Party Like Bilbo
May 26, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Alan Hollinghurst is sixty today.
I was rather a goody-goody as a child. I hated the idea of being in the wrong and dreaded being punished. Everyone at my prep school was being beaten by the headmaster with the back of a hairbrush round the clock, and I was keen to avoid that. It was only later on I discovered that you could be naughty and get away with it.
What were you reading at that age?
There was a bizarre library at the school that had a lot of old-fashioned children’s adventure books by G. A. Henty and R. M. Ballantyne. I got very involved with Rider Haggard—I still have the tie-in paperback for the film of She with a picture of Ursula Andress on the front, “the most beautiful woman in the world.” I also became an avid collector of a series called The Pan Book of Horror Stories, edited by Herbert Van Thal. I still have these as well, and the gruesome covers take me back—the whole atmosphere of the school suddenly closes in on me when I look at them.
In my school reports, one of the masters was worried about this “macabre reading,” but by the following year, I had discovered Tolkien, with whom I became totally obsessed. I read The Lord of the Rings over and over. I made charts of the kings of Rohan and so on. I used to write letters to my friends in dwarfish runes. The English master took a dim view of this and made me read Barchester Towers as an antidote, when all I wanted to do was to get back to Bilbo Baggins’s eleventy-first birthday party for the seventh time. I’ve never been able to read Trollope since.
—Alan Hollinghurst, the Art of Fiction No. 214