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Diary: Fergus Butler-Gallie

03 February 2023


Snow babies

A HEAVY frost has enrobed Kent. It’s been pleasing to note the marks in its thick silver where pupils have deliberately taken a detour from the path so as to feel the satisfying crunch under foot. It’s cold enough that these imprints of a moment will often stay, marked in the frost, until gone noon.

It was the same with the snow, just before Christmas: an inherent childishness is brought out by the natural phenomenon of winter. Even the most sullen and would-be-adult sixth former is tempted by the transformative opportunities of the cold weather. Ordinarily, this expresses itself in the form of artistic representations — made of snow, or drawn into the frost — of “those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable”, as the apostle Paul euphemistically puts it in 1 Corinthians.

I find it difficult to condemn such antics. When it comes to footprints in the snow, I confess that I still laugh at the phrase “very sod” in the carol “Good King Wenceslas”, and so, in the winter-weather-maturity stakes, I’m afraid I haven’t a leg to stand on.


Place holder

WE SHOULDN’T, a colleague recently observed, be surprised by the cold snap. It is January, after all. He is right, of course; but it did get me thinking about the surprise — or, more accurately, wonder — that might still be found in the familiar. One who had a sense for the rhythms of the seasons, and yet still found a profound magic and strangeness therein, was Ronald Blythe, who died last month (Gazette, 20 January). Much has already been written about him — not least in these pages — and rightly so.

I doubt the story of a friend of mine, who visited Blythe in his later years, on a Benjamin-Britten-related errand. He found the great man in the midst of lunch, sitting in his kitchen, taking evident pleasure in eating spaghetti hoops cold from the tin.

Blythe’s ability to find joy in the ordinary — be that birdsong, or a spaghetti hoop — was a sermon in itself, and is a great loss. Perhaps the greater loss, however, is of one who was Church of England to his core, and yet a writer of notable, beautiful prose in his own right. Specifically, he could communicate the truth which is at the heart of the incarnation: that particular places, for all their mess, might know the presence of God.

We should cherish the marks he has left on the Anglican soul — it seems unlikely that the Church will be capable of producing his like again.


Lingua franca

ONE of the purposes of education is to leave imprints in memory. Conversation among staff here at school turned recently to the subject of exorcism — not because we were concerned about the origins of pupil behaviour, but rather because it remains, even in the post-secular age, a thing of fascination, especially, it seems, for teenagers.

A colleague related a conversation in Oxford, many years ago, with an experienced exorcist who gave one piece of vital advice to the would-be deliverance minister: “One must be familiar with Latin; after all, it’s what the Devil speaks.” Ronald Knox put it slightly differently, in defending old-rite baptisms: “The baby doesn’t understand English, but the Devil knows Latin.”


Signs and portents

ONE familiar place I have returned to recently is the Tower of London. W. S. Gilbert called it “a sentinel unliving and undying”, but there was much evidence of life among the battlements and bulwarks.

I went with some friends, on a Saturday, and we mingled with visitors from Ohio, Cape Town, and Penang. It is a place replete with markings — and, as it happens, with Latin. Roman Catholic priests imprisoned in the Tower, while the fires of the Reformation burned, would often carve Latin prayers into the walls. By contrast, the Italian tutor to the girl who would become Elizabeth I, while imprisoned under her sister, Mary, decorated his cell walls with soppy poetry.

When the Virgin Queen finally acceded, among those sent to the Tower was one Hew Draper, there on a charge of casting spells using astrological charts. The graffiti in his cell in the Salt Tower can’t have helped his case, consisting as it does of an elaborate representation — imprinted for ever on the stone — of the Zodiac.


Oral tradition

IMPRINTS are not just features of the landscape or architecture. I have been thinking much of the imprints of others that we bear as individuals, not least because I have, of late, found myself sounding increasingly like my father. Not opinions-wise: I still find it difficult to speak with comparable passion about fly-tipping, or the cricketing chances for Kent this season. I mean actually sounding like him.

A number of times recently, I have stopped midway through a sentence, given thought to my vocabulary and the inflections of my voice, and realised “It’s him.” Verbal tics of his — like regular use of the word “fundamentally” — have, as middle age approaches, crept into my own speech.

Most recognisable are his specific phrases, shaped by time, and class, and place, and circumstance: when I forget a name, I will exhort myself to “spit it out.” Another of his phrases is “It doesn’t take the brains of an Archbishop.” It’s one I have noticed his fellow ex-army men use often. It is not, I confess, a metaphor I have ever heard used by a cleric.


The Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie is a teacher and writer.

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