OLD friends in an old bedroom, having an old conversation. Thin
snow outside. It is St Valentine's Day, and the Pope is resigning.
Fancy that. But why not? we say, knowing nothing about it. How
weary he looks. Weariness is something we understand.
Hyacinths topple and sway like censers, but we maintain our
equilibrium. Like my ancient house, this ancient house stares east
into a partly blocked view; for we dwell in the "Suffolk-Essex
highlands", an unexpected countryside to most people. Snowy
newspapers, snowy sheets. The housekeeper enters with milky coffee.
Holy pictures on the walls. Then home through the churned-up mud to
Bottengoms, and a further extension of the same territory.
I am judging a children's poetry competition for St Edmundsbury
Cathedral. Pre-puberty poets are best. On the radio, the Poet
Laureate holds forth on the Song of Solomon. Apparently, they
thought twice about including this ravishing work in the canon. How
glad we are that they did. The white cat sleeps on the cooker.
After lunch, I brave the winds, and cut a drain so that the
water in the track can run freely. A green woodpecker comes to have
a drink. Should a walker have passed, I would have said: "Spring
will soon be here," or something equally brilliant, but no one
comes. I rake until I cannot see. Then I go back to the poetry
competition to balance the pros and cons, as a judge must. It is a
solemn thing to sit in judgement.
Jean's horses tumble about beneath the catkin hedge to keep
warm. The snow becomes a brief blizzard. All this on St Valentine's
Day. My archaeologist neighbour calls to say that they are digging
by the river - by the ring burials - and I imagine our slender
ancestors chipping away at flints, and singing, maybe.
Quinquagesima has come and gone, the day they buried George
Herbert. I choose his version of the 23rd Psalm for my Lent One. I
hear his lute. One's religious memory has a way of retaining things
that our mature beliefs can find embarrassing, or of great value,
if inexplicable. At Sunday school, I faced a long framed text whose
words have become lost, but whose background - a picture of boats
sailing on Galilee - remains thrilling to this day. Although, even
then, I knew that as art it was terrible.
Not like the medieval wall-painting in Wiston Church, below
Bottengoms, in which this same scene takes place with masterly
conviction. And yet, at the same time, with no great meaning. And
how hard it is to get the doggerel choruses of infancy out of one's
head. Memory is both a ragbag and a treasure house. It doesn't know
the meaning of taste.
I remember going to D. H. Lawrence's Eastwood, and seeing the
then dilapidated chapel where he attended Sunday school, and in
which he had sung "Galilee, sweet Galilee, where Jesus loved so
much to be" and how these words and their tune would stay
unforgettable, although it was easy to rid himself of
Paul suffered dreadfully from not being able to forget Saul. His
mind had been trained to contain both the best and the worst. An
honest memory is the only asset we pos- sess that can show us the
self that God recognises. The Epiphany exposes us, as well as
enlightens us. Sundials say "I tell only the sunny hours" because
it is all that they can do. Given half a chance, our memories would
do the same. But life would not be half as interesting.