Quote of The Week

“The urge to save humanity is almost always a false face for the urge to rule it.”



The Wisdom of the Past

Books on your shelves are a kind of physical biography. It’s hard to deny that they reveal all your past enthusiasms, beliefs and projects. This is why so many people throw them out, preferring to forget all that embarrassing history. Now we are in the internet age, of course, no throwing out will be necessary. Books are obsolete, and the past vanishes at the touch of a button.

My books stay with me, because I am a media dinosaur, but sometimes I need to tidy up and reorganize the overcrowded shelves. The person I meet there is familiar, and not at all alien. But he has been left behind by history, philosophy, sociology, and just about every ology and osophy you can think of. The world has moved on.

If I believed in progress I would assume that all my old books are junk. But I’m not so sure. Most of the books that influenced me date from the 1960s and 1970s, when there was an astonishing ferment of social and political ideas. Those decades were a kind of mini-Enlightenment, and they were destined to be quickly extinguished by toxic tides of conservatism and irrationalism.
I collected books by just about every trendy author from Karl Popper to Herbert Marcuse, Christopher Lasch and Eric Hoffer – from all sides of the political spectrum. Am I imagining this, or was there something especially fertile and important in those books and those movements?

In the Renaissance there was a craze for the wisdom of the classical world. Wisdom from the past seemed more substantial, somehow. Its authors have the prestige of being long dead, their ideas hallowed by time. The eighteenth century Enlightenment followed the same path, although the thinkers of that era were more oriented towards the future.

Have I fallen into my own version of this trap – admiring what I imagine to be the “Wisdom of the ancients”? It can be argued that the “ancients” knew absolutely nothing, lacking TV and internet and cell phones and nuclear weapons and all the things that make our own age seem so wise. But those old, rather dusty books are still on my shelves, still worth reading occasionally, and I will keep them – just in case the ancients were right.


Like most writers I am proud of being (as I imagine) highly literate. I value my knowledge of books and authors, vocabulary and grammar, metaphors and figures of speech. Those things are my working tools. On the rare occasion these days when I teach a writing workshop, I feel guiltily smug about my superior command of the English language.

This smugness is destroyed at least once a year, on the week leading up to April 15. I’m quite incapable of understanding the Byzantine tax code myself so I employ an accountant to do it. When I watch the accountant at work I see the dark and embarrassing side of my literacy, which is my almost total innumeracy.

It’s tempting to claim a disability. This is the usual way of covering up stupidity these days. At school I suffered from severe myopia, which nobody recognized for years. The stuff that teachers wrote on the blackboard was a mystery to me because I couldn’t see it. This was a major disadvantage in math classes, which were taught by an irascible man called Mr. Harris. In Latin class I could sometimes get away with guessing the translations. In math class, I could never guess the right answers.

So I left school with enough math to add, subtract, divide, and multiply – but not much else. Advanced math was something I never learned, let alone algebra or calculus. In the modern world this is a deep embarrassment, like not understanding how to use a computer or drive a car. In the accountant’s office those numbers jumping around on the screen are incomprehensible and boring. Any accountant or financial adviser can run rings around me.

This is not just a money problem. Money is the least of it. We live in a mathematical universe, as Newton demonstrated, not a literary one. There’s no reason to be proud of not understanding Hawking’s Brief History of Time, or the tax code. When the universe is finally explained to us it will be by numbers, not by clever metaphors.

It’s natural to value to skills we have, and to denigrate the skills we lack. But are we innumerate writers giving soul to the soulless world of measurement and mathematics, or are we painting without colors?

Good News

Nobody can deny that we need some good news. Whether we will get any is another matter. My mother didn’t believe in good news. She heard nothing but bad news from the time she was born in 1909. Oddly enough there was chaos and war in the Middle East just after she was born, and the place has continued in much the same state to this very day. Then there was the First World War, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and then the Cold War when for more than forty years we were all expecting to be bombed into dust by those wicked communists. Oddly enough, they never got around to it. My guess is that the Soviets never had WMDs in the first place, just big painted models that they paraded through Red Square on May Day.

