The great American writer John McPhee is approaching his 88th birthday, yet later this year, as per usual, he is scheduled to teach his long-running Creative Non-Fiction course at Princeton. On Mondays during the spring term, from 1:30pm to 4:20pm, he will tutor 16 lucky students in the art that he has spent much of his life trying to perfect. Alumni of the course include David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker and winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Lenin’s Tomb; Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation; and not one but two former managing editors of Time magazine, Richard Stengel and Jim Kelly.
Significantly, the course code is JRN 240/CWR 240 – that is, it can count towards a degree in either journalism or creative writing, and McPhee’s oeuvre expertly straddles the thin, contentious divide between the two. You always learn a lot when you read McPhee – he has a facts-per-paragraph strike rate that would put the sharpest newshounds to shame – yet somehow, no matter how uninterested you might be in the subject under discussion, you will almost always find yourself being entertained, such is his ability to excavate amusing anecdotes and intriguing nuggets of information and stitch them seamlessly together.
Last year, McPhee published Draft No. 4: On The Writing Process – a collection of essays in which he set out his writing philosophy for those not lucky enough to have been able to attend his Princeton seminars. The Patch could be seen as a companion piece: the theoretical framework of Draft No.4 put into practice.
The book is divided into two parts. The first, entitled “The Sporting Scene,” consists of long-form essays on fishing, golf, American Football, lacrosse and more. Don’t care about lacrosse? Doesn’t matter. You’ll still find yourself unexpectedly gripped by “Pioneer,” McPhee’s account of what happened in 2010 when his friend Bill Tierney decided to leave Princeton, where he’d coached the lacrosse team to six national championships, and head out west to take over the underachievers at the University of Denver. “Linksland and Bottle,” meanwhile, a report on the 2010 Open at St Andrews, will be of particular interest to Scottish readers, not least because it offers a mischievous outsider’s perspective on something that’s long been part of the country’s sporting landscape. Even serious golf nuts will likely learn a few things from reading it – and if not, they will still chuckle at his colourful descriptions of Vijay Singh’s painstaking playing style or the differences between the New Golf Club, the St Andrews Golf Club and the R&A.
The second section of the book, “An Album Quilt,” takes its name from a quilt in which all the pieces of fabric differ from each other. There are no complete articles here, just snippets, and as advertised they cover a bewildering range of styles and themes. One moment McPhee is at the Hershey chocolate factory in Pennsylvania, interviewing the company’s chief chocolate-taster, the next he is trying out altimeters in Fort Tryton Park, near the north end of Manhattan Island. He reminisces about heavy snowfalls in New Jersey and Alaska, offers an account of his daughter’s response to a school vocabulary test and mixes in razor-sharp extracts of profiles on Carey Grant, Sophia Loren, Richard Burton, Joan Baez, Peter Sellers and others. His account of the staff of the New York Times experimenting with an early word processor is a fascinating insight into a moment when the entire media universe shifted on its axis (“a tiny square of light, known as the ‘cursor,’ began to move up the face of the tube...”) but if there’s one piece that could be said to encapsulate his style, it’s his visit to the annual gathering of North American Mensa in Baltimore. Inquisitive and engaged, yet also respectful of his hyper-intelligent subjects even as he is mildly patronised by them, he still can’t resist concluding with the following line: “A [male Mensa member] spoke up sharply from the floor. ‘Are you suggesting that we hide our light under a blanket?’”
The Patch, by John McPhee, Text Publishing, 242pp, £10.99