My earliest reading memory
Something called the Beacon Readers at a small village school, in the corner of a field. I can picture the jacket’s conical torch design on a brown cloth background.
My favourite book growing up
I liked books about witches, of which there seemed to be quite a lot lying around. A little later, aged about 11, I discovered Alistair MacLean whose formula – a group of desperadoes on a wartime mission but with a traitor in their number – I found almost intolerably exciting.
The book that changed me as a teenager
Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence opened my eyes to the fact that a novel doesn’t need action. The development of a character can be story enough. I was bowled over by the affection that Lawrence seemed to have for his characters. He actually loved them.
The writer who changed my mind
George Orwell. I remember, aged 14, reading his essay A Hanging, set in Burma. In simple prose, he describes a condemned man walking to the scaffold, at one point stepping aside to avoid a puddle. Orwell showed me that the authorities are usually wrong. This was appealing to me since I was at a school I didn’t much like. I read all his essays after this, and he set my mind at a liberal slant to the world.
The book that made me want to be a writer
At the same time, I read David Copperfield and Pride and Prejudice. I was amazed by Jane Austen. She was so rude about the figures of authority. Apparently you could be a national treasure and a rebel at the same time. With Charles Dickens, there’s this exuberance of invention. But there was something else that was inspiring: his ability, through focusing on the idiosyncrasies of his quirky characters, to reveal the entire structure of the society from which they came. Miraculous.
The author I came back to
I couldn’t stick Evelyn Waugh at first, but I got there eventually by reading the Sword of Honour trilogy in 1991, when we were living in a remote farmhouse in Italy with our first child, who was a year old. Afterwards, I found A Handful of Dust and my ear became attuned to his prose. I still wish he’d used that gift on more worthwhile subjects, but there you go.
The book I reread
The Catcher in the Rye seemed to me at age 15 to sum up all my adolescent discontents. At 31, when I was a journalist in London, I saw it as an almost clinical description of a mental breakdown. When I was 48, by which I time I was a full-time writer, it didn’t seem to be about Holden at all, but about a country undergoing mysterious change.
The book I discovered later in life
Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis. I had often heard of it, but didn’t read it till I was nearly 60 and at a literary festival in Bali. A wonderful book.
The book I am currently reading
How to Argue with a Racist by Adam Rutherford. Popular science (in this case, genetics) is hard to get right, but Rutherford is both scholarly and entertaining.
My comfort read
I read in order to be discomfited, or at least to learn something new, so I can’t answer this one; though I must say there is usually a welcome light on at 221b Baker Street.
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