Thursday, 9 February 2012


There's always one book I never go anywhere without - it's not that it's a talisman as such, more that I don't know of a time when I haven't felt better for having it to hand.  It's rather unlikely, being, as it's own author describes it, nothing more than the "annals of an ancient actor."

I first read David Niven's "The Moon's a Balloon" when in the sixth form.  One of the advantages of spending half your life on a train to or from school, as well as being able to read reasonably quickly, was that you certainly got through a lot of lengthy books.  The Crowthers of Bankdam, which would now probably be regarded, if it is remembered at all, as a deeply unfashionable sub-Galsworthy saga, is one that has stayed wih me particularly clearly: the politics of a nineteenth century mill-owning dynasty in northern England is not perhaps obvious reading matter for your average seventeen year old public school boy, but I was never one for convention....

Anyway, back to Mr Niven.  I remember being struck at the time by how much he managed to pack into his life - representing Britain in yachting; war hero; oscar winner; womaniser; Errol Flynn's flatmate.  If you're at an impressionable age, a chap can dream about his future as all of those (except the last one, obviously).  I think I read it in about half a day, and was left slightly bereft at the end of it.  I think the key thing is that Niv was such a good story teller.  I wasn't in the least upset when reading Graham Lord's later biography to discover that some of the anecdotes were "embroidered," there was always enough of the truth in them to mean that you could forgive the exaggerations as just helping to make the smile on your face that bit broader.

I'm not going to give you a great stream of examples, except to say that the story of how he eventually broke into Hollywood, aboard a replica of HMS Bounty into which he had been decanted off the coast of California after a particularly boozy night aboard HMS Norfolk, sets the tone for the whole book - imbued as it is with an utterly infectious joie de vivre.

Since that first reading 13 years ago my battered copy of this great little book has made it's way through my training at Dartmouth; been on deployment to the Red Sea, the Falklands, Antarctica, and, admittedly without me, travelled to the Gambia from Oxford in the back of an ambulance.....  Quite simply, it's a wonderful thing to have around, and there's not much excuse for not reading it as soon as you get a minute.

It will make your life a little bit better.

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