Charles Sligh Charles-Sligh at utc.edu
Mon May 4 18:25:45 PDT 2009

The second movement of Ian Jack's "notebook" piece introduces a 
Durrellian "character" who will be familiar to many of us here on the list.

Longtime readers of /Granta/ and the Guardian will also perhaps 
recognize Ian Jack's name.

Here's to "passionate belief," in all of its many forms.



Calcutta Telegraph
- Cherry blossom, Pimm’s and salesmen
Notebook - Ian Jack

This has been one of the most glorious springs. For weeks now in 
southern England the skies have been as a blue as those of a north 
Indian winter. The days have been still and the blossom has stayed 
perfectly intact on shrubs and trees, unshaken by the wind. Cherry and 
apple blossom, pink and white, has glowed over suburban avenues; cones 
of chestnut blossom point skywards in parks; in the countryside, 
hawthorn hedges look as if they’ve been freshly dusted with snow. And 
all these colours — the purple as well as the pink, the yellow as well 
as the white — are set off against a background of innocent green 
foliage that has yet to be darkened and stained by the summer to come.

I spent too much of my life not paying attention to these things. 
Seasons would come and go and I would register a few basic facts — that 
the evenings were lighter or darker and it was cold enough for gloves or 
hot enough to swim — but the natural glories of an English spring more 
or less passed me by. What I noticed was ‘the weather’, that historic 
British preoccupation with the daily fluctuations in climate swept in by 
the North Atlantic airstream. “The distrust of the weather has been 
instilled into the English breast for all time,” Nirad Chaudhuri wrote 
after his first visit in the spring of 1955. He found that its 
capriciousness could be “very provoking”, while, at the same time, he 
admonished English people who complained about its unpredictability 
because they had no idea “how excruciating its predictability can be”, 
meaning the hot, dry certainties and tawny skies of Delhi in summer.

The weather is famously the foundation of a whole British conversational 
style in which “Nice day!” or “Will this rain never stop?” are 
substitutes for the hellos and good-mornings of elsewhere. But seasons, 
rather than the daily variations within them, are less well observed, 
even though English poetry has celebrated them from Chaucer to Larkin. 
Perhaps all I mean is that they’ve been less well observed by me, 
because I live in London where the seasons somehow seem to matter less 
and because intimations of mortality, the thought that one day you’ll be 
leaving all this behind, don’t really kick in till you’re in your 
fifties. Now when I look at blossom, I think of the television interview 
that the playwright, Dennis Potter, gave in 1994, when he knew that 
death was only a matter of months away (occasionally during the 
interview he would drink from a bottle of morphine to dull the pain). He 
lived and wrote in the West Country, with a plum tree in his garden that 
he could see from his study window. Potter remembered that in previous 
springs, he’d look up from his writing and think casually “Oh, that’s 
nice blossom”, whereas in what turned out to be his final spring he saw 
it as “the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be.”

Potter said that dying had taught him to see in the present tense and 
appreciate what he called the “wondrous nowness” of living (“Boy, can 
you see it! And boy, can you celebrate it!”). Things were both more 
trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, 
“and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem 
to matter”. This may be no more than the everyday philosophy of a Hindu 
stoic, but in Britain now it seems especially appropriate. The future 
looks grim: higher taxes, spending cuts, economic and social turmoil, 
and a political class that resembles dwarves peering up at a tidal wave. 
The world will look different, but nobody is sure how. “It’s our 
children that I worry about” is a common sentiment among people who fear 
that the age of plentiful jobs and good salaries is over for at least a 
generation. These are all good reasons to marvel at the present and the 
“whitest, frothiest blossomest blossom that there ever could be”.


It was one such fine recent Sunday that India took on the Rest of the 
World for a Twenty20 game at Hampstead Cricket Club. The game was 
organized by the British Council and the teams drawn from delegates to 
the London Book Fair, which this year had Indian books and writers as 
its focus. I went along because the game’s sponsor is a friend: Ilyas 
Khan, who publishes the Asia Literary Review out of Hong Kong, though 
Ilyas himself has recently moved back to London. Whenever I try to 
describe him, I realize the inadequacies of fiction as a source of 
characters that stretch the imagination. Ilyas was born in Lancashire of 
three-parts Kashmiri to one-part Irish ancestry and then studied Urdu 
(among other things) at the School of Oriental and African Studies in 
London. He joined a big bank and moved to Hong Kong and eventually 
branched out to co-own an investment bank. This made him rich, though 
being rich is in a way the least interesting thing about him. What money 
facilitates in his case isn’t yachts or glamorous parties but a more 
elevated range of interests and passions. Ilyas collects first editions 
of Henry James, owns a precarious football club in his Lancashire home 
town, fervently admires the novels of Lawrence Durrell and George 
Gissing, supports Lancashire at cricket (and regards his 
fellow-Lancastrian, Neville Cardus, as the best ever writer about the 
game). And this is just a selection of his enthusiasms — I haven’t, for 
example, described his to-my-mind contrary championing of Marxism or his 
plan to raise money for a diabetes charity by running a series of 
marathons in Namibia or his friendship with Gore Vidal. Found in a 
novel, he would not be believed.

It came as no surprise, then, to discover he was not only funding the 
match but also playing in it. I didn’t get the chance to see him bat 
because he was among the middle to lower order that the Indian bowlers 
never reached, but he was an athletic fielder and ran after balls like a 
boy of fifteen rather than a man in his late forties (which I suppose is 
what you might expect from someone planning to sweat for 26 miles a day 
in Namibia). The Rest of the World reached around 145 for four, even 
though their first batsman was out first ball, caught and bowled. India 
achieved only 115 or thereabouts, perhaps because their side contained 
at least one real writer (Tarun Tejpal was too adventurous a batsman, 
though he took a good catch).


We had lunch on the clubhouse terrace in the warming sunshine. Salads, 
chicken, cold salmon and glasses of Pimm’s. I explained to Ilyas that 
most of his Rest of the World side were book salesmen, the people who 
persuaded bookshops to place orders for books. That trade or profession 
isn’t what it was — online ordering and the centralized buying 
departments of bookstore chains have cut the numbers of sellers on the 
road — but it has always seemed to me a difficult way to earn a living. 
You go to a bookshop and unpack the jackets and blurbs supplied by the 
publisher to advertise forthcoming books. Here is a literary novel by 
unknown writer Samantha Well-Bred. Here is a biography of Wellington by 
Julian Lucky-Fellow. Here is a wonderful children’s story by Lucy 
Stay-Home. You enthuse about them all, sometimes sincerely: their 
narrative gifts, their connections to newspaper reviewers, their sales 
track record (if any). And then when the new book season arrives in 
autumn, you do the whole thing again, but with different books by 
different authors.

I said to Ilyas, “So a book salesman needs to feel passionately about 
the worth of something for a few weeks, or to be seen to feel 
passionately about it, and then he has to forget it and move on to the 
newest batch of stuff that he wants the bookshop to order. And it isn’t 
like selling toothpaste. Every book is different. It must be exhausting, 
this continual change in passionate belief.”

“Sounds just like the world of finance,” Ilyas said. “You believe in a 
product until it goes wrong, and then you believe in something else.”

Given the current plight of neo-liberal capitalism, it may be that 
Ilyas’s Marxist beliefs offer a useful back-stop. In a country where 
every major political party signed up to the financial system that broke 
it, we shall need some time to find out.

Charles L. Sligh
Assistant Professor
Department of English
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
charles-sligh at utc.edu

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