Sappho In Absence
Collins, London, 1970
dedication: to Kate
The blurb on the back:
'I wanted to write a love story like a murder mystery,' says John Crosby, 'because I find the workings of love and marriage very mysterious. I'm astounded by the unlikely marriages that hang together and even more astounded by the happy marriages that break up. It's the surprises in love and marriage I've tried to capture.'
I don't know how well known the name of John Crosby is nowadays, but for those who need a refresher, he first came to public attention as one of the founding fathers of TV criticism in the 1950s. Or as PG Wodehouse put it: 'John Crosby is the fellow who watches television for the New York Herald Tribune, than which I can imagine no more appalling job - just think of having to watch television.' Having established himself in American journalism, Crosby came to Britain in 1964 and the following year gave the world the concept of Swinging London with an article in the Sunday Telegraph colour supplement (see the link below).
This first novel turned up a few years later, when Crosby was already 58, and opens in a London where preening peacocks are reaching a sartorial standard of rarefied heights:
Frankly, I could have read a couple of hundred pages of this without any complaint whatsoever, but Crosby has another kettle of much bigger fish to fry, and before you know quite what's happening, we're in Istanbul, ready to make the 4000-mile trek to Katmandu in the company of a travelling circus of hippies, drug casualties and social misfits, such as 'a bearded man with granny spectacles' called Nirvana Now who used to edit a poetry magazine titled Fuck Them All.
It's great fun. It's also a superbly observed bit of social satire, and if the claim that it's 'the first truly modern love story' is somewhat over-blown, it is at least a warm, nice kind of book to have around. I was particularly fond of the two central characters, our narrator and his friend from childhood, Fiona, who have a lovely line in the sort of nonsense that takes a lifetime to establish:
Not just a period piece - though its evocation of the era is superb - this is also a genuinely fine novel of great charm.
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: 5/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT: 4/5
see the Sunday Telegraph article from April 1965, that invented the marketing concept of Swinging London
Angus Hall, The Late Boy Wonder