Neill Denny 22 February 2012 - 10:28am
The legendarily tough political journalist and British history expert delves into his bookshelves for the nine books that made him who he is
by Evelyn Waugh
No journalist can omit this hilarious novel, of course. I first read it when I was about 17, and still find it corpse-makingly funny. It’s an odd thing about our trade that there are very, very few decent novels written about it. I’ve read most of them at one time or another, but Scoop is the Granddaddy. It’s the sense of the innocent abroad that is so funny. William Boot, faithful unworldly stringer somewhere out in rural Lincolnshire, is suddenly introduced to a world of utter madness. My favourite moment? On the voyage out to Abyssinia he meets a hard-bitten old hack who describes how he was the given the job: words to the effect of: “There I was in East Sheen, breaking the news to a circus cyclist’s wife that her husband had run off with someone else, and when I got back in the office the boss said ‘Abyssinia for you’ – ‘Oh, out of town job?’ I replied.”
The Dictionary of National Biography
This is a bit of a cheat, because although it’s one title, it’s dozens of volumes. It’s the work of reference that I consult more than any other. About 30 years ago, I thought, “I'm going to build myself a library.” The DNB – along with the Oxford English Dictionary and the eleventh edition of Britannica formed the core. I gathered the entire thing from second-hand bookshops over the next three or four years. It cost me about £300 all up, I suppose. To be frank, while the books still sit on my shelves, I tend to read the latest edition online. I play a little game thinking, “I bet they haven’t got him or her,” and truly, they usually have. I’ve just called up the Countess of Desmond, whom John Julius Norwich told me the other day had lived to 120 and claimed to have danced with Richard III “when he was still the Duke of Gloucester”. The DNB doubts the precision of her age, but describes her as “indeed old when she died”. Her death was variously described as being due to injuries received after a fall from a tree while collecting apples, nuts or cherries, so she was obviously a game old bird. You can’t go wrong with the DNB: there’s a story on every page.
Other Men’s Flowers
edited by Lord Wavell
This is an anthology compiled by Lord Wavell, the Second World War general and Viceroy of India, and it is fascinating for two reasons: he’s a military man, not a literary figure, and it’s the product of his personal enthusiasm. The book is splattered with little essays – I was reading one last night in which he complained about why poets persist in wittering about stupid animals like horses or cats but hardly ever glorify the dog. The book is riddled with remarks like that. But it also a wonderful collection of now rather unfashionable poetry – Kipling and the like. There’s also plenty of comfort reading – ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and so on. Could a contemporary general produce such an anthology now? I don’t know, but I am damned certain that if you asked many of our eminent politicians, the first thing they would do is call for a work-experience research assistant to go and root out some poems likely to be politically acceptable.
The Siege of Krishnapur
by J.G. Farrell
This is a stunning novel. It’s set in the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and is loosely based upon the siege of Lucknow, which was the most horrific event, with appalling behaviour on both sides. The scenes of squalor inside the Residency compound in Lucknow were unbelievable, with tremendous heroism and tremendous suffering, and the behaviour of the British afterwards was beyond reprehensible. Many of the stories in Farrell’s novel are based on real events, including the man who takes to the parapets as part of the defence force, dressed in the cloth that had been cut from the billiard table – that actually happened. It’s a fantastically gripping novel.
The Radetzky March
by Joseph Roth
This is another imperial book, set in the dying decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It’s an absolute page-turner. It paints a picture of a military family carrying – as in most families, the burden of their inheritance – which is inextricably linked to the fate of the Empire. I'm fascinated by the point at which external circumstance and internal character collide or shape each other. This is one of the compelling features of history, when we all ask, what would I have done?
The Collected Poems of John Donne
There is no one who does passion and cynicism better. His poems are so deeply felt, so astonishingly devoted and at the next turn utterly scornful. Donne went on from a passionate devotion to women to a passionate devotion to God and religion, but he never lost that essential vibrancy, that exhilaration in being alive and being ready to take whatever is chucked at him – his soul never hardens, it seems to me. He’s like a kindred soul in the way he saw the world.
Where I’m Calling From
by Raymond Carver
For me, Raymond Carver is the modern writer’s modern writer. Not one of the short stories in this collection has a word too many or a word too few. No point in attempting to summarise the contents, for there are 30 or so stories here. It’s altogether a masterclass in how to write.
The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats
I’ve chosen this largely because it is comfort stuff, like ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’, ‘Innisfree’, and ‘Broken Dreams’: “There is grey in your hair. Young men no longer suddenly catch their breath when you are passing. But maybe some old gaffer mutters a blessing...” ‘Broken Dreams’ is a rather unregarded poem, but I think it is rather wonderful. The last verse goes: “The last stroke of midnight dies; all day in the one chair from dream to dream and rhyme to rhyme I have ranged in rambling talk with an image of air; vague memories nothing but memories.” Brilliant – more than any other 20th-century poet he seems to have that knack of making the remembered impression flicker into a life of its own.
The Way We Live Now
by Anthony Trollope
This is the story of a dodgy businessman who takes London by storm and persuades people to sink all their worldly goods in a clearly fraudulent investment. Augustus Melmotte is the archetype for Robert Maxwell or Bernie Madoff and is absolutely relevant for our times. If you want to understand why we’re all so broke, and to realise that there’s nothing new under the sun, this is the book to read. In every generation these chancers come along, promise something for nothing, get garlanded by politicians and, with luck, end up with knighthoods and peerages. Trollope suffers from being the author called up by every modern politician who wants to pretend they have some sort of hinterland – which of course increasingly they don’t have. To be frank, I find his ecclesiastical novels – which are the ones they bang on about – very, very dull, but The Way We Live now is in a different league. It is full of disparaging, insightful commentary on commerce, on morality, on greed, on politics. It’s a fantastic novel.
Empire by Jeremy Paxman is out now, published by Viking.
We Love This Book is the proud sponsor of Jeremy Paxman’s appearance at the Bath Literature Festival on 10 March at 4.30pm at the Guildhall, Bath. Others appearing at the festival include Sandi Toksvig, Lynne Truss, Carol Ann Duffy, Alain de Botton, William Boyd, Sarah Dunant and Hisham Matar. Visit Bath Lit Fest or call 01225 463 362