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Word from Wormingford

06 December 2013

Even a king's body is made up of dust, says Ronald Blythe

THE rival claims of Leicester and York to Richard III's bones - as a tourist draw, one cannot avoid thinking - do not mention his dust. Dust has never been collectable. Yet it is dust that remains when all else is gone. Shakespeare's own epitaph famously deals with both dust and bones.

A long time ago, I was leaning over the brass communion rail in Stratford-upon-Avon church, intoxicated by the nearness of this peerless dust, when I was told off by the verger for hurring on it. "Excuse me, Sir, but don't hurr on the brass." A reasonable request, when he had just Brassoed it. He then confessed to having left West Bergholt, the village next to Wormingford, to live in Warwickshire - "Because my wife couldn't stand the way the brambles hung out of the hedges."

Shakespeare, back home after a less than respectable career on the London stage, had almost certainly turfed out the occupants of a fine tomb in his parish church in order to make a place for his bones. And cursed be he who moves them. All this, not in the hand of one who had written the sonnets, but in threatening doggerel. Above him, Sunday after Sunday, the living hands took the living bread.

A different dust, and a different tomb caught my fancy at this time: that of the poet Edward FitzGerald. His gravestone put the blame for his oddness on his God. "It is he that hath made us and not we ourselves." It spread a little lopsidedly in the dank grass. Maidenhair and dog daisies blew over it in May.

Being a dreamy young man, I often joined them. And this is where the mortal dust came in. And from far Persia, not Suffolk. I knew The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám by heart - a sceptical masterpiece. Wry and sadly happy, it says: seize the moment - seize it from the moment you wake to the moment you die. Jesus said much the same thing. Don't look back. Remember Lot's wife. Live today. And then comes the Persian dust in the English churchyard, just down the lane from me.

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the dust descend;
Dust into dust, and under dust, to lie,
Sans wine, sans song, sans singer, and - sans End!

As everyone was talking about Benjamin Britten being 100 on the feast of St Cecilia, I remembered his telling me about living in Snape mill, and how his piano was ebony black when he went to bed, and dusty white when he came down in the morning. Generations of flour had filtered down from the beams. It pleased him.

Ancient dust is in permanent free-fall in my farmhouse, which is as dry as a bone. Dusty seekers are setting out for Bethlehem, crossing deserts, looking up, and with a long way to go. No sooner do I put a foot into the church than it is: "Don't forget the Advent carol service . . . the bell-ringers' carol service . . . the Nine Lessons." Do not forget a thing. Do not forget the dusty feet of Palestine. Do not forget "the Lord will come and not be slow, his footsteps cannot err. . . Truth from the earth, like to a flower, shall bud and blossom then."

What a strange time it is, this Advent of Christ. So ordinary, yet so mysterious; such a setting out, such an arrival. "Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul When hot for certainties in this our life!"

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