The author and writer of The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading responds to Prospect's Brief Encounter questionsby Prospect Team / October 17, 2018 / Leave a comment
First news event you can recall?
When I was four or five I remember a radio broadcast of one of Roosevelt’s fireside chats. We were all sitting solemnly in the living room in big leather chairs (one of them was blue leather for some reason) facing the big standing radio with its gold-threaded brown cloth cover masking the speaker. I didn’t understand a word but I knew history was being made.
The book you are most embarrassed you never yet read?
The Faerie Queene. I’ve started it a dozen times but never made much headway. I read Chinese at university; I wish I’d studied English because the only way to read Spenser is in class, I suspect. Dante is much easier.
One bit of advice you’d give to your younger self?
Take risks. Be more courageous. Make love to older, important people. I liked only younger, powerless ones; that’s why I wasted my twenties.
Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with?
Germaine de Staël. She was, apparently, a harridan and wore a portable desk around her neck in case she was suddenly inspired to write while racing up and down the corridors of her castle plaguing poor Benjamin Constant.
What was your most uncomfortable on-air moment?
Someone who thought that I was clever invited me to participate in a pilot of a new quiz show. But all the questions were about television personalities or pop singers—things I knew nothing about (I didn’t own a television). I sat there sweating.
If you were given £1m to spend on other people, what would you spend it on and why?
I’d give half of it to my sister, who adopted 11 black or Vietnamese orphans (several of them HIV-positive) and is penniless at age 81. I’d give the other half to Ron Reagan (the former president’s son), who is the head of a society for atheists and agnostics and the separation of church and state.
The talent you wish you had?
I’d like to come back in my next life as an opera tenor—as thrilling and passionate as Jussi Björling but as handsome as Mario Del Monaco.
The best and worst presents you’ve ever received?
The worst (but still kind) present was a bushel of grapefruit, which I can’t eat because of some medication I take. When I was still a practising alcoholic (I stopped drinking in 1983) the best present was a case of excellent wine.
What do you most regret?
I most regret that I wasn’t born rich, handsome and Italian, beloved by my parents, adored by everyone else. Instead I was a solitary kid with no playmates except imaginary—maybe a writer’s beginnings? And I was dressed like a pauper, which I didn’t notice but other people pitied.
The last piece of music/play/novel/film that brought you to tears?
Dunkirk. The idea of ordinary boat-owners saving stranded-soldiers.