Byline: Craig Brown
The Oxford Guide To Literary Britain & Ireland edited by Daniel Hahn andNicholas Robins OUP [pounds sterling] 30 . [pounds sterling]27 inc p& p (0845 155 0713)
Tourists arriving in London for the very first time sometimes head straight forElephant and Castle. Drawn by the promise of its exotic name, they are upset tofind it is one of the greyest, drabbest areas in the city.
But this process also works in reverse, as this endlessly surprising anddelightful book shows. For instance, Hindhead in Surrey is a place throughwhich I have often driven without a second glance: its name is uninspiring, tosay the least, and the town itself looks much of a muchness.
Yet if you turn to Hindhead in the Oxford Literary Guide, you will discoverthat Sir Arthur Conan Doyle built his home in Hindhead and wrote The Hound OfThe Baskervilles there.
A few years later, W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood both attended StEdmund's preparatory school in Hindhead.
Isherwood confessed in his autobiography that, although Auden was three yearshis junior, he delivered early sex education lessons to Isherwood and hisschoolmates: 'He confided the first naughty stupendous breathtaking hints aboutthe facts of sex ... With his hinted forbidden knowledge and stock ofmispronounced scientific words, portentously uttered, he enjoyed among us, hissemisavage, credulous schoolfellows, the status of a kind of witch-doctor.'This means the next time I drive through it, Hindhead will be a very differentplace, its air filled with the whispers of sex and the barking of hounds. Thephantoms of literary Britain are all around us, haunting even the mostnondescript townscape, making it spring to life.
Not far from Hindhead, Guildford is the place where one great British humorist,P.G. Wodehouse, was born and another, Lewis Carroll, died. Personally, I'vealways been interested in where authors live, work and die. For instance, Ifind it fascinating that Julian Barnes and Sue Townsend were both born inLeicester in 1946; that the louche author Julian Maclaren-Ross sold vacuumcleaners door-to-door in Bognor Regis; that Auden's old house in Solihull isnow a fitness centre; and that Kazuo Ishiguro (another Guildford man,incidentally, although the editors seem to have overlooked this) worked atBalmoral during his gap year, as a grouse beater for the Queen Mother.
Reading the Oxford Literary Guide, I found that knowing the exact whereaboutsof made-up characters was every bit as interesting as those of the real. Formost book-lovers, Lyme Regis is the place where The French Lieutenant's Womanwill forever be standing on the Cobb, staring out to sea, but it is nice to bereminded that, in the woods just behind the town, the hero of GeoffreyHousehold's Rogue Male - surely the best thriller ever written - digs a burrowfor himself and lies low, ready to assassinate the sinister Major Quive-Smith.
The passing of time has a nice way of clouding the difference between the realand the imagined, turning fiction into fact, and fact into fiction. The town ofReading is where poor old Jude the Obscure stayed at the George Hotel, whileOscar Wilde was residing in even more unpleasant circumstances at Reading jail.One existed in real life, the other only in the imagination, but, 100 years on,they both haunt the same ghostly nook in our memories.
I particularly enjoy reading of places where fact and fiction coincide. Whilewaiting for a train at Temple Underground station in 1901, Baroness Orczy had asudden flash of inspiration: from out of nowhere, the character of The ScarletPimpernel came into her head. In Farnham, J. M. Barrie's Newfoundland dog, theoriginal for Nana in Peter Pan, is buried in the pine woods behind TilfordLane.
It's hard to say why I find these snippets so alluring. Why should anyone carewhere a long-dead dog is buried, or where, in the case of the …