Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes is the winner of the Diagram Prize for the year’s oddest title, followed by What Kind of Bean is this Chihuahua? and Collectible Spoons of the Third Reich.My vote had gone to Collectible spoons of the Third Reich. I was disappointed to see it come in behind a kids book (shouldn’t kids books be handicapped, like overly endowed racehorses, in a contest for odd titles?) but Horace Bent, custodian of the prize, more than made it up to me with these comments quoted in the The Bookseller's official announcement on March 26th:
"Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes proved to be the initial front runner. It defended its poll-topping position despite strong support for the spoon-carrying Third Reich, once again attempting to muscle in on someone else’s territory.
"But the public proclivity towards non-Euclidian needlework proved too great for the Third Reich to overcome. If only someone had let the Poles know in ’39.”
Titles have been on my mind recently. I finally got around to reading Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography of Bruce Chatwin, one of my favourite literary personalities since the times of In Patagonia, considered one of the great travel books, which it is, but not only. In Patagonia is the reason why, when we had to clear out my childhood home after my parents died, I put at the top of the list of the things I wanted the fragment of dinosaur egg which a student of my father’s had sent him from some dig somewhere in France, and which resided ever after on the dining room bookshelves amid H Rider Haggard books, family snapshots and rock samples. Those of you who have read In Patagonia will get it: it's my brontosaurus skin. If you haven't read it, do.
When I saw how thick Nicholas Shakespeare's book was, I was afraid that it might be one of those biographies like Norman Sherry’s magnum opus on Graham Greene, in which for every day of Mr. Greene’s life we are given such details as where he had tea and what kinds of cakes he had, or the postcard he sent to his colleague at The Times, and what room that colleague's office was in. But it wasn’t. In fact, 600 pages seemed the only length one could possibly use to close in – a bit – on someone as complicated, contradictory, elusive and talented as Bruce Chatwin.
I kept it on my bedside table and every night for about a month I’d pick it up and read ten or twenty pages wherever the book opened to, and every time there’d be a different -- how does Yeats put it, "the careless planets in their courses”. Loulou de la Falaise, Werner Herzog, Robert Mapplethorpe, Gregor von Rezzori, and so on and so on, and… a British film maker named Peter Adam, who wrote an autobiography with the fantastic title Not drowning but waving. Maybe it’s because I’m not English (I was told, as I went around the library enthusing, that it’s a common phrase in Britain) but for me this went right up on there on the best-ever autobiography titles list.
Who out there has played the game of 'What would be the title of your autobiography'? Back in my twenties I found this jewel in an old phrasebook for travellers and thought it could be mine: The lady wants hers with cream.
And now I’ve found a new one, for my prime. Danger vehicle exit lane. Driving into the Civic Car Park the other day I caught sight of this trenchant, punctuation free warning on a sign posted alongside the carriageway opposite mine. My first thought - I swear this is true - was that it was indicating an exit lane reserved for “danger vehicles” eg giant diggers and such. And it flashed through my mind that if they only knew, they’d be making me use that lane. This was a few days after I’d knocked off a hubcap on the approach to the Hopetown bridge. I had an image of my little white Vitz with its missing hubcap, like a tomcat with a torn ear, bursting out of the Danger vehicle exit lane into the night.
Which is my favourite autobiography title? Probably this one from the great adventurer Beryl Markham, the first person to fly solo over the Atlantic from east to west:
West with the night
At the library:
Bruce Chatwin by Nicholas Shakespeare
In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
West with the night by Beryl Markham