"A painting by John Nash is like a sentence spoken by a gentleman, perfectly enunciated, quiet, complete, yet with a certain reserve about it as of things left unsaid."
Christmas-card snowstorm brings in an atlas of my life. Views of every parish I have been to: familiar parishes, glimpsed parishes, parishes I have worked in, parishes in which I have felt the presence of artists and writers. And priests, of course. And naturalists. And those adopted by retired friends.
Long ago (for I doubt if the courtesy is still observed) an incumbent would offer his successor the convention of moving at least five miles away, so as not to get in his hair, so to speak - although, once addressing the retired clergy of East Anglia, I was aware that it is often during the final years of ministry that a priest and his wife, or her husband, are apt to make their most important friends.
I have been in Wormingford, on and off, since I was 22 - first of all as the friend of the artists John and Christine Nash, and later as the dweller in their remote farmhouse. My feet have kept the track to it open, if not level, and the view from it familiar.
On this near-Christmas day, I stare from its high north window, just as John once stared from it when he placed a canvas on his easel every week, and, cigarette between teeth, would transfer sketchbook drawings to oils.
The studio in those guiltless days was a homily to dust. Tobacco dust, mortal dust from plants and insects, and, to a degree, from the artist himself. It was never swept, and a single 40-watt bulb gave a discreet account of it.
During the summer, when John went to Cornwall or Scotland (never abroad, if he could help it), he would kindly dust a patch where I could write. I never told him that I never wrote a word in his studio, but always in his lovely garden; for summer went on for ever at Bottengoms. Still does. Even at this moment, with Christmas at my heel, the valley within a valley which contains the old house has its own climate. Should it snow, everyone knows that I won't be able to get to the top. The dip will fill up, hedges will disappear, familiar posts will vanish, and ditches will sound with loud but invisible water. Only no one could imagine such a sinking out of sight today, and the postman's van flies towards me with a flourish, and yesterday's cleared desk hides under the avalanche.
Few birds sing, but a squirrel scuttles in the roof, and the white cat is torpid. The News creates a strange unease. People are going to foodbanks. Dickensian activity on cards is one thing, in 21st-century Britain, quite another. The poverty of the Holy Family resumes its traditional reality, and is no longer an old tale. All but the well-off would have had no difficulty in identifying with it since Christianity began. In our day, just now and then, it became academic, and below the surface of our time, but it never went away. It was always there, the fragility of human life, and in our world, not the Third World. With the poor and meek and lowly lived on earth our Saviour holy. It was and is true. Politics fail, especially in winter, and spectacularly at Christmas.
Yet the divine birthday is here again, and its light contains no variableness, neither shadow of turning. It is the perfect gift for Christmas. We should see by it. It exists for this purpose. Comprehending our childishness, it tolerates the tinsel. We are young now, whatever age we are. (19th December 2014)
Posted by Arborfield at 09:00
Murky warm December days. Strangely pleasant. We drive to Framlingham on the spur of the moment. The little town, with its great history, is still and wet. I remember once coming home from baking Sydney, and loving the raindrops sliding down the plane windows at Heathrow.
Advent is in the air: an almost tangible time when we "put on the armour of light" - an enchanting activity - and when "love is the fulfilling of the law". The car splashes past endless empty fields, which are faintly ruled with sugar beet. Framlingham Castle, with its 13 towers, has an ephemeral look, as though it might blow away, and Framlingham School comes and goes on the horizon, as though telling us "Don't take me for granted."
It was built to educate the sons of Suffolk farmers with money left over from building the Crystal Palace. This sensible idea came from the Prince Consort, whose statue presides in the distance.
We make for the Crown, and have lunch by the fire. Inertia reigns. The old room is full of ghosts: neighbours from long ago; schoolmasters taking a break; my friend the poet James Turner, who vanished to Cornwall; the Falstaffian rector in his cassock, tweeds, and tennis clothes; and my bike in the courtyard.
It was at Framlingham Castle that Mary Tudor learned of the death of her half-brother, Edward VI, and the accession of poor Lady Jane Grey to the throne. Vast events in a quiet countryside. And now a handful of folk in a bar, and the Christmas decorations.
