Word from Wormingford

19 December 2014

Ronald Blythe recalls former residents of Bottengoms Farm

THE Christmas-card snowstorm brings in an atlas of my life. Views of every parish I have been to: familiar parishes, glimpsed parishes, parishes I have worked in, parishes in which I have felt the presence of artists and writers. And priests, of course. And naturalists. And those adopted by retired friends.

Long ago (for I doubt if the courtesy is still observed) an incumbent would offer his successor the convention of moving at least five miles away, so as not to get in his hair, so to speak - although, once addressing the retired clergy of East Anglia, I was aware that it is often during the final years of ministry that a priest and his wife, or her husband, are apt to make their most important friends.

I have been in Wormingford, on and off, since I was 22 - first of all as the friend of the artists John and Christine Nash, and later as the dweller in their remote farmhouse. My feet have kept the track to it open, if not level, and the view from it familiar.

On this near-Christmas day, I stare from its high north window, just as John once stared from it when he placed a canvas on his easel every week, and, cigarette between teeth, would transfer sketchbook drawings to oils.

The studio in those guiltless days was a homily to dust. Tobacco dust, mortal dust from plants and insects, and, to a degree, from the artist himself. It was never swept, and a single 40-watt bulb gave a discreet account of it.

During the summer, when John went to Cornwall or Scotland (never abroad, if he could help it), he would kindly dust a patch where I could write. I never told him that I never wrote a word in his studio, but always in his lovely garden; for summer went on for ever at Bottengoms. Still does. Even at this moment, with Christmas at my heel, the valley within a valley which contains the old house has its own climate. Should it snow, everyone knows that I won't be able to get to the top. The dip will fill up, hedges will disappear, familiar posts will vanish, and ditches will sound with loud but invisible water. Only no one could imagine such a sinking out of sight today, and the postman's van flies towards me with a flourish, and yesterday's cleared desk hides under the avalanche.

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Few birds sing, but a squirrel scuttles in the roof, and the white cat is torpid. The News creates a strange unease. People are going to foodbanks. Dickensian activity on cards is one thing, in 21st-century Britain, quite another. The poverty of the Holy Family resumes its traditional reality, and is no longer an old tale. All but the well-off would have had no difficulty in identifying with it since Christianity began. In our day, just now and then, it became academic, and below the surface of our time, but it never went away. It was always there, the fragility of human life, and in our world, not the Third World. With the poor and meek and lowly lived on earth our Saviour holy. It was and is true. Politics fail, especially in winter, and spectacularly at Christmas.

Yet the divine birthday is here again, and its light contains no variableness, neither shadow of turning. It is the perfect gift for Christmas. We should see by it. It exists for this purpose. Comprehending our childishness, it tolerates the tinsel. We are young now, whatever age we are.

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