Wednesday, November 06, 2019

'I Discovered Charles Dickens and Went Crazy'

I admire versatility of interests, especially among writers. It suggests a healthy, even joyous engagement with the world. Everything, potentially, is interesting and worthy of study. My mother complained I had too many pastimes, what with rock and butterfly collecting, chess, philately, my LPs and Edgar Rice Burroughs. As a newspaper reporter I was happiest working general assignment. Journalists by nature are not specialists but generalists. We have to know a little about everything. My late friend David Myers, adapting Sir Isaiah Berlin’s famous categories, proudly proclaimed himself (and me) a fox. Think of A.J. Liebling, who wrote enthusiastically about food, combat, France, boxing, newspapers, Louisiana politics and much else.

A writer reminiscent of Liebling in this sense is Neville Cardus (1888-1975). Like Liebling his interests straddled high and low, classical and popular. A dedicated autodidact, he never went to college (reminding me of a slightly younger English contemporary, V.S. Pritchett) and was hired by the Manchester Guardian as its cricket correspondent in 1919 and its chief music critic in 1927. He held both jobs simultaneously until 1940. As a critic, Cardus was idiosyncratic, and championed Delius, Mahler, Bruckner and Richard Strauss. I admire his gusto and industry. In his Autobiography (Collins, 1947), Cardus writes of his boyhood:

“I discovered Charles Dickens and went crazy. I borrowed Copperfield from the Municipal Lending Library and the ordinary universe became unreal, hardly there. I read at meals; I read in the streets; at night I would read under the lamps on my way to anywhere I happened to be going; I would read until I was frozen cold, then run like mad to the next lamp.”

Cardus prized Dickensian energy, in music as in cricket (a sport that I, like most Americans, find terminally baffling). The passage continues:

“I read in bed surreptitiously and against the rules, using a tallow candle. I read myself to an acute state of myopia. . . .I can write of this boy without self-consciousness. He happened so long ago. He might have been my son.”

On the final page of his Autobiography, Cardus writes:

“I have stored my mind and heart with good things; if I live another fifty years there will not be enough time to explore and savour to the full this harvest. Such harvests need to be jealously preserved, and we should offer constant thanksgiving for them.”

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