Games people play

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The Independent Online
John Julius Norwich, 68, writer and broadcaster

My game is collecting literary snippets: anything in writing that takes my fancy. It may be funny, or moving, or extraordinary; a short poem, a paragraph of dazzling prose, something I've read on the back of a hotel room door or the synopsis of an opera. Absolutely anything; all is grist to the mill.

It began in 1958 when I joined the Foreign Service and was sent to Beirut, which in those days was a sort of Clapham Junction of the world's airlines. Anybody who flew to the east came down in Beirut.

Many exciting people came to the house, and one Christmas my mother gave me a beautiful visitor's book bound in goatskin for when people came to dinner or stayed overnight. Alas, the moment I unwrapped it, a curfew was declared, and absolutely nobody arrived for the next 10 months, which was a great disappointment.

One day I remembered that I had a little collection of things on rough bits of paper in various suitcases, and I decided to copy out everything in my very best handwriting, and have a commonplace book instead.

By the late Sixties, what had started as a few scraps became a Collection with a capital C. I'd assembled about three or four albumfuls, which I thought was probably enough to make a nice little anthology. The "come up and see my etchings" syndrome - it's no fun having a collection if you can't share it.

Every year since 1970, I've put together a collection of bits out of the albums and published it as A Christmas Cracker, which I send round to my friends.

The only expense of this slightly ridiculous hobby is every five or six years when I buy myself a new, very beautiful book bound in goatskin, which I think is cheap at the price.

The 1997 edition of John Julius Norwich's `A Christmas Cracker' is available from Heywood Hill booksellers at 10 Curzon Street, London W1 (0171-629- 0647), price pounds 4.50. Earlier compilations, `Christmas Crackers' and `More Christmas Crackers' (Penguin, pounds 10.99), can be found at most good bookshops and quite a lot of bad ones.

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