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Word from Wormingford

11 January 2013

Epiphany sunshine fills the interior of Ronald Blythe's home


LONG ago, walking home, I was tempted to visit the poet Edward FitzGerald's grave on a winter's afternoon, just when the light was "going", as we used to say. A young airman from the USAAF base with a little son in his arms was fumbling his way into the church. "Where is the light?" he asked. Memorials glimmered all around. Light was taking its daily absence.

Since it is Twelfth Night, I take down the holly. Log fires have dulled its gloss. Crisped to a turn, it hisses from the beams to the bricks. The white cat has done for the Christmas cards. No sooner do I stand them up than she mows them down, believing this to be her duty.

I shove crushed wrapping-paper into a sack unceremoniously, empty ashes, and remove wizened apples, when, without warning, an Epiphany sun blazes in, making the ancient interior look trashy and in need of a good putting-to-rights. But, as children, we took down the paper chains and folded up the paper bells with sadness. We watched the snowman drip into nothing, and witnessed his dying. Everything was different then, as it was bound to be.

The farmhouse was in "full Christmas" when William Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night to entertain King James at Whitehall. Food-wise, what could be salted away was preserved for the bitter months ahead. The winter's cold could be terrible. You had to clutch at health for all you were worth. You could become low.

"Keep good fires," the Revd Sydney Smith advised a depressed friend. "Winter wild, and winter drear Surely wintertime is here," we sang in the village school. But in church we sang "Brightest and best of the sons of the morning". Reginald Heber wrote this entrancing Epiphany hymn after discovering the Olney Hymns. He was so youthful, and, alas, so vulnerable to the destructive Indian heat. He listened to his hymn being sung in a Raj church below the Himalayas. It is exotic, and a far cry from Cowper's pleading "Heal us, Emmanuel".

Many old country people called Twelfth Night "the real Christmas". It was also a trickster time, when boys became girls and bonfires from the old gods challenged the light of Christ. When ice and snow made it impossible to work, play took over. See a typical Dutch winterscape: as it is far colder inside, everyone is outside, skating, running, drinking, shouting. In freezing Victorian classrooms, the children would be told to stand up and "beat your arms" to get the circulation going. One reason for our present post-Twelfth Night aches is that our blood barely circulates. Families dine on sofas, not at tables. But then the Three Kings probably dined on a carpet.

I could pick a bunch of primroses. Not that I will; for their open presence near the house must not be disturbed. But here they are, about a dozen of them, in the Epiphany sunshine, forerunners of thousands. The sodden oak-leaves of the rains are dry and conversational. The sky is a goldmine. Lots of mud about. The church smells of pine needles and wax, and damp uncollected cards. I am to lay at Christ's feet my "burden of carefulness". I know exactly what the writer is getting at. So should we all.


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