I haven't taken you along to Endsleigh Salon in recent months, but rest assured we've been having our usual second Tuesday evening of the month good time in the Salon, with 'Australia' and then a 'First Novel' evening.
The Australia discussion kept going round in my head for days afterwards. The choice of books was varied as always, amongst them
Gilgamesh - Joan London
Eucalyptus - Murray Bail (me)
My Life as a Fake - Peter Carey
The Widow and the Hero - Thomas Keneally
The Fatal Shore - Robert Hughes
and it was this last book, that finally gave us the perspective on our reading that we had been struggling to define. Then the debate really took off.
First Novel last month equally enlightening with
What Was Lost - Catherine O'Flynn (loved it)
Maggie's Tree - Julie Walters (surprised the reader)
This Side of Paradise - F.Scott Fitzgerald ( good but what follows is better)
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter - Carson McCullers (rave review)
Hide and Seek - Clare Sambrook (the reader had been at school with the author and was very intrigued to read the book)
The Outlander - Gil Adamson (me again and you know my thoughts on this one already)
Tonight's theme is Sport and too late to be of any help to me, an article in The Guardian 'Sport in Fiction', because I had scoured my fiction shelves to little avail for anything remotely sport linked, letters and diaries yielded nought and a dearth in biography too.
Eventually I found a battered old 1968 3s/6d Pan copy of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe. I had quite forgotten this was a short story and then decided that chess would have to be considered a sport and I'd include The Royal Game by Stefan Zweig too.
Reading The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner so many years on is to return to the literary age of the Angry Young Men and to be reminded how we all grew up in the fifties with that word Borstal. The young inmate considers his life as an Out-law bloke training up for sports day,
'when all the pigfaced, snotty-nosed dukes and ladies...come and make speeches to us about sport being just the thing to get us leading an honest life and keep our itching finger-ends off them shop locks and safe handles and hair-grips to open gas meters.'
For us as children Borstal was considered the most awful thing that could possibly happen to you. It hung in the air like a threat (more for boys than girls) but it was absolutely beyond the ends of the earth where punishment was concerned. If you ended up there you were dead meat and everyone else would be terrified of you when you came out, that's the memory I have of the word itself.
To read the story again has strangely reconfigured those crystallised word-associated memories, and suddenly I can recall conversations with friends as we sat on the kerb swapping comics in Queen Anne's Gardens, Mitcham, discussing someone who we thought (and hoped) would end up in Borstal and give us a bit of peace. He was called Danny and would appear out of nowhere, his best weapon was a simple 4" long rusty nail, kept in his pocket which he always threatened to stab us with.
We believed him and were terrified.
To return to one of my favourite Stefan Zweig stories,The Royal Game, has been a calming treat after all that recollection of childhood fear, even given that it's about a man who, imprisoned by the Gestapo, induces a form of schizophrenia in order to play chess against himself in his mind and survive. The skill surfaces whilst he is on a cruise ship some years later and finds himself being challenged to a game by the world champion.
It's a masterclass in psychological realism as humanism is pitted against Nazi barbarity on the chess board, and it won't be long before I'm back and reading more Stefan Zweig with the arrival of the latest from Pushkin Press, Burning Secret.
Lest their be any doubt and for my own purposes to make the book fit the theme, and knowing that someone has valiantly read The History of Cricket, I now declare chess a sport.
Anyway, the Australians do say that the Poms are only any good at sports where you can sit down.