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Word from Wormingford

14 August 2015

Ronald Blythe reflects on retirement and the enchantment of St James

IT IS late morning, and still I loll in my chair looking out. Bees visit and revisit the same flowers. Vast clouds stay still on the horizon. Green Victorias will soon ripen in the orchard. Impatient balsam peppers me with shot. It arrived in English gardens when Shakespeare was alive, and stands five feet tall outside the window, so that I see the world through a kind of green arsenal.

It is the feast of St James, and his followers will be trudging in to Santiago de Compostela, his shell of quiet on their shoulders, his words on their lips: "But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing." I imagine the great censer in the Spanish cathedral swinging back and forth like a boat on an ocean of faith, and the congregation singing "Let the round world with songs rejoice".

Getting to Compostela was no easy walk: in fact, one of the hardest; but the shrine with its pitching incense and high singing destroyed all the fatigue of getting there. There was elation and a rich feeling of accomplishment.

James was very near to Christ, and had seen his transfiguration and his agony in the garden, the heights and depths of his love. He arrived at Compostela like a fish, swimming into Christian consciousness. He said that we were to "ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed." And he continues sublimely: "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning."

My old friend Roger from the British Museum comes to matins, and then we go to The Crown for Sunday lunch. In two days’ time, he will have retired. I tell him that writers and artists never retire. On and on they go. When he has gone, I try to imagine the experience of retirement.

The first person to describe modern retirement was William Hazlitt, when he followed, as it were, the fate of a London clerk when he left his high stool for idleness in the City streets. Now that we live to be 80 or more, what to do during the decades of retirement can be either an exciting prospect or a problem, and one that our ancestors did not have to worry about. The poet John Clare’s father, crippled with arthritis after manual toil, was set to break stones with a hammer to mend the village lanes. This, or enter the workhouse. Those were the days.

But the countryside provided a break between haymaking and harvest. The first loaf from the new corn was placed on the altar on 1 August, and we still do this at Wormingford, retaining such fragments of tradition as we can, and keeping the church calendar alive.

For all his belated arrival as a silver fish on our religious shore, there is an enchantment about James which breathes reality, as do all great myths. He was, after all, a walker with Jesus by an inland sea, he and his brother John stepping it out with the Saviour. He and John took precedence over the other apostles, and he was the first to be killed by Herod. Just as Jesus marked him out, so did those who dreaded Christianity. Cranmer’s collect speaks of his "leaving all he had" for Christ, although not his boat. Parents, yes. But not his fishing. Eventually, he would become a great catch for the Church.

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