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Sappho In Absence

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Collins, London, 1970
(hardback price: 25s; 192 pages)

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.'
Why did Sappho Constant leave her brilliant, witty husband Gerald, a secure social position in gay London, a lovely Chelsea home, to dance named in a sleazy Off Broadway revue, and take the dysentery-ridden hippy trail across Central Asia? Gerald chases her halfway round the world to find out, taking with him Fiona, his nursery friend and temporary mistress. In Istanbul, a blonde teeny freak who was sixteen but used to be much older rapped on about the Oneness of the Universe; in Ankara, Hippetty Hotpants sold herself for thirty Turkish pounds to any passing Turk; the flying saucers were thick in Tabriz; in Darpa it was fuzz; in Beshawa floods. And in the end, on a Himalayan mountain top, Gerald Constant found the answer to his riddle.
In this witty, poignant novel, John Crosby catches the flavour of the hippies' world: the idealism, the futility, the hopelessness. Out of today's swiftly changing social scene, he has written the first truly modern love story.

opening lines:
We were discussing nymphomania on Leolia Heathcote's lawn at four o'clock Sunday afternoon one unusually warm October day and I was saying that nymphomania was getting to be as fashionable with contemporary authors as virginity with the Victorians and that neither contemporary nor Victorian authors knew what they were talking about.

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:

He was dressed in flamboyantly pop style - an armless sheepskin waistcoat over a purple silk shirt with a mandarin collar on which were emblazoned in gold thread Etruscan horses and Greek nymphs. The trousers were burnt orange and the shoes were of orange patent leather with gold buckles. (p.11)

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:

'I had a full, rich childhood.'
'I thought it was unhappy.'
'Full, rich and unhappy. That's why I have this doomed look. You haven't noticed my doomed look.'
'I have! I have! It's very becoming. You should wear it over one eye. Like this.' I showed her.
'That was last year,' said Fiona. 'This year they're wearing the doomed look at the back of the head like this - and breasts are coming back.'
'I didn't know they'd been away.' (p.84)

Not just a period piece - though its evocation of the era is superb - this is also a genuinely fine novel of great charm.

John Crosby
John Crosby


see the Sunday Telegraph article from April 1965, that invented the marketing concept of Swinging London
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