My favourite reason for coming to Framlingham, however, is to marvel yet again at the glorious tombs of the Dukes of Norfolk, especially the one with its Genesis frieze - a favourite of Benjamin Britten, and from which he took his church parable Noye's Fludde. He was fascinated, as I was, by the extraordinary things that filled our local churches, and, should one be a composer or a writer, were there for the taking. He would drive off in his big old car on the spur of the moment, as I had done this week, to look once again at what he regarded as his by right of birth: some view, some object in a vast or tiny village church.
But Advent. The liturgy trembles with expectation and dread, with joy and fear. The Creator enters his creation as a child. Advent for Adventus, coming. The liturgical year begins. Long ago, it was as severely kept as Lent. But, now, shopping shouts it down. Some scenes on television of bargain hunters were little less than disgusting.
For me, music expresses it far more than words. Music in which Jesus is given such beautiful names: Emmanuel, Desire of Nations, Wisdom from on High, Dayspring, Lord of David's Key, names filled with urgency and longing. George Herbert added to the list: "Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life. . . Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength. . . Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart."
I rake the main paths, and push barrow-loads of sodden leaves out of sight. Robins fly ahead. Keith arrives. May he take some holly? It is berry-less, but shining, an immense wall of it glittering and clattering when the wind gets into it. Geoffrey Grigson said that working holly into Christian belief was easy. It was thorny and blood-coloured. People once believed that the Cross was made from it. In old ballads, Holly is the man, and Ivy the woman.
But I prefer to see it as it is: evergreen, ever present in the farmhouse garden, and stuck behind the pictures on Christmas Eve. (12th December 4014)
Posted by Arborfield at 10:07
Torrential rain for St Edmund, our Sebastian-like protector, his cult a thousand years old. Thin and shiny on his plinth, bristling with arrows, he watches us process by under our umbrellas as we hurry into the dry.
Legend has it that he was 15 when they crowned him King of the Angles on Christmas Day on the height opposite my bedroom, this being the borderland of the East Angles and the East Saxons - a German prince who had inherited the crown. For many years, he was our patron saint. Then the crusaders changed him for a soldier - St George. Some would change George for Edmund at this moment, but when one is old, one tends to make do with existing arrangements, all passion being spent.
Frances Ward and Janet Wheeler are less feeble, and have presented us with a fiery anthem in which holy Edmund's decapitation, horribly reminiscent of what has been occurring at this moment, makes him a shockingly contemporary Christian. There is no escaping the darkness of every age.
Time was when history in church was a local tableau staged by children. Now, it is terribly grown-up. Bronze St Edmund on his plinth in the pouring rain is the young man who leaves England for Syria to "help out", and is murdered for his pains. Time was when days like this were county pageantry; now, they stage human history of the moment, and it can be terrible.
No peasants today, only mayors in tricorne hats and golden chains, a Lord Lieutenant, the higher clergy, bell-ringers, and the dear familiar faces of those who make great churches spotless, who launder, brush, polish, arrange flowers, mend, lay markers in huge books, carry processional crosses, hand out this and that, and keep the rich interior movement going. And trumpeters for Britten's Fanfare. And then Marriott's oceanic plea for wisdom, love, and might to "move o'er the water's face".
I fancied that I could hear the rain bouncing on the leads and the gargoyles' guiding it to the ground. Old churches take the local climate in hand, splashing it away from their walls, channelling it into graves and beneath huge trees. The distant sound of it accompanies the anthem, a Beowulfian hymn by the Dean and her friend, a confrontation of the barbaric and the Christian. That continuous war of opposites in which nothing seems to change whatever the century.
Christ is revealed, but so is human enormity. Hope looks on. Robert Bridges echoes Christ's sad prophecy on the Jerusalem Temple, then brand new. When George Herbert died, they called his poems The Temple. He called them "my writings". But the Church of England sees its language architectur-ally, building up its faith to dizzy heights and allowing it to sink to depths from which it has to be rescued.
