Books: Gone fishing, for the truth

The Books Interview; Charles Nicholl tracks down James Hamilton-Paterson, the elegant absentee, in deepest Tuscany
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Authors are not the most clubbable of creatures, but few are as conspicuously missing from the literary scene as James Hamilton-Paterson. His books are highly regarded, and he has won his share of prizes - the Newdigate Prize for poetry and a Whitbread award for his novel Gerontius - but he is a loner by temperament and an exile by choice, and is more likely to be found spearing fish on a desert island than chipolatas at a publisher's party.

Now in his late fifties, he left England for good over 20 years ago. "It wasn't so much a rejection of England," he says, "as a rejection of boredom. And the two have now become synonymous to me." For much of the year, he lives in a small bamboo house in a remote province of the Philippines, and shares (up to a point) in the elemental, laborious life of the local fishermen and farmers.

"Subsistence throws things into bright relief," he explains. "At the end of the day's work either there are fish and maize cobs to be laid over charcoal or there are not. There are no hidden deals. Everything - shelter, food, water - is plain." This passage in a recently published piece, "Sea Burial", suggests something of his life there, and also something of the crisp resonance of his prose.

When he is not in the Philippines he lives on a hilltop in southern Tuscany - "the unfashionable end," he insists - and it was here I met him on a hot, drowsy day in August. It is another of his hide-outs, a model of inaccessibility. "Dropped in on James H-P" is unlikely to feature in a Tuscan socialite's diary. First, there is the rendezvous at a roadside bar in the Val di Chiana, and then the long, lurching ascent in a Toyota pick-up, climbing through forest on a rock-strewn track which is in fact a dried-up riverbed.

The way he sits at the wheel suggests that this is the kind of driving he likes. He is very fit-looking, without being noticeably tall or muscular; he wears nondescript hot-country shirt and shorts; his public-school accent (King's, Canterbury, and Oxford) has now the faintly fossilised vowel- sounds of the long-term expat.

We pull up at a small stone farmhouse perched on a grassy plateau: a brief garden with old walnut and persimmon trees, a line of washing strung from the trellis, and a massive sweep of view southward to the shores of Lake Trasimeno. He lives here alone with his bees and a huge grass- snake which resides on the lid of his water tank.

Considering his hermit-like tendencies, he is a remarkably genial host. His conversation has the qualities of precision and wit found in his written word. There is more of the scholar about him than I had anticipated. With his silvery hair, he has sometimes an almost a monkish look - but if so, a monk in the hard-bitten Oriental tradition: the forest monk, or the wayfarer like the Japanese haiku-poet Basho, whom he much admires.

The interior is simple - "I'm actually not that interested in mod cons" - but has the comforts of a wood-stove, a well-stocked library and an electronic piano. "I find a Bach partita sets one up for the day." He is an accomplished musician and once toyed with the idea of composing. "I'll probably end up one day teaching the piano to little girls in plaits," he says, improbably.

Music plays an important part in his books. A collection of his short stories is simply called The Music; his novel Gerontius is an imaginative treatment of an unlikely historical episode: Sir Edward Elgar's 1923 journey up the Amazon by steamship to visit the opera house at Manaus.

Hamilton-Paterson's most memorable and personal book is Playing with Water, an account of his life in the Philippines, published in 1987 and now issued in a new edition (Granta, pounds 6.99). One is hooked right from the gorgeous opening sentences: "The places a writer writes are always somewhere else. He may describe a journey, a foreign land; but no matter how faithfully he disposes his rocks and trees, his tokens of difference and the humdrum exotica he comes to love, certain delinquent breezes drift through landscape and writer alike, dishevelling things at their root."

Much of the book concerns the village where he still lives, in a rural backwater near the southern end of Luzon. In his books he calls it Kansulay. He tries to sum up its appeal: "It's Nowheresville by the Sea. It's because it's so nondescript I like it... You can see how it works. You're not part of it, but you can see how it works."

The book is also about a tiny and totally deserted island, Tiwarik, where he lived for a while, doing the full Crusoe bit, but this has now an elegiac note, as the island has since fallen victim to the global blight of tourism, and has become something called the Fantasy Elephant Club, which has been described as a "Japanese middle-management bordello".

Playing with Water is the more remarkable for its subtle modulation into veins of childhood memory and autobiography. It is a unique kind of memoir- as-reverie, in which an almost bygone England is refashioned in the distance and silence of exile. He now comments, self- deprecatingly: "I'm not an autobiographical sort of person. You've either got to have done something really memorable or you've got to be a grand old fart, and I'm really neither."

His latest book, published this week, is America's Boy: The Marcoses and the Philippines (Granta, pounds 20). This is essentially a piece of hard- nosed political journalism - he worked as a journalist in Indo-china and Latin America in the 1970s - but deepened by his strong personal connection with the region. It is by no means a rehabilitation of the Marcoses, but it certainly challenges some of the easier stereotypes.

The inhabitants of "Kansulay" and elsewhere provide insights into the Filipino view of the Marcoses, which is by no means the same as the prevailing Western view. In order to understand the Marcoses, he says, you have to "get out into the villages, and work out where it all came from and why".

"The book was actually written out of a kind of anger: this constant sense that the place I knew was being misrepresented, often," he says. "Not grossly, but just enough to skew the portrait so as to be almost unrecognisable." He dislikes the "parachute journalists" who drop in for a few days and recycle the same old half-truths. He dislikes the so-called "new journalism", which seems always a form of self-advertisement "I'm not interested in `I'. I want the meat. Where's the beef?"

Above all, he dislikes what he calls the "Jokey Brits in the Amazon jungle" school of travel-writing. "I just can't bear it. It makes me come over all serious, which is actually the last thing I am. I get stuffy about it. I don't like jokiness at the expense of natives, that's what it really is. I feel it's a very dated kind of trope. It's basically saying that they're actually rather urbane and sophisticated, rather witty and well- educated chaps, and they ain't."

America's Boy is tautly written and meticulously sourced: a lot of legwork and local knowledge has gone into it. It is particularly good, and funny, on the mythologising aspect of the Marcos regime - the "politics of fantasy", as he calls it. Perhaps the most surprising figure in the book is Imelda Marcos, whom Hamilton-Paterson met and interviewed in 1997.

He places Imelda in her social context, an impoverished young woman in an ethos of "stifling Spanish Catholic proprieties weirdly allied to the sort of American aspirations exemplified in Lucille Ball sitcoms". And he empathises with her fierce if narrow ambitions; one glimpses some kind of humanity behind the kitsch extravaganza of her political persona.

In a few weeks, James Hamilton- Paterson will migrate back from Tuscany to the Philippines: a bird of passage moving in an enviable zone of freedom. This divided life seems further to ensure his preferred condition of solitude, of marginality. He does not quite belong to either place. "I'm one of life's interlopers," he says with his disarming smile - a smile which somewhat conceals the intensity of his gaze, and makes light of the loneliness that comes with the freedom.

JAmes Hamilton-Paterson, a biography

James Hamilton-Paterson was born in London in 1941. At Exeter College, Oxford, he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry. He went on to study education as a postgraduate at King's College, London. He taught English in Tripoli in the 1960s, before returning to England to work as a porter and operating-room technician at St Stephen's Hospital. In 1974, after six years working as a freelance journalist for the Times Literary Supplement, New Statesman, and the Sunday Times, he left England, and now divides his time between the Philippines and Italy. He still travels extensively. His published work includes novels - Grief Work, Gerontius (1989) which won the Whitbread Prize - short stories, children's stories, poetry, biographies and a book about the sea, Seven-Tenths.