‘Tis the season for the giving and receiving of books, a tradition set early in the Baxter household where I could be certain that Santa would deposit a good holiday read in my stocking. But some of my best remembered are books I haven’t read.
One year Santa brought an edition of Ivanhoe full of intricate gatefolds covered in illustrated historical facts of the time.
And in another came a bound edition of the Sherlock Holmes stories, reproduced from the pages of the Strand magazine.
When I was about 15 Santa, by now fully identified as my dad, the Big Baxter, gave me Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess. The opening sentence was a doozy.
It went something like: I was in bed with my catamite when (name unremembered) announced my brother, the Archbishop, had come to call.
I didn’t have to know what a catamite was to feel this was going to be a good read.
I never read another line.
Over Christmas lunch my father lent my book to one of our guests, the memorably named Maris Eglesias. It means Church of the Sea, said my Catholic-educated father, as if that somehow excused the crime.
My fury stretched across the decades and Earthly Powers remains a book I haven’t read.
But if a book’s opening is anything to go by, I still reckon it would have cut the Christmas mustard.
The last Christmas book from Bax also went unread, for completely different reasons. It too had a great lede.
Damon Runyon: A Life by Jimmy Breslin opens with a stream of consciousness from the author as he grapples with his nerves at tackling the subject.
Runyon was the hard-bitten reporter whose stories of New York’s underworld in the 1920s and ‘30s became screenplays for dozens of movies, Guys and Dolls being probably the best known.
Breslin, another generation’s hard-bitten New York reporter, starts his book with the ghost of Runyon standing in his way, questioning his ability to do the story justice.
Breslin spits out his credentials, earned on the same gritty New York streets, as he approaches the dusty newspaper filing cabinets to which he’s been given access.
Finally, he opens the first drawer and declares, “I have the right.”
I got that far into my Christmas book on the flight from San Francisco back to London. I’ve never been able to settle into a good read on a plane, alas.
The next day, still jet-lagged, I turned up for duty at the Seaside Weekly just in time to farewell the latest batch of redundancies.
Among them was Nick, a snaggle-toothed old sub on the long slide from Fleet Street.
He was living in a caravan and surviving on a few shifts a week at the local paper. He embodied an uncertain future in an industry which has never paid well for most of us.
What did for Nick was the bottleneck caused by the 1990s recession in the expected career progression from local newspapers up the county chain to the national press.
Trainee journalists had traditionally qualified and moved on, to be replaced by another batch of cheap trainees. With fewer jobs out there, they were hanging around on full salaries, to the horror of the beancounters.
Nick had no chance and zero prospects.
I gave him the Breslin book, a fitting parting gift to an old newspaperman. He had the right to read it first.
Last time I saw Nick he was pushing a dustcart in the local shopping centre. We didn’t speak. What was there to say?
This year I’m giving a book with another compelling intro, one which carries a whiff of Breslin’s bold statement of claim.
I bought an e-version of Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil and, as ever, went in immediately to read the first sentence and get a flavour of the journey ahead.
I was about the third line in when my inner Editor started tut-tutting over the length of the opening shot. Really, this is a very long sentence. I stopped reading and started scanning for a full stop (seven pages away). I flipped ahead a bit to make sure it wasn’t all written like this (it isn’t).
And then I did the author the honour of shutting up and reading.
I say that, but I was more an unwilling victim. After all, I’d planned nothing more than a quick dip in.
Instead I was dragged against my will along a mesmerising opium-wreathed description of a Bombay street and its people whose stories lie ahead.
Thayil from the outset lets us know it’s the O which drives “the I that tells this story and the I that’s being told.”
The I that reads has no choice but to follow, meekly, at the O’s unhurried yet merciless pace.
With his epic opening sentence Thayil lays out his credentials, just like Breslin. He has the right.
I love a book which hooks you with its opening and then lives up to its early promise. I can’t speak for Breslin’s Runyon or Burgess’ Earthly Powers, but Baxter rated them, and his was always a worthy recommendation.
I can vouch for Narcopolis. My only regret is that after one damn sentence I was too far down the rabbit hole to save it for my own post-Christmas lunch reading.
In the family tradition I’ll give it to my daughters, a book with an opening to cut the Christmas mustard.
And I might turn at last to the Breslin book this year, in honour of old newspapermen.
I’ll even cheekily claim to have the right.