18 JANUARY 1957, Page 14

12 A Goldfish's Farewell to his Bowl By STRIX I T

was great fun writing a book. One lived with It became a companion. It built an impal- pable crystal sphere around one of interests and ideas. In a sense one felt like a goldfish in a bowl; but in this case the goldfish made his own bowl. This came along everywhere with me. It never got knocked about in travelling, and there was never a moment when agreeable occupation was lacking. Either the glass had to be polished, or the structure extended or contracted, or the walls required strengthening.' Sir Winston Churchill, who thus recalls in My Early Life his sentiments when he was at work on,The River War, goes on to compare writing a book with building a house or planning a battle or painting a picture.

It is lucky for us', and for our descendants as well, that this great craftsman has continued to find pleasure in the tasks of authorship. But to one of these tasks I find a later reference puzzling. Did Sir Winston really enjoy correcting the proofs of the two 'massive' volumes of 'my magnum opus (up to date) upon which I had lavished a whole year of my life"?

It seems certain that he did correct them. He had had an unhappy experience with an earlier work, The Malakand Field Force. Being sta- tioned in India when he completed the MS, and anxious to avoid unnecessary delays ' ia pub- lication, he delegated the proof-reading to an uncle who, although 'a very brilliant man,' did his work so ill that the Athetueum called the end- product 'pages of Napier punctuated by a mad printer's reader': the ubiquitous misprints were responsible for the only note of reservation in the general acclaim.

He tells us that he did some midwifery On his second book : 'All the hard work was done and I was now absorbed in the delightful occupation of playing with the proofs.' It is a pleasing glimpse of the young Hussar who, after a tour of duty with the Lancers which ended at Omdurman, had embarked on his long, frequently interrupted, and partially successful masquerade as a civilian; but there comes a moment when the author must stop playing with his proofs, when the goldfish can no longer embellish the walls of his bowl, when the by now sickeningly familiar pages provide a. stern and anxious duty rather than a delightful occupation. All who have lived through this hour full of petty but irrevocable decisions (in which I live now) will be glad to know that it left no scars on the youthful Churchill. Having always a soft spot for small, inarticulate minorities, I will begin by explaining to those readers who have not yet written books them- selves that the first proofs you get from the printers are known, doubtless for some good reason, as 'galleys.' These are elongated strips of paper upon whose surface your jewelled prose seems to go on and on and on, producing on the eye much the same lack-lustre impression as it might gain from the less interesting reaches of the Basingstoke Canal. No especial problem is involved in correcting the galleys—unless, of course, after doing so you leave them in a place where they can be torn to shreds by your Labrador puppy. Anyone who is imbecile enough to do this has to start the whole job over again on a spare set of galleys which the far-sighted publisher provides, presumably against just such a contingency.

The next thing that happens is the arrival of page-proofs. These, since they look more or less like an actual book, though without any binding, present a less dispiriting appearance than the galleys. In my case, it is at this stage that grave doubts about one's basic qualifications as a writer begin to arise.

Until I started work on the page-proofs I had, without thinking very much about it, supposed myself the master of a vocabulary which, if not rich, was at least adequately diversified. But my publisher, a man of discrimination, tactfully drew my attention to a tendency for certain words and phrases to recur throughout my narrative; and when I looked into the matter I found that my style could be said to coruscate only in the sense in which this verb can be applied to the electric advertisements in Piccadilly Circus. The effects achieved—or strained after—were highly rePetitive. A rich vocabulary, indeed ! In 100,000 words I seemed to have relied almost exclusively on half a dozen adjectives : bleak, swift, feckless, chimerical, desoriente and far- flung. A few others had crept in here and there on sufferance; but the incessant intrusions of the Old Guard produced a mannered and mono- tonous effect.

* * Further blemishes revealed themselves in every branch of usage. What streak of ingrained pom- posity had made me write, again and again, 'It would seem' when all I meant was 'It seems'? Why did I keep on inserting, quite superfluously,. 'at the time' (it was believed in London at the time that)? Whence my extreme reluctance to .find English equivalents for foreign words like ignis Mutts and coup de main? Where did I pick up the bureaucratic infection which had' caused me to write 'adverse weather conditions' instead of 'bad weather'? Like a djinn materialis- ing out of a bottle, there emerged from the proofs a literary alter ego of a most unprepossessing kind.

Purged of their grosser solecisms, the page- proofs went back to the printer; and now I am wrestling with a revised set. This is my last chance. In a day or two the goldfish will be bereft of its bowl, and no more attempts to remedy defects in the glassware will be pOssible.

I enjoy playing patience, but not a patience that \\ ill never come out; to such a pastime correspond my endeavours to ensure that the illustrations (which for technical reasons can only be inserted after pages which are multiples of sixteen) appear in roughly apposite sections of the text. The 300- odd pages, each of which now bores me till I could scream, are littered with unsatisfactory compromises. This frightful book deals with the last war. How, in writing about the Germans, can one be consistent in italicising the names of their organisations?

Gestapo is surely part of the lingua franca of twentieth-century civilisation; to put it in italics would be as unnatural and affected as to pro- nounce Paris in the way the French do. Yet Abwehr and Sicherheitsdienst, which were strictly comparable organs of the Nazi State, clearly demand italics. If you write Flihrer, must you write Goring? And Gobbels? For these bleak and far-flung problems, chimerical if not actually feckless solutions will have (it would seem) to be found—and swiftly—by the ddsoriente author.

But at least in a few days a process which only an exceptionally buoyant personality could describe as 'the delightful occupation of playing with the proofs' will be over : unless indeed Sealion once more gets his teeth into them, and I have to start all over again.

This, however, is not a likely contingency, the puppy's savoir-faire and deportment having improved since he chewed up the galleys. Even if it occurs, it can only postpone the inevitable. I suspect that I, like other goldfish, will miss the shelter of my brittle bowl when it has gone off, ahead of me, on the path towards oblivion.