Bamboo, p.1William Boyd
Essays and Criticism
Memories of the Sausage Fly
Fly Away Home
The Lion Griefs
The First World War
A New York Walk
The Eleven-Year War
War in Fiction
Kurt Vonnegut (1)
Kurt Vonnegut (2)
W. H. Auden
Evelyn Waugh (1)
Keeping a Journal
Three French Novels
Evelyn Waugh (2)
Evelyn Waugh (3)
The Short Story
Anton Chekhov (1)
Anton Chekhov (2)
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Photograph
Ken Saro-Wiwa (1)
Ken Saro-Wiwa (2)
Ken Saro-Wiwa (3)
Carving Up Africa
The African Hundred Years War
FILM AND TELEVISION
The Cannes Film Festival
Electra Glide in Blue
The Screenwriter’s Lot
Brideshead Revisited (1)
Brideshead Revisited (2)
The Falklands War (1)
The Falklands War (2)
The Falklands War (3)
PEOPLE AND PLACES
“Stars at Tallapoosa”
The Wright Brothers
Anthony Burgess 1917-93
The Galapagos Affair
The Duchess of Windsor
Edward VII and Frederick Treves
The Duke of Windsor and Sir Harry Oakes
Evelyn Waugh (1)
The British Caff
Evelyn Waugh (2)
Rio de Janeiro
By the same author
“Plant one bamboo shoot—cut bamboo for the rest of your life”
“Plant one bamboo shoot—cut bamboo for the rest of your life.” This Chinese saying seemed an apt epigraph for this enterprise and the bamboo shoot of the first properly published review that I wrote for the New Review in 1978 has, like the plant does itself, multiplied exponentially. Surveying the totality of my non-fiction writing over the last quarter of a century as it was gathered in for this volume has provoked several reactions: astonishment, curiosity, incredulity. When did I find the time to write these hundreds of thousands of words alongside the main business of my writing life: novels and screenplays?
In any event, here is a judicious selection, perhaps 30 percent of the total, covering six broad subjects: Life, Literature, Art, Africa, Film and Television, and People and Places. The various articles, prefaces, profiles, reviews and introductions amount to a form of intellectual portrait, I suppose. These subjects, and their subdivisions, represent what interests me, infuriates me, obsesses me, fascinates me. It’s one reason why, when the invitation to write comes from an editor, I find it so hard to say “no.”
In fact I realize that I have been writing criticism for as long as, and in parallel with, my fiction. While I was at university in Glasgow I wrote a novel (unpublished) called Is That All There Is? and at the same time I edited the arts pages in the university newspaper, giving myself the plum jobs of film and theatre critic. When I went to Oxford to do a postgraduate degree I contributed articles to Isis (interviews with other writers, in the main) as I began to write fiction more seriously (there was another bottom-drawered novel) and started slowly but surely to publish short stories. None of these articles makes it into this collection however, even though there might be grounds for including it or others as intriguing juvenilia. One of the reasons for writing criticism that is often passed over in silence is that not only do you see your own name in print (very important for a young writer) but also you get paid (most of the time) and you receive a free book. So I thought it was fitting to begin the selection process with the first published review that I received money for. It was commissioned in 1978 by Craig Raine, who was then books editor of the long-defunct New Review (and can be found on page 93). Interestingly enough, I have been writing sporadically for Craig in one form or another ever since, after the New Review at Quarto and more recently in Areté, and we were colleagues for a while on the New Statesman in the early eighties. I have had several similar editorial relationships over the period this compilation encompasses. As the editor has moved and changed jobs so have I tagged along. I think, amongst others, of Bill Bu-ford at Granta and then the New Yorker, of Peter Stothard at The Times and now the Times Literary Supplement, of Mary Kay Wilmers at the TLS and then the London Review of Books, and of Rebecca Nicolson at the Spectator, the Observer Magazine, the Sunday Telegraph and finally at Short Books. Christopher Hawtree oversaw some of my earliest reviews in the London Magazine in the early eighties and was an invaluable and indefatigable help in bringing this collection together. I am very grateful to him. One of the bonuses of assembling these pieces is that it enables you to trace these literary songlines in your output and your life. It’s never quite so haphazard a journey as you think.
Faced with these hundreds of thousands of words I decided to impose a rough criterion of choice. I have tried mainly to include pieces that throw a light, sometimes strong and clear, sometimes oblique and occluded, on my novels, short stories and films. These pieces are often guileless anticipations of something I was going to write about; sometimes arguments with myself about subjects that were preoccupying me; and sometimes retrospective glances at aspects of our world about which my novelist’s research had made me a temporary authority. Writing a novel, amongst all manner of other things, is also a form of self-education: The Blue Afternoon led me to early powered flight and surgery, Brazzaville Beach to primatology, The New Confessions to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and so on.
