WHAT BOOK would wine writer Hugh Johnson take to a desert island?
- Hugh Johnson is currently reading The Boundless Sea by David Abulafia
- UK-based writer would take The Michelin Road Atlas Of France to a desert island
- He said Hilary Mantel is among the authors who’ve left him cold
…are you reading now?
The Boundless Sea by David Abulafia — he is one of the famous historians at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.
He tells, in broad strokes and pin-sharp detail, the story of how humanity has crossed the oceans to explore, trade and fight, from Polynesians navigating across the Pacific to Chinese junks in Persia to Vikings in Greenland. It is the story of how different cultures, different civilisations, first met and interacted. A big book, full of surprises. I can open it at any page and be engrossed in his incredible scholarship and vivid narrative.
Hugh Johnson (pictured) would take The Michelin Road Atlas Of France to a desert island
…would you take to a desert island?
The Michelin Road Atlas Of France, the big one where you drive all morning to cross two pages, so that I could remember and plot the kind of back-road touring that motorways have almost banished.
Hovering over the coasts and mountains, the Alps and Brittany, the villages and chateaux of the whole of France in exquisite detail can keep me happy for hours. Beautiful roads are highlighted on the map in green; towns with somewhere good to eat have their names in red. Perfect escapism; total holiday.
And all Patrick O’Brian’s naval novels. Watching the America’s Cup reminded me of his accounts of sea-fights, where sails are your only power, when getting to windward of the enemy is vital, a matter of life and death. He speaks (or rather writes) perfect period dialogue, the way the officers and sailors spoke, often under the stress of battle, and his plots are page-turners.
He carries me straight back to Nelson’s navy — a passion of mine. I once tried for the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, but my eyesight wasn’t good enough.
Hugh said almost any P G Wodehouse novel gave him the reading bug
…first gave you the reading bug?
First? Maybe Arthur Ransome. I’ll read anything, down to a bus ticket, but heaven is Right Ho, Jeeves, or almost any P G Wodehouse novel when he’s writing about Jeeves and Wooster, or the barmy inhabitants of Blandings Castle, or young love on the golf course, or child actors in Hollywood, or Chicago gangsters out of their depth in French seaside resorts. I have them all, about 100.
He went off the boil for a while in the 1950s, but his best writing (especially to a writer like me) has a nimble precision and a range of references greater than anyone since Shakespeare. He can cheer me out of a grey mood, and I often read a few pages of Wodehouse before I sit down to write myself, to get lift-off.
The writing I admire most is the Book Of Common Prayer. This is elemental English, precise, concise and poetic. No surprise it is contemporary with Shakespeare.
…left you cold?
Hilary Mantel, and authors like her who overwrite, and clog up their stories with description and contextual explanations. But then I look at the bulk of any novel and choose the slim ones. Sadly, it puts Dickens and most 19th-century novels out of bounds. I’m hooked on brevity. (See my Pocket Wine Book).
The Story Of Wine by Hugh Johnson is out now (Académie du Vin Library £30).
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