The odd dull moments were livened up with Korea, Vietnam, Granada, and famines and civil wars all over the place. More recently we’ve had the 9/11 terrorist attack, the war in Afghanistan, Iraq wars I and II, and Mr. Trump. When human ingenuity fails, nature can always be relied upon to deliver, a tsunami or a hurricane.

When did you last hear some good news? It’s a silly question. News doesn’t work lie that.
My time as a newspaper journalist is long past, but I do remember that only bad news sells. We dreaded a slow bad news day. As the most junior person on the reporting staff I was responsible for covering any small gaps that appeared in the news pages, due to the fact that nothing bad had happened. So I routinely wrote little items of imaginary news to fill the spaces. Usually these were traffic accidents or vague disturbances in which no one was arrested. I learned very quickly what was wanted, and it wasn’t a heartwarming story of a little girl finding her lost bunny. It had to be something exciting, alarming, or depressing. Just watch the Fox TV channel. You don’t have to have a PhD in media studies to figure out their game: bad news, fear, mysteries, and ideally all three at once. It’s simple-minded, but it works.

Most of us prefer bad news. Study your family when the TV news is on. Watch when their eyes are fixed on the screen, and when they drift away. Over the decades dozens of people have launched “Good News” newspapers and TV shows, but they all sank without a trace, and quickly. Someone once gave me a link to a web page called Happy News.com. It had stories of survivors, pets rescued, sports victories, health breakthroughs, and so on. It was all good stuff, but even HappyNews.com had an unhappy news button, in case you couldn’t stand it anymore.

Good news just doesn’t grab us. Consider these imaginary headlines: “President Embraces Health Care for All;” “Afghanistan Endorse Democratic Constitution: All Rebel Groups Disarm”; “Massive Federal Effort to Abolish Income Inequality.” If The New York Times had to survive on headlines like that it would be dead in a week.

Here’s an interesting paradox. In the mass media good news is almost always personal (the rescue, the recovery, the survival). Bad news is almost always social (refugees, economic problems, war). If research showed this to be true, it would be a triumphant vindication of American individualism. No matter how bad things get out there, each of us personally is doing just fine. I’ll leave you to spot the logical flaw in this argument, if there is one. The bottom line is that in order to have a small amount of good news worth reporting, you first have to have a very large amount of bad news. Every cloud has a silver lining.

Poetry in Motion

I hate subways. Traveling in tunnels under the earth is a mode of transportation more appropriate for moles or hamsters. Human beings need light and air. Much of my misspent youth was spent on the London subway, called the Underground, and I have no fond memories of it.

But last time I was in London it was raining, and cabs were scarce. I took the Underground, and found myself sandwiched between an exotically scented street person and a tight Teutonic knot of German tourists. Claustrophobia kicked in. The advertisements along the top of the carriage were the only entertainment, so I looked fixedly at them until my eyes collided with a poem. It was a shock, like finding a diamond in a garbage dump.

In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself astray in a dark wood
Where the right road had been lost sight of.

That poem spoke directly to me. Substitute “tunnel” for “wood” and it described my situation exactly. It turned out to be a fragment from Dante’s Divine Comedy, “The Inferno,” which seems particularly appropriate for that or any other subway. In fact Dante is in every way the perfect poet of the Underground. His famous line: “All hope abandon ye who enter here” should be posted at the entrance to every station.

After so many years of avoiding subterranean travel I had forgotten about “Poems on the Underground.” This valuable service, which posts a constantly changing selection of poems all over London’s huge transport system, began in 1986 as an initiative of the Poetry Society. Now the idea has spread all over the world from Adelaide, Australia to St. Petersburg, in Russia. The Chinese are thinking about it. In New York the MTA started its own program, called “Poetry in motion,” in 1992. You can be surprised by cool poems even in the steaming inferno of the New York subway.

