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Word from Wormingford

16 November 2012

Ronald Blythe sees a giant brought low, and thinks of New York

SOMEBODY has sent me Cerrini's Head of Goliath, on a postcard from Rome. The giant-killer is beautiful, and the head is appalling. A shepherd's sling and the giant's sword lie on the ground. David looks up to heaven, and poor Goliath to the earth. I say poor Goliath, because he has always seemed to me someone who is too tall for his own good.

And yet he was only about six-and-a-half feet tall. Judging by the size of his head, he would have had to be at least 20 feet in his sandals. He came from Gath, the home of another big man, Samson. Immediately after David's slaughter of Goliath, with a pebble from the brook, Prince Jonathan met David, and fell in love with him. The shepherd lad, being the greatest poet in the Bible, was able to cure Jonathan's father of his fits of depression.

The books of Samuel and Kings were Thomas Hardy's favourite reading. They contained his most loved words: "But the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice."

They are on his memorial window in Stinsford Church. Or, if you read the New English: "And after the fire a low murmuring sound", which is not quite right, and makes one think of inarticulate noise in E. M. Forster's cave. You see how one's mind wanders.

Meanwhile, the November morning smiles. All the ash leaves have fallen down, but the oak leaves will hang on until Christmas. White gulls are black in the distance. People call. The white cat ignores them. Bird feeders hang from the old rose, and are obscured by blue tits and chaffinches. I write the Remembrance Day service, then clear up the tumbling willow.

I think of my friend Richard Birt, in far-off Hereford, who, to my mind, has done more to bring Thomas Traherne back into mind than anyone else. In fact, my head goes here and there, as is its wont, being governed by words.

Visitors gather sloes. What a sensation they were when we were children, as we gathered up our daring palette. "Where do you pick your sloes?" We would pass a needle through them, and drown them in gin. The first taste lasts a lifetime for country people.

Snowy gliders pass silently over the house. Americans holler and shout on the radio. I pray for poor dear New York, and all the drowned East Coast. I remember the London plane trees in Manhattan Central Park, and the way their leaves bowled along the sidewalk, and now lie in sodden masses. It is unutterably sad. I suppose that most American men are taller than Goliath.

But I must cease this drifting, and pull my mind together. Searching for something else, a postcard of Rupert Brooke's grave in Skyros tumbles from a book. To the early hero-seekers of the First World War, he was a David. His body lies under massive protection. Stone and iron keep it out of reach. A mosquito killed him on the way to the Dardanelles, where, at that moment, my teenage father was also sailing, but in another troop ship.

Poor straws! on the dark flood we catch awhile,
Cling, and are born into the night apart.

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