It must be fun to be a politician: a great wage and all the cash you can fiddle – junkets to faraway places with five-star hotels, regular bribes from lobbyists, all the standard goodies. Embarrassing, though, sometimes. Lying is a necessary part of the package of politics but it doesn’t come easily to me, even in trivial matters.
What book are you reading at the moment, they ask at interviews. Or, whose music do you like best of The Who and The Whom? What’s your favourite opera or ballet or Shakespearian sonnet? A well-prepared politician always carries the latest published report of some heavyweight institute in his briefcase – and a hardback copy of the latest fiction best-seller as well, to show his human side.
I’m a philistine, with little respect for the classical arts, or the classical pop-artists. My favourite musical genre changes every six months; my favourite authors have been dead for decades. Only recently have I discovered the joys of Bluegrass music, on YouTube. Over and over I can watch Brittany Haas stamping the beat with her boots while playing the violin to some rousing number. I’ve never seen anybody do that before. Yehudi Menuhin never did it, I don’t think.
I’ve made a special effort to read some of the classic literature, just to check the quality – The Trial, Crime & Punishment, Don Quixote (all in translation, of course!), Boswell’s Life of Johnson... Mark Twain is the most skilful writer, in my book, but no more so than P G Wodehouse. I’m a sucker for epigrams. “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.” Ogden Nash wrote that, in 1931 – and what a masterpiece it is of brevity, wit, and sexual and social commentary.
Would my attendance at two operas and two ballets impress an interviewer? Linda and I watched Tosca in the Vienna Opera House in 1965, and the Nutcracker Suite by the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow a few weeks later. But those were simply “must see” items on our travelling agenda, like The Hermitage in Leningrad, and Persepolis in Iran, and Ataturk’s yellowed underpants in the dedicated Museum in Ankara.
My second opera and ballet attendances were even less laudable than the first ones. Ross got me free tickets in 2011 for performances at the Oslo Opera House where he worked: Tannhauser and Don Quixote. A backstage technician, he was actually on stage for a few minutes in Tannhauser, paid five hundred kroner a time to ensure none of the actors fell down the hole when the hydraulic platform went down to pick up the lead singer in a puff of magical mist. (He was in costume, but was so well disguised that I missed him.)
I’d be careful to omit mention of the freebies in any formal interview fame might require, but I might come clean about what books I’m currently reading. There are usually four or five on the go at any given moment. I dip into the non-fictions every day, pretty much. On my chairside table today are Holy Blood, Holy Grail, a 1982 book that gave Dan Brown the plot for The Da Vinci Code, and The Unauthorised Version, a 1991 hardback about the composition of the Bible that Ross gave me a few Christmases ago. Both of those were bought at jumble sales, for ten or twenty-five cents each.
Our Oriental Heritage, a 1935 history book by Will Durant, lies open on our dining table (at Page 623, today), bookmarked by an old Library card. (It was a Library throw-away, twenty years ago.) I’ve read all three of those before, and the Dick Francis mystery too, but they’re all worth reading again because of the quality of the writing. Would a professional interviewer be impressed? Not with their recent provenance, perhaps.
Should I confess to keeping an Oxford Concise Dictionary and a King James Bible beside my chair, for handy reference, and an Etymological Dictionary? Would that be too pompous? Hmm. I’ll decide that when the time comes.