Excerpt from Fragrant Harbor by John Lanchester, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Fragrant Harbor

by John Lanchester

Fragrant Harbor
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2002, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2003, 352 pages

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"Can we go somewhere?"

For a split second I wondered if we had had sex at some point in the depths of the night before. No--I might be blurry on the details, but I was confident I'd remember that.

There was a crappy hotel with a crappy bar not far away. We went there and he ordered two Bloody Marys. By this time I found I could remember his name: Trevor.

"Feeling a bit rough," he said, playing with the swizzle stick. When he took the shades off, his eyes were bloodshot. We took his-and-her swigs of our drinks.

"Bit out of line last night," he said. "Thing is, I told you a couple of things I shouldn't have. You know. Real D-notice stuff. I'll have to ask you to keep it, er, them, under your, er, hat. I could lose my job."

He was having trouble with his tone. That last remark wasn't sure whether it wanted to be a plea or a threat. I put my hand on his wrist for a second.

"I won't breathe a word."

"Really?"

"Really."

"I can't tell you how grateful I am."

"Think nothing of it."

"I won't forget this."

He finished his drink. He looked at his watch.

"Well--"

"Don't let me keep you. Thanks for the drink."

"No, thank you."

He scuttled off.

I had then, and have still, no idea what secret he was talking about, but six weeks later I had a call from the diary editor of The Toxic, who had been at university with our Trev. He asked if I could send some clippings and "pop down to London for a chat." That was my first break.


Robin Robbins, diary editor of The Toxic, was the first posh person I ever got to know well. He had a posh person's affectation of using language that either exaggerated or minimized the amount of effort involved in doing something. In his world, people "strolled" over to the East End to cover a gangster's funeral, and "hurtled" to the stationery cupboard to get a new typewriter ribbon. To "pop" meant to take a six-hour round-trip to London by train, and to "chat" meant to undergo a job interview.

He took me to lunch. The restaurant was airy, light, noisy, and metropolitan. The waiters wore blue-and-white-striped aprons cut open across the back to show their bums. One of them flirted with me, which helped me to feel, albeit very faintly, as if I knew what was going on. Robin did a certain amount of Durham/Cardiff/Blackpool small talk, and asked me how I knew Berkowitz, who he said had "something terribly New York about him." (This meant that Berkowitz was Jewish.) Robin asked me what I thought about Princess Diana's dress sense. I called her Lady Diana and he corrected me by using the right locution without any emphasis. Something about him made me aware that for the first time in my life I was meeting someone who would genuinely, literally, given the right circumstances, sell his grandmother. It was an exciting feeling.

"What's the most important thing for any diary journalist?" Robin asked.

I thought: Self-hate. I said:

"Contacts!"

By the time we got to coffee he was talking about the job.

"The Diary is where new talent gets its first try on the paper. It's our nursery, our colts team, our apprentices' workshop. It's where most people started, present company included. As I said when I rang you, this is not a permanent job, as such. Three months, with the prospect of more work after if we get along, from your point of view as well as ours. By the end of that time you'll probably be my boss, or editing one of our rival papers."

And if it doesn't work out, tough shit. For my leaving do in Blackpool, we went to The Dead Brian and then drunk-drove dodgem cars.


The Diary was a gossip column, and the page--"Dexter Williams's Diary," after its notional founder--was the usual mix of anonymous innuendo and spite and half-truth, concentrating on the worlds of media, showbiz, politics, and the explosively burgeoning field of the famous-for-being-famous. Nothing wrong with that, you might well say, given that it's what the customers are known to want--and Toxic market research showed that Dexter was one of the first things the punters turned to in the morning. The trouble was, I hated everything about it. To get stories you needed contacts, and I didn't have any; plus, not having done anything like it before, I found that I couldn't bear the whole business of picking up fag ends, working stories up out of nothing, and all the rest. One of the ways in which people usually made a start as diarists was by shopping friends--i.e., taking things friends had told them in confidence and turning them into salable pieces. Posh people and people with London connections had a big head start.

Copyright 2002 by John Lanchester. All rights reserved. This book, or parts therof, may not be reproduced in any form without written permission.

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