On St Edmund's Day, everything is said, sung, and done to the sound of the rain - a steady autumnal downpour that finds out where roofs are fragile, and roads are sinking. Our car has to nose its way through it, like an ark pointed towards a haven, its windscreen wipers like a metronome. Or a pulse.
We travel through a hurricane, but when we brake and stop, it is hardly raining at all. It is not quite light when I look for Edmund's coronation hill over the Stour. It is, at usual, no more than a watercolour brush-stroke; a barely visible sign that he was there. And thus here with us still. (5th December 2014)
Posted by Arborfield at 09:54
Just up the lane, children are snatching at breakfast, and grown-ups are snatching at time. But I am looking out of the window, as usual, and musing on birds; just as R. S. Thomas did, when he walked to the Llyn peninsular to give them a piece of his mind.
It was an uncompromising mind: God-questioning, restless, brilliant in patches, and, while thoroughly Franciscan, not at ease. Like my seagulls at this moment. White and impatient, they whirl around Duncan's field. How black they are on the wing, how snowy when they land. And how angelic. They remind me of Francis Thompson when he said: "The angels keep their ancient places;- Turn but a stone, and start a wing!"
The gull's wing on the kitchen table has started these thoughts. I cannot bear to think of how it has landed there. It is pure and perfect, yet mutilated. A friend took it out of her bag and left it there. I put it on a shelf, and then in a rose bed. I think of wooden wings in Suffolk churches - the ones that the reformers tried to shoot down, but only succeeded in winging. So they continue to fly to us from the Middle Ages, some of them nesting in Blythburgh to hold up the manorial claims of our gentry.
My gull's wing is a far cry from all this. When we were children, we wondered when wings would sprout from our skinny shoulder-blades. Much later, as a fanciful grown-up flying to Sydney, I would meditate on the thinness of the plane floor that cut me off from the earth. Neither angels nor gulls flew past this window, only nameless cities, miles below. Coffee was served. A novel spoke of love.
But today my feet are very much on the ground, because I am raking up autumn leaves. All around there is a haunting autumn quiet and a ghostly November mist, a great yellowing and nature's terminal beauty. Ash leaves actually tumble down on to my head, like the sad artificial poppies in the Royal Albert Hall a fortnight ago.
The Prayer Book lists names for the boy who will soon be born. They are very grand, but his name is Jesus, his carpenter father says. There is a Staffordshire figure of the three of them - Joseph, Mary, and their child - on the farmhouse mantelpiece, on the run to Egypt: father carrying his tools; Mary seated on an ass, clasping her baby; Joseph walking. The everlasting refugees.
These ornaments were "fairings", something you won on coconut-shies. Rural treasures which saw the generations out. I must wash it for Christmas. In church, I must remember to repeat the first collect throughout Advent, the one that promises us to rise to immortality. The one that is perfect liturgy and theology. The one in which we put on the armour of light, rising white like the gulls.
The Christmas shopping-list begins with a new scythe, the old one having got crooked in the wrong way. I must be the only person in my circle who is able to swing one. Passers-by watch me nervously. Never mind, one can do with a bit of awe. The withering orchard grass falls before it, sowing next year's seeds on the way. A somnolence attends everything, but next summer's flowers are counting the days.
Christmas shopping battles away in the country towns - although people are hard-up, they say. I think of the oaks and ashes that were felled to make angels. (28th November 2014)
Posted by Arborfield at 12:59
Lovely but sad days. The leaves fall, the sun shines, in church we muster for the Remembrance. It has become a kind of saints-day, filling the aisles with its devotees. We turn to its memorial, and I say its liturgy. Its words are by the librarian-poet Laurence Binyon, and were published in The Timeslong before the Western Front massacres had begun. "They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old."
As a boy, I used to think that these soldiers would have found this cold comfort, and would have very much liked to have enjoyed a long life. But their melancholy suits the Georgian language of the Remembrance. We sing Isaac Watts's "O God, our help in ages past". Charlotte Brontë has a girl, "her voice sweet and silver clear", sing it in Shirley. Our voices, though darkened by time, do justice to this masterpiece. And so the service goes on, inside and outside. I preach on poppies, botanical and symbolical, blood-coloured and bloody.
