The other day I started getting calls from editors at the papers I work for, saying that they were going to have their book round-up soon, and that if I could nominate my choice of Books of the Year and have it in as soon as possible ...
I hate this moment. My first action is to run my mind back over the new books I have been reading recently. My second action is to realise, bluntly, that I can't remember what new books I have read this year, as my reading seems to be confined to second-hand volumes. My third is to realise that I can't remember any new books that have been published this year. My fourth is not to ring back the editors and say that I am unaware of any new books, but to lie low and hope that the other contributors will nominate a massive roster of books...
This year my problem was solved in a surprising way. I got a phone call from a man I have never met called Angus Waycott.
‘We haven't met,’ he said, ‘but I'm ringing on behalf of Gina Wilcox.’
I couldn't remember meeting her either.
‘She is an elderly American whom you met, I think, in a train.’
Now I remembered. On the way back from the Edinburgh Festival by train, in 1993, I met one of those tough old American women a bit like Katharine Hepburn who have the remnants of great beauty and steady eyes and who make you think that America is a good place after all. She was coming to Bath. I asked her round to my house for tea. She came. She went. I forgot about her.
And now Angus Waycott was ringing up on her behalf.
‘What's the message?’ I said.
‘She's dying,’ he said. ‘She rang me from California to tell me that she is dying. She asked to be remembered to you.’
This was all very confusing.
‘How do you know her?’
‘I met her on a train,’ said Angus Waycott, as if this explained everything.
‘What do you do?’
‘I'm a writer,’ he said. ‘I've just got a book out from Andre Deutsch called Paper Doors.’
‘What's it about?’
‘Well, I've spent a lot of time in Japan, and it's my view of the country and the people. But there haven't been any reviews yet. Seems to have fallen into a pool of silence.’
I have always needed a good introductory book on Japan and never found one. This sounded like it, even though it was a very curious way to find out about it. The next day I went out and bought a copy. The next day after that I got a complimentary copy from Angus Waycott. I now had two copies and although I hadn't read either, I at last had a candidate for my Book of the Year. What I didn't know was whether you could vote for something as Book of the Year if you hadn't read it, and it wasn't by a friend of yours...
I did have one or two other candidates for the post of Best (Unread) Book of the Year by now. One is "Famous Tales of Fat Freddy's Cat ", by Gilbert Shelton, a new hardback anthology of the funniest cat in any strip anywhere, and ten zillion miles ahead of Garfield. I haven't seen that book either yet, but I had been invited to the launch party given by Knockabout Books, the enterprising publishers, and I am still kicking myself because I couldn't go.
I have also become very fond of Matthew Parris's anthology of scorn, entitled "Scorn". But my horizons have been enlargened wider than I could possibly have surmised by the recent arrival of an advance copy of "The Fortean Times Book of Strange Deaths." There may be poor benighted souls who do not yet know about the Fortean Times, the journal which does for strange phenomena what The Oldie does for mature grown-ups, but this anthology of weird death reports from round the world could not fail to cheer up anyone who might feel passingly morbid. Example ? Here we go.
"No-one told German-born Amy Weltz that it's an old tradition in Australia for newly-weds to smear wedding cake on each other's faces. When new husband Chas pushed a slice into her face at their reception in Brisbane in September 1993, she hit him over the head with a wine bottle. He died instantly."
Doesn't that cheer you? It does me. Another? Well, there's the shy Japanese couple who waited fourteen years after getting married before making love - and both died of heart attacks the first time they tried it. Then there was the circus midget Martha Farrand, 3 ft 9 in, professionally known as the Vest Pocket Venus, who was loved by both her partners in a high wire act. "Jealousy eventually overcame caution, and one night a fight broke out high above the audience, with both men plunging to their death in the ring..."
Yes, yes! Surely this has to be my book of the year. Apart from books on Japan, that is.
The OldieDec 12 1994