Cutting Edge Reading


It's been a good while since I've posted, chiefly because limited mobility has made it difficult to get to London and take part in the capital's cultural life. It seems that I need a new knee. I wish I could say that I wore out the old one by exercising it too much, by marathon-running or even ballroom dancing. But of course, however exquisite, these would be fibs. The truth is that the absence of cartilage in my right knee is the result of a car crash I had in 1957. Not only was I the bad driver, but the parents' car I totaled was a design icon, a 1951 Raymond Loewy Studebaker. 

Booker shortlist 2010.jpg

Childhood friends will remember that I spent about 10 months in hospital conditions, and that my leg was only saved because clever surgeons performed a then-radical operation attaching a metal plate with four screws to what was left of my shattered femur. I might have hoped that, five or six years later, when I was called up to be conscripted into the US Army, this injury would make me ineligible. But no, the Army surgery protocol said that the only remedy for injuries like mine was amputation. I had a leg; ergo I could not have sustained the injuries described in my medical records. QED (it was very radical surgery).

         Fortunately, a sympathetic medical examiner (who happened to be the father of schoolfriends, and a mate of the surgeons in question) discovered evidence of asthma in the same records (though I don't think I've ever had an asthma attack), and I was exempted from being drafted into the 101st Airborne Division, which marshaled at Fort Campbell, KY, and was then sent to Vietnam.  This also prevented me from facing a moral crisis, because I was probably the only kid in Kentucky then who knew about the "police action" in Vietnam, and I was so opposed to it that I might well have refused to go.

         This is an awfully long-winded way of saying that the reason I am on crutches for the rest of the month is that my current young Oxford surgeon insisted on removing the souvenir metal plate before doing the new knee. He allowed me to see the trophy as I was recovering from the anaesthetic, and I deeply regret that I wasn't allowed to keep the beautiful sculptural object, which was not only unrusted, but even shiny despite its 53 years' attachment to my person. (In Britain such objects have to be incinerated - something to do with the prions that are suspected to cause BSE and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and the fact that nobody yet knows what a prion is and how it behaves.)

         During these weeks I've managed to get to the theatre and opera very occasionally, and to a gallery or two; but mostly I've caught up on my reading. I had the time to read most of the longlist for the Man Booker prize. And though I was wrong about the winner (I plumped for Peter Carey's Parrot and Olivier in America, not because I was second-guessing the judges, but because I thought it the best book on the shortlist), Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question is, as I said in my preview piece in the Wall Street Journal, a reflective and touching book.

         I've also read the letters of my friend the late Bruce Chatwin, Under the Sun, edited by his widow, Elizabeth and his biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare. If you happen to read the notes to p.269, about Bruce meeting, at a wedding in June, 1977, a 27-year-old Australian stockbroker called Donald Richards - with whom he was infatuated if not in love for the next five years - it was my wedding party. At least three of the guests, including Donald and Bruce, died of Aids - a very grisly memory of an otherwise happy and memorably funny occasion. Many of the reviewers of Bruce's "letters" have remarked that Bruce's literary reputation is in decline. Is that true? Do young people no longer buy his books? In my own memory there are stacks of them, in paperback translations, in bookshops in Spain, France and Italy. How I wish I'd bought a copy of each.

         The diaries of Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire , Wait for Me!, has also been beside my bed. It's prefaced by a "Note on Family Names," which glosses the nicknames the Mitfords used for each other - and it's as hard to follow as the cast of characters of War and Peace. I love Debo's wide-eyed innocence about her intimacy with the Kennedy family, and the proximity to powerful people of her and her sisters. My best friend at Harvard was her husband's cousin, and he socialized with the Kennedys as well; but we thought nothing of it then - I suppose most of my friends at Harvard were only one or two degrees removed from the Kennedys. But Unity, Diana and Hitler! There's a social set with a difference.

         To be published in  few days, What Makes a Masterpiece: Encounters with Great Works of Art, edited by Christopher Dell (Thames & Hudson £24.95) is a perfect counterweight to Neil MacGregor's just-ending BBC Radio 4 series, A History of the World in 100 Objects.

        This is the greatest use of radio ever - including the celebrated broadcasts during WWII, or the 1950s soap operas, the quiz programmes of later decades and even Desert Island Discs. MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, has described 100 objects in the BM, got guest speakers to comment on their significance, and simply held every educated person in the country spellbound for several months, despite not being able to see what he was talking about. Stupendous. In the handsome Masterpiece volume, seventy well-chosen writers (some of them artist themselves) justify their choice of a work of art in a few hundred words. Tom Phillips chooses "The Mycerinus Triad," Marina Warner Bernini's "The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa." If asked, I'd have chosen a painting by Howard Hodgkin. Come to think of it, why wasn't Hodgkin asked to choose a work himself?

October 14, 2010 3:56 PM | | Comments (0)

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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on October 14, 2010 3:56 PM.

Home on the Range with Hodgkin was the previous entry in this blog.

What I regret about 2010 is the next entry in this blog.

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