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Word from Wormingford

31 May 2013

Ronald Blythe ponders the appeal - or lack of it - of novelists

MAY - and all of summer ahead. Cool Pentecostal winds are tossing the lilacs. Jean's horses shelter behind what will soon be a white wall of blossom. I eat my breakfast to the stern words of the Chief Rabbi as he preaches on the Fourth Commandment. The white cat descends from on high to plead starvation, her current roost being the top of a cupboard in the old dairy. And so the day begins - most days, to be truthful.

Writers call to tell me about their books in progress. Hearing their names on the radio, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, I take down The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night. They are dusty, yellowing. But not when I turn the page. Wildly attractive young men are on the make; disastrously lovely girls are getting hurt. But the prose - so timeless!

It is just after breakfast, however, when novels must be kept in their place on the shelf. The visiting novelists are professionally silent on their work, for there is little more tedious than having to hear a tale half-told. We have lamb chops and new potatoes for lunch, and talk about how some authors remain, while others, for no apparent reason, have their day, and then go away. Or, rather, line up in alphabetical order in the library, not even pleading "Read me!" Read once, they have more to say, but no one is listening.

I preach on the Comforter - what a marvellously inspired name for the Holy Spirit. The Comforter. When you think of it, the Lord's friends had such a brief apprenticeship for what they had to do - a little less than three years, and that on the hoof. And the crowds! "What was that he said?" They were fearful, filled with inadequacy, watched by the police.

When I read the Acts of the Apostles (what a good title), or the history of the beginning of the Church, I am as much moved by the plight of these men as by their genius. They are so like us, and yet so unlike us, being the commissioned spreaders of the teachings of Jesus.

At first, their dependency on him made them vulnerable to a fright verging on terror. While he was with them, they could be immature, even silly: in what order should they sit at heaven's high table? And now they remembered thinking, "What will happen to us after he has 'gone' - when we are on our own?"

Mercifully, there were the old feasts, particularly Pentecost, to hold life together, to keep its shape. This is what festivals are for. Then came the odd number - 11. Eleven would never do. They had to be the perfect Twelve. So they drew straws and the lot fell on Matthias. It did not matter if posterity knew no more of him than his name. He was 12th man.

This done, reports Luke, who was an excellent writer, and usually careful with facts, the house in which they gathered shook. And there was the sound of a mighty rushing wind. And they were able to communicate, to anyone who listened, what they had heard.

A flaming intelligence and holiness rose from their heads, which would be commemorated in the mitre, and Peter would preach the very first sermon. His text was taken from Joel. And the Comforter came to all of us. "Breathe on me, breath of God," we sang, some 20 of us.

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