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Word from Wormingford

20 November 2015

November is a time of decay and renewal, says Ronald Blythe

RELENTLESS rain. It bounces off the oaks, which, in turn, rise from a lake of roots. Yesterday, I planted tubs of bulbs, and thought twice about the fallen leaves. Let them squelch. I read about life, and I sit by a deathbed. Each season begins with a kind of regret for what has gone before. Bees will be asleep, and not rattling soaking flowers.

In Massachusetts, I heard autumn being called “the fall” for the first time, and it was strangely exciting, as though east-coast English and American landscape were being rolled together in a single climate. But Thomas Hood’s words no longer apply:


No shade, no shine, no butterflies, o bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, o birds —

The Clean Air Act of the 1950s has seen off the fogs and left an assortment of mists, which, in turn, provide a range of delicate clouds. I live according to two calendars: one provided by the sharply suited weathermen on television, and the other by liturgy.

Matthew makes his way through the latter carrying a sword, a money bag, and a carpenter’s square. He is the apostle who stands at the gate of autumn. Although mid-November suggests a coming to an end of fruitfulness and energy, I find it a kind of waking-up call. It is when St Martin celebrates his “little summer”.

I remember a stumpy church, its roof blown off by cannonballs in the 17th century by Civil War guns. This was dedicated to this saint. He had given half his cloak to a native man. They made him Bishop of Tours. Somehow, he drifted to Colchester, a man who was familiar with warfare and whose shrine was blown apart. Wild plants have grown over its ruin as though to hide its exposure. Handsome aldermanic tools stood all around it. What did the Second World War poet say? “Softly the civilized Centuries fall, Paper on paper, Peter on Paul.”

Matthew was a taxman, and money was his calling. Worse, he collected taxes from his own people for the hated Roman invaders. He purchased a licence to do this, and was loathed all round. The followers of Jesus were scandalised when their Lord made friends with him, but “It’s the sick who need the doctor,” he said.

Both the apostle and his Gospel are examples of dying down and renewal. Jesus was tramping from Galilee to Capernaum when “he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the seat of custom, and he said to him ‘Follow me.’” No giving notice to the Romans, no passing on his coveted licence.

Matthew was once thought the most suitable Gospel to be read in church, because there’s nothing muddled about it. It shows us what Jesus taught, what he did, where he came from, and where he is. Christianity is spread out plainly.

It arrives when nature is wilting, when decline and mortality are in the air, when one can actually smell the summer’s rot. But growth feeds decay; so I let it all stand. No full clear-up until winter. Just this rattling of sticks, this mouldering of what was bright. And this sploshing about in muddy ruts.

Friends are anxious. “How’s your track?”

“Beautiful,” I say. Polite mumbles of disbelief.

I plunge along to the soft sound of winter, and the huge murmur of wind in the valley, and its promise of gales and the certainties of the season. Why Matthew? Because somebody had to keep money in its place — and never more so than now.

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