This is one of those small things that almost restores one’s faith in the sanity of the human race. It was a stroke of genius to put poetry where no one would ever expect to find it, and so make it available to millions of people who would never open a book of poems, or perhaps a book of any kind. Poetry can have an impact like nothing else. A few lines between station stops might change your life. It’s a pity that, like Dante, we have to descend into the bowels of the earth to find it.

Personally I would like to see more poetry in more places where it might do good, places where the human condition is at its most desperate, like police lockups and the Department of Motor Vehicles. Above all these days we need to see poetry in airports, and in the aircraft themselves, a form of transportation that Dante in his worst nightmares could never have imagined. A few uplifting verses here might make the difference between hope and despair. But where is the poet who can rise to such a challenge? How about the Long Island genius, Walt Whitman?

O to realize space!
The plenteousness of all, that there are no bounds,
To emerge and be of the sky, of the sun and moon and flying
clouds, as one with them.
Or, just to remind us of the fragility of our in-flight situation:
O human race, born to fly upward,
Wherefore at a little wind dost thou so fall.

Ironic Voices from the Past

I like to keep track of the birth anniversaries of famous and notorious people. It’s a hangover from my early days as a newspaper journalist, when a blank space on the page could always be filled by scribbling a short, badly-researched piece on Archimedes, the inventor of the bath plug, or Charles Dickens, the inventor of Christmas. When anniversaries coincide they provide even better material for the empty-headed writer.

Here is one such happy accident. On November 30 in 1835 Mark Twain was born in Florida, Missouri, and became one of the funniest writers who ever lived. Also on November 30, in 1667, Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland. Like Twain he wrote under various pseudonyms, most famously Lemuel Gulliver. Here were two writers separated by an ocean of sea, and a metaphorical ocean of time and culture, and yet they seem strangely alike in having a superlative gift for comedy along with a dark view of human nature. Both used the device of a traveler in strange lands to satirize their own societies. Both had their major works bowdlerized as children’s books, although they were and are totally unsuitable for children. A child brought up on the works of Swift and Twain would be a cynical creature indeed.

The language of these comic classics is rather dated. The authors loved long, rolling sentences, obscure references, and clever multi-layered metaphors. They are a world away from our modern, high speed comedians, and their elaborate jokes are too ponderous for texting, let alone twittering. There is a prestigious Mark Twain Prize for humor, although usually it goes to entertainers rather than writers. Bill Cosby received the award in 2009, and Tina Fey in 2010. There is no Jonathan Swift Prize as far as I know, apart from some minor poetry awards. Swift is a bit too sharp in his satire to suit the modern taste, a very spiteful pen indeed, even if he was a clergyman

Their books are literary icons, and as such, they are largely ignored. As Mark Twain himself said, a classic is a book that everybody praises but nobody reads. Years ago we picked up a complete set of Twain’s works in twenty-five volumes at a yard sale, but they have gathered a lot of dust. There’s an ancient copy of Swift’s collected prose on the shelf too. So we have these books if we need them. But do we need them?

That is a rhetorical question, of course. Imagine a culture without satire, as some seem to be. Without mockery and self-mockery we are all potential fanatics. The great satirists of the past, from Aristophanes to Chaucer and Cervantes, Voltaire and Mencken, innoculate us against the dread disease of taking ourselves too seriously.

Quotations are also the writer’s friend. Here are two, the first from the Rev. Dean Swift:

“Satire is a sort of mirror, in which beholders generally discover everybody’s face but their own.”

And from Mr. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the man behind Mark Twain:

“Irreverence is the champion of liberty, and its only sure defense.”

The Quest

The vast popular success of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy in print and on film raises yet again the question of the Quest. Why are Quest stories so enormously popular?

Confession: I haven’t seen any of the Tolkien films. I started watching the first episode on a plane, and fell asleep after half an hour. Back when it was fashionable to rave about Tolkien’s books I could never get into them at all. My taste just doesn’t run to that kind of whimsical, quasi-mythical, quasi-historical, quasi-religious fantasy. If you want whimsical fantasies, watch any White House Press conference. There’s no need to go all the way to Middle Earth, let alone to New Zealand.

