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
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
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
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.