A friend recently urged me to read Frank Kermode’s memoir Not Entitled – not for the account of a supremely successful academic career in the second half of the twentieth century, nor for insights into the making of a renowned literary critic, but for the account of his naval service. Kermode, I was told, had joined up in 1940. Isolated among madmen engaged on futile, conspicuously wasteful projects in Scotland and Iceland, his war experiences were a small, entertaining testimony to the ludicrousness of war.
My friend’s eager description reminded me of Alan Ross’s Blindfold Games, which I had long meant to read. Ross was the Editor of the London Magazine where, towards the end of his life, hegave me my first books to review. Like many young writers during the previous forty years, I felt both indebted to him and charmed by the way in which he seemed to uphold a romantic ideal of the literary life. I knew it wasn’t all boozing and siestas: besides the London Magazine, he wrote poetry, travel books, memoirs and several books about cricket: it was clear that his continuing independence must have been hard won. His modest panache was the more admirable for the evident respect in which he was held. He seemed to have a great talent for life. But it was a near-run thing because he very nearly died in the Navy in 1942. The incident is described in his attractive, surprising memoir, Blindfold Games, and it was for this that I had long wished to read the book.
I had no preconceptions about Ross’s early life, but this episode is certainly arrived at by an unexpected route. Ross’s father was responsible for ‘numerous coal mines in northern and western Bengal’ and the first section of the book is a lyrical evocation of his Indian childhood, full of colours, sounds and people; of railways and cobras, servants, the smell of cigars and a latent eroticism in everything. At the age of 7, he was sent
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