'I write because I have to and want to. It's as simple, or as complicated, as that. And I write novels specifically because I am curious about my fellow creatures. There is no end to their mystery.'
Having been introduced to the writing of Paul Bailey I was swiftly off on the trail of discovery to find out more about him because I knew little and came across this quote of his. Suddenly I realised why I'd enjoyed my first Paul Bailey read so much.I suspect it is "curiosity about my fellow creatures" that has kept me in the job I'm in for so long, and indeed the fellow creatures are all very curious and never cease to amaze and intrigue me. It's a privilege to have met so many of them down the years but even better to find them so well delineated on the pages of a book.
Old Soldiers, published by Fourth Estate, is my favourite breed of book, the less is more genus.
I seem to have a stack of endless books on the go at the moment of the more and more and a bit extra for good measure genus, and though they are good they are taking me an age to read, so this one was such a treat.
I only really knew of Paul Bailey from his introductions to several of Elizabeth Taylor's novels and am very grateful for the suggestion that I might enjoy his fiction because I have.
Old Soldiers is 120 pages of intensely mesmerising writing.Two Battle of the Somme veterans meet by chance sixty years on in St Paul's Cathedral.
Victor Harker, recently widowed, has fled the memories of his home and his beloved wife and the trauma of the trenches which still haunt him to see if perhaps the streets of London hold some respite from his grief. He meets the multi-faceted Captain Standish, equally disturbed by the war who has dealt with the aftermath in an entirely different way.
If the opening lines of a book matter, which we now know they certainly do, then Paul Bailey must come top of the class for Old Soldiers.
"Too sick with grief for tears, Victor Harker arrived in London smiling.People smiled back at him as he willed his body out of King's Cross Station. He was unaware of them, seeing only his dead wife Stella.
When he reached the street she left him. His luggage, weightless before, suddenly became heavy."
I absolutely do want to read on.
Of the stiff upper lip mould Victor tries to remonstrate with himself, self-indulgent wallowing does not come naturally
"The loss of Stella was as nothing compared to what the majority of humankind were enduring at this very moment...and yet his heart ached"
So did mine as I read this book because Paul Bailey does so much quietly, ponderously and in a very unshowy way.This isn't look at me aren't I clever writing that shouts and scream at you off the page, this is perfectly measured written observation and there are some classic moments,
"Victor Harker believed in first impressions. Shaking hands with Captain Standish in the cathedral, he had thought : I would never have allowed this man an overdraft; he has the forced confidence of the untrustworthy; his eyes are far too bright "
The observations just keep on coming; in the briefest of descriptions you know the characters with an exactness that seems almost impossible.The wine waiter whose voice had a "sepulchral authority" emerging several pages later "from what Victor Harker fancied was a blackened, mossy tombstone".
I could go on and on but I won't because you'll want to discover Paul Bailey for yourselves if you haven't already. I don't often reach the end of a book and turn back to start reading it again, but I did with this one and it pays dividends to at least re-read the first thirty pages by which time you don't want to stop because with hindsight you're reading an entirely different book.These are the books that should never be allowed to go out of print, they have a timeless relevance.
For me the next best thing to a brilliant reading experience has also happened.
To discover a writer for the first time and know there's a whole lot more waiting to be read, that's bookaholic happiness for you.