I have an idle dream that you could pull any book off a library shelf and from it unravel an endless string of cultural connections that would eventually thread through the entire library. I think that's both true and not true: every book may in some way lead to every other, but not every book makes you want to start following the thread where it goes. But the other day (actually it was months ago, when I was too busy to even think of opening a TypePad window), when I took a break from my labors and pulled out the first book I noticed from the shelf closest to my favorite reading room, I was rewarded in just the way I'd hoped. Yesterday (after much more effort--I couldn't remember the title, so I opened a dozen or two other books on those shelves whose lack of distinction, compared to the memory of what I was looking for, only confirmed the luck of my original find) I tracked down the book again.
The shelves--DT 934 for the LC aficionados out there--held books on the Boer wars (I had forgotten there were two), and the one I opened (in part because of its evocatively colonial title, with its implicit patriotism and its reference to an outdated place name that must have once been familiar to any reader in the Commonwealth) was The Relief of Mafeking, by someone named Filson Young. The first part is called "England in the Time of War," and the first chapter is called "How the Reserves Came Up," and here is its first paragraph:
From a seat in the paymaster's office of the depôt barracks at Bury one afternoon in November, 1899, I could look either into the barrack yard or out along the Bolton Road. A four-wheeler clove its way through the crowd surrounding the gates, and the sentries presented arms to it. It contained my friend, the paymaster, who presently came upstairs carrying a bag in which were several hundred pounds sterling--the real sinews of war. This was the man whose business it was to call up the Reservists, and he had a very simple way of doing it. He had several books containing large forms divided by perforation into four parts. The first was a counterfoil on which was written the Reservist's name and the date of posting the order; the second was a railway warrant requesting the railway company to furnish him with a ticket available by the most direct route from his place of residence to the depôt; the third was the order requiring him to present himself at the barracks on or before a certain date; and the fourth was a money-order for three shillings, officially called an advance, but virtually a present from a considerate Government. On the 11th of the month the paymaster at Bury had signed about six hundred of these notices, and had seen them posted; on Sunday and Monday they had begun to fall like bombs on the breakfast tables of prosperous civilians all over the country; and soon the pieces of blue paper had made a sad disturbance in several hundreds of cottage homes, and added several hundred men to the strength of the 2nd Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers. The business of the pay office, or at least my friend's part of it--a few subalterns rushing up in a hurry to get money for their various companies; eighty pounds for A, a hundred pounds for D, and so on--was soon over, and then he told me something of how the Reserve system works.
Is it me, or is that a thrilling opening to a book? In part because it's so patiently, modestly unthrilling an opening to a book that promises eventual combat drama. Only a confident storyteller could start so small. But there are so many other skillful details. The immediate placing of the speaker's perspective, in that office chair, while retaining a mystery of who he is. (Is he in the military himself? What is his friendship with the paymaster?) The way the deliberately mundane details are cut every so often by a more writerly, but fully justified, flourish: the four-wheeler that "clove" through the crowd, the call-up notices that "fall like bombs" on breakfast tables. And the phrase that really told me I was in the hands of a sharp and knowing narrator: "the real sinews of war."
But the section I found most thrilling--and this really may just be me--was the methodical explanation of the paymaster's notice book: the perforation of each page into four parts; the beautiful word "counterfoil," whose meaning I'm still not quite sure of; and the pages' separate, detachable elements--the railway voucher, the reporting date, and the money-order--that evoke both the hundreds of individual journeys that will bring the battalion together and the bureaucratic ingenuity that has make that complex undertaking systematic (and almost affectionate, as the "present from a considerate Government" implies, although the door is open that the comment could be ironic). These are the kinds of details that are so exact and true-sounding they could only come from close observation (though in fact they are just the sort of details I love making up in fiction).
It's really an opening that would do John McPhee proud. Does the rest of the book fulfill this early promise? I've hardly read further enough to judge, although I suspect the colonialist blinders will doom the enterprise to some extent. I'm also curious if the author can maintain that placidly discerning eye when his scenes become more conventionally dramatic.
But who is the author anyway? My impression when I first picked up the book (I think from that "my friend, the paymaster") was that this was a soldier's memoir, but this time I took the trouble to look up "Filson Young" and found he was a journalist with a fairly lengthy Wikipedia entry (and I also found an online biography, written by Young's grand-nephew and published by his step-grandson, that I haven't had time to look into further). Finding out he was a pro made the skill of his opening seem a little less remarkable, but even a pro should be proud of that paragraph.
There are many threads you could begin to unravel from this book--the words "Boer War" alone evoke a century and a half's worth of terrible history--but Filson himself is also a promising place to begin. A war correspondent at twenty-four in the era of adventurous wunderkinds like Stephen Crane and John Reed, he had published a novel on spiritualism called A Psychic Vigil under the pseudonym "X. Ray" but this was the first book of many written under his own name. In the coming years, in Wikipedia's words, "to make a career in publishing he would write continually on his many enthusiasms," which included motorcars and airplanes, travel, Wagnerian opera, and, apparently, prostitution. And he's best known for having publishing Titanic, the first book on the disaster, just thirty-seven days after the ship went down. (By the way, of the many publishers now offering versions of that out-of-copyright book on Amazon, one has enterprisingly renamed it Downton Abbey: The Sinking of the Titanic.)
But my favorite of Young's claims to fame is his cameo in Richard Ellmann's James Joyce: he turns out to be the reader for the publisher Grant Richards who first approved of Dubliners in 1905. It took almost a decade until Richards, after a series of censorship battles with printers, finally published Joyce's stories, and by then, as Ellmann reports without further explanation, Young was unavailable to write an introduction to the book, as Richards would have liked. That's all Ellmann has to say about him, but, well, once your thread has led to James Joyce, there's hardly anywhere you can't go after that.