It was the Jewish poet Isaac Rosenberg in "Break of Day in the Trenches" who released, as it were, our emblematic poppy, the one we button-hole. A rat touches his hand "As I pull the parapet's poppy To stick behind my ear".
Flanders was traditional farmland. Corn and its wild flowers had grown alongside there for centuries. Just as its birds sang above the din, so did its poppies bleed in its mud. The imagery seems to grow more intensely every Remembrance, and my sermons ever more botanical.
But our greatest time-hymn, "O God, our help in ages past", says more and more to me about mortality and immortality. Or so I find. It is grand, sonorous, truthful, accepting, tragic yet comforting, and it first appeared in Wesley's Psalms and Hymns in 1738. A poignant verse was left out long ago, but it uncannily suggests the Western Front:
Like flowery fields the nations stand
Pleased with the morning light:
The flowers beneath the mower's hand
Lie withering ere 'tis night.
Too far to walk, we drive from our church to a steel memorial by the side of the road. It is to the American airmen who came to Wormingford on St Andrew's Day in 1943. Some 200 of them were killed - too many names to read out and halt the Sunday traffic racing by. Their colonel, almost a hundred, sends a message from the United States.
My father, a teenager at Gallipoli, refused to attend these rites, the band playing, the mayor in his robes, the snowy war memorial in the little Suffolk town. Once central, it has long been put at the side of the road so as not to delay a flood of cars. Otherwise you would have taken your life in your hands.
I say Binyon's words all over again. They float in the mild air. I remember my friend John Nash, who painted both the trenches and the Second World War docks, and Christine, his wife, who ran a canteen at Portsmouth for the sailors. John told me that 1939 never meant as much to him as 1914. His brother Paul painted the Battle of Britain, the Heinkels and Spitfires like stars in the Kent sky. And so it continues, the reality and the dream.
Between services, I rake up fallen leaves, mostly from the giant oaks which stare out of the valley into the next parish. They are all in line, their roots in the everlasting stream, their tops spying Little Horkesley. (21st November 2014)
Posted by Arborfield at 19:02
A wild October morning. Bottengoms is calm in the front and tempestuous at the rear, where the trees I planted a lifetime ago meet the sky. Leaves race past. Birds protest. Or maybe they are simply exultant as they are blown about.
Tidying a bookshelf, trying not to read, I am taken back by the scent of an ancient volume to Archbishop Samuel Harsnett - that local boy made good. In a niche in Colchester Town Hall I sometimes look up to him as an autocratic priest who takes his place among our worthies, but for me was little more than a Proustian odour, until I decided to find out why he was there, high above us in his robes and Lambeth hat.
The closest I got to this Archbishop of York was polishing his books. They had been buried in tea chests during the war in case Hitler got hold of them and became an Anglican. There were some 800 volumes, including Caxton's edition of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, and their leather covers had to be rubbed with a foul preservative that the British Museum had recommended. Some of these books had belonged to Luther and other Reformers.
So I sat, day after day, in the Harsnett library, polishing them up, now and then catching some spidery hand, perhaps of the Archbishop himself, as it descended in the margin. And now, in my old house, a tumble of books releases this preservative smell.
Who was this Harsnett - apart from being the owner of these volumes? Who was he, apart from being a famous local boy? Just up the road, in Ipswich, another local boy had become Cardinal Wolsey, and he an Ipswich tradesman's son. Wolsey loved a bit of pomp. He built Hampton Court Palace, and was very nearly Pope.
Alas, it all tumbled down - not Hampton Court, but the dizzy height itself. Wolsey was on the road when he heard of it, sick, perched on a mule, glad to be taken in by monks. "Had I but served my God with half the zeal I served my King . . .", he murmured. And what of the college that would bear his illustrious name, in Ipswich? It would get no further than the gate.
Archbishop Harsnett and Cardinal Wolsey, now a stack of sticky books, and another local boy polishing away. All that vellum - calfskin; all those frontispieces on which the deity shared space with lordly churchmen.
