‘Insights’ – Patrick Gooch talks about his literary interests, in the first of an occasional series of Book Lovers' conversations...

"What are your earliest memories of reading?"

“That`s easy, it was `Alice In Wonderland`. It was a large, red-covered tome which I carried everywhere with me. It had large print and coloured pictures. Not only could I read it, being at least three inches thick, I could stand on it to reach things on the Welsh dresser in my parents` kitchen.
“Later, I was fascinated by `Treasure Island`, a tale of buccaneers and buried gold. I would often memorise passages from Stevenson`s novel; and when the film appeared, back in the mid 1900’s, quoting from the book was done in that broad west-country accent of feverish-eyed Robert Newton, who played Long John Silver.”
“Looking back, I now realise the book also had a high, literary quality. The opening lines of the second chapter, for example. `It was one January morning, very early—a pinching, frosty morning—the cove all grey with hoar-frost, the ripple lapping softly on the stones, the sun still low and only touching the hilltops and shining far to seaward. The captain had risen earlier than usual and set out down the beach, his cutlass swinging under the broad skirts of the old blue coat, his brass telescope under his arm.` Highly descriptive, don`t you think?”

“What about reading in your teens?"

“In my very early teens, like everyone else, I devoured Enid Blyton`s famous four. But one quickly leaves those behind, and I moved on to more heady stuff: works of adventure and derring-do. One author stands out. . .Percy Westerman. In retrospect, his books were badly-written and shot through with errors; but as teenagers they certainly caught the imagination. Westerman turned out two or three novels a year, so I was a regular visitor to the local library.
“I well recall the procedure to borrow items in those days. You selected your books and handed over the requisite number of ticket holders, inscribed with your name, to the library assistant. She - invariably a woman – would stamp the return date in the book. Then remove its identifying ticket from inside the cover and tuck into the cardboard holder. This was then stored in a wooden filing tray. A time-consuming ritual compared with scanning a bar-code nowadays.”

“Did you feel a pattern was developing in your reading habits – that you were favouring certain styles of writing?"

“I suppose, I was unconsciously leaning towards people`s biographies. . .in between studying for exams. My choice was not nearly so eclectic as in earlier years.”

“What sort of biographies caught your eye?”

“Those of a more inspirational nature. One is particularly memorable. `Or I`ll Dress You In Mourning`, the life story of El Cordobes, the matador. Another is, `South`, which highlights the dogged fortitude of Sir Ernest Shackleton; and a really noteworthy character, whom I have long admired, the Duke of Wellington. In fact, not so long ago, I read another version of his life by the historian, Norman Gash.
“It`s an odd quirk of human nature isn`t it, that, after someone`s death, critical remarks about them often outweigh fond words of praise. Wellington`s detractors thought him an overcautious general and one of Britain’s worst 19th-century prime ministers. Nowadays, his military genius and his character as an honest and selfless politician are much more widely appreciated.”

“Moving on, what writing styles and authors do you now prefer?”

“I still enjoy a well-written, action novel. But my taste tends towards works that combine fiction with a solid background of fact. Books that provide a different slant on events and incidents in the past: perhaps submitting an alternative ending, or an alternative approach to an all too obvious ending.
“Books such as `Schindler`s Ark` by Thomas Keneally; `Wolf Hall` and `Bring Up The Bodies` by Hilary Mantel. In fact, such books are all around us. Tolstoy`s `War and Peace`, for example, is portrayed against the ebb and flow of the 19th century conflict between France and Russia, and the Battles of Austerlitz and Borodino. I was reading `The Stonehenge Letters`only recently, which I reviewed at the May Book Lovers` meeting. The subject was the creation and early winners of The Nobel Prizes. These are the stuff of my reading I most enjoy.”

“So let`s talk about your all-time favourite book. I`m sure you must have one.”

“The one book I often turn to, perhaps to reacquaint myself with just a chapter, is `Van Loon`s Lives`. It is a book, written in 1942, by the Dutch-American writer Hendrik Willem van Loon. Actually, its full title is:
`Van Loon's Lives: Being a true and faithful account of a number of highly interesting meetings with certain historical personages, from Confucius and Plato to Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson, about whom we had always felt a great deal of curiosity and who came to us as dinner guests in a bygone year.`
“Loosely based on the classic `Plutarch's Lives`, it recounts the biographies of various famous historical characters. Like Plutarch, Van Loon often pairs together characters from different times and places whose lives, careers or personalities bore similarities to each other. For example, William the Silent and George Washington, who led the Wars of Independence in their respective countries; the philosophers Descartes and Emerson; Empress Theodora of Byzantium and Queen Elizabeth I of England; Torquemada and Robespierre. I must say, of the last couple Van Loon had less than flattering opinions.
“These many characters are periodically invited to dinner, which take place in the author`s summer home in the town of Veere, in the Dutch province of Zealand. The facilitator, who ensures the guests arrive promptly, is none other than Erasmus, the Dutch Renaissance humanist, Catholic priest, social critic, teacher, and theologian.
“It is clearly a work written with the tongue set firmly in the cheek. Yet, I have found it highly entertaining, and provided hours of pleasure.”

"We can’t finish without mentioning that you are also a published author – do tell us more."

“In the past I`ve worked for a number of organisations, and my final stint as an employee was with the Spanish Government. Thereafter, I joined my wife`s company and expanded its activities further afield. But this entailed the tedium of long-haul flights, and staying in impersonal hotels. To relieve the boredom I started penning outlines of novels, and moved on to writing complete manuscripts. In fact, three or four were tucked away in a drawer before my wife said, `don`t just leave them there, get them published`.
“Sounds easy, but I soon discovered that the publishing world is entirely different to anything I had ever encountered. You have to have a thick skin, for rejections abound in this industry. When you submit your work to a literary agent or direct to a publisher, it goes into a `slush pile`, where chance dictates if it sees the light of day. I was fortunate. Eventually a publisher showed interest in my work, and thus far, six of my novels have been published. Yet another will be appearing in October. I must add, I enjoy writing, but readily admit that doing the research, which takes about six months beforehand the metaphorical pen is put to paper, is by far the most enjoyable part of the activity.”

“Thank you, Patrick, that was all most interesting. I’m afraid we’ve run out of time and space for the moment, but I hope we will return to the subject in a later piece."