A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The trouble with having an out-of-control To Read heap is that by the time books fall out of it into my lap they’re not quite so new and spiffy. So this book was Book of the Year for many, many critics in 2011, and it’s two years later that I’m coming on here to tell you about it. Sorry about that! But it is such fun that I just had to tell you about it, in case it has passed you by.
The structure of the book is a series of anecdotes, each linking two people. It’s a daisy chain, or, as I prefer to think of it in the more active and graceful terms of a dance through time, backwards and forwards, a Strip-the-willow. It starts with a bang, or rather a thump, with the tale of the ordinary sort of chap, John Scott-Ellis, who in 1931 knocked down Adolf Hitler in the street in Munich when he walked out in front of Scott-Ellis’s car. If his luck had been in, he could have changed history. As it was, no harm was done, and all concerned parted on good terms. Then we loop back to John Scott-Ellis’s childhood encounter with Rudyard Kipling, who then is linked to Mark Twain, who then meets Helen Keller … and so on, through 101 such vignettes. They are all beautifully crafted, never less than entertaining, and each seeks either to exemplify the public character of the subjects, or else cast them in a new light (well – in some cases, new to me). Being Craig Brown, even the anecdotes that border on affectionate are written with a little gleam of mischief or malice – and what a writer he is – the master of this short-form writing, with not a word wasted.
It would be fascinating to draw a timeline graph of these encounters. Sometimes when the old meet the young and vice versa, they describe a huge loop either forwards or backwards in time, then there is a little cluster of near contemporaries, then another huge leap through time. The dead outnumber the living, and I was moved to wonder if any of these encounters were between two people still alive. As the question I often asked myself in reading this was ‘Is this person still alive?’ I ended up having to do quite a bit of mild googling. I think my total tally of living encounters came down to Phil Spector (pulls a gun on) Leonard Cohen, and George Galloway (faces the popular vote against) Michael Barrymore. But it’s by these sparking encounters that you can get effects such as a journey from Rudyard Kipling to Madonna in three steps (Kipling to Helen Keller to Martha Graham to Madonna – all jaw-droppingly fascinating) and, in the other direction, Paul MacCartney back to Rasputin also in three steps (MacCartney to Noel Coward to Prince Felix Youssoupoff to Rasputin – and yes, the story of Rasputin’s assassination by heroic amounts of cyanide and repeated shooting never gets old).
I said in my headline for this that living celebrities fare better than dead ones – that, of course is absolutely natural, though I was reminded of William Goldman in Adventures in the Screen Trade carefully preserving the anonymity of dead stars behaving badly while pointedly naming the living ones. But that is bravery above and beyond, in this litigious age. Just as many characters, living or dead, are shown in an unexpectedly endearing light as are given rope with which to hang themselves. All these encounters are carefully referenced, so that if the reader just can’t believe what s/he’s just been reading, there’s ample opportunity to check up on the author. In fact, the references at the end are a terrific bibliography to Brown’s approach to the past 150 years, characterised by Philip Hensher in a quote on the book’s cover as ‘A brilliant reinvention of biography as the interesting bits’.
There are some delicious pairings – The Burtons outblinging the Windsors, with Richard Burton behaving outrageously with the Duchess while the Duke and Elizabeth Taylor look on equally appalled; Simon Dee and Michael Ramsey??? (Extraordinary to whom these former Archbishops will grant an interview, isn’t it …). But I think my favourite of all is Terence Stamp and Edward Heath in 1968. Terence Stamp has the ambition to live in Albany, a dizzily exclusive block of ‘sets’ (upmarket apartments) in London occupied by establishment figures, as a mark that he has truly arrived. There, he encounters his neighbour, Edward Heath, then in opposition and confessing to his fear of encountering Harold Wilson at the despatch box. Stamp gives him some trenchantly vulgar advice on how to cut Wilson down to size, but when asked later if Heath had taken it to heart replies ‘He didn’t understand … He’s forgotten how to listen.’ Fabulous!
So, this dance of acquaintance and encounter loops up and down, back and forth, until in a literary illustration of Godwin’s Law it comes back to Hitler and it just has to end there. The final chapter describes a classic encounter of the unspeakable and the uneatable – a visit by the Windsors to Berchtesgaden in 1937, culminating in the Duchess taking tea with Hitler after he and the Duke had had a serious private talk on the state of the world (later recalled thus by the Duchess: ‘You were with him for one hour. What did you talk about?’ ‘He did most of the talking.’ ‘Well, what did he talk about?’ ‘Oh, the usual stuff. What he’s trying to do for Germany and to combat Bolshevism.’ ‘What did he say about Bolshevism?’ ‘He’s against it.’). And Hitler? ‘She would have made a good Queen’ he remarks, later that day.
Oh, if only John Scott-Ellis hadn’t been such a careful driver!
Craig Brown: One On One. 101 True Encounters. Pbk ed. London: Fourth Estate, 2012 358pp
ISBN 13: 9780007360642