b i o g r a p h y & m e m o i r s e b a s t i a n s h a k e s p e a r e
ne on One By Craig Brown (Fourth Estate 358pp £16.99)
This book is a treat. And what a de- lightful conceit it is – a daisy chain of 101 improbable encounters between famous people over the last two centuries, juxtaposing the revered and reviled, the prickly and the pompous, the saucy and the sage. The subjects range from the sublime (Tolstoy meeting Tchaikovsky) to the ridiculous (George Galloway encountering Michael Barrymore on Celebrity Big Brother), but diversity is part of the book’s charm. Each entry is a model of brevity, impeccably researched, and written in the present tense, making it especially vivid.
The narrative begins with the most fleeting encounter of them all, but one that could have changed the course of history. Old Etonian John Scott-Ellis, aged eighteen, accidentally knocks over a pedestrian with ‘a small, square moustache’ while driving through Munich in 1931. It is Adolf Hitler. He gets up, brushes himself down and shakes his assailant’s hand. ‘For a few seconds, perhaps, I held the history of Europe in my rather clumsy hands,’ Scott-Ellis reflected years later. In the next entry, the ten-year-old ScottEllis meets Kipling, who tells the young boy how much he hates the Bosche. We then flash back thirty years to Kipling’s encounter with his hero Mark Twain, and on it goes until the final entry, when we come full circle and end up with Hitler taking tea with the Duchess of Windsor.
The ingenious technique of overlapping encounters offers us a kaleidoscopic view of history. It is a dance to the music of time where everyone rubs shoulders with everyone else and you get the impression you are at one vast, garrulous cocktail party. Paul McCartney and his fellow Beatles are called ‘bad-mannered little shits’ by Nöel Coward, who is serenaded in the south of France by Felix Yusupov, who assassinates Rasputin. There is just one degree of separation between Sigmund Freud and Barry Humphries.
Brown has an unerring eye for the apposite quote, the memorable anecdote and the salient detail. As a result his book is fun, fascinating and informative. Did you know that Tolstoy preached nonviolence but was happy to throttle rabbits? Or that Alec Guinness fancied himself a soothsayer and predicted James Dean’s death? Or that three weeks after finishing a play Larry Olivier was unable to quote a single word from it? Or that Truman Capote was so superstitious that he would never telephone friends whose numbers added up to an unlucky figure and he refused to travel on a plane with two nuns? You laugh with hindsight at H G Wells sucking up to Stalin and recoil with foreboding at Phil Spector putting a gun to Leonard Cohen’s head.
Brown tries to impose order on the chaos by making each of the 101 meetings just 1,001 words long. It is an impressive artistic feat, though he does cheat by smuggling a lot of extraneous information into footnotes. But that is a minor cavil. There are feuds, froideurs and, yes, lots of celebrity flirtation (nonagenarian Bertrand Russell squeezes 23-year-old Sarah Miles’s thigh; Tom Driberg chases Martin Amis around a bed). Such fleeting encounters rarely lead to lifelong friendships. When comedians and intellectuals meet, they are so at pains to impress with their knowledge of each other’s works they end up boring each other – as happened with Groucho Marx and T S Eliot.
Some meetings are comically anodyne, from Gorky on Tolstoy (‘How small he is!’) to Paul McCartney on Elvis Presley (‘Wow! That’s Elvis’). Others are absurdly sycophantic (Truman Capote to Peggy Lee: ‘Oh my god I am in the presence of an angel’) or richly comic (Winston Churchill on Vivien Leigh: ‘By Jove! She’s a clinker’). If history is gossip well told, then this book is a triumph of the genre. By Jove! It ’s a clinker. To order this book for £13.59, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 49
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