At the same time I have resisted the temptation to fiddle and tamper. What is true of all writers is true of me also: we have our particular quirks, tropes and tricks of the trade, our favourite words, metaphors and jokes, our regular points de repère (in my case, it se
Another motive for writing all these pieces is that it has always seemed entirely normal. It never occurred to me that this might be a waste of energy and inspiration that might be better employed elsewhere: I always wanted to write articles and reviews from the beginning of my literary career. Isn’t this what novelists do? I thought. Don’t they write as much as they can, all the time? In hindsight this argument may seem naive but in one of these articles I advance the notion that this is perhaps a particularly British phenomenon. Certainly in the two other literary worlds I am familiar with—the USA and France—their novelists seem positively costive compared to ours—always excluding the prodigious John Updike, of course. It is as if the tireless energy of our great nineteenth-century exemplars—Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray—still inspires us, or has established a norm of writerly endeavour and output that—with a few notable exceptions—most British novelists (and many British poets, come to think of it) are happy to live with.
And yet there is an injunction to myself often to be found in the pages of my journal (something else I’ve been writing for twenty-five years): the cry of, “NO MORE JOURNALISM!” And yet again, I seem incapable of following my own advice. The last piece that appears in this volume was written in December 2004. As I write this introduction, a month into 2005, I note that I have agreed to review a book for the Times Literary Supplement, produce a preface for some Katherine Mansfield stories and write a long article on films that feature Adolf Hitler. That bamboo shoot planted in 1978 has produced a bamboo grove that continues to expand, lush and densely green, spreading and thickening remorselessly.
WILLIAM BOYD, London, 2005
I have gone on record claiming that I am not an autobiographical writer, that my fiction will provide no handy keys to unlock the door to my personal history. However, I have written autobiographically in my non-fiction, more than I had ever imagined, and particularly about my African childhood and my schooldays—a near-decade spent in a boarding school in the north of Scotland. But in putting this collection together I realized that, over the years, even more of my life had crept into my writings than I had thought. Therefore these pieces are assembled in rough chronological order—the chronology of my life rather than their writing: there are big gaps but, to my vague surprise, they cover a fair bit of the ground. I still believe I’ll never attempt a bona fide autobiography or memoir. I suspect that these occasional scraps and gleanings will be all that it will amount to.
This section also introduces one of my favourite formal devices: the A-Z. I have used it with some regularity in my non-fiction (and it will be encountered later, several times) for the signal reason that it allows me to squeeze a quart into a pint pot or at least give the illusion of so doing. The strict logical progression of the alphabet paradoxically forces you to be arbitrary: you have to find something that fits a “Q” or an “X” or an “O” or a “V” even when nothing appears obvious or forthcoming. An A-Z of a given subject (a painter, a borough of London, an iconic writer) somehow seems more all-inclusive than a measured essay of exactly the same length. The necessary darting around, as you try to fit the letters to a relevant subject—makeshift invention requiring you to hammer a square peg into a round hole from time to time—inevitably assures a skewed, disparate and eccentric account that, when it works, produces a richer, more accurate portrait.
Memories of the Sausage Fly
The ant-lion builds its traps in sandy soil. It fashions—somehow—a geometrically perfect inverted cone. At the tip of the cone the ant-lion lurks, buried and invisible, waiting for any small insect to tumble in. When this occurs, the ant-lion at first makes no move. The walls of the cone are so smooth, the sand-grains they are composed of so fine, that only the largest insects can gain any purchase. As the smaller victims slither and scrabble on the steep sides of the cone, the ant-lion spits—or flicks—more sand at them, causing them to tumble down into the cone-tip where they are dragged beneath the sand and devoured.
The largest ant-lion cone I ever saw was about three inches deep; the predator itself half an inch long. I caught it underneath our house in Signals Road, Achimota, in what was then the Gold Coast. The house was built on six-foot concrete piles. Beneath it was sand, pocked with ant-lion traps. A lunar landscape of immaculate craters. Hundreds upon hundreds of ant-lions. A no man’s land for any small crawling insect. Our particular ploy was to dig out a small ant-lion and drop it in the hole of a larger one.
