The essays, reviews and articles here have a coherence I imagine rather than claim for them. A coherence of pleasure, of curiosity; of amazement at our modernity and our disarray. There’s no special picture – look at the interviews and you’ll see that in most cases the subject’s life spanned the best part of the 20th century: Norman Lewis, witnessing the Asturian miners’ gunfire that precursed the Spanish Civil War; Eric Ambler in Manchester Square, viewing the upward curve of fascism; Lydia Chukovskaya, without whom there would be less of Akhmatova’s poetry, seeing the reality of Stalin’s purges. But that pattern is an accident. I think I just like talking to those who take me backwards, and forwards; deep, and wide.
You’ll notice too a fixation with writers, mainly novelists. Even when I have written about people for whom writing books is not their main activity – Oliver Sacks, Morrissey, Kraftwerk – it was because they seemed to possess a literary sensibility, a reaching for the persuasion of words. And often the writers I’ve written about are forgotten. If there’s a connection between them, it may be that they represent a style sidelined for a couple of decades – the era of post-modernism, call it what you will – a style that’s married to its meaning, a style both for itself and for the reader.
If I dissent from style for its own sake, as being a particularly bad kind of writerly vanity, I also dissent from the view that the world is ending, or changing, especially since 9/11 and its sequels. Both are vanities. Civilisations are always threatened, and our fragility is vital to us, being what makes us human. Yet the world manages to remain more various, more encrusted with future discoveries, than our security-fixated and normative outlook suggests. And whether that conformist tendency eases or not, I believe the world is still best perfected, or made legible, through the metaphor of writing about it.
Because the writing racket is itinerant, the story strays. I have included a few excursions that illustrate the unplanned process of finding things to write about. None of the subjects, bar one, was anybody else’s idea. I agree that that doesn’t excuse their appearance.