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Word from Wormingford

18 January 2013

Ronald Blythe pores over ancient walls of lath and plaster

KEITH the builder works on the old farmhouse with a kind of inherited understanding of its materials and structure. A lath-and-plaster wall is taken back to its fundamentals. Anything later than, say, 1660 is swept away by what seems to me a hand that itself is contemporaneous with this date. But I do not enquire. I watch. His "history" and my history are unable to speak to each other.

Dust of ages fills the room. Yet the white cat remains white. Bodging falls to the floor. Keith neither swears at the work of these crude menders, nor honours what remains of the art of the Tudor builders as he frees the laths from pale crumbling daub.

The laths were made from flat strips of riven oak or beech which, when freed from the collapsed daub, are as good as new. Other parts of the house were constructed with a basketwork of willow sticks and grass. Electrical fittings are johnny-come-lately threads. Keith allows them all, somewhat alarmingly, to hang out.

At one o'clock, he stops working, and I stop watching, and we have a glass of port. After he has gone home, I pore over the wall as one might pore over an old painting, tracing its outline, its prickle of little handmade nails, its wooden Meccano of beams, seeing both its fragility and its lasting strength. The next day, Keith re-lays the brick floor, a modern addition circa 1750.

Where do natural craftsmen get their eye? Why haven't I got an eye? Keith's tools, scores of them, lie like treasure in the box that was given

to him when he was 16. There cannot be many houses hereabouts where its contents haven't come in handy. Beside the tools, there are "finds", such as a scrap of blacksmith's work: "That'll come in handy."

The weather being springlike, I garden. The birds sing. I find a way to get dead leaves out of the yuccas without being pierced. I dig up a dead rose, Duchess of somewhere or other, and plant a new one, a Christmas present, in its place. Though not exactly in its place; for this is something one must not do.

Taking an Epiphany matins at Little Horkesley, I tell them the story of the conversion of Buddha, the Enlightened One. I have told it to them before, but it bears repeating.

An Indian prince, youthful and beautiful, is driven in his carriage beyond his palace and its gardens for the first time. He has never seen ageing, illness. . . Such things had been kept from him. He sees a shaven-headed man in a simple yellow robe, and is told: "He is what is called a wanderer, my Lord. Someone who has gone forth."

"What is that - to have gone forth?"

"It means to lead a holy life, my Lord; one which is filled only with good actions, harmlessness, and kindness."

The Buddha alighted. "I will go forth."

Which, after the upset at his local synagogue, is what Jesus did; what both he and the Buddha, and countless of their followers, did, carrying light wherever they went. If you follow a star, you have to look up. Epiphany should be when we see God plainly, when we walk in the light.


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