Aquatic Englishmen

It can be fun to see ourselves as others see us. Here Donald Hall's Romanian hosts are baffled by and despair of his apparent attachment to water. “It is no good,” grumbled Nicolaie.  “He is an Englishman.  He loves water. In England it rains all the time.  Even here...

Why vampires exist

You've been wondering, of course, whether vampires exist, and now you know that they do, and you know why. May you be spared their soul-drying proximity. “So long as there are people on earth there will be vampires.” “Why?” “Because there will always be some who dry...

Books hidden, books found

Armenians seemed to be particularly adept at averting bibliocide.  Some cultures, threatened with bibliocide, committed books to memory. The Armenians, apparently successfully committed to memory the whereabouts of hidden books and then transmitted that memory over...

Hoovering up ideas

There's such a zest to this account of the Armenian approach to dealing with invaders: translate everything you can get your hands on, regardless of your relationship with other nations or cultures. As for Mashtots, inventor of the Armenian alphabet, he should perhaps...

Fuel for the body or mind?

Book burning, or bibliocide, is usually something we associate with ideologues, political or religious, fearful of the free flow of ideas.  Here it is a bibliophile scholar who burns them as the only source of fuel during a wartime winter. Note the way he selects some...

Imagination as nothing and everything

I have this sense of duality, of things being ‘at once nothing and everything’, in many regards, not only that of imagination. The details of our lives, by which I mean the tender, joyous, beloved details, are ‘at once nothing and everything'. Our personal, quiet...

One breaks into the canon only by aesthetic strength, which is constituted primarily of an amalgam: mastery of figurative language, originality, cognitive power, knowledge, exuberance of diction.  

Source: The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, Harold Bloom (London: Macmillan, 1995), p. 29

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Trauma recollects forward

Harold Bloom refers here to Esther in Dickens’ Bleak House. I’ve been turning over in my mind his statement that ‘trauma recollects forward’, and that being tempted to weep at love and kindness is a sign of life, of not being ‘caught in death in life’. May your cup...

Play more, work better

Of course, playing more with a view to working better isn’t going about it in the right spirit.  But play more, yes, and incidentally you’ll probably work better. You won’t be as stressed, your imagination will limber up, you might even do a bit of laughing, which...

Tell stories, ask questions

David Boyle teases out the limitations of measurement and statistics in capturing the complexities of human happiness and well-being. I like his two healthy antidotes to numbers running riot to the detriment of meaningful human exchange: tell stories and ask difficult...

Seeing your own absurdity

Elizabeth Goudge is, in my view, one of the best children’s writers of all time, and I discovered her as a so-called grown-up. Her writing is full of wisdom wrapped in wit and wryness. Here is a fresh consideration of the value of reading fairy tales – to allow you to...

A box of mysteries

A novel reason for taking fairy tales seriously. Beyond their charm and imagination, they have an added bonus of reminding us that the universe is jam-packed full of things beyond our ken.  Keeps you humble. “And don’t you dare to disparage fairy tales. A fairy tale,...

Company for breakfast

A breakfast meeting that’s a far cry from the croissant and orange juice business versions that have crept into our world.  Somehow we tend to invite people for lunch or dinner, but breakfast has its own charm.  I have some cards and postcards featuring paintings of...

For morning lovers

I love mornings, particularly bright ones, and the magic of getting up early, especially when it’s light at five.  If I miss such a morning, I feel I’ve missed a chance at enchantment.  In winter, I still get a kick out of stealing a march on the day, but am at the...

Was I all right, love?

We watched a documentary about the down to earth English singer Kathleen Ferrier (1912-53) who died of cancer. She was stoical beyond belief and during one of her final opera performances managed to signal to the others on stage that she was unable to move and that...

Hands and feet

Durrell captures the raw effects of hard physical labour on the hands and feet of the peasants he met in Greece in the 1930s.  We sometimes forget the physical hardship of past lives, even among the wealthier classes.  Reading the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth,...