But people have been telling and enjoying Quest stories since the beginning of recorded history. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest written story on earth and tells of a Babylonian King who searches for immortality, apparently without success since we haven’t heard from him for the past four thousand years. The legend of King Arthur and the quest for the Holy Grail is also very ancient and has some claim to be the most popular tall story of all time. Even today Arthur gets to dream his impossible dream on the Broadway stage.

The very first novel, Don Quixote was a picaresque quest for a lost ideal of chivalry – and indeed the Don also sings about his quest in the musical version. A Quest always goes better with music. The Wizard of Oz is a quest, Star Wars is a quest, Indiana Jones is just a rewrite of the King Arthur legend with music by John Williams.

The object of the heroic/mythical Quest, such as the one undertaken by Mr. Frodo Baggins in Tolkien’s tale, is usually mysterious. Sometimes it’s an abstraction, like power, or immortality, but more often it’s an object that has magic powers. The object of the quest is also serious. Once attained, it won’t be disappointing like your mother’s Christmas present. It will deliver on its promises. The plot gimmick in The Lord of the Rings is that Mr. Baggins has to get rid of the magic ring instead of finding it. You might think this would be easy, but nothing in a Quest story is ever easy.

In pursuit of this object or objective the hero must undergo terrible trials, including a villain who tries to destroy him and terminate his quest before the credits roll. The hero usually has a sidekick or junior hero who provides light relief, such as Sam or Sancho Panza or the robot C-3PO. Another essential character is the wise old man who offers advice, Polonius-like, and comments on the action. Alec Guinness was good in this role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, although I bet he had a hard time keeping a straight face.

What makes the Quest more than just a treasure hunt is that it has a moral element. The hero succeeds, if at all, through purity of heart. It’s not just a matter of who arrives first with the heaviest weapons. King Arthur gets the invincible sword Excalibar only because he is noble enough to carry it. There’s a moral in this somewhere.

Heroism, nobility, high ideals, wisdom and happy endings are and always have been in short supply. The law of supply and demand guarantees that they will be highly valued. That’s what made Mallory’s epic tale The Death of Arthur the surprise bestseller of 1470, and that’s what packs the movie houses today.

The Heroic Quest is entirely a masculine thing, or more correctly a boy thing? Essentially it’s an excuse for the boys to get out of the house. Boys are fascinated by battles between good and evil, and some of them never grow out of it. They like to imagine themselves taking the heroic part in such battles and telling the tale afterwards. The ancient Epic of Gilgamesh includes the earliest and probably the best explanation of the whole phenomenon. “All men,” said the hero’s long-suffering wife “Are born liars.”

Literature for Dummies

The pleasures of winter are much exaggerated. When we talk about the log fires and the beautiful, bleak landscapes, we’re just whistling in the dark, waiting for the lighter evenings to come. The only real pleasure of winter is the end of it.

But I must confess that there is something to be said for the modest luxury of reading in bed on a cold, dark night, under a heap of blankets and cats, knowing that you can read on until your eyelids droop or the book no longer holds your attention. It’s not a good idea to watch television in bed. All that screaming and canned applause will keep your partner awake, and there’s the danger that you may actually dream about the programs. But a good book carries you into sleep quietly, leaving something interesting for the subconscious mind to work on for the next few hours.

It is harder and harder to find a good nighttime read. I haunt the library and the bookstores, follow the reviews, ask my friends. Yet the heap of half-read and unread books beside the bed grows larger and larger, and threatens to engulf the whole bedroom. From time top time I am encouraged or instructed to pick up all the books that I have piled beside the bed. This has something to do with a profoundly un-literary ritual called vacuuming, of which I disapprove on of principle. But it is interesting to see what books are there, some read, some half-read and abandoned, some glanced at and tossed down.

For example, I enjoy a good historical novel. My favorite author is Patrick O’Brian, in case you’re interested. But I’m struggling with a book by the Booker Prize winning writer A.S.Byatt, called The Biographer’s Tale. It is about a young man who abandons literary theory (a nice little in-joke) in order to write a biography of a biographer. It’s an ingenious idea, and the writing is as clever and as graceful as one could wish. But the reader needs a notebook, a PhD and a photographic memory to keep track of the plot. Who needs this kind of intellectual workout at bedtime?

