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Word from Wormingford

28 November 2014

A seagull's wing reminds Ronald Blythe of carved angels in Blythburgh

JUST up the lane, children are snatching at breakfast, and grown-ups are snatching at time. But I am looking out of the window, as usual, and musing on birds; just as R. S. Thomas did, when he walked to the Llyn peninsular to give them a piece of his mind.

It was an uncompromising mind: God-questioning, restless, brilliant in patches, and, while thoroughly Franciscan, not at ease. Like my seagulls at this moment. White and impatient, they whirl around Duncan's field. How black they are on the wing, how snowy when they land. And how angelic. They remind me of Francis Thompson when he said: "The angels keep their ancient places;- Turn but a stone, and start a wing!"

The gull's wing on the kitchen table has started these thoughts. I cannot bear to think of how it has landed there. It is pure and perfect, yet mutilated. A friend took it out of her bag and left it there. I put it on a shelf, and then in a rose bed. I think of wooden wings in Suffolk churches - the ones that the reformers tried to shoot down, but only succeeded in winging. So they continue to fly to us from the Middle Ages, some of them nesting in Blythburgh to hold up the manorial claims of our gentry.

My gull's wing is a far cry from all this. When we were children, we wondered when wings would sprout from our skinny shoulder-blades. Much later, as a fanciful grown-up flying to Sydney, I would meditate on the thinness of the plane floor that cut me off from the earth. Neither angels nor gulls flew past this window, only nameless cities, miles below. Coffee was served. A novel spoke of love.

But today my feet are very much on the ground, because I am raking up autumn leaves. All around there is a haunting autumn quiet and a ghostly November mist, a great yellowing and nature's terminal beauty. Ash leaves actually tumble down on to my head, like the sad artificial poppies in the Royal Albert Hall a fortnight ago.

The Prayer Book lists names for the boy who will soon be born. They are very grand, but his name is Jesus, his carpenter father says. There is a Staffordshire figure of the three of them - Joseph, Mary, and their child - on the farmhouse mantelpiece, on the run to Egypt: father carrying his tools; Mary seated on an ass, clasping her baby; Joseph walking. The everlasting refugees.

These ornaments were "fairings", something you won on coconut-shies. Rural treasures which saw the generations out. I must wash it for Christmas. In church, I must remember to repeat the first collect throughout Advent, the one that promises us to rise to immortality. The one that is perfect liturgy and theology. The one in which we put on the armour of light, rising white like the gulls.

The Christmas shopping-list begins with a new scythe, the old one having got crooked in the wrong way. I must be the only person in my circle who is able to swing one. Passers-by watch me nervously. Never mind, one can do with a bit of awe. The withering orchard grass falls before it, sowing next year's seeds on the way. A somnolence attends everything, but next summer's flowers are counting the days.

Christmas shopping battles away in the country towns - although people are hard-up, they say. I think of the oaks and ashes that were felled to make angels.

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