Reading & Writing

for David Pryce-Jones


“I have no memory at all. That’s one of the great defects of my mind: I keep on brooding over whatever interests me, by dint of examining it from different mental points of view I eventually see something new in it, and I alter its whole aspect. I point and extend the tubes of my glasses in all ways, or retract them.”

—Stendhal,The Life of Henry Brulard

I was eleven, no more, when the wish came to me to be a writer; and then very soon it was a settled ambition. The early age is unusual, but I don’t think extraordinary. I have heard that serious collectors, of books or pictures, can begin when they are very young; and recently, in India, I was told by a distinguished film director, Shyam Benegal, that he was six when he decided to make a life in cinema as a director.

With me, though, the ambition to be a writer was for many years a kind of sham. I liked to be given a fountain pen and a bottle of Waterman ink and new ruled exercise books (with margins), but I had no wish or need to write anything; and didn’t write anything, not even letters: there was no one to write them to. I wasn’t especially good at English composition at school; I didn’t make up and tell stories at home. And though I liked new books as physical objects, I wasn’t much of a reader. I liked a cheap, thick-paged children’s book of Aesop’s fables that I had been given; I liked a volume of Andersen’s tales I had bought for myself with birthday money. But with other books—especially those that schoolboys were supposed to like—I had trouble.

For one or two periods a week at school—this was in the fifth standard—the headmaster, Mr. Worm, would read to us from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, from the Collins Classics series. The fifth standard was the “exhibition” class and was important to the reputation of the school. The exhibitions, given by the government, were for the island’s secondary schools. To win an exhibition was to pay no secondary school fees at all and to get free books right through. It was also to win a kind of fame for oneself and one’s school.

I spent two years in the exhibition class; other bright boys had to do the same. In my first year, which was considered a trial year, there were twelve exhibitions for the whole island; the next year there were twenty. Twelve exhibitions or twenty, the school wanted its proper share, and it drove us hard. We sat below a narrow white board on which Mr. Baldwin, one of the teachers (with plastered-down and shiny crinkly hair), had with an awkward hand painted the names of the school’s exhibition winners for the previous ten years. And—worrying dignity—our classroom was also Mr. Worm’s office.

He was an elderly mulatto, short and…

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