Monday Book: Action man with the soul of a polymath

Anglo-English Attitudes: essays, reviews, misadventures 1984-99 by Geoff Dyer (Abacus, pounds 12.99)
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The Independent Culture
IMPRISONED IN every bloke, an aesthete is wildly signalling to be let out. Anybody who is familiar with the gritty, duvet-twisting world of Geoff Dyer's fiction may not be surprised to open up this stout volume of journalism and find pieces about boxing swiftly followed by "The Wrong Stuff", in which he is on a Russian runway in a MiG-29 fighter.

Chocks away! You feel that if Dyer is not setting himself up as another Norman Mailer, he surely has his sights set on becoming the John Noakes of his generation.

That said, he duly admits that: "you experience 40 minutes of raw sensation and then what? You can tell people you've done it. Apart from that, it's over. You've got nothing to show for it...

He continues: "When I got down I might have returned to my life of loneliness and boredom, but if I had the money I'd go up again and again until it no longer made me happy and then I'd take off and do something else that made me happy."

Still, Dyer has not got $13,000 a throw to chuck around and, in any case, he remarks elsewhere that "there is nothing on earth more pleasurable, no adventure greater, than sitting indoors, reading".

Not that this is his only solace. In But Beautiful he produced an idiosyncratic and affecting account of jazz, while Out of Sheer Rage was a refreshing change from the likes of such biographers as Jeffrey Meyers.

Dyer signally failed to come up with a life of DH Lawrence, but he harum- scarumed about the world instead, to produce a chronicle that veered from his failure to put up a shelf to an acutely embarrassing description of his ex-girlfriend's nether regions on a Mexican beach.

He is a maverick in this corporate era - a short-haul merchant, but no dilettante. He has an eye for what makes prose work. Norman Sherry's is summed up as "the kind of style that emerges when concerted editorial attention irons badly wrinkled prose into something presentably bland." John Carey gets a sound drubbing for his patronising treatment of the working classes. Nobody else has remarked that even in childhood photographs, Graham Greene 'is all the time waiting to grow old" and that, when he is older, "even when smiling or drinking he has the look that we begin to notice in other photographs from this period (of Orwell, for example). This look, which one sees only rarely before the Second World War, shows the face of a man who is inconsolable. A similar look - a similar condition - found expression in the work of several writers of this period."

It is a stimulating observation, and much of this volume is concerned with photography. One effect is to make the reader hasten to find the edition of William Gedney's photographs (What Was True, Norton, pounds 23) on which Dyer has collaborated.

Gedney read avidly. "Spotting someone reading a book on unfamiliar, offbeat subjects, people sometimes ask, 'why are you interested in that?' To which, for an autodidact like Gedney, there was only one reply: because it is interesting... Although he reproached himself... for not making the best use of his time this inability to bring any of his varied projects to completion was not the result of laziness but, paradoxically, of immersing himself so thoroughly in his work."

If there is more than something of that about Dyer's handiwork, it is infectious. "Effectively... I had found a way of being paid for leading my life," he writes. And, so saying, there is nothing for it than to polish off this piece, drop everything and forage for some discs by Rabih Abou- Khalil, an exponent of Middle East/ jazz fusion.

As Dyer puts it, "to us the oud is a lute, OK for Camelot atmospherics and not much else: a dead instrument. Arab culture sees the oud more poetically, attributing its special resonance to the singing of the birds who once sat in the branches of the trees from which it was made... if The Sultan's Picnic is one of the best jazz albums of recent times, that is precisely because, in any kind of limiting sense, it is not a jazz album at all."

Pick up this book and you will find something interesting on every page, even if you find yourself being asked to believe that Cormac McCarthy's All The Pretty Horses is "one of the greatest American novels of this or any other time".

Christopher Hawtree