“When I was 18 I took a bus to Lisbon – you used to do that back in the day. Magic Bus from a dusty parking lot next to Gloucester Road tube – I think it cost £25. I had an army surplus kitbag, some hash stashed inside a toothpaste tube – you picked apart the end of the tube with plyers, shoved in the dope, then rolled it up as if it was half used – and John Fowles’s The Magus. I’d liked Fowles’s other books (The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Collector, and so on), while not exactly viewing them as belonging to the literary bon ton – more, I suppose, what would nowadays be called a “guilty pleasure”. Anyway, the bus, for those of us of extended height, was waaay uncomfortable – but the Fowles did its job of nullifying the bumps and bashes.
“I can’t remember that much about it, except that it was all about some young, romantic, sex-obsessed man and how his cruel and feckless treatment of a lovely girl – in the Father Ted sense – was punished by the eponymous Magus with a series of real-life psycho-dramas staged in the Cyclades. It was – if I remember rightly – one of those books with huge narrative pulsion, and I couldn’t stop reading. I read to the Channel, I read on the ferry, I read south on the autoroute, I read through the Pyrenees, I read through Spain. I arrived in Lisbon and read all night in a fleapit hotel. I entrained for the south and read on the train. I arrived at the Algarve and walked along a cliff, reading. I got the toothpaste tube out, unrolled it, got out the hash, skinned up, lit up, and finished the book on a high that then plummeted. There I was: not in the Cyclades being punished for sexual amorality, but in Portugal being approached by a German hippy for a toke. A German hippy who then strummed “Stairway to Heaven” on his guitar and suggested I sing along.”