I always think of ant-lions when I think of our house in Achimota. It is the first of our houses in Africa that I remember, though we had lived in two before that. At the time I was born we lived in a converted officers’ mess, made of mud bricks and with a corrugated-iron roof. Achimota was about six miles from Accra and the coast. On the huge beaches, ten-foot breakers would cream in from the Atlantic. We weren’t allowed on the surf beaches until we were older and could belly-surf, but there were rocky stretches with rock pools burgeoning with submarine life. Sitting in a rock pool, waist deep in blood-warm water, aged five. Life was good.
We moved away from Achimota to Legon, three miles further inland, to the new campus of the University of Ghana. We lived in a large U-shaped house, painted white with a red-tiled roof. There was a large stoep, big enough for thirty to gather on, that gave on to the enormous garden and a view of the surrounding countryside—grass-covered hills, clumps of small tough trees.
The insect I associate with the house in Legon is the velvet mite. These completely benign creatures were the size of a fingernail, a brilliant coruscating red, and did indeed seem to be covered in a sort of velvety fur. They were the only insects I’ve ever encountered that you could stroke. At certain times of the year, particularly after the rainy season, they proliferated, and the grass around our house hotched with them. My sisters and I used to ranch velvet mites, gathering them in their hundreds into makeshift twig corrals. There the mites would mill around aimlessly, square feet of shifting scarlet velvet, a boiling carpet of red.
We moved to Nigeria, to Ibadan, in 1963. Our house on the university campus there was long and straight. The garden was surrounded by a dense hibiscus and poinsettia hedge and was full of trees: frangipani, cotton trees and tall elegant casuarina pines. I would borrow our gardener’s machete and chop at the frangipani trees. Bury the curved blade (made in Czechoslovakia) in the bole, which was soft and yielding. The tree bled a white milk that dripped all day. Later I bought my own machete for five shillings. It was useful for hacking things down. Ibadan is set in the middle of tropical rain forest, things grow at an enormous speed. I cut two poles and stuck them in the ground to support our badminton net. When I came back from school three months later they had turned into trees.
The insect I associate with our house in Ibadan is the sausage fly. It’s not really a fly at all but some kind of bloated ant that grows wings and takes to the air after rain. The sausage fly is about an inch long, a hard shiny banger-brown, hence its name. In the evening, after it has rained, you shut all your windows. Wings unfold from the carapace of the sausage fly and they take to the air in droves. They are not very good in the air—it isn’t their natural element—and it’s as if they have only borrowed the wings for the day. They steer haphazardly for the nearest light. Inside the house you can hear them carom into the windows and wire mosquito-netting. Squadrons veer unsteadily around exterior lights. They only have their wings for an hour or so. The sausage flies touch down and their wings fall off. A lot of them die as a result of mid-air collisions, flying into walls and such like. The next morning the veranda is crunchy underfoot with their hard bodies, and brilliant fragile drifts of discarded wings lie in the corners. The surviving sausage flies have resumed their earthly existence and have crawled
My father went out to West Africa during the Second World War. He was in the Royal Army Medical Corps and was based in Lagos, Jos, in northern Nigeria (where they grow strawberries and new potatoes on the plateau all year round) and in the Gold Coast. We have a picture of him, very young and thin, sitting on a cane chair outside a grass hut some time in 1945. He came back to the Gold Coast in 1951 with my mother, planning to stay a few years only. He remained until 1977, until he was forced to leave because of ill-health. He had contracted a curious and rare disease called “Q” fever. He had been a doctor working in Africa all his life and eventually Africa was literally the death of him.
His work began very early in the day. He would work through until two in the afternoon when he returned home for lunch. He would sleep until four and then go and play nine holes of golf. In the evening my mother would join him and their friends on the stoep of the golf club (drink was plentiful, very cheap and on credit). Perhaps there would be an impromptu supper-party later on. There was nothing frenetic or debauched in this social round—it was a far cry from Happy Valley—but in comparison to the life that most of these members of the professional middle class would have been living in Britain in the fifties it must have seemed paradisiacal.
They could lead this life because everyone had servants. My parents had only been in the Gold Coast a week when one morning they discovered a small old man sitting on the kitchen steps. He said his name was Kofi and he had heard they needed a cook. Kofi was our cook for the next eleven years. He and his family lived in a village some two miles away. In Legon our house had servants’ quarters, a simple, not to say crude, concrete cottage a few yards from the main house. This was occupied by Kofi’s son, Kwame, who was then in his twenties. He is now a major in a tank battalion in the Ghanaian Army. Kwame used to babysit for my parents. My sisters and I would often spend the evenings in his hot concrete room, eating the very peppery fried plantain that he would prepare on a small cast-iron charcoal brazier in the corner.
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