HOW TO DISAPPEAR: A Memoir for Misfits
By Duncan Fallowell
Reviewed by Graeme Aitken
Duncan Fallowell is best known as a travel writer, but in this new book his travels merge into biography as he explores the lives of various individuals who chose to ‘disappear’. The most fascinating piece investigates Alastair Graham, the one-time intimate of Evelyn Waugh, who was the basis for the famous character Sebastian Flyte (Brideshead Revisited). By chance, in the late 1970s, Fallowell encounters Graham in a pub in New Quay. The conversation drifts onto books and Evelyn Waugh, and Graham makes the curious and tantalising remark that Waugh wasn’t ‘well-endowed’. However, it isn’t until some months later that Fallowell realises who he has encountered. Two more years pass, a friend starts directing the Brideshead Revisited television series, and Fallowell takes a renewed interest in Graham. He does some research and returns to New Quay, only to be fobbed off by Graham. Then in 1983, Alastair Graham dies, ‘taking his secrets with him’. Frustrated but not defeated, Fallowell gradually begins to uncover the enigma of this elusive man through research and a great deal of pestering people, something he is very adept at!
The other characters that Fallowell becomes captivated by include Bapsy Pavry, the Dowager Marchioness of Winchester, an aggressive and relentless social climber in colonial India; and Maruma, a German artist, who buys the Scottish island of Eigg on a whim and excites the local population into expecting a transformation of their community. The transformation and also the promised visit by Maruma both fail to eventuate.
Fallowell is a superb writer – witty, erudite, and dogged in his pursuit of his story – and this book is unique and utterly beguiling. He illuminates the lives of some obscure but fascinating people and places with great charm and an individual, informed voice. How to Disappear won the 2012 PEN/Ackerley Prize and it is an honour that is richly deserved.
I first encountered Duncan Fallowell when I read his book Going as Far as I Can. As a New Zealander, I was curious about what he had written, but to be frank, didn’t expect to think much of his book. However, I ended up being highly impressed by the author – the obscure places he went to, his depth of knowledge, and the accuracy of his observations.
A bequest from a friend enables travel writer Duncan Fallowell to set off as far as he can go – to New Zealand – to write a new book. Fallowell is especially interested in Viven Leigh and Lawrence Olivier’s tour of New Zealand in 1948 with the Old Vic Theatre Company, a tour which saw Olivier end up in hospital. Fallowell is determined to discover where they performed, stayed, and who they met – and proves to be quite intrepid in tracking any leads down. He’s also interested in other artistic types who lived in New Zealand such as philosopher Karl Popper (he wrote his most famous work in Christchurch), and the writers Katherine Mansfield and Anna Kavan. Fallowell is appalled to discover that many of New Zealand’s most beautiful buildings have been knocked down and isn’t particularly impressed with any of the major cities – though he does hire a very amenable male prostitute in Christchurch which redeems the place somewhat! Fallowell proves to be an extremely well-informed, curious, and witty guide. As well as relating his travels and impressions, he throws in plenty of literary/theatrical/gay gossip and obscure historical detail. Fallowell is opinionated but also very knowledgeable and an astute observer. He makes some bold statements about the country and its people but by and large, he’s entirely spot-on.
Sadly, Going as Far as I Can is now out of print and there isn’t even an ebook version available. Hopefully, one will be forthcoming at some point, along with editions of his other work. In the meantime, I highly recommend How to Disappear to you. This new paperback edition was published in August 2013 in the UK.