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The Maladroit Muse

The Maladroit Muse

When I attempted to look up D. B. Wyndham Lewis on the Internet, Google kindly asked me if I didn’t really mean Percy Wyndham Lewis. Emphatically not. The Vorticist painter (whose age, it was suggested, could be estimated by counting the rings on his collar) was not known for his sense of humour. His namesake, on the other hand, was the first ‘Beachcomber’ of the Daily Express, and the collaborator with Ronald Searle on the tales of that least conventional of ladies’ academies, St Trinian’s. But he was overshadowed by his successor, J. B. Morton, and likewise by Searle’s brilliant drawings. DB, however, doesn’t deserve the oblivion into which time appears to be edging him, if only because he was one of the two begetters of an ‘anthology of bad verse’ which he and Charles Lee – a quiet and unobtrusive writer of Cornish novels – entitled The Stuffed Owl.
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Driven Dotty by Dewey

In the olden days, when people went to public libraries to borrow books to read, they were probably unaware of the workings of the librarian’s mind. Librarians cherish the illusion that the Dewey Decimal Classification system is second nature to readers as well as librarians. Thus the reader in search of books on cookery will head immediately for the 641s, and anyone planning to travel to Germany to look at its architecture can be found in front of the 720s searching specifically for the numbers after the decimal point – 943 – because, as any fool knows, 720 is Architecture and 943 is Germany (although if you were to turn it round, 943. 7 is Czechoslovakia).
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History Man

It wouldn’t do to make excessive claims for Kenneth Roberts. Sixty years ago I might have; he was certainly my favourite writer then, to the extent that when I finally ran out of his books, at the age of 14, in desperation I tried novels by some other Robertses from the same shelf in the Ypsilanti Public Library. They proved to be highly unsatisfactory, nothing at all like Kenneth. What he wrote was history, American history, and I was fascinated by history. There seemed to be so little of it around in Michigan.
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Shock Waves

Anyone who has ever visited another country and found the food unidentifiable, the language incomprehensible and the rules of behaviour bizarre has experienced some degree of culture shock. Sometimes it’s exciting, often it’s disconcerting, and if you get ill or lost or inadvertently cause offence it can be frightening. Anne Fadiman’s book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is about culture shock of a different order altogether. It is the story of what can happen when, even with the best of intentions on both sides, two cultures collide.
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Prussian Blues

Of the many missed opportunities of my schooldays, failure to learn German is the one I have regretted most and longest. But in 1949, when the chance arose, German was not the flavour of the month. There was still a large gap in one corner of School Yard where a German bomb had missed a large dormitory of sleeping boys by a few feet. And only a few years earlier, my housemaster had fought with distinction in the Green Jackets, and then married the widow of another officer, killed in battle. He bullied us into opting for elementary science (which has never been the slightest use to me) rather than German for School Certificate.
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By the Light of the Ptarmigan

By the Light of the Ptarmigan

When I was a teenager, prowling voraciously round my parents’ bookshelves looking for something to read, I found a row of old books that hadn’t been looked at for at least fifty years. They were all by Sabine Baring-Gould, polymath, squarson, folksong collector, novelist and possessor of an infectiously insatiable curiosity about pretty well everything from esoteric customs to ways in which to save fuel. Among those dusty Baring-Goulds were novels such as The Broom Squire and Mehalah, his Reminiscences of a ninety-year life, The Book of Werewolves, several collections of sermons, English Folk Songs (compiled with Cecil Sharp), Curious Myths of the Middle Ages and lots of travel books including Cliff Castles and Cave Dwellings in Europe, guides to the Riviera and the Languedoc, and Yorkshire Oddities and Strange Events. Best of all was Iceland, Its Scenes and Sagas.
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In a Class of His Own

