Books: Snakecharmers in Texas — Introduction |
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Snakecharmers in Texas : Introduction

The only unifying principle I would claim for these articles is that they are written out of real interest in their subjects. Lucky enough, in recent years, to be able to pick and choose, I might not always have chosen wisely, but at least I was never obliged to feign enthusiasm. Keenness is therefore genuine, even if misplaced.

Apart from restoring the odd short passage which was cut for production reasons, the pieces are reproduced pretty much as was — not, I hope, because I have grown lazy now, but because I was reasonably careful then. Here again, I was in a privileged position: even when I had to phone the story in, I had time to think about it first. If the reader asks how I dare presume to take lyric poetry and ice-dancing with seemingly equal seriousness, I have no short answer, beyond pointing out that homo faber and homo ludens are both members of the same species sapiens, and that Mozart played billiards. There is a long answer, but I will probably never get to the end of it. This book is an instalment. The activities it covers are, I believe, all creative. Not even the racing driver has any intention of smashing things up. He least of all. What drives him, while he drives the car, is the impulse to bring order out of the hurly-burly, or at least to draw a clear line.

There are patterns in the clutter. These patterns help clarify one another. Once I saw Eugenio Montale fielding questions from a crowded room full of academics whose careers were partly, and in some cases entirely, based on discussing what he had written. No matter how impertinent the enquiry, he always tried to say something of general use. Twenty years later I saw Niki Lauda give a press conference in Portugal. He spoke the same way. They were not the same man, but they were more like each other than like anyone else who might write about either. Mastery, said Montale, resides in knowing how to limit yourself. The secret, said Lauda, is to win going as slowly as possible. It was the same voice talking each time. Below their diversity was an identity. Categories are illusory. Realising this fact made me feel less guilty about loving the different forms of expression so intensely while so intensely resenting any attempt to subtract from their variety by subjecting them to an abstract synthesis. They don't need to have unity imposed on them, because underneath they already have it to start off with.

Occasionally I have added a note when something too relevant to ignore has happened since the copy was filed. Guessing wrong about the future is an occupational hazard of journalism. Rewriting would have taken care of the discrepancies but it would have conferred retroactively a power of clairvoyance which was never among my attainments, or, indeed, my aims. Seeing ahead was usually out of the question. It was hard enough to see straight, at the time. To tell what time it was, the provenance of each piece is indicated at the end. This will also help to explain fluctuations of intonation from piece to piece. One should, one must, write for the London Review of Books and the TV Times in the same voice, but in each case the voice must strike the appropriate pitch. The audience for the one publication is more specialised than the audience for the other. It is nice to be thought intelligent by the first audience, but it is essential to be found intelligible by the second. For a wide readership not necessarily privy to literary allusions, the writer is under severe pressure to achieve a certain measure of self-denial. It never hurts.

Generally, however, I was writing for the Observer, the London Review of Books or their spiritual neighbours on the other side of the Atlantic. Within wide limits I could say anything I wanted, which left me with the responsibility of finding out what I wanted to say. On the Observer, in particular, there was a degree of freedom which was almost embarrassing. My thanks are due to its editor, and to the editors of the Observer Magazine, the London Review of Books, Poetry Review, the TV Times, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books and the Atlantic Monthly. Even when I had to fight on the telephone to save a phrase, I was grateful for their attention. Often enough they were right.

Finally, the deepest gratitude must go to the intelligent reading public, whose tolerance for this aspect of my work — they don't always say that I have done it well, but they do sometimes say that I have done well to try it — never ceases to be a comfort. The title of this book is meant to convey thanks for such a communal relationship of writer and reader. The British army officer in The Third Man tells the American author of westerns, Holly Martins, how much he enjoys his books, especially for the curious information they contain. The officer says he never knew that there were snakecharmers in Texas. Holly Martins looks shamefaced, but might equally have shown a certain pride. To please the officer, a good man with more important work to do than to be a literary critic, was no bad thing.

At the time of writing this introduction I am doing less journalism than I would like, mainly because of making more television programmes than sanity allows. But the desire is always present, and will be fulfilled again. The old Fleet Street has broken up and dispersed, but like Grub Street, which pulled the same trick long ago, it is somehow still there — an idea I crossed the world to grasp, and won't let go of without a struggle.

(London, 1987)