For him, writing is rooted in the physical world rather than the abstract chambers of the intellect. Fittingly, then, Crace wanted to discuss "Tinker, Tailor," a fortune-telling rhyme that's inextricably bound to the land, to food, to dinner and the dining table. He notes that the rhyme's subversive power resonates in many literary works—and counts A. A. Milne, John Le Carré, Virginia Woolf, J. M. Coetzee, Michael Ondaatje, Neil Gaiman, Tom Waits, and Noel Coward among those who have borrowed from it in some way. To explain its power on him, though, he had to tell a story from his boyhood about stealing and eating a neighbor's damson plums—and how the forbidden fruit, and the rhyme associated with it, entered him and became like a part of his physical body.
Jim Crace's novel Quarantine (1997) was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, and mathematical scientists at Cambridge have studied the beguiling rhythmic patterns in his prose. His latest book, Harvest, is a tale about the way outside forces rupture communal life in a rural English town. The author spoke to me by phone from his home near Birmingham, England.
Jim Crace: I was brought up in a flat in North London—virtually the last building in London, because north of us was countryside all the way to the coast, and south of us was non-stop London for 20 miles.
My father had an allotment there, a small garden that we rented to grow our own vegetables. And next to that was a farm. My father used to send me and my brother across to a row of damson trees on the farmland. The trees hung thick with damsons that were sitting there not getting picked.
So we would do this—do you know the verb "to scrump"? It's an English word that basically means to steal apples, but also has come to mean to steal any type of fruit. My father would send us across to scrump the damsons. Of course, in a way, it wasn't truly theft: The fruit would have rotted if we didn't take it. But really, it was theft. We were trespassing on a farmer's land, and we were stealing from him.
Even though my brother and I loved scrumping—we loved the act of climbing trees and grabbing fruit—there was always fear we would be caught. We feared we'd be imprisoned, sent to Australia. You know how you are when you're a kid? We were terrified and excited by it at the same time.
The story didn't end there, because we'd take the damsons back home. My mom would bottle them—and all through the winter we'd have damson pie. In our generation in England, you'd have damson pie for Sunday lunch. You'd get your portion of pie, and as you'd get through it, the pips—the stones in the center of the fruit—would end up in your mouth. You'd take them out and place them on the tablecloth in front of you, and they'd remain on the table before you throughout the meal. Then at the end, you could make a little rhyme:
Rich man, Poor Man
Beggar man, Thief.
We used this around the table to tell our fortunes. Eight men—and you'd count off for each pip you had, stopping when you ran out, looping around to the beginning if you had more than eight. Every single one of the choices would be invite you to have a little imaginative spree. If you had five of these stones, you could think for a few minutes think about being a rich man. And how close you'd come to being a poor man.