I prefer fiction at bedtime, a good story. But good stories have become almost as rare as honest memoirs. The death of the novel has been routinely announced for the past fifty years, and I’m beginning to believe that it may be dying at last. The mysteries all seem like pale imitations of P.D.James, modern detective stories are all detective and no story, spy novels are redundant, science fiction is always behind the times, and romance is not to my taste, as well as being even less probable than science fiction. This leaves the ordinary novel, the “non-genre” novel, which has been the central and most prestigious form of fiction for the past two hundred years.

But the ordinary novel is increasingly being displaced by what is called the “literary novel” – a tautology if ever I heard one. The literary novel is written by a professor of literature, or a graduate of a creative writing program, and it is designed to be read only by others of the same tribe. These authors are no doubt very talented – it’s hard to get a novel published these days – but they all seem seriously depressed, and they want their readers to know it, and share it. Their books are promoted with lines like: “A dark fairy tale of mothers and daughters locked in a struggle” and “Fictional memoir of a descent into madness.” Is this the kind of thing I want in my head just before I go to sleep?

A lot of modern novelists have also abandoned the old-fashioned virtue of clarity in their writing. The new rule seems to be: the more pompous, wordy, obscure and loaded with symbolism the better. I like my fiction to be entertaining in an intelligent way. There’s plenty of intelligence on display, but entertainment seems to have gone out the window.

I suspect that only The New York Times reviewers actually read books by writers like Don DeLillo, Margaret Attwood, Cormac McCarthy, and even the semi-sacred Salman Rushdie, and perhaps not even they get to the last page without skipping.

The authors would probably argue that their very serious novels are not intended to be read in bed, but can only be appreciated in a deep leather chair, under a green shaded reading lamp, in a quiet study or library, with plenty time and a heap of reference books close at hand, along with a bottle of Prozac.

So, by necessity, my bedtime reading is moving inexorably away from my beloved fiction, into the less imaginative realm of non- fiction: biography, criticism, essays, and history. At least, as long as it’s true to life, there’s always something to laugh at.


Each week without fail I carefully read the lists of bestselling books in the Sunday papers, and each week I forget to read the actual books. It’s not that I have anything against bestsellers, apart from being jealous of their authors, but I have found over the decades that I seldom enjoy the titles that climb to the very top of the list. There are exceptions of course, but all too often bestsellers have a mechanical feel, as if they had been written by a committee according to a formula with the sole aim of becoming bestsellers.

The formula usually includes a female main character who is brave and beautiful, but also intelligent and sensitive. Often there are other female characters who are police chiefs, detectives, or coroners, who are all incredibly beautiful (and sensitive), plus one male character who is a complete idiot. This is not precisely a reflection of reality, but it does reflect the fact that eighty per cent of novel readers are women. Men are attracted by a different formula, which we see in the so-called blockbuster movies that seem to be (and sometimes are) generated by computers.

But these formulaic productions can be good, and sometimes a title stays in the limelight so long that it becomes impossible to ignore. For months the late Stieg Larsson dominated the list. The first of his three bestselling crime mysteries, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was up at the top for fifty eight weeks. Everybody I know seems to have read it, and most of them loved it. This created an uneasy feeling that I was missing something. The library had a long waiting list for the book, so I spent $14.95 on a paperback copy. Motivated by this reckless investment, I read it.

I don’t pretend to be a literary critic but I like a good crime mystery, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a good one. It wasn’t just the author’s sad and romantic story that pushed it to the top of the bestseller lists.

Reducing the plot to its essence (and I won’t give anything away in case you are one of the half dozen people who haven’t read it yet) this is a tale of conspiracy, a quest for truth, and above all revenge. This is not exactly a new plot line – the revenge story belongs to a long literary tradition, going back three thousand years to Homer’s Iliad.

