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09 January 2015


Lord of the river

WE ARE back in Cambridge, Pat and I. Tomorrow, I have another examiners' meeting, but today is "at leisure", as the package-holiday brochures say. It is a miraculously beautiful day; so - ticking off one more item on our bucket list - we go punting.

To my astonishment, I find that I can still propel a punt in an approximately straight line. The tourist season is over, and we have the Backs almost to ourselves - almost, but not quite. A lonely punt, populated by Chinese gentlemen, passes us on our port bow. To a man, they point their smartphones, tablets, and cameras at us.

Perhaps that is because, with my Mephistophelean eyebrows, unkempt beard, and sober countenance, I bear a passing resemblance to Lord Williams of Oystermouth, Master of Magdalene College and Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers. So, at least, I am told. I feed the possible fantasy of these punters-by by gravely raising my hat and inclining it towards them in a vaguely benedictory gesture.

Fitting exit

RIDLEY HALL once had its own punt. She was an ancient craft, possibly dating from the time of Ridley's first Principal, Bishop Handley Moule. Curiously, the punt had never been named. The omission was repaired in my time when, after prolonged debate among the student body - anything to postpone doing any work - she was dubbed Ichabod, "the glory has departed".

We painted the name on her prow in Hebrew characters. Those passing us on the water would ask what these strange runes meant. (CICCU men - all men in those days - saw such enquiries as evangelistic opportunities.) Alas, Ichabod did not long survive. The old tub leaked like a sieve. Before you could take Ichabod out on the Cam, you had to take the Cam out of Ichabod. Her days were done.

But of those days none was more glorious than that of her passing. An immense pyre was built on Ridley's football pitch, and Ichabod was hoisted on to it. The fire was kindled, and, as the flames rose, like a Viking longship, our punt embarked on her voyage to Valhalla.

We processed around the pyre, a procession that became a wild dance as one of our number - now the Church of England's most distinguished ethicist - took up his clarinet. All of which was either very silly, or a glorious and entirely fitting rite of passage.

Feed your enemies

"IS THAT what we want to do?" a wise friend asked. Such was his question when we mentioned the title of a course we had attended: "Living Without Enemies: Christian Responses to War and Violence", a splendid series of lectures at St Martin-in-the-Fields.

Our friend's question worried me. Did I want to live without enemies? I wondered whether I had ever had any. Bombs fell around me in the war, but I harboured more hostility in my heart for a boy at school called Hopkins than I did for the Germans.

Serving as a soldier in Berlin, I was, I suppose, on the front line in the Cold War, but I never felt any enmity for the Russians. And today? Apart from an antipathy towards over-zealous traffic wardens, I feel little animosity towards anyone. But perhaps living without enemies in this lukewarm way, in a world where really bad people are doing really bad things, is irresponsible.

Curious to see what the Bible has to say about the matter, I don my anorak and search my Crudens. I find that, in the New Testament, it is taken for granted that, as a Christian believer, I will have enemies. I am not told to call them anything else, but I am told to love them. And how, pray, should I do that?

Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad and one of the speakers in the St Martin's lecture series to receive a standing ovation, tells me that I must invite them to lunch.

Tradition preserved

ON CHRISTMAS EVE, we gather round our kitchen table for the vigil supper of Wigilia. It is a tradition that our Polish daughter-in-law, Kasia, has been eager to maintain. Kasia and our son Oliver, and their two boys, Alex and Max, share our flat and much of our life. (Since you ask, it is an arrangement that works most happily.)

The vigil begins as the first star appears in the sky. There is an empty seat at the table, which is there in case a traveller should call. He - or she - must join in the celebrations.

I read the story of the nativity, and then I bless the opłatek, the Christmas wafer. I break the opłatek, and give a piece to everyone at the table. Each then breaks off a piece of their portion, and shares it with everyone else; for we are all one. (Were we in the countryside, we would share the opłatek with our livestock, too; for on this most holy night, as we all know, cattle speak with human voices.)

We wish each other joy at Christmas, and in the coming year. A feast follows: always borscht (beetroot soup) and always fish. Soon afterwards, approaching our apartments across the square, a red-robed figure with a sack on his shoulders is seen. Who can this be? Alex and Max have no doubts who it is. Who are we, mere grown-ups, to contradict them?

The Revd Dr John Pridmore, a former Rector of Hackney, has retired to Brighton.

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