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Word from Wormingford

08 May 2015

Ronald Blythe recalls an author with whom he strolled in London

IT IS one of those grey mornings - the west wind soft and contemplative, the animals munching the May grass, nose to nose.

The radio goes in one ear and out the other until, suddenly, I am all attention. A name is mentioned, then a moral position. It is Obama. For no accountable reason, it suggests to me another name: James Baldwin.

He and I have been sent for a walk in London by his publisher, Michael Joseph. What is more, we have been given £10 for lunch. I am to persuade him to cut some pages from his latest novel; it is not at all unusual for a writer to go off at a tangent in a story, and start another story. This is what James has done.

James is a New York novelist who is deservedly at the height of his fame; a slight, nervous man in his thirties, who, unlike most of us, is all physicality, clutching my hand as we stroll along, and nervous, like a kitten. I am awed by his genius, and ready to accept his fury when I mention these errant pages. But he says: "Of course, of course."

I tell him how much I loved his previous novel, Giovanni's Room. We are at peace. We have been sent out like children with the publisher's pocket money. So what shall we do, where shall we go? London roars around us. I know it a little, and James not at all. We keep to the streets. No St Paul's, no museums. No Obama in the White House; and, so far as I'm concerned, no comprehension of racism.

The radio is talking about Alistair Cooke and the American Civil War. My only experience of its unresolved tragedy was when I stayed in one of those Gone With the Wind mansions in South Carolina, and found a grave in the garden. Surrounded by mournful yews, it was that of a 24-year-old Lieutenant. It had been dug in the garden in which he had played as a boy.

The first night I was there, the owners, who were in New York, telephoned to say, "Close all the shutters - there's going to be a gale." And there certainly was. The trees in the park bowed to the ground, and the big timber-framed house trembled - rather like James on our London stroll.

It was all unlike Suffolk, where the flint church-towers and the trees withstood the storms and the occasionally swollen rivers. It is what the British notice abroad, the way the rain falls and the winds blow.

Walking near Sydney with my brother, he laughed when I treated the spitting rain as I would have done a brief shower at home, but in seconds we were soaked to the skin. Ditto the New South Wales sun, which looked merely pleasant from the veranda, but cooked one alive on the lawn.

I preach on the sayings of Jesus: how his hearers did not take notes, but, although he frequently spoke to congregations like a rabbi, there is no record of anyone in the New Testament recording what he said. Yet his teachings are a bit like those of a single author, both in style and message. Long after the message, long after the crucifixion, those who heard him speak would have told their children, and those they met, what he had said - and maybe how he said it.

He was a great poet. He was furious with those who spoke and did not act, possibly thinking of those of his own race, who sang the Psalms, which was the Jews' handbook, beautifully, but failed to live by the words. Christianity is but music for many people.

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