MY GREAT frost poem is Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight". "The
frost performs its secret ministry, unhelped by any wind." And so
it did last night. The pasture was brittle and bright, the horse
ponds on the point of being ice. A new year distanced itself from
Christmas despite the papery litter and the still-bursting larder.
And there is a sense of looking much behind and looking for much to
come. The garden is sheltered, with roses in a kind of everlasting
bloom. Just a few of them, their petals darkening but not
Notes and scribbles for a new book have taken over the
Christmas-card territory, and what cards still stand upright are
ritually flattened by the white cat. The wrecks of turkey and
pudding have taken over the fridge. We make our annual journey into
Suffolk, to a pub called The Peacock. There are as many fine dogs
and pretty children as drinkers, and a brick bridge over a small
river - one we biked to as boys.
A writer named Julian Tennyson, grandson of the poet, wrote my
favourite East Anglian book here. He intended to return to become a
Country Life author after the war, but the Japanese
battles claimed him. He always carried a verse from his
grandfather's In Memoriam in his pocket as a talisman.
Leaving The Peacock, I touched the bridge that Julian had crossed
so many times, remembering him and his brief existence.
It is the Epiphany, a confident time for the Church. Its Psalm
72 is full of presents. They are piled high. Heaps of corn, shaking
fruit, blessings galore, and two Amens. And a new light with which
to illuminate a new path. The Magi walk it; gold, frankincense, and
myrrh perfume it. Its three Kings arrive from Tarsus, Arabia, and
Saba, and are on their way. A sumptuous time for the carpenter's
But our valley rattles with bare boughs, and owls are about. I
do the ironing and filing. The guests go for a long walk; the white
cat goes to sleep; the horses stand close in the stable. No one
works. In John Clare's winter poems, shepherds blow their hands and
sing. Church bells take a rest. And getting and spending come to a
Winter always revived those who lived in my farmhouse, by
January light and lamplight, and in a world of great shadows and
great draughts. Victorian photographs show women in shawls, and men
in knee blankets. You dressed up for it. Door curtains shivered,
thatch warmed under snow. There were secret scufflings of rats, and
all-too-public winds. You burnt in front and froze behind. Winter
took you off if you weren't careful. But, as it was a good two
miles from my house to church, you arrived as warm as toast.
There are a few New Year hymns: Timothy Dudley-Smith's "Child of
the stable's secret birth", and his beautiful "Nunc Dimittis",
although the carols run on.
I am a great admirer of St Paul's letter to his young friend
Philemon. I read it in January. Philemon, you remember, owned a
young slave, Onesimus, who ran away - a capital crime.
St Paul complicated matters by telling Philemon that, as he had
become a Christian, his slave was now his brother. And the apostle
returned the slave to his owner with a logical note - one that, had
all followers of Jesus obeyed it, would have made much of the
slave-trade impossible. Imagine receiving a slave for a Christmas