But it struck me that the last four crime mysteries I read have all been revenge stories, set variously in China, Sweden, nineteenth century Nevada, and Scotland. What is it about revenge? Surely we aren’t all nursing a hidden, bitter grudge. I don’t have one myself, which may be why I never wrote a bestselling book. Only two people have really annoyed me in my life: one school teacher, and one army drill sergeant, both of them probably long dead and hardly enough material for a five hundred and ninety page novel.

Perhaps the attraction of revenge is the feeling that somebody must be responsible for bad things that happened to us in the past, and revenge will put everything right. But really it doesn’t work. It didn’t work for bold Achilles, and it didn’t work for Hamlet. Revenge is sweet, says the proverb, but real revenge is messy, and always disappointing because the past never changes. The truth is that reading about revenge is sweet, which is what keeps the publishing industry profitable, and perhaps saves us from acting out our little feuds and resentments in the real world. Crime novels save a lot of police time. Everyone should read them.

A Word of Encouragement

A word of encouragement for writers who are struggling to make a ‘career’ out of their passion. This is by William Pfaff, from an article called “The Lay Intellectual,” and I found it in an old diary on mine.

“Why follow the irregular’s career? At the heart of it, I think, are two factors: the rejection of specialization and the dislike of the cloister, which may also be considered worldliness. We who do this are often considered synthesizers, generalists, speculators, butterflies, gypsies, irresponsibles…Some are cosmopolitans, travellers, the curious café dwellers, for whom the constrained life, the introversion and intrigue of the academic community, are repellant. Some are incorrigible free-lancers, movers-on, independent souls.”

On Starting to Write

“Once a writer is born into a family,
that family is doomed.”

Lithuanian poet Czeslaw Milosz

“Being a writer” is a very appealing identity. No extraordinary skills are required, and the initial investment is small – just a pad of paper and some pens. Musicians have to learn difficult things like sight reading and playing an instrument. Artists need a ton of expensive equipment and (as with musicians) their creative product is judged instantly, the moment it is seen or heard. People will say “Like it” or “Don’t like it,” and that’s the end of the matter.

A writer, by contrast, can be finishing a novel or working on a poetry collection for years, or even decades, with virtually no overhead expenses. Nothing can be judged until the end, which may never come. The writer’s ego and identity are safe as long as s/he refrains from publishing anything, rather like the character Bradley Pearson in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Black Prince who is always on the verge of writing his masterpiece.

I must have been dimly aware of these advantages when I seized on the idea of being a writer at about the age of fifteen. At school my writing was praised, although nothing else was, and I was addicted to reading. It always seemed to me that the written word was a kind of talisman. There was something more reliable, more substantial about it than either speech or images.
At that impressionable age I developed a fascination with print. A toy rubber block printing kit, then a crude duplicator allowed me to reproduce my words again and again. When I started work as a very junior reporter at the age of sixteen I was able to visit the printing plant and watch my words being reproduced on great rolls of paper before my eyes. I was hooked.

Just below the surface of this fascination was the sober knowledge that my words were not worth reproducing at all. I was writing sketches, humorous stories and essays, all of them now mercifully lost. The material was feeble, and I longed to do more adventurous, more dramatic things so that I could write about them. But there were few opportunities for a schoolboy in the London suburbs to live like Hemingway or Robert Louis Stevenson.

As always, when one’s own story is rather disappointing, it is useful to know who did better, and why. Eudora Welty found the perfect title for her classic memoir: One Writer’s Beginnings. All writers are curious about how others got started, thinking that their memoirs will offer clues to the secret of success. What we learn is that planning and rational choice have little or nothing to do with the process of becoming a writer, and even less with success. Most writers end up where they do by a series of accidents. The trick is to choose the right accidents.

Some writers blame their career choice on an accident of birth. This may be true for the sons and daughters of literary families, like Martin Amis, or Virginia Woolf. But school was the starting point for me. The purpose of education is to teach us which careers to avoid. The all-boys grammar school I attended in London was very good at this. By the age of twelve I had already accumulated a long list, certified by experts, of things I was absolutely no good at: sports, math, science Latin, chemistry, and much more. But we had a superb English teacher, Mr. Thomas, who was driven by a passionate enthusiasm for literature and language.

