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Word from Wormingford

27 November 2015

Ronald Blythe attends the deathbed of an old friend

WHEN I was a boy, the old miller spoke of the tempest, not the storm. “Did the tempest keep you awake last night?” Now, they speak of Agatha, or some such wild woman. She will bring the last leaves down.

We stand on the brink of Advent. Sun pours into the old house. The track is as dry as a bone; the stream runs full. All the lawns have been cut. Talk about smart. I have re-soiled the big tub near the door, and planted it with bulbs — the best birthday present ever. Shiny stubs will nose their way through the darkness.

The churchwarden and I sit by a deathbed. It is serene. From a silver frame a Second World War officer, incredibly good-looking, smiles. A niece arrives, and takes over.

Like a disappointed child, I think of the Christmas party — the one that the dying friend would have given in the pretty house, with the fine furniture and lavish food. A hospitality from another day, with silver ornaments on the polished table, and an oar from some ancient varsity boat-race hanging in the hall. And I think that it will be the last time I will see all this.

When friends in their nineties depart, common sense tells us that they cannot expect to leave a gap — but they do. Who will tell us where to sit at the Christmas Eve table? In this house, we have always done what we were told.

Outside is the spotlessness of sheltered housing, and the Roman wall put up when St Paul was taking young Timothy and the faith into Europe, reminding the boy to pick up his cloak and books on the way. And talking wearily in circus language about “having run the race”.

Missionary work is very tiring. The Christian settlements did not want Paul to leave them, and once he famously exploded. Hadn’t he been beaten up, walked from Asia into Europe, been “on the road” for Christ from the moment of that revelation by the Damascus gate, when it was only too tempting to put his feet up? No, he had to go on. For both the Church and young Bishop Timothy, nothing must be left to chance.

And I must remember to say the first Advent collect right up to Christmas. It is beautiful. “Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility.”

And that catalogue of stupendous names in “Veni, veni, Emmanuel”: “Dayspring bright”, “Desire of nations”. So different from “You shall call him Jesus.”

Another name, Francis Kilvert, comes to mind. I am devoted to his Diary. A young clergyman on the Welsh border in the 1870s, he could be said to have sprung the male Victorian psyche. Although he was born in 1840, by one of those tanglings of the years I actually knew his niece, who lived near me in Suffolk.

Just before the Second World War, William Plomer published his Diary, a book drenched in English weather, rural Christianity, and what can only be described as parish intimacy. One learns a lot from Kilvert — as one does from Lewis Carroll. Tall, dark and handsome, he was taken off by peritonitis on his honeymoon. But he lives, just as every flower, girl, and Anglican episode in his parish continues to live, because he wrote them down.

Unfortunately, they threw away his sermons. I would love to have read Kilvert’s sermons, because he was such a good writer. Also a marvellous storyteller.

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