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