Saturday, 17 October 2009

“For He Had Spoken Lightly of a Woman’s Name”

Today I have added stuff to my profile, under Favourite Films and Favourite Books.

Choosing these titles is hard. I remember the difficulty I had 55 years ago choosing the books to take up with me to Oxford: I wanted desperately to choose a range that would indicate that I was a serious but fun-loving, or rather fun-loving but serious, kind of chap.

I can't remember what I chose, but almost certainly one book was The Last Enemy, the memoir of an Oxford oarsman who was badly burnt as a Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain: reading it had been one of the reasons I chose to go to his college, Trinity.

But I certainly do remember choosing the picture to hang on the wall over my mantelpiece (in those days we had coal fires in our rooms): it is the one at the top of this post. As you can see, the bounder who Had Spoken Lightly has had his come-uppance and is now lying wounded (superficially? mortally? there is no way of telling) at the foot of M'Lady's avenger. This was deliberately chosen to seek to indicate to any female visitor to my rooms that I was a Very Parfit Gentle Knight.

The books I now list start, as they did then, with The Last Enemy. His portrait then hung in the Junior Common Room at Trinity: you can see it now by clicking here.

Next there is Brideshead Revisited, which I read in 1949 in one of the set of ten Waughs published by Penguin in paperback. Its heroine Julia Flyte inspired me to marry one Julia in 1960 and another Julia in 1965. I have now been married to the second Julia one hundred times longer than to the first.

Then there is The Once and Future King, in which T.H. White (who, incidentally, at the time of writing it was a master at Stowe School, a couple of miles from where we now live) puts Mallory's Morte d'Arthur into prose and shows the social and military changes between the Norman Conquest and the Wars of the Roses as all taking place in the lifetime of a single man, King Arthur.

I cannot omit two page-turners from my boyhood. In Greenmantle the upright Richard Hannay foils a dastardly Boche plot to foment a jehad against Great Britain in the Great War. John Buchan wrote other books with the same hero, as well as a handful of serious histories. Michael Maclagan, my tutor at Trinity, told me that John Buchan had once asked him which of his books he had liked the best, and was somewhat discomfited when Michael firmly said "Greenmantle!"

In The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard and The Adventures thereof
Conan Doyle tells rollicking tales about a swaggering Gascon beau sabreur in Napoleon's light cavalry. His touching boastfulness and naivety make him for me a much more sympathetic hero than the much more famous Baker Street detective: it seems that Conan Doyle preferred Etienne to Sherlock as well. Even now I can't read How Etienne Gerard Said Good-Bye to his Master with a wholly dry eye.

I finish the list with a couple of questing tales. The Decipherment of Linear B by John Chadwick tells how the amateur Michael Ventris succeeded where professionals had failed to unlock the meaning of this C16BC Minoan script. The Double Helix by James Watson describes how, when he wasn't trying to bed Swedish au pairs in Cambridge, he and Francis Crick solved the biggest riddle in twentieth century biology.

I believe that a blog post should not exceed six hundred words or so: no more than a single click on the vertical scroll bar should be necessary. Therefore I will say nothing about anything else, except to say to my legion of transatlantic readers that A Matter of Life and Death is known on your side of the herring pond as Stairway to Heaven and Big Deal at Dodge City as A Big Hand for the Little Lady.


  1. Growing up in Dublin ,Ireland I loved a print that hung in our hallway.Now ,Im retired and have time to google that print I was lead somehow to you. My heart skipped a beat when I saw the print you chose to bring to Trinity . I never forgot that image and the caption stayed in my brain. Thank you so much for the memory,you have no idea what it means to see it after 60 yrs.

  2. Would love to know more about this print. Is it a scene from a book? Who made it ? what year?