BOOKS – A TOUCH OF MORTON’S
by Oliver Pritchett
I love Acknowledgements. They are the Pearl & Dean moment before the main feature at the cinema, like taking time to admire the colour of the wine before the first sip, like standing on the diving board and admiring the scenery before you take the plunge. You can linger over the author’s courtesies just to put off the expected pleasures of the book.
I confess also to a long-standing affection for the Acknowledgements in theatre programmes. They are part of the thrill of going to the theatre, reading the programme in those last seconds of anticipation before the house lights go down: Wigs by Wig Creations, cigarette lighter by Alfred Dunhill, stockings by Kayser, French windows by Drury Lane Glazing Co. Ltd., tennis rackets by Slazenger, cigarettes by Du Maurier, and so on.
I can find examples of pleasing book Acknowledgements from volumes which are within arm’s reach at this moment. My copy of The Flann O’Brien Reader, edited by Stephen Jones at the University of Connecticut and published in 1978, wins you over with its breeziness. He thanks the university ‘for use of its copying machine, Scotch tape and midnight oil’. He is much obliged to William Kelly, of the same university, ‘for his knowledge of gallows humor’ (always useful when you are dealing with Flann O’Brien). He is also grateful to Helen Murphy Preston for recovering some bits of Dublin slang and to George Connaughton ‘who cleaned up the mess’. Somehow you get a flavour of the atmosphere in which the book was produced – scholarship with a nice touch of the chaotic.
From the Preface of David McKie’s Great British Bus Journeys (2006) you know immediately that you are being promised out-of-the-way information, interesting connections and enjoyable diversions. And that promise is abundantly fulfilled. In his preface, the author quite rightly pays tribute to local historians and librarians, the unsung and underpaid heroes and heroines who contribute so much to our knowledge and entertainment. He also acknowledges the help of Bryan McAllister ‘who came up with a wealth of information about buses, some of it culled from sources of pleasing obscurity’. What could be more satisfying to a writer than a source of pleasing obscurity?
Sometimes an author is grateful to someone who was no help at all. In his preface to The Companion Guide to Kent and Sussex (1973) Keith Spence writes: ‘My final thanks go to an unknown trudger along the Pilgrims’ Way, who told me that I was following the route of the Pilgrim Fathers to America, and thus lightened a dismal November morning.’
The Acknowledgements in the front of The Reckoning, Charles Nicholl’s account of the murder of Christopher Marlowe (1992), whet the appetite for the intrigue that is to follow. The author thanks Alan Haynes for his knowledge of Elizabethan spycraft and also Adrian While for advice on eye injuries. Mysteriously he also thanks Paul Murray ‘for the silver penny of circa 1553’.
The long roll call of people Selina Hastings would like to thank for help with her biography of Nancy Mitford suggests the guest-list for a spectacularly grand European ball. I picture Lady Diana Cooper being swept across the room in the arms of Comte Jean de Baglion, the Princesse de Beauvau-Craon sharing a joke under the chandelier with Contessa Anna-Maria Cicogna, and Lady Dashwood, over by the French windows, in earnest conversation with Prince Jean-Louis de Faucigny-Lucinge.
My fondness for the Acknowledgements genre is also partly due to the fact that I have an embarrassing disease known as Morton’s Affliction. Sufferers have a compulsion to read lists of names. The disease is named after the genius J. B. Morton, creator of the Beachcomber column in the Daily Express, and refers explicitly to one of the running jokes in that column, the Anthology of Huntingdonshire Cabmen. This alleged book, in several volumes, receives extravagant praise. Here is an extract from a review of Volume III:
An age devoted to pleasure-seeking and cheap sensation is, perhaps, inclined to
underrate the importance of this exhaustive list of cabmen’s names. But an attempt has been made in this new volume to counteract any tendency to dullness by abandoning the usual alphabetical order. Thus it is with a pleasant shock of surprise that one finds, on page 231, ‘Jelf, E. N., Barlow, D. J.’ Such happy juxtapositions as this stimulate the interest of the reader and give a semblance of narrative to what the undiscerning might call a mere catalogue of names. The volume concludes with ‘Henderson, N.’, and leaves one wondering whether there will be other Hendersons in Volume IV, promised for the autumn season.
