TWELFTH NIGHT. Shakespeare wrote his play for it, and King James
and everyone crammed into Whitehall to see it. A boy sang "Come
away, come away, death," and there was confusion of roles and
It is enchanting at this moment: the old rooms are full of
sunshine. The white cat frets at robins through the glass. It is a
morning of great stillness and promise. The land-scape is bleached
and waiting. The meadows are melting, and the ponds glitter. As
children, we sang "Winter wild, and winter drear" in what were then
bitter post-Christmas days - an out-of-date song from what I see
now, which is a quietly beautiful landscape warming up.
Gardening comes to mind. Planting bulbs suggests itself. There
is even that sweet scent that April brings. I hold a tiny phial of
frankincense to a friend's nose, and say "Smell." Then I carry wood
ash on to the bonfire site. Someone here would have done this when
the boy sang "Come away, death" in Whitehall.
I tend not to make New Year's resolutions for fear of breaking
them in February. But a new book begins to create its own order for
the weeks ahead. At the moment, everything is out of date - the
parish magazine with its pages of Christmas happenings, in
I am always amazed by these publications, by what goes in them
at all seasons, and what priests, churchwardens, bell-ringers,
flower-women, organists, and the laity for miles around are up to.
Those who organise things in parishes are still on the rota.
Immortal, they are. Incumbents may come and go, but Peggy or Bob
are still on the list for something or other. And the Lent readings
Bottengoms, my old farmhouse, was always on the edge of things.
Balanced between Suffolk and Essex, and between two parishes, and
in a valley between two quiet steep hills, it must always have had
a life of its own. As I do not drive, kindly neighbours bump down
to take me to where I have to be on Sundays, not best pleased to
get their sparkling cars muddied.
I have discovered a pre-First World War parish guide to the
area, with photos of church interiors, and Edwardian naves and
chancels, with a psalm, hymn, and matins still up on the board. I
see bursting hassocks, paraffin stoves, and just a few roses in
brass vases on the altar. But also a photograph gallery of keen
young curates and irascible rectors.
I gaze into their pale faces and think of not far-away Flanders,
but of congregations in their Sunday best, and I hear the old
hymn-singing, full and loud, and I see local names everywhere. And
the gentry in front and the labourers at the back. And I see the
heavy altar frontals, plus flimsy heating. In boyhood, it was "Put
another jersey on if you're cold." But I have no memory of being
cold in church. I suppose the beauty of holiness kept me snug.
In St Gregory's, there was the mystical hissing of the gas
system. And in the vestry, there was the decapitated head of an
archbishop, named Simon, who was murdered during Wat Tyler's
rebellion. Perhaps the local monks brought it to Sudbury hoping to
set up a shrine with a profitable following. But all it got was a
crowd of choirboys looking in the glass to comb their Brylcreemed
The archbishop's vacant gaze looks back at their young faces.
His face has seen Rome, Paris - everything, everywhere. Sic
transit gloria mundi.