifetime - to choose.

Final decision

WE SPENT a glorious autumn day with our good friend E. He took us on a "mystery tour" along the North Downs. The excitement of such an adventure is sufficient evidence that the child in us is immortal. Our first stop was Newlands Corner.

Newlands Corner is as near the sky as you can get while still within reach of London, and astronomers gather there by night to contemplate the stars. By day, there is a splendid view. Far away are the South Downs, and below you is Albury, where, in the 1830s, the restored order of the apostles, crackpot but saintly, gathered to found the Catholic Apostolic Church.

Our next stop was a hidden pool where our dear friend botanised in earlier days. Finally, we came to the climax of the tour, the churchyard of an ancient village church. Our friend invited us to look at one simple headstone. On it was a name we knew: Delius.

Delius, who was born 150 years ago this year, had asked to be buried "in some country churchyard in the south of England, where people could place wild flowers". Delius was an atheist, and he died of syphilis, but his midnight burial was a Christian service.

I have long loved Delius's music. Pausing at his grave, in the churchyard of St Peter's, Limpsfield, I was overwhelmed by a sense of how good it is that he rests in this holy ground.

And there and then I came to a decision. If there is any room left in any of them, I, too, would like to be buried in a country churchyard.

Look at life

OUR youngest grandchild, three-year-old Talia, was with us this summer. She is a questioning child. Her most frequent question is unnerving. Whatever you are up to, she has the same disturbing question: "What are you doing?" It is a deeply philosophical enquiry.

Answers such as "doing the washing up" or "dealing with my emails" will not do. As we are well aware, such superficial answers evade the fundamental question, which most of us fear to face: "What are you actually doing?"

Traveller's rest

MY WIFE and I went to church on Sunday, to a church we had not visited before. We got the time wrong, got lost on the way, and arrived an hour and a quarter late. The service had evidently finished, but no one was leaving the church.

When we slipped through the door, we saw why. They were still enjoying each other's company, as Christians should. Absurdly late as we were, they made us welcome, and gave us coffee and biscuits. They were genuinely interested in who we were, and what brought us to their church.

Which friendly church this was does not matter. Suffice to say it is in the diocese of Chichester, which sometimes gets a bad press.

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