Morton’s Affliction also manifests itself in a tendency to read the Birth Announcements in newspapers, to keep up-to-date with what people are calling their children these days: Isis Zara, Orlando, a brother for Jago, Hugo and Milo, Annabel Clara, Beatrice Poppy, Alicia Poppy, a sister for Fortinbras . . .
Sufferers will study the Court and Social page to check the list of names of those attending memorial services. The pleasure is in working out the connection of people attending with the distinguished person whose life is being celebrated and with each other. There are stories in there.
That is the secret of the charm of Acknowledgements. They are not just an act of good manners and not just the literary equivalent of an Oscar winner’s speech; you feel they are the ingredients of a novel.
There are certain conventions in the Acknowledgements genre. Academic Foundations are always generous and academics on the same subject are generous with their time; spouses are always long-suffering, agents are enthusiastic, advisers are wise, assistants are tireless, especially when they have been given the task of typing the manuscript. Any errors or omissions are, of course, the responsibility of the author.
Sometimes I wonder unworthily if a little sly name-dropping has gone into the list of people the author would like to thank for their sage advice. Is the Bishop of Bath and Wells there because he made a serious contribution? Perhaps he simply offered some general observation, such as: ‘Put not thy trust in Wikipedia.’ And what wise counsel did the Warden of All Souls provide? Maybe he said: ‘I should take a coat if you’re going out; it could turn quite chilly later on.’
As I’ve said, you can concoct a story from the ingredients on the Roman-numeralled Acknowledgements pages. The author owes a special debt to the Hon. Mrs Hermione Tadcaster for her generous hospitality at her lovely home in Huntingdonshire while he was going through the extensive family archives. And there’s the Hon. Mrs Tadcaster wondering when the author is going to leave her lovely home. He’s been there seven weeks; she suspects he is spinning things out and she can’t help wishing the family archives were less extensive.
The grateful author is indeed spinning things out, because he is in hiding from his enthusiastic agent who keeps telephoning to ask when he may expect to see the manuscript. The author is not sure if it is safe to return home to his long-suffering wife who stopped being long-suffering seven weeks ago and is now heavily engaged with her own major non-fiction work which is being generously supported by the same Foundation that actually turned her husband down for a grant. At home, all tables and flat surfaces are now covered with the wife’s research and she has begun seeing an agent who, she has to admit, is charmingly enthusiastic . . .
The Hon. Mrs Tadcaster, feeling less hospitable every day, considers a plot to prise the author away from the family archives. She tries to tempt him to call on Mrs Hoddlesden-Smart, in Derbyshire, who is believed to be in possession of some revealing letters and is also reputed to be extremely hospitable.
When this fails she drops hints of sensational revelations to be found in the archives at the Harry Ransom Center in the University of Texas, Austin. She also plays on the author’s paranoia by suggesting that Professor A. L. Beamish (who had been so generous with his time and so wise in his advice on the project) is slyly working on his own book on the same subject and is, at this very moment, heading for Austin.
There will have to be a murder. And, of course, a long list of suspects. The finger of suspicion points to Caldecott, R., but there is also something fishy about Prout, V. Could the two Hendersons be in it together? And where was Comte Jean de Baglion on the night in question?
My own hunch is that the culprit is the tireless Miss Sylvia Wrench who is typing the manuscript. She seemed so meek and put-upon, but all the time she was seething with resentment. After the forty-third batch of author’s corrections, in his awful handwriting, she finally cracked. And, of course, she’s now writing her own book.
OLIVER PRITCHETT is thankful that he is still getting work since retiring from the Sunday Telegraph after thirty years.