In a Class of His Own

Books that make one laugh out loud are far rarer than one likes to think, and the subject of endless and often heated debate. P. G. Wodehouse usually comes out top, but although I loved him in my twenties, I have lost the appetite in late middle age: comicality needs to be combined with sadness, a sense of the absurd with a countervailing melancholy, and Wodehouse’s genial socialites seem too lacking in humanity, too short on Chaplinesque pathos, to engage me as much as they once did. One of my candidates for the funniest book ever written – battling it out with Mr Pooter, James Lees-Milne’s Another Self, and a great deal of Evelyn Waugh – is H. F. Ellis’s The Papers of A. J. Wentworth BA, a work that is all too redolent of familiar human frailties.
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Under the Mulberry Tree

Kurdish was a term I heard long before I had any real sense of the world, of where Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey are, or what cultural and religious intolerance mean. When I was about 7, a Kurdish girl called Hozan showed me how her people danced at weddings and at great moments of celebration, stamping, swirling and clicking her tongue. She was 15, and to me she was glamour personified, spinning in a field, her tiny denim shorts alarmingly far up her bottom, her head thrown back. This was in the mid-Seventies, in Oxfordshire, and Hozan’s family was encamped with some local Romany gypsies. At about the same time, in March 1975, the Shah of Iran signed a treaty with Saddam Hussein. The Kurds of Iraq thereby lost all their external support. And so they began to be exterminated.
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Face to Face

For fifteen years, I had one of the best jobs in the world. I was book news editor at The Bookseller, and most weeks I included in my pages an interview with an author. I talked to celebrated novelists, including several of my literary heroes. I talked to biographers and science writers. I talked to creators of blockbusting best-sellers. All sorts of people write books, or at least get their names on to book covers: I talked to movie stars, sports heroes and supermodels, and to people who had fought in wars or been shipwrecked.
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Occupational Hazard

As the recent Da Vinci Code spat demonstrated, complaints of plagiarism reach far beyond Aussie mapmakers. When Arthur Halliwell created his hefty film guide, he added a non-existent movie which in due course trapped a rival directory of films. Justice was swift. When Nigel Rees – he of ‘Quote Unquote . . .’ – published his Dictionary of Twentieth Century Quotations, he slipped in a dummy quote credited to one Guy Simon (Rees’s pen name). Eventually HarperCollins bought the dummy and Guy Simon appeared in their Collins Dictionary of Quotations, a little bit of larceny for which they paid, in sterling. And when Antonia Fraser wrote her classic life of Mary, Queen of Scots, she thoughtfully inserted a burglar alarm. At Mary’s execution (Lady Antonia said) Lord Shrewsbury’s face was ‘wet with tears’. It was an invention. Later, James Mackay’s book on Mary copied it, and the alarm rang.
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The Quiet Sicilian

The Quiet Sicilian

I first read Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard while I was in Palermo in 1981, at the age of 18. It was one of those defining reading experiences which are not always easy to explain but which have to do with a deep sense of recognition. Through the alchemy of fictional characters and the way in which they engage with their world, you are taken somewhere (psychologically, morally, emotionally) that you do not usually expect to go, and the journey reveals to you something about yourself and the world you inhabit.
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Flowering Passions

Flowering Passions

I’ve never had anything you could call A Career. I’ve always either gone where interest suggested and opportunity allowed or just Micawberishly waited for something to turn up. Despite the supposed end of the culture of ‘a job for life’, that approach still seems to make a lot of people uneasy. And they often become even more uneasy when they discover that one of my interests nowadays is cultivating and writing about rare, difficult and often tender plants from distant parts of the world. You can almost see the bubble of unspoken doubt rising from their heads. ‘Is this just some childish joke? Or is he really serious?’ So I was delighted to stumble across spectacular support for that general approach (in the shape of James Hamilton-Paterson) and for that particular interest (in the shape of his novel, Griefwork).
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Not So Bad, Really

Not So Bad, Really

When I first read Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women in 1979 it certainly provoked a strong response, but hardly the admiration the cover blurb demanded for ‘one of the finest examples of high comedy of the last century’. I felt fury mixed with bafflement. For me, at that time, every novel was a possible blueprint for how to live your life. Borne along on the second wave of feminism, the only thing I and my friends were sure of was that we didn’t want lives like our mothers’. Exactly what we did want wasn’t clear. But what I didn’t want in spades was a life like that of Mildred Lathbury, one of the ‘excellent women’ of the title.

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