But I have become fond of Harsnett. He was not an easy person. He founded Chigwell School, which continues to grow apace. But, although he himself had abandoned what he called the painful trade of teaching, he licensed books for the press. Once, he licensed a book without reading it. But if it was anything like some of the books in his own library, whose slippery covers I was polishing, I could sympathise.
These days, a new book smells good. Often, when I buy one, I open it at random, outside the bookshop - a novel, perhaps, or a collection of poems - and the essence of what is in it reaches my nose before it finds its way to my brain.
The great publishing houses have hardbacks that possess a distinctive scent. Not so with paperbacks, although those that one can buy in church porches reek a little of abandonment, of never being loved. The other day, a pressed flower that I had picked in Scotland fell out of a book. I returned it to its tomb in Dylan Thomas's poems, where it marked no particular place, but had left a small stain.
Now we have put the clocks back, and brought reading forward. I bank up leaves in the garden. They are mountainous, but they will rot down, blacken, smoulder, given a chance. Below them, a cold stream hurries to the river without a pause, brighter than any old book could ever be. (31st October 2014)
Posted by Arborfield at 05:03
A golden day for St Luke, one of my heroes. I talk about him at matins to a thin-on-the-ground congregation. Luke, the New Testament's Renaissance man, doctor of body and soul, artist, travel writer - everything. Also the birthday saint of the Greek-English boy who lives up the road, and who, at the moment, is choosing which university to apply to.
It is Luke's "little summer". The garden, while fading, is burning into life. I am reading Colm Tóibín's The Master for the second time, sitting in the garden and nursing the white cat. Ash leaves sail down on us. An unseen farm vehicle clatters behind my wood. The postman bumps down the track. Birds sing as best they can, their soloist fled to Africa.
Among Luke's qualifications, he was a physician of the soul. Think of being able to put this on one's CV. He wrote both his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles in demotic Greek - the language they spoke in the market-place. But he was astute, taking them to "the most excellent Theophilus", presumably a publisher.
I like to think of Theophilus unravelling them: first, the adventures and words of the Redeemer; then a marvellous traveller's tale as Christ's life and words were sent on their journey.
Luke's biography is plainly written. He never married; he was Paul's young helper; he wrote his Gospel in Greece; and, some believed, he walked to Emmaus with the Lord after the crucifixion for the first holy communion. He - Jesus - would have gone on but for that hospitable "The day is far spent."
"Lighten our darkness," I say. Was Thomas Cranmer referring to the brightness/blackness of the Reformation? Or was he thinking of what Veni, Creator Spiritus describes as "the dullness of our blinded sight"? These questions arise after my having returned from my ten-yearly visit to the optician to have my glasses renewed. The optician is in his twenties. He stares into my eyes with a torch: "Look left, look right, look up, look down. Read as far as you can. Choose your frames."
I feel that he should have complimented me for being able to see at all, let alone see some of his letters. But he is there to give sight, not praise. His own eyes are child-bright. He is reading a very long novel, he says. I know the feeling.
I go to Marks & Spencer's and buy fruit, snowy underwear, a voluminous dressing-gown, and much else. I feel sensible and extravagant. I walk past the wall which the Romans built when St Paul and St Luke were tramping from Antioch. The traffic is climbing round it like insects: the packed school buses, the commuting cars. A medieval church clings to it for dear life.
Flags fly. Students hump homework. A young man takes out a trumpet and his friends fall about laughing. When the music is unexpectedly fine, they lapse into an admiring silence. On the way home, the taxi driver tells me: "You're the first today." I tell him that I am sorry. "Don't be sorry," he says.
I spare him the muddy farmtrack. There are sloes and hips in the tall hedge. The white cat meets me part of the way, not too pleased with my absence. The harvest is sugar beet, the wheat having gone what seems like a lifetime ago. Little streams feed the river - the Stour, which John Constable painted all his life, and mostly in London; for we take our native places with us wherever we land up.
I don't need new spectacles for these old scenes. I peer at the cat through them, and she winks back. I read Tóibín through them. Can he be any brighter? (24th October 2014)
Posted by Arborfield at 07:36