Tyranny and complexity

Years ago I visited a friend in his office and found this quotation tacked to his door (I think it was his door). I stumbled across it in my treasure trove of quotations, and it seems to ring worryingly true at the moment. ‘The essence of tyranny is the denial of...

Complexity into simplicity does go

I can imagine Churchill weighing up the complexities of the European political landscape in the 1930s and drawing some simple conclusions. He was ringing alarm bells about Hitler as early as 1936 (as were some prescient cartoonists). ‘Out of intense complexities,...

Rules and writers

Nikos Kazantzakis, best known as the author of Zorba the Greek, pretty much wipes the floor with literary theorists, quite unjustly in many ways.  But sometimes it may be necessary to break a few rules in quest of creativity. That said, I am ambivalent about this bold...

Time and poets

This summary of where Mandelstam places the poet versus the ‘man of letters’ on the time spectrum intrigues me.  Yes, there are poets who converse with readers waiting in the future: Homer and Keats come to mind.  But there are also poets who write for their own time,...

Rules and readers

Many of us have been in situations where vague ‘conventions’ are cited, the unwritten rules governing this or that realm. Sometimes I have sensed that ‘convention’ was a fig-leaf for ‘convenience’. The purveyors and guardians of such conventions aren’t always able to...

Hand of kindness

This is a wonderful novel with some striking characters.  I liked this little kid crying and eating bread at the same time, and the kindness of the giant man who takes his hand, and the hand feeling like bread to the small boy.  If we held their hands more, there’d be...

Voice of compassion

Fanny Burney, a strong, independent minded writer from the eighteenth century, served for a while at the court as a kind of lady-in-waiting to the queen.  The job, which sounds a doddle, was actually oppressive and stressful since the queen didn’t have any sense of...

A pilgrim’s path

Luiz and I have talked about taking some long walks or bike rides and even doing a stretch of the Compostela walk. But for a real pilgrimage, there can sometimes be a sense of loss when you reach the end, a ‘what now?’ mixed in with relief and joy.  Similarly with...

From one artist to another

You don’t have to agree with this side-swipe to appreciate its pithiness. ‘What a genius, that Picasso,’ he said.  ‘It’s a pity he doesn’t paint.’   Source: Marc Chagall, quoted in Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1966),...

Reading as grand occasion

This is Machiavelli and I like the way he treats reading as a majestic occasion, leaving aside his working clothes and getting rigged up in his brocaded best before diving into four hours of reading.  Clearly, I really need to up my game on the sartorial front,...

Worse than cocaine

If you were traversing the Soviet Union it was better to be caught with a kilo of cocaine than a book. Let alone a book in English. ‘Worst of all are the books.  What a curse to be traveling with a book!  You could be carrying a suitcase of cocaine and keep a book on...

In quest of lost libraries

For me the world of books and libraries has a shadow world of those lost or destroyed.  Surely someone could write a novel about them? Meanwhile it is amazing how much survives, neither lost, burned, soaked nor nibbled by worms.  But I wonder about the ghosts of...

What is reading for?

A wonderful quotation about what reading can do for and to us. Not a question of clocking up facts or notches on a cultural scorecard, but some deeper effect on who we are and how we respond to the world. ‘What does it matter how cultivated and up to date we are, or...

Department of Exceptions

‘All good publishers have a department of exceptions.’ Perhaps any institution worth its salt should have a department of exceptions: schools admissions offices, human resources departments, government ministries. Trouble is, it takes great extra dollops of judgement,...

Why read literature?

‘Why read literature? Because it enriches life in ways that nothing else quite can. It makes us more human.’ I'm all for being more human. By the way, John Sutherland's book is wonderfully clear and unpretentious.   Source: John Sutherland, A Little History of...

In praise of the slow, the deep and the difficult

Reading this, I am trying to figure out how to ‘restore the positive perception of certain almost lost qualities’ that Manguel describes.  That said, I sense that while we are sometimes readily seduced by the ‘vaunted virtues of the quick and easy’, many relish the...

My kind of typewