Essential Baggage

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Maurice Baring – who was my godfather – once had a dream. He crossed the Styx, and there on the other side was, as he put it, ‘a Customs House, and an official who had, inscribed in golden letters on his cap, Chemins de fer de l’Enfer, who said to me “Have you anything to declare?” And he handed me a printed list on which, instead of wine, spirits, tobacco, silk, lace, etc., there was printed Sanskrit, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Scandinavian, Chinese, Arabic and Persian, and it was explained to me that this list referred to the literary baggage I had travelled with during my life.’ Have You Anything to Declare? was the title he gave to the best anthology of poetry and prose I know. For the past half-century I have bought any copy I see in a second-hand bookshop to give as a present. During that time at least a dozen must have passed through my hands.

I call it an anthology; but I should make it plain that the author – or should I say compiler? – does not. ‘I am not making an anthology,’ he writes, ‘nor choosing what I think best, and arranging it  in the order I think best; I am taking my notes as they come, and interrupting what is noted by what I remember, or by what the notes may suggest.’ These interruptions and asides – which take up almost as much space as the quotations themselves – are what give the book its lasting magic: we feel all the time that we are in the presence of a friend – a man of deep culture, dazzling intelligence and, above all, irresistible charm.

Dramatist, novelist, poet, travel-writer and war correspondent, Baring was, moreover, a superb linguist. He may not have mastered quite all the languages on the list proffered to him by the customs man, but Greek, Latin and most of the European ones held no secrets for him; Russian he spoke like a native. And when he knew the language you could trust him to know the literature too. I doubt whether there is

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About the contributor

John Julius Norwich has published three ten-year collections of his annual anthology A Christmas Cracker; the fourth, The Big Bang, was published in October.

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