Thou, Who didst come to bring
On Thy redeeming wing
Healing and sight,
Health to the sick in mind,
Sight to the inly blind,
Oh, now to all mankind
Let there be light!
we sang. It is a hymn. Thirty or so of us stood in the Norman church, mufflered against the draughts. I would like to record that we were accompanied by a wheezing organ, but unfortunately, so I was told, its action ceases to be reliable below freezing, so it was a piano instead. During the summer months the piano is wheeled out of the way into an aisle or transept but in the winter it is always there just in case.
We are in Yorkshire, spending a week with my mother. Her house overlooks the village graveyard. On the other side is the church, Norman but a different one from that just mentioned. The snow has not fallen here but it is freezing. In the morning the graveyard is white with frost and the path through it is too slippery to be attempted; people walk on the grass beside it instead. When the sun gets going, strips of green appear amid the white depending on the shadows cast by the cypress trees.
The graveyard is always full of people: many of them living. They come to pay their respects more than happens in the South. Half the gravestones are attended by recently bought flowers. There is also work being done on the church roof. Either the lead is being systematically stripped or it is being replaced having recently been systematically stripped. Since it is done in broad daylight and the men have orange jackets and scaffolding I suspect the latter, but you can’t be sure. They leave lights on at night to stop people – who might come up to the graveyard in the dark to place one last flower or steal a kiss together – damaging themselves.
The first night we were here I had quite a turn. At the edge of the church at ground level there were shapes dancing slowly in the breeze. They could be seen by means of the workmen’s light. The shapes were round and indistinct and changed colour as they moved. It was mildly horrifying, and it held the seeds of becoming seriously horrifying when I was able to decipher what was going on.
The better half dismissed my fears.
“It’s balloons for a child’s grave.”
The reality was almost as upsetting. That corner of the graveyard is for children. Not surprisingly it is even more attentively looked after than the rest of the cemetery, with flowers and toys too. This was the grave of a child who had died in infancy and would recently have turned thirteen. There were flowers, toys, damp cards, and balloons bearing the legend ‘13 today!’. It was these that had bobbed around so sepulchrally in the workmen’s light.
Since the night we arrived the balloons have slowly lost their helium, and last night the sole survivor could no longer rise above the ground. I was however sufficiently brushed by the transcendental to attend the nearby church, where we sang, as I say, the hymn Let There be Light.
It’s impossible to concentrate on anything for long in church. Hillaire Belloc (or, as always, possibly G K Chesterton) once said that the longest that one could concentrate on spiritual matters was twelve minutes, which was by happy coincidence (or, as always, possibly divine intervention) the length of a properly disciplined mass. My mind went back to my schooldays, when I had first worried about the ‘inly’ bit of the hymn:
Sight to the inly blind
‘Inly’ is clearly an adverb. ‘In’ is a useful word, but it is a preposition, and you can’t make an adverb out of a preposition by adding ‘-ly’ to it. Its meaning is less obvious. Even metaphorically, one is either blind or not blind, I would have thought. And presumably the blindness is metaphorical, since is to be sorted by a ‘redeeming wing’. I have no idea what that is, even metaphorically.
At the time I was studying Greek classics with a view to being awarded an A Level. My hero was E von Willemovitz Üllendorff. When faced with a bit of Greek that was clearly nonsense, or rude, he would assert that the original had been misunderstood by some intermediate scribe – possibly an Irish monk living on Skellig Michael in the middle of the Atlantic and the Dark Ages, diligently preserving civilisation for the rest of us and having only the basics of the language – and substitute what he preferred.
(I write of E von Willemovitz Üllendorff from memory, incidentally. I can’t find him with Google. Memory plays tricks, but surely I can’t have made him up?)
Anyway my working theory all those years ago was that ‘inly’ was a mistranscription. Recently my amanuensis, Augustus Sly, has shyly confided that when I am in full creative flight, he prefers to guess at an indistinct word rather than interrupt my flow. Thus one Irish monk declaiming Aeschylus to another. Thus perhaps the first editor of Hymns Ancient & Modern, whom I imagine as a Victorian gentleman, bewhiskered and clutching penwiper and pen against the hour. Hymnodists would burst into his office, pregnant with new devotional masterpieces, which they would declaim, accompanying themselves with occasional thumps on the harmonium that he kept in the corner of the room for just that purpose.
“Inly?” he would mouth, but they would ignore him, cranking themselves up into the full apocalyptic last verse.
I declined the sacrament of lukewarm milky coffee and returned to my mother’s house. She is a little hard of hearing and she uses the ‘subtitle’ function on her television, often with the sound off.
When I came in, Mr Cameron was on the screen, wearing his compassionate face. He leant forward confidingly.
“Lobster reunification sir,” he said, or is recorded as having said.
Plus ça change, I thought.