Recycling old newspaper stories between hard covers is a risk few publishers are willing to take. But Anthony Holden, his old boss Harold Evans writes in the preface to this book, is one of Britain's best and brightest. Still under 40, he already has amassed credentials that alone can withstand the test of time.
A graduate in English at Oxford, where he edited the undergraduate magazine, Holden is the author of "Aeschylus's Agamemnon"; "Greek Pastoral Poetry"; "The St. Albans Poisoner"; and a biography of Prince Charles. He was first in the proficiency examinations run by the National Council for the Training of Journalists. His apprenticeship on a provincial paper got him named Young Journalist of the Year. He has been a reporter for the London Sunday Times, and author of its noted back-page "Atticus" column -- a post once held by Ian Fleming. (His farewell column, entirely in heroic couplets, is reprinted in the book -- an experience you may have to be British to enjoy.) He spent three years in Washington as the Observer's chief correspondent, returned to England to be features editor of The Times under Evans, but spun out even before his boss did after Rupert Murdoch took command.
So, for the culturally deprived nonreaders of the British press, Holden's decade in Fleet Street gives a quick overview of a star reporter at work, and a catch-up course in the fare that the other English-speaking people are faced with along with their morning tea.
For me, reading doggedly from front to back, the experience was less dazzling than I'd been led to expect. The reports are gathered in clumps that keep you bouncing back and forth across the decade, putting your time frame out of whack. Some events are so old you forget they happened at all. (Remember the Spanish Sahara? That was 1975.) To grasp the poker essays, you'd have to play the game.
The book begins with a 1979 account of President Carter campaigning along the Mississippi aboard the Delta Queen. The lead seems buried somewhere under paragraph three; the episodes are unmemorable; the conclusion ("Jimmy Carter played chopsticks on the Calliope as Lebanon burned") has been bypassed by events.
On the other hand, the account that follows (but was written earlier), in which Holden accompanies British Prime Minister Callaghan to India and comes down with the mumps, has many charms -- especially as the potential of his disease begins to dawn.
"In the past week I had not only spent my entire time around the Prime Minister and his most senior staff (not to mention the cream of Fleet Street), I had shaken hands and conversed with General Zia-ur Rahman, President of Bangladesh, and eighty-two-year-old Morarji Desai, Prime Minister of India. In between came countless diplomats and senior politicians of all three nationalities. What might I have done to the new-found stability of South Asia?" (We also learn in passing that Jimmy Carter's trip to the region had been advanced by a party of 184; the British prime minister's by a team of three.)
The pieces about Prince Charles, scattered here and there about the book, show a special understanding of the princely predicament, from the ordeals of choosing a bride to the search for a meaningful life. Charles "is likely to spend many more years as Prince than as King," Holden notes. "He is proud, in his way ambitious, and anxious to carve himself a place in history. But how on earth is he to do it?"
We first encounter the prince as he flies across Canada, "with his private secretary, his press secretary, his private secretary's private secretary, his equerry, his air attache', his police officer, his valet, and the Premier of Alberta." Holden is back in the economy section, "with 300 package tourists, four malfunctioning toilets and a headache."
Holden is part of the scene, you find, in most of the events he reports. When the device works, he detaches himself from the herd and delivers sharp and intelligent insights other reporters have missed. When it doesn't, you get entangled in the news that the bags under Prince Charles' eyes "are heavier and blacker, which must mean his job is almost as tiring as mine."
In some of the profiles, Holden becomes a sort of pivot point around which the person revolves. "Sir Harold Wilson did me his (rather good) Stanley Holloway impersonation" is one opener. "Frank Sinatra . . . stares at me hard, then turns to play a fruit machine," runs another. To interview William Styron, he sits with him "on the verandah, splitting a jug of Bloody Mary, gazing serenely across the bay to Hyannis and Cape Cod."
There is a sort of groupie tone here that assumes a rapt and loyal following, which, one gathers, "Atticus" had -- including the queen herself. For an outsider, unfamiliar with the family jokes, it takes getting used to. Not everyone will be equal to the task.