The Road from Damascus: Colin Thubron considers past versions of himself, and the future of literature

Recorded on date : February 15, 2018

Recorded at Location : London School of Economics

Once a literary hermit, Colin Thubron has taken on his most public role as RSL President. Here he considers past versions of himself, and the future of literature

I have a fleeting illusion that George Bernard Shaw is inviting me to become President of the Royal Society of Literature. For a formidable bust of him glares at me from the mantelpiece of Michael Holroyd’s drawing-room in London. But in fact it is the gentler Michael – with the authority of the RSL Council – who is asking this.

To my shame, my instant response is to dredge up the version of myself which has accompanied me companionably for years. No, I say, I am honoured and flattered (my mind scurries through others more suitable), but I cannot accept. I am too obsessive about my writing and I travel to inaccessible places where satellite telephones break down and internet cafés don’t exist.

My refusal lingered for ten days in the limbo of the RSL summer recess. But my feelings about the Society – a long-standing affection – stirred uncomfortably. More-over the quasi-heroic image I had sold Michael – of someone like a literary hermit on a camel – was woefully out-of-date. In the past few years I had found time for things I valued other than my writing. I had only just returned from Tibet, and beyond turning the journey into a book, I was planning a novel. I realised, with a twinge of shame, that I would be sedentary for the next four years.

Travel writing, for me, has always been like this. The time spent in preparation – research and language – is two or three times longer than the journey itself; and that other journey – the writing – can take longer still. In fact I was more likely to be found hunched in the gloom of the School of Oriental and African studies than riding across the Taklamakan desert.

So, surprising myself, I relinquished this outworn alter ego, and agreed to step into Michael’s shoes. This, in itself, is alarming. Michael’s shoes are not to be entered lightly. In fact Cinderella’s ugly sisters might have had an easier time of it. Michael has done as much for English literature as anyone alive – not only as the father of modern literary biography, but as an untiring protagonist of authors’ rights. For the office of President to fall to somebody known chiefly for travel writing – notoriously the red-light district of literature – might be a melancholy comedown. The roll-call of great British travel writers – from Kinglake and Doughty to Robert Byron and Patrick Leigh Fermor – is in fact prodigious; but the genre has always languished under vague suspicion: charges of cultural colonialism, escapism and lying.

Here, reflecting on alter egos, I should add something curious and (to me) flattering. Throughout most of our adult lives Michael Holroyd and I have been benignly confused with one another. We went to the same school and avoided university. We were published at about the same time, in the mid-Sixties, by the same paternalistic publisher. Socially, out rather plumy accents may have given people an illusion of dreamy interchangeability. Occasionally one of us would greet the other not by his name but by our own, to the general confusion of everyone.

Now we seem to be converging again. In fact it has occurred to me that, with luck, nobody will notice that there has been a change of President at all. But of course this should not be. The office becomes whatever the President makes of it. Michael, with a characteristic blend of self-deprecation and persuasiveness, says: ‘Well, as President you don’t really do anything. You’re a kind of figurehead.’

But we both know that this is not quite so. The real work, of course, is done by the Chairman and Council, and above all by the Secretary and her staff. But Michael has been judiciously, unobtrusively active. As for me, I don’t quite fit into figurehead status. A figurehead conjures one of those generously-breasted effigies on the bowsprits of Spanish galleons, and I cannot compete. Instead I need to do things.

We live in the age of the threatened book. Libraries and the small bookseller survive in a state of siege. Google and Amazon are barging in. The e-book looms. My initial response to these threats, if threats they are, is that it is less literature that is threatened than the book as an artefact. And our first duty is to literature: the written and read word, in whatever form it comes. To set ourselves against literary production in other media, rather than to work alongside it, would be perverse. Our society was not founded by King Canute, but by the libidinously adaptable George IV.

It is possible to imagine an age in which ownership of a library (rather than a miniature screen containing all books) would be thought burdensome and eccentric. But I think this far from inevitable. The individuality – and sometimes beauty – of the material book, its existence not merely in the ether but as a crafted, independent personality in the home, is too valuable to be surrendered, not to mention the pleasure of browsing in a bookshop. Doubtless the fortunes of the book will plunge and revive as they have done since the Epic of Gilgamesh, whose clay tablets came out in various editions four millennia ago. But the book itself will outlive our doubts about it.

My instinct – perhaps typical of a traveller – is not to embattle ourselves, but to keep our scope wide, and to entertain as much as we can of the worlds and voices of foreign literature. More easily said than done, of course. Our means are limited, and the economy still in recession. The financial assets of the RSL do not match its prestige. This has been so ever since I became a Fellow of the Society – and I realise with shock that this was forty years ago.

At that time the days of our tenure in the genteel premises of Hyde Park Gardens were coming to an end. Its elderly secretary, the feisty Molly Patterson, lived in the basement, whose walls were lined with signed black-and-white photographs of her literary idols. After lectures she would invite a favoured group of Fellows down for a drink, and I, for some reason, was one of these. Everybody seemed dauntingly prestigious. Sometimes I would take refuge with the shy L. P. Hartley, by then old, and we would stand in the corner hoping to remain unnoticed. But from time to time somebody would come up to the venerable author, clasp his hand or shoulder, and chat familiarly. After the intruder had left, I would ask Hartley ‘Who was that?’ And he would answer in his wan, distant voice: ‘I haven’t the slightest idea.’ Of course he hadn’t the slightest idea who I was either.

My only contribution to the Society then was to be the first (as far as I know) to deliver a lecture not from a written script, but from apparently free-flowing memory. How I had the nerve to do this I still don’t know. The only example of real spontaneity I recall came in a series of lectures I had (perhaps unwisely) encouraged, in which celebrated authors spoke about themselves and the creative process. The fine short-story writer William Sansom, after treating his nerves with alcohol in Molly’s basement, arrived on stage with a bottle in his pocket, and slurred out an unforgettable (and largely unintentional) self-portrait, with on-stage drinking intervals, for over an hour and a half. Such memories, of course, are ineradicable, while worthier lectures are clean forgotten.

RSL Review 2010


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