In my mid-twenties, having given up hope of a literary career, or any sensible career for that matter, I did what many desperate men do: I trained to become a lawyer. Unfortunately, I had failed to heed Laclos’s advice that ‘our intentions make blackguards of us all’. And not for the first time. My undergraduate life at Cambridge had been dogged by the kind of procrastination that meant I was forever turning over a new leaf. Even when I went to the University Library – being a bibliophile, a far more frequent occurrence than attendance of lectures – I would be sidetracked by an interesting volume (or three) that had caught my eye in the catalogue but had no bearing whatsoever on my weekly history essay. I would frequently emerge from the library not having written a word, yet curiously well versed in the history of Argentine cricket or the poetry of Alan Hollinghurst.
This time, however, I was determined to succeed. I mustered up an impressive amount of faux enthusiasm and forced myself to mug up on the more esoteric aspects of contract and tort. Needless to say, the façade did not last very long. Within weeks, I was scouring Dillons (as it was then) in Gower Street for something to distract me. I had read Simon Raven’s brilliantly wicked cricketing memoir Shadows on the Grass – once described by E. W. Swanton as ‘the filthiest book on cricket ever written’ – whilst at school, but had never thought to pursue his infamous ten-volume roman fleuve, Alms for Oblivion. Now here was my chance: I hungrily purchased the complete set.
And so for a blissful fortnight – made even sweeter by the fact that I should have been concentrating on my legal studies – I immersed myself in a dashing upper-middle-class saga of privilege and corruption, chicanery and moral degeneration; in a demi-monde populated by dons and conmen, entrepreneurs and gamblers, tarts-with-hearts and male whores, officers and g
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