My postbag is mostly things like: ‘I once played tennis against you in the Provence in 1981. My daughter is now bicycling through Spain to raise money and I wondered… .’ So picture my surprise to get one that instead began like this: ‘In your novel Engleby, the hero mentions a gig by Procol Harum he attended at the Rainbow, Finsbury Park, in 1972.’ The next line that was the killer: ‘I was playing keyboards in the band that night… .’
And so began an intriguing pen pal friendship. Chris Copping, who played Hammond organ on several mighty albums with Robin Trower’s seething guitar and Gary Brooker’s voice and piano, now lives with his wife Vicki on Magnetic Island, Queensland, where he brews beer, plays music and, above all it seems, reads books. I email things like, ‘How did they get that guitar sound?’ Chris patiently replies: ‘On “Simple Sister”, as I recall, there was a cross-fade from Les Paul to the Stratocaster half way through the solo’, before going on to what he wants to talk about: Proust, Zola, Thomas Mann, García Márquez and Dickens. He seems to have read a lot more than I have. He also has a degree in chemistry. No wonder he could play the Hammond organ standing on his head. Or was that Keith Emerson?
Anyway, it so happened that my new novel, A Possible Life, has a section in which the main character is a singer-songwriter in America in the early 1970s. So I asked Chris if he would look at it and make any corrections to detail of recording and engineering. This he kindly did, and declared himself a fan of Anya King, my fictional singer. So much so that a few months later he emailed me a version of one of her songs, using my lyrics, his music and the voice of an Australian jazz singer.
So amazing is the electronic world that I was able to suggest a few tweaks — maybe push the organ further forward in the mix? — so it became a co-production, pinging back and forth between the antipodes. My wife thinks this is two middle-aged men with too much time on their hands; I think it may be a breakthrough in musical composition.
I am not gloating over the sickness of the EU. I think the crisis could force a better future. I have floated my vision in many a saloon bar in the last few months. ‘We simply start again. It’s a peace treaty for the most warlike continent in history. We still badly need it. We move on to simple trading agreements. Then France, Germany and Benelux begin to form a tighter economic union of their own. Ten years on, when that inner five have got themselves sorted, they contemplate a single currency. In 30 years or so, we outer guys can vote on whether we wish to join. The key is for the organisers to be open, democratic and modest; to explain each step to the voters. There’s nothing wrong with wanting peace and trade advantages. It’s really quite idealistic.’ But by then the whole saloon bar is laughing. I don’t know if it’s ‘modest’, ‘open’ or ‘democratic’ that does it.
Just back from Anna Karenina at the dusty local cinema where a tramp once tried to pick me up. Can a long novel of internal richness ever really be rendered in two dimensions? It was odd that the most memorable visual moment in the book, when Levin glimpses Kitty through her carriage window, was conveyed in dialogue. But there was much to enjoy. And no dosser made a move on me, though there was a man whose feet over the seats shook the whole row at ten-second intervals while he ate 14 bags of Doritos. More of a Turgenev man perhaps.
I had a Sophie’s Choice on the last Saturday of the Olympic Games. Through the ballot, I had got two tickets for the athletics, but could not decide which of my three children to take. The youngest showed least interest, so it was down to two. I could not split them, so in the end I let them both go and watched on television. I thought this might guarantee that the children would be nice to me for the rest of my life. Some minutes after Mo Farah’s win, when my heart rate had returned to something almost human, I texted my daughter: ‘Who’s the best father in the world?’ Ding! ‘Homer Simpson?’
Being a pedant is exhausting. It’s hard to press on with a book that thinks to ‘beg the question’ means to ‘raise the question’ or that schizophrenia, far from being a frighteningly coherent psychosis, is a state of mild indecision. One’s only consolation is to feel alone: bonkers, but unique. I was thus annoyed, after I had pointed out in August that the expected government reshuffle was not a reshuffle at all, but merely a shuffle, to hear on the Today programme last week that Twitter was abuzz with others sharing just this thought.
As the pedants’ pedant, though, I feel I should point out that it was not actually a shuffle either. It was in fact a Cabinet partial discard and re-deal… Hmm. Catchy.