Eron the relentlessly mystifying

`Magic: the Gathering' has taken over people's brains ... my impulse is to dig up Tolkien and throw rocks at his moribund form
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The Independent Online
Bibliophilia is a terrible affliction. The rage to possess more and more books is a curse that hasn't yet called down the wrath of the Labour government, but it's surely time some benevolent authority took a stand. As with alcoholism, it's a gradual addiction (but at least the bottles don't lurk around the house for years). Ordinary people just have a few books in their bedroom. Serious-minded bourgeois will put up shelves to accommodate the books they owned as students, supplemented by a cream- and-rust selection of Everyman Classics that were on the Peter Jones wedding list, plus some nods to a few interesting bestsellers - Wild Swans, Money, Birdsong, A Brief History of Time, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, The River Cafe Cookbook - and call the resulting mishmash a library. True bibliophiles, however, are driven by voices in their heads that tell them: "Buy this minor work by Thomas Love Peacock, or that ninth edition of essays by Desmond McCarthy, or the eighth volume of Henry Williamson's Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight because you may never have another chance," - even though they may have no opinion whatever about any of these works or their authors. I think it was Alberto Manguel who said bibliophilia fell into three stages: 1) you buy books because you want to read them; 2) you then buy books, for inscrutable reasons, that you hope one day to get round to reading; 3) you find yourself travelling to Swindon on a rainy Saturday to buy, at ruinous expense, a volume of Schiller printed in high Germanic script that you couldn't read even if you wanted to.

It's madness. Books overflow your living room, silt up your hallway, laze around like bored students on your severely minimalist furniture, attract dust, mildew, death-watch beetle and foxing, lurk under your bed like resentful ex-pets, glare accusingly at you for not having read them yet (the dykeish party on the cover of Huxley's Point Counter Point is a particularly sneery example). Books may furnish a room, but they make a shocking mess of the house.

And they generate family tensions. Spouses of bibliophiles dread the arrival of that tell-tale creased shopping bag that betokens another crop of musty Rupert Brookes and Anthony Powells to gum up the place. But you can fight back. An illustration of one family's stand against bibliomania turns up this Saturday on BBC2, in Labour's Old Romantic, a portrait of Michael Foot by the prolific documentary maker Michael Cockerell.

Foot's father, Isaac, the liberal MP, was, it seems, bonkers about books - if one of his many children left home, the evacuated room would, by nightfall, be crammed from floor to ceiling with the things. His collection of 100,000 volumes was the biggest private library in Britain. Eventually he had to smuggle new acquisitions past his despairing wife. Was the famously bookish Michael (asks Cockerell) similarly addicted? "No," says Foot, "I'm much more controlled. Compared to my father, I'm abstemiousness itself". Oh yeah? Cockerell cuts to Michael's nephew, Paul, for corroboration. "Michael has obviously inherited the obsession," confides the great polemicist. "He has the same trouble getting books into the house past Jill [Craigie, Mrs Foot] that his father had with his mother. Jill tells him, `You cannot bring any more books into this house'. Then she rings me up and we have secret meetings. She says, `Come round at such a time, and I'll give you the Thackerays'. So I've got all Michael's Thackerays on my shelves..." I foresee war in the socialist dynasty when Footie Snr finds out.

I spent the weekend up to my armpits in the mana pool. If I never hear another word about Eron the Relentless and the Ghazban Ogre, it'll be too soon. If the Kjeldoran Knights and the Fyndhorn Elves, with their nasty little pointy chins, all suddenly decided to stop fighting the evil necromancer Lim-Dul, depart from the land of Dominaria and go and live in Croydon, I would scarce forbear to cheer ... You've no idea what I'm talking about? Why then you must be one of the benighted people who have not fallen under the spell of "Magic: the Gathering", a globally-connected card game that has swamped the games world and (via the Internet) taken over people's brains. I had a couple of Irish friends staying on Saturday and Sunday, and saw hardly a trace of them because they were taking part in a nationwide Magic tournament somewhere in Docklands. They had no address to go to, beyond being told to head for a Tube stop in Canning Town and find their way by, presumably, mystical means. They played all day and the next, against 480 fellow-fanatics, for the chance to take on the Uber- Magic players in Chicago, and win pounds 30,000. The game comes from Seattle (it would). It involves 2,000 cards, which you buy for anything from pounds 7 to pounds 195. Playing involves a lot of spells, land acquisitions, summoning forces to your aid, damaging people and counting the cost of your own wounds. I have even got the Magic Official Encyclopaedia now (published by Carlton, pounds 14.99, if you're short of a life) and still can't make head or tail of it all. My main impulse is to go and dig up JRR Tolkien, who's responsible for starting all this elvish bollocks, and throw Middle-Earth- style rocks at his moribund form.

John Major is apparently thinking of moving to Kennington, to live near his beloved Oval cricket ground. I cannot fathom why former party leaders should be so keen to relocate to my unfashionable bit of south-east London (James Callaghan to Hanover Gdns SE11, Mrs Thatcher to Dulwich, if only for about two weeks), but I extend a not-inconsiderably warm welcome to the grounded ex-premier. He'll be returning to an area he used to know well, having been raised, bred and, ahem, introduced to manhood on the Brixton-Camberwell axis; but he'll find things a little different. Kennington today is a more lively, cosmopolitan place, full of unusual contrasts. Let me list a few things Mr Major should know. The trendiest couple in the area are Patrick McGrath, the brilliant showman of modern Gothic fiction, and his wife Maria Aitken, sister of the temporarily-discomfited perjurer. Where, 10 years ago, you'd have been lucky to get more than a Tobagan chicken roti around here, the Kennington end of Brixton Road is now crammed with restaurants - eight of them in half a mile, and the nearest one to the Oval is Eritrean. The coolest magazine to be seen with is New Nation, a style journal for the black community, run from a Kennington basement by Rupert Murdoch's feisty daughter Elisabeth. The nastiest estate is the Tanswell estate, where a 12-year-old used to lead a gang of bank-counter- hopping teenage desperadoes. The best coign of vantage from which to watch drive-by shootings is probably Vauxhall Street. Kennington estate agents are trying to persuade people that the most hip place to live is Metro Central, a block of Bakelite apartments on the Elephant & Castle roundabout; Mr Major must resist the temptation, unless he's keen on traffic fumes and shocking-pink advert hoardings. The local Triad gang is called the Blue Lantern (it's frankly social death to get this kind of detail wrong). And the most interesting bit of social history to air at dinner parties, John, is that the Imperial War Museum, on Kennington Lane, is built on the site of what used to be Bethlehem Hospital. As in Bedlam. I hope this is some help.