BOOK REVIEW / Piles and piles in common: 'The Maker of the Omnibus: The Lives of English Writers Compared' - Jack Hodges: Sinclair-Stevenson, 20 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IN Kafka's Dick, by Alan Bennett, there's a suburban housewife who has never read a word of Auden yet is fully au fait with the fact that the great poet never wore underpants. Accumulating odd details about the Lives rather than wrestling with the actual Works is what she and her husband mean by having literary interests. They'd be in seventh heaven with The Maker of the Omnibus, Jack Hodges's dottily detailed comparative study, in 92 subsections, of the lives of English (or, more accurately, British) writers, on the crawl from cradle to grave.

Here you learn that, while lodging with Beverley Nichols's mother in Leeds, Oscar Wilde asked for some pale yellow raspberries at breakfast, 'a request which, in snow-bound Yorkshire, a week before Christmas, she was unable to satisfy'. That gem (included to illustrate the maternal contribution to Nichols's development) comes from the 'Genes or Environment?' section, while the 'Fathers who were Positive' segment reveals that, whenever skin formed on little A J P Taylor's cocoa, his pater 'scooped it off between thumb and finger and swallowed it'. Ah, now you can see why writing was their destiny.

Actually, the trek through these chapters keeps bringing to mind uncreative types like poor Kenneth Halliwell, whose frustration was made worse by knowing that he could boast more of the 'right' writerly credentials (especially in the traumata department) than could his fertile flatmate, Joe Orton. But then the Friends of Promise to one man can just be Enemies for another. I began, indeed, to wonder about myself. Born in the north (a region which comes comfortably high on the league of writers' birthplaces), educated at Balliol ('easily first' in the scribe stakes), I am also 'small in stature' (thus walking tall with everyone from Pope to Evelyn Waugh) and, like a 'significantly high' proportion of this book's personnel, I lost a parent in childhood. All this and 'constitutional melancholy' too. It would appear that I am a creative writer in all but actual output.

Veering from the fascinating to the bafflingly banal, the entries are slotted into a system that is often more eccentric than revealing. Thus there is a section on writers' haemorrhoids (T S Eliot, operated on at 62, told Ronald Duncan: 'Whatever you do, Ronnie, avoid piles'), but none on such important topics as, say, the link between creativity and childlessness. The texture of the book is appealingly nuggetty and knowledgeable, but there are times when you can think of stronger examples than the ones given. In the passages on writing and financial pressure, for example, there are references to Frances Hodgson Burnett, E Nesbit and Alison Uttley, but none to Anthony Burgess's hair-raising rate of novel production during the year he thought he had a terminal tumour (he became prolific, he has said, so as to have to some royalties to leave to his wife). There could also have been more cross-referring between life and works: it would have been useful to be told, say, that E Nesbit's money-

making efforts are mirrored in those of the similarly placed mother in The Railway Children.

You get the impression from these pages that the compiler is a nice man with wide sympathies and no malice and, on that account, is not always best equipped to appreciate what makes writers tick. As John Cheever once wrote, 'The rivalry among novelists is quite as intense as that among sopranos', but the spur of jealousy and spite features less in the entries here than does the spirit of positive collaboration. It's a book full of interesting, if inconsequential details, to which Kafka's Dick could provide an apt epigraph: 'In England facts like this pass for culture. Gossip is the acceptable face of intellect.'

Comments