So my mind was stuffed with literature at an early age, Mr. Thomas also planted a fatal seed by using my essays as examples for the whole class (how I suffered for that outside the classroom!) and actually saying out loud that I ought to be a writer, because it was clear from my school record that I couldn’t do anything else. The bestselling novelist Stephen King tells a very similar story in his memoir, On Writing. So Mr. Thomas was the first good accident that happened to me.

The second accident was a writing machine. When I was about thirteen my mother brought home a very old, worn-out Underwood typewriter from her office. That typewriter was magic. I loved the way it made my words look almost like print – albeit very faint, uneven, purple-colored print. Almost at once I started writing humorous stories about things that scared me, including the mathematics teacher, the dentist, and space aliens. But I had literary aspirations too, and wrote poems and tragedies of an adolescent kind.

Finally, I had the great good fortune to be an only child. This imposed a valuable solitude, especially because both my parents worked. I had plenty of time to think my own thoughts, although our lack of family drama turned out to be a disadvantage later, when I tried to write fiction. The combination of an overactive imagination with a quiet and solitary childhood was productive up to a point. It seemed to me that I saw the world more clearly, and I always wanted to explain my perceptions to others, who never wanted to hear them. Some very fine authors, like Proust, were physically delicate as children. All their energy turned into memory and imagination. I was robust physically but my life was so self-contained that it had the same effect. I never felt quite at home in the world, and that is a great blessing for a writer.

A teacher, an old typewriter, and a taste for solitude could have launched me into any number of occupations. But “writer” sounded much more impressive than most of the other options, and I imagined that writers did not have to spend all their working hours in stuffy offices. I was wrong about that. I also imagined that it would help me to impress girls. I was wrong about that, too. But most of all I wanted to be published because I thought I had something important to say, I wanted to put people right about the world. I’m still trying to do that. Norman Mailer says somewhere in his memoir The Spooky Art that writers are like priests or doctors: on one level they want to do good, but on another level they want to have some measure of power. He’s right.

Money is optional for a writer, but useful. I always advise young writers to arrange for a large inheritance, a good marriage, or a winning lottery ticket. Thomas Mann, Upton Sinclair and Edith Wharton had a head start because they never needed to worry about the sordid commercial side of things. Unfortunately my family was quite poor. It wasn’t the kind of poverty that makes for a romantic story, but genuine enough to make me an early realist about work and money.

So another attraction of writing as a career was the low initial investment. I could start at once, on the kitchen table, which I did. But I had enough sense to know that couldn’t hope to earn a living that way, at the age of thirteen.

Anxious to be out of the kitchen and the classroom and into the full stream of life, I left school soon after my sixteenth birthday, to the horror of my parents and teachers, and took a job as an apprentice journalist in London. This seemed like a practical way of being paid for writing, and it was. At five pounds a week it was a bargain. Journalism school is a total rip-off by comparison.

My first assignments were to report small disasters and traffic accidents, or to make them up when nothing was happening. Later I was entrusted with writing the letters to the editor, because nobody ever wrote to our paper. The editor had a slash and burn style of editing that left its mark on me forever. Most of my stories ended up on the spike. Everything had to be rewritten five times. I’ve never learned so much so fast, including how not under any circumstances to write in my own voice. This helped me to understand what my own voice was.

I recommend journalism as a training ground for writers. It thickens delicate skins. Stephen King had the same basic training, joining the Lisbon Weekly Enterprise in Connecticut as a teenage reporter. It worked for him, and it worked for Mark Twain, who learned to write as a young journalist on the Hannibal Journal.

Later I wrote for a weekly magazine that served the motor cycling fraternity. This was back in the days when motorcycles were a means of transportation rather than a masculine virility symbol. My job was to test new machines and to report races and other sporting events. I hoped for rapid promotion in the company because, in the nature of the business, my more senior colleagues were regularly killed or maimed in accidents. But then I was drafted into the army.

This was another kind of education. The complete loss of freedom was startling, and I was disturbed to find that being a soldier, even a dozen years after the end of the war, was not at all safe. Our regiment was sent to Cyprus, where the Greeks were trying to kill the Turks, and vice versa. We were supposed to stand bravely between them and be shot at by both, which we stupidly did.

I wrote comical stories about our lives as failed soldiers in Cyprus. None of the stories survived, but some of the uneasy memories found their way into my imaginary chef d’oeuvre, an eternal and eternally unpublished novel called Suicide Note Update. What I learned in the army was that I had no taste for violence and no taste for giving or taking orders. This closed off a large number of orthodox career options.

In an attempt to blot out the sordid realities of military life I wrote a huge book about religion. I had been brought up more or less as an atheist, but the circumstances suggested that religion might not be a bad idea. So I spent my spare time researching the world religions, looking for the answer to the question: “Does any of this make any sense?” and coming up with the disappointing answer: “No.” When I was discharged from the army at the age of twenty-one I was left with a large manuscript and no more spirituality than I had at the beginning.

So I made the natural transition from spirituality to fantasy, and started writing science fiction. This allowed me to relax on the philosophical front, and to accept the world as a complete absurdity. Two years of churning out very bad sci-fi stories taught me that absolutely anything goes in fiction, and that there are no outer limits to the craziness of one’s own imagination.

By now I was now seriously committed to being a writer, although it was clear that I still couldn’t earn a living at it. The science fiction escapade brought me close to absolute poverty, but I scraped enough money in 1961 to go to Paris to write my Great Novel. This was still a compulsory apprenticeship for young writers, as it had been for more than a hundred years. It was a very mixed experience. I loved Paris, and still do, and I made a bare living by repairing bicycles and showing English tourists around to all the wrong places. At night I wrote my Great Novel in a genuine attic room close to the Jardin du Luxembourg. It proved to be rubbish (the novel, not the garden). I never got beyond the third chapter, and I tossed it into a toxic dump long ago. I’ve repressed all memories of that book. It was probably about money and sex, but my experience with both was so pathetically small that it wouldn’t have filled one page in a pocket notebook, let alone a whole novel.

So I returned to London somewhat deflated but still full of literary dreams. Marriage brought me down to earth with an almost palpable bump and I had to take a proper job again. At last I understood about money and sex.

One can only keep on “beginning” for so long, and my twenties were certainly the end of the beginning of something. To keep bread and wine (mostly wine) on the table I took jobs in bookselling and publishing, so I could at least stay close to the literary world. When these proved to be much too much like hard work I went back to school, reluctantly, and collected some scraps of paper which allowed me to claim the struggling writer’s last and best refuge: I started teaching sociology at a British university in 1972. The great thing about sociology, from a writer’s point of view, is that it provides a wonderfully ironic perspective on the human comedy. My academic career produced a number of more-or-less unreadable books and articles. It was fifteen years before I could dig my way out of that particular linguistic trap and start writing coherent prose again.

During all my various day jobs, from journalism and bookselling to teaching and broadcasting, I’ve always stolen time to write: stories, nonfiction books, essays, a few scripts and some magazine articles. It’s an addiction. Most of what I wrote was never published, and was never intended to be, any more than a pianist expects his morning scale exercises to be issued on CD. Writing, like life itself, is mainly a matter of practice, and you never get it exactly right. But I’ve had a wonderful time all the way through.

An exceptional stroke of luck came when a new and improved marriage brought me to America and to Long Island in 1986. Suddenly I had more material than I could possibly use. I began to write about Long Island life, first in newspaper columns, then for radio, and finally as a regular contributor of humor to The New York Times. I had never lived in the sprawling American suburbs before, and I thought it would be dull. I was wrong. Here was a whole lifestyle in which not only did common sense not prevail, it had clearly never been tried. Suburban life gave me back my sense of humor which I’d almost lost in years of academic writing and serious journalism, and I’ve enjoyed writing about it ever since.