The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold : Gentle reader, let me be your literary guide

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The Independent Online
As a writer one always welcomes competition; particularly if it is utterly useless. So it was with mixed feelings of pride and wounded humility that I read of the publication this week of two new literary guides to Britain, one called A Reader's Guide to Writers' Britain, the other The Spirit of Britain.

For all their qualities (pages printed the right way up, many numbered correctly, etc), these guides are not a patch on my own. Arnold's Browser's Guide to Bookish Britain is to be published just before Christmas, in time to catch the January sales.

It is an open secret that my love of literature far outstrips that of my closest rivals. Needless to say, we have all seen Professor Bradbury parading around the literary festivals with a well-thumbed Picador sticking out of his grubby corduroy jacket. But I have it on the highest authority that this Picador conceals a War Picture Library comic ("Achtung! Spitfeur! Aaargh!") and that Bradbury spends most evenings studiously applying thumbprints on the Picador with the aid of an inky sponge-pad bought specially from the Post Office for the purpose. Ditto Bragg. He may have spent the better part of his life tossing questions at Burgess, Borges, Barthes and Bellow, but it is an open secret that, while they enunciated their way through bookish answers, Melvyn's earpiece would be tuned to Radio 2.

Arnold, on the other hand, is the most assiduous of readers, often spending up to three, four, five hours a week thinking he really must make the effort to pick up a new book. And this infectious enthusiasm for Things Literary positively leaps out of every page of Arnold's Browser's Guide to Bookish Britain and down on to the carpet before scuttling away in the general direction of the front door out on to the street. So it is with great pleasure that I introduce a two-part serialisation of this essential handbook, the perfect addition to the family fireplace on those cold winter nights:

Acton, Sir Harold: The only major English aesthete this century to have taken his name from a bustling, multi-racial area of west London. As an expatriate living in Firenze, Sir Harold would often pine for his native Acton, sending his servants out at all hours of day and night to scour the countryside for half-smoked butt-ends of Players No 6 and sixpacks of Special Brew to remind him of home. "How we simply adored our visits to Villa La Pietra," reminisced the ever-gracious Lady Diana Mosley in Every Day Delicious, her recent memoirs, "Harold's table positively over- flowing with item upon item from his dear streets of Acton: back-numbers of the Daily Mirror, lovingly folded; bacon and egg 'sarnies', flown in fresh each day from a corner cafe in North Acton; and, in his magnificent garden, a real-life professional west Londoner, hired to break wind, 'gob' and urinate between the begonias, a tip he had picked up from Vita Sackville- West on a whistle-stop visit to Sissinghurst."

Amis, Martin: or Amis fills as he has been known since his extensive dental surgery, has made the Notting Hill area of London his own, presenting a devastatingly accurate contemporary portrait of Britain in decline. In his three major novels, Amis reveals that on an average day in Notting Hill, three nuclear bombs explode on the pavement, and two right in the middle of the street, causing traffic to build up, and thereby preventing his anti-hero from walking by the most direct route to his Health Club.

Baker, Kenneth, MP, PC: There is nothing this man of letters par excellence has not anthologised. Politics, Royalty, War, Satire, Verse: all these important activities have served to further the literary reputation of this most owlish of politicians. Ken's next plan? To have an architect place two giant 500ft hardcovers on either side of the new British Library and to retitle it "The Kenneth Baker Anthology of the British Library", thus saving himself much effort in the future.

Drabble and Holroyd: This literary Peters and Lee first shot to stardom after gaining first prize in the special book edition of the New Faces TV talent show. They are now in demand on the late-night literary circuit singing their very own sweet 'n' easy version of the very best of Bloomsbury, plus a selection from Margaret's recent oeuvre, I Think I've mislaid the Garlic Crusher and Other Stories.

(To be continued.)

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