Saturday, October 27, 2012



I learned to read late-ish; primarily, I suspect, because no one thought of teaching me to read. My mother was careless about such matters, and busy with her social life. I do recall being sent to a convent pre-school prior to being packed off to boarding school several years too young (I was five and a half), but the nuns who ran the pre-school– terrifying creatures in their traditional regalia in those days – seemed more interested in teaching us to tie bows – an essential life skill apparently; and I have no recollection of reading being on the agenda at all. Religion seemed to dominate, but we learned that by rote. We were little Catholic Talibans, so to speak.

Church mass and other ceremonies seemed to be mostly in Latin; which was, as they say, all Greek to me in those days. Mind you, later on I became quite good at Latin just when the Pope was inspired to have religious ceremonies take place in the local language—English in my case. I was ticked off by that, because I rather liked the rhythm of Latin even when I didn’t understand it. Typically, it was chanted in church, and one could doze off quite agreeably to it, and the odor of incense. Later, I was to read Caesar’s Gallic Wars in it; and I have remained a Julius Caesar fan even since.

One of many interesting details about Caesar was that he could maneuver his troops at extraordinary speed, even though most of his troops marched on foot. If he had been in charge of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, he would probably have been there in a week—instead of three. What is more, Caesar normally marched and fought with his men. Would a modern general do as much?

But let me return to my obsession.

True, I do suffer from a form of dyslexia which impedes some of my cognitive processes, but I don’t think it impeded my learning to read; because when my teacher at boarding school, the estimable Miss Johnson, finally discovered (after some months) that I couldn’t read—and was inspired to teach me--I learned with great rapidity; and reading became my passion, my obsession, my all consuming interest. 

Why not, indeed. Boarding school was no fun, as far as I was concerned, particularly because I was the smallest and youngest boy in school so was an easy target and bullied extensively (Eventually, thanks to books, I was to learn to fight back with considerable skill and success—but that is another story).

In short, real life sucked—at least for a time. On the other hand, escape and adventure were as close as the nearest book; so I read everything and everywhere – sometimes to the great distress of those around me. After all, if I was taken to a circus, I should be enjoying the circus, not have my nose buried in a book. Yet, that was just what I would do. Sports—apart from track and cross-country running--left me cold; and where cricket was concerned, I would volunteer to bat last, and then climb into the the coffin-like box that normally held all our gear—and, head resting on a cricket-pad, read. The box shielded me from the chill wind that normally whipped through the valley. My school was in Yorkshire, England, a chilly sort of place, though replete with much beautiful countryside, and an adequate supply of ruined monasteries left as a consequence of Henry VIII’s decision to make himself head of the church, and richer into the bargain. Religion and money have an alarming tendency to congregate together.

But what could be better than a book? I carried one everywhere, and judged clothing by whether a book could be fitted into the jacket pocket. Later, I got a book-bag so I could carry several books and transfer instantly to a new title after finishing my current read. I haven’t changed much in that regard.

Books published during, and shortly after, WWII tended to be fairly short because paper was in short supply. Hard to believe in this age of plenty, but such was the situation. In fact, rationing of some items continued in the UK until the early Fifties. In contrast, Germany, which had lost the war, abolished rationing in 1948.

Having devoured mainly children’s books up to the age of about ten—because those were all I was permitted to read, or could find, I then gravitated to detective stories, westerns, science fiction, historical novels, war books of various types, spy novels, sea adventures; and then finally encountered the Big Thriller. I had arrived at the Promised Land, and I was not to be disappointed.  

True, not all were big – Ian Fleming’s JAMES BOND thrillers were quite slim – but most provided:

  • Interesting, and often exotic, settings combined with a feeling of authenticity frequently based upon the author’s actual experiences.
  • Well researched context; either a dose of history, current affairs, or both.
  • Intriguing, often larger than life, characters who endured extraordinary privations, but normally triumphed in the end.
  • Compelling plots, not infrequently inspired by real events.
  • Fascinating technical details on just about everything (if you read enough books).
  • Enough sex to add a frison to the whole mix (and to intrigue a teenager).
  • Plenty of action.
  • A high degree of readability. Good thriller authors are particularly good at writing about complexity with clarity (This discovery had a major influence on me).  
  • Enough length to keep a fast reader engrossed for a couple of days—or more. Typically, that meant 400 pages plus, though some were longer (which delighted me).

When you come right down to it, Leo Tolstoy’s WAR & PEACE—apart from being a highly acclaimed literary novel, is a Big Thriller; and certainly it contains all the elements I have listed. It is also  extremely readable, though many people are put off by its size. They really shouldn’t be. It’s a highly accessible read. I remember devouring it when I was about thirteen, and being bowled over by it. I thought it was phenomenal; and I still do. And I fell in love with Audrey Hepburn when watching the movie, which I saw, by accident, before reading the book. The year was 1956 and I was twelve at the time.

Big Thrillers were typically written by authors who had considerable experience of life, and had had more than a few adventures themselves. Quite a number were originally well traveled journalists, who came equipped with a network of contacts and who were well practiced in research. Many had experienced combat.

The Big Thriller emerged, at least as far as I was concerned, in the Fifties and Sixties. The following are some notable examples:

  • THE DECEIVERS by John Masters (1952)
  • SOMETHING OF VALUE by Robert Ruark (1955)
  • EXODUS by Leon Uris (1958)
  • WHEN THE LION FEEDS by Wilbur Smith (1964)

Little did I know how hard it would be to write such a book, or what I would have to experience first. But, I was lucky enough to succeed—eventually with GAMES OF THE HANGMAN.  A name or two away on the New York Times Best Seller list was that of James Mitchener, author of more than 40 titles including one of my favorite books, THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI. My reaction was that I had probably entered The Twilight Zone.

Such achievements apart – and success has a tendency to be fleeting and to induce complex side effects– the real surprise has stemmed from how much I have learned to enjoy the actual process of writing. Combine the joy of reading with the deep satisfaction that comes from writing; and the cares and confusions of our chaotic world seem minor irritations.

That said, I shall probably howl at the moon if the November 6 2012 elections do not turn out to my satisfaction. 


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