At Home in Our Mixed Up World

Article excerpt

Byline: IAN THOMSON

MAKING AN ELEPHANT: WRITING FROM WITHIN by Graham Swift (Picador, [pounds sterling]18.99)

GRAHAM Swift, born in London in 1949, has Russian-Jewish blood on his mother's side, so he's well placed to appreciate the vagaries of our mongrel mixed-up world. Making an Elephant, his first work of non-fiction, is a miscellany of essays and reflections on the nature of cultural uprootedness and displacement, with Montaigne-like disquisitions on the life of the writer, literary friendships, death and bereavement.

Like Montaigne, Swift is excited by pretty well anything of human concern, interest and puzzlement. Memories of fishing with Ted Hughes in Devon combine with appreciations of the Russian writer Isaac Babel and the charms of suburban Croydon, where Swift grew up. With a few deft strokes, Swift conjures the Croydon of his childhood and education at Dulwich College, the alma mater of Raymond Chandler. Droll appraisals of nearby Crystal Palace (with its life-size model dinosaurs), Norwood and Sydenham are among the many other delights on offer. Swift has an eye for the poetry of these places, with their Pooterish values.

His tribute to the poet Alan Ross, who for 40 years edited the legendary London Magazine, is especially moving.

When Alan died of a heart attack on St Valentine's Day 2001, those who knew him were devastated. From his office in South Kensington, Alan helped to launch the careers of, among others, Derek Walcott, William Boyd, Jonathan Raban as well as Swift. A few terse remarks sent on a postcard served as thanks for a contribution. …