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).
I admire Hamilton-Paterson himself for having spent forty years resolutely defying categorization. At various times he has been underwater explorer, political commentator, botanist, scientific journalist and, above all, a traveller who has moved restlessly from country to country. I also admire the way in which, over the same period, he has somehow managed to write not only non-fiction works on all of those interests (and on several others: for improbable example, Mummies, Death and Life in Ancient Egypt) but also poems, short stories and around half a dozen novels. The novels are dazzlingly well-written, often in extremely rich and elaborate English; deploy a virtuoso variety of narrative voices; and have been much admired by critics: but largely ignored by that mysterious creature, the general public.
Of all his books my own favourite remains the first I discovered, a fairly early novel called Griefwork. One reason for that preference, even if not the most important one, is certainly that some of the most deeply felt parts in it are played not by the book’s (frequently trivial and childish) humans but
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