The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: An estimable voyage

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The Independent Online
I AM, of course, an inveterate admirer of the works of Lady Antonia Fraser, always have been, always will be. Reading her new tome, one only wishes that that most rotund of rascals, King Henry VIII, had married 12 wives rather than just the six, for then our pleasure in Lady A's effortless prose would have been all the more prolonged.

Antonia and I go back yonks. For many years, I was a member of her much-derided Fourth of June Group, a select coterie of writers and politicos who would gather at Campden Hill Square every Fourth of June to take a charabanc down to Eton for the college's annual celebrations.

Of course, after she joined up with poor old Harold, things were never quite the same. The Fourth of June Group was soon to become the May the First group, to celebrate the day on which Antonia's live-in staff were allowed upstairs, to be served drinks and 'nibbles' (dread word) by some of London's leading literary figures, while Harold himself arm-wrestled the under-gardeners in the basement for charity.

Not quite my 'scene' as you may imagine, though Antonia and I never lost touch, occasionally appearing together on the Home Service's Any Questions and My Word at literary festivals with Johnny Mortimer and once - or was it twice? - as the celebrity guests on the Christmas edition of Telly Addicts with Noel Edmonds. So it came as no surprise to me in July of last year to receive a missive from her asking me to contribute a polished essay to her magnificent new tome, The Pleasure of Reading.

I responded post-haste, albeit with one of my celebrated 'quips'. 'My dearest Antonia,' I began. 'Might I suggest a follow-up - The Pleasure of Slough?]' Needless to say, she was tickled pink, and Harold too, I am reliably informed, managed something approaching an inverted grimace, before responding with: 'There's not much pleasure in Iraq, either, these days, now that the bastard Yanks have bombed it shitless', a prose-poem he has already submitted to Index on Censorship.

Obviously, one positively leapt at the chance to allow what one might call the 'reading public' a glimpse of how the taste of a leading member of the literary fraternity was formed and blossomed. I daresay there are those among the readers of this column who do not wish to spend nearly pounds 20 to slog their way through the reading curriculae of worthies such as Dr Burchfield and poor old Melvyn, so I am printing selected extracts from my own contribution. As I have said before, this column saves you money.

Like many of the others, I kick off my essay with an enchanting childhood reminiscence, notable for its honesty and self-deprecating turn-of-phrase. 'By the age of four and a half,' I begin by confessing, 'I remember sitting upstairs in my nursery immensely enjoying my re-reading of War and Peace. Since the age of two, I had been the most voracious of readers, galloping through Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Treasure Island, The Canterbury Tales, Beowulf and the complete works of Charles Dickens before my third birthday, at which moment I embarked upon a six-month literary voyage that included everything by the Brontes and Barbara Pym, the complete works of Trollope and the later novels of Henry James . . .'

By now, the reader will be yearning to know more, and I trust I do not fail him. Lest anyone consider me boastful, I readily confess to gaps in my knowledge. 'Alas,' I continue, 'I must admit that I was at the grand old age of 12 3/4 before I first tackled Don Quixote in Cervantes original Spanish, and it was not until I was 14 that I embarked on the work that was to shape so much of my own thought and work over the coming half-century - the magisterial Japanese translation of the 15 volume sixth century Anglo-Saxon classic of farm life in north-west France, The Norman Fowler . . .'

All in all, an estimable essay from an acknowledged master: if only it were to be printed separately from the surrounding self-promoting verbiage, I might recommend it for Christmas.