JOURNALISTS are proud of
what they call "rolling news". But I am flattened by it. Thus this
past two weeks in particular I have rationed its horrors, one
blanched young father's face on the screen making it unnecessary to
hear anything more.
I read the collect for Holy
Innocents' Day at matins, but did not add my ha'p'orth of sympathy
in the sermon. Rage, really. That such things should happen.
Quietness at dawn put the
news in its place. The Gospel for this day is the flight into
Egypt: "Arise, and take the young child and his mother," God tells
Joseph, "and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee
word." A clumsy pottery image of this event stands on the old
kitchen shelf. It is what was called a "fairing", i.e. a Victorian
prize won at a coconut-shy. The Virgin rides; the father walks.
On the screen, the
driven-from-home Syrian boys and girls, in thin cotton clothes,
burn cardboard to keep warm. The conclusion of the Innocents' Day
Gospel is unbearable; yet there cannot be a better lament for what
I witness far off. "In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation,
and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children,
and would not be comforted, because they are not."
It is mild. Springlike,
even. Primroses bloom between the paving stones, and chaffinches
bounce around in the crumbs. Streaky morning skies; the white cat's
putting out a dark paw to test the temperature. I write out two
Nine Lessons and Carols, one for Mount Bures, one for here. A
farmer, a bell-ringer, a commuter, on I go. The aisles glitter, and
smell of pine needles. All is well. The crib flickers. "Thanks be
to God." Mulled wine. All this ritual worn to a frazzle by its
annual repetition; yet it shines.
Joachim will be on his way
from Berlin, with its Baltic cold, and Ian on his way from Norfolk,
which could be windy. I must rake a path to the house as invitingly
as possible. And bring in holly from the vast hedge. What does my
old friend Richard Mabey say about this shiny plant? A huge
Ilex aquifolium. Or
hollin. A practical mystical tree. My neighbour will be making
holly wreaths for the churchyard and front doors. I crown the oak
post that holds up the entrance hall with it. Log fires will
shrivel its leaves long before Twelfth Night. But holly trees will
be left in the field-hedges for ploughing marks, although the dozen
shares on Tom's plough monster, guided by remote control, have long
done with them. Yet a reverence, even a fear, of holly, will
guarantee its survival.
My holly hedge was
reasonable enough 40 years ago, but now it scrapes the sky. Whippy
thin boughs stretch from it in order to flourish. Few berries. The
hedge needs a good trim.
It was planted maybe
centuries ago, as part of the old garden hedge, to keep the stock
from getting at the vegetables, but now its only use is Christmas.
The wreath-makers carry it about in sacks. Their fingers are torn
and reddened. It is surprising how, at Christmas, the hands of so
many villagers become the hands of their ancestors, owing to
I see these wounded hands at
the communion rail. They take the chalice that was in use when
Shakespeare was writing Twelfth Night, cuddling it
carefully, candlelight on their hair. I don't like the way that
these ancient cups, from which generations of parishioners have
taken the sacrament, are put into cathedral museums. Some time ago,
the cup that George Herbert used at Bemerton was kindly brought
from Salisbury Cathedral for me to use - and has since permanently
shed its glass case.
For Herbert, Christmas was
for singing. He was a fine lutenist, and I like to imagine him
singing in Bemerton Church at maybe the only two Christmases he
spent there before death silenced him.
shepherds sing: and shall I
no hymn for thee?
soul's a shepherd too; a flock
thoughts and words, and deeds.
He goes on to see each of us
as Christmas candles, "a willing shiner":
will sing, shine all our
beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
ev'n his beams sing, and my musick shine.
Herbert was at an inn, and not in church when he wrote this
poem. An inn on Christmas Day: a country pub with people singing.
And Christ singing alongside them. The poet adored his Lord in
church, but almost preferred meeting him in his rectory, the
Salisbury lanes, the Wiltshire fields. Jesus and music - and
conversation - all came together in such places, naturally and
intimately. And, since Herbert knew that his life here would be
brief, he knew, too, that he must make the most of it, riding in
the fresh air with his perfect friend - who, no doubt, was singing,