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Any Human Heart

There are three topics on which I can bore for England: the joys of Martha Stewart Living magazine; how radio will always be the most important medium in the world; and why everyone should read William Boyd’s novel Any Human Heart and come to know its meandering hero, Logan Mountstuart.

I read the book on holiday in Tenerife, where it proved impossible to get hold of a copy of Martha Stewart – I don’t know why.

My partner Rick and I, and our son, Hector, were taking our first proper holiday since Hector’s birth. He was just 18 months old and was overjoyed at the prospect of a beach, sunshine that lasted longer than half an hour and being allowed chips for lunch most days.

Rick was delighted for all of the same reasons – and at having a plasma TV in our room so huge that the people on it were actually bigger than Hector.

The boys were happy. I was exhausted.

I didn’t want to read some enormous tome on the future of multiculturalism in a post-9/11 world. Nor did I want to read any crime fiction – my usual holiday staple. Worse still, I’d run out of autobiographies of people who have worked in radio (perhaps Tony Blackburn’s had been a read too far).

Then into my lap fell this fabulous book all about life.

I love its premise – explained so well by the title – that this is the journey of anyone with a heart. It’s not a book of twists and turns; it is about the pushes and shoves that life gives to its subject.

Born Logan Gonzago Mountstuart in 1906, in Montevideo, to an English corned beef executive and his Uruguayan secretary, our hero dies of heart failure 85 years later in 1991. Any Human Heart is the elliptical account of his life, and how his early promise as a writer subsides into a half-century of disappointment.

Logan’s journal mixes historical fact with huge washes of fiction and encompasses life at Oxford University and among the Bloomsbury set, the Wall Street crash and the Baader-Meinhof Gang, sojourns in New York, the Bahamas and West Africa, three marriages, and encounters with Edward and Mrs Simpson, Pablo Picasso and Ian Fleming.

He seems to show the bruises more than the famous people he bumps up against, largely because he is determined never to bow to anyone’s privilege or prestige. His stalwart nature is appealing, though at first I didn’t find him particularly sympathetic – in the early chapters, he comes across as a jumped-up public school boy.

But I soon came to adore him, as he drank and smoked his way across three continents, acquiring and losing many lovers along the way. What I admired so much was Boyd’s ability to capture a man’s world, which I have caught glimpses of, but will never really know. Fraternity permeates the book, but in the end proves to be of little solace to Logan.

Having begun in circumstances of privilege, his life takes a downward slide as he gets older. Whoops! Logan hasn’t bought the property portfolio, opted back into Serps and put away 10 per cent of his annual salary from an early age. Alistair Darling should place the book on the National Curriculum, particularly the chapter where Logan has to give up smoking and takes to eating dog food.

I read Any Human Heart at exactly the right time, and at the right age. It’s a book that makes you realise that you never get to choose where the punctuation marks will come in your own life.

My adored father had died just weeks before Hector was born. It had felt like a very low blow. But there was something in Any Human Heart that helped me to make sense of that. I am not sure I can really tell you what it is exactly – maybe just the simple truth that having endured one tragedy does not make you immune to the next.

That may sound rather masochistic, but just knowing it seemed to help.

I think of Any Human Heart often – the sign of a truly good book. I love that I read it on our first ever family holiday. We need more seats on the plane these days, and we’re almost at the point where we can leave the Bob the Builder DVDs at home.

Time marches on. And I can’t wait. God bless William Boyd.

Now – about radio . . .

“Any Human Heart” is published by Penguin (£7.99).
The broadcaster Fi Glover is chair of the judges for the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction. The winner will be announced at the Royal Festival Hall on 3 June