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Word from Wormingford

04 December 2015

Ronald Blythe compares Robert Louis Stevenson’s and Jesus’s storytelling

MATCHLESS mornings; no birdsong, but the thinning oaks in a kind of aloof conversation. Not a soul about. My neighbour Vicky rings up to ask if I need “supplies”. I like this word for shopping. It makes me feel that I live in the Wild West.

It is market day, and the little Suffolk town has become one big shop. Morally, we should support a dozen small shops. But convenience reigns.

St Peter’s, the parish church, also redundant, soars to high heaven, as it did when I was a boy. Now, I am the President of its redundancy. It is full of Christmas cards and tinsel, and the ghost of Mr Vinnecombe exercises its spectral wrath. He taught my brother the organ. A rap across the knuckles when he made a mistake. There was a green lead spire that touched the sky, only they took it down in case it fell, which I doubt it would have done. Both Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable drew this lovely spire. But the bells are still rung.

The other day, I ran my hand along the traceries of the north door. When did this last open? Surprisingly, there is a Christmas card of my uncle’s tomb in a neighbouring churchyard. It is peeping out of a snowdrift. His life was shortened at the Western Front. Like the young men who lay out in the snow at the TB hospital, he chased air — nothing more. No more singing carols in the choir. No more snowy surplices and tottering processional cross; just this gasping for breath. If you were well off, you might go to Davos, to gasp there.

But those crowded evensongs! And the dressmaker twins, identical little ladies midway along the aisle. A card in their window said: “Hems taken up. Bridal-wear. Mourning.” Robert Louis Stevenson, on holiday in his uncle’s Suffolk rectory, would chase air all the way to Samoa.

Here is the prayer he said at the end of the day, and which I often say here: “Lord, behold our family here assembled. We thank thee for this place in which we dwell; for the love that unites us; for the peace accorded us this day; for the hope with which we expect the morrow; for the health, the work, the food, and the bright skies that make our lives delightful; for our friends in all parts of the earth. . .

“Let peace abound in our small company. Purge out of every heart the lurking grudge. Give us grace and strength to forbear and to persevere. . . Give us courage and gaiety and the quiet mind. Spare to us our friends, soften to us our enemies.

“Bless us, if it may be, in all our innocent endeavours. If it may not, give us the strength to encounter that which is to come, that we may be brave in peril, constant in tribulation, temperate in wrath, and in all changes of fortune, and down to the gates of death, loyal and loving one to another. As the clay to the potter, as the windmill to the wind, as children of their sire, we beseech of thee this help and mercy for Christ’s sake.”

I see him shuffling together the pen-written pages of Kidnapped (1886) to write this. On his life-giving South Sea Island they called him Tusitala — teller of tales.

I expect this is what they called Jesus. His magnificent Sermon on the Mount was one thing, his parables another. As children, we were told that the latter were earthly stories with a heavenly meaning. They encapsulate his teachings and his voice. We can hear him speaking. Storytellers tend not to raise their voices as preachers do; so I always imagine those who listened to Jesus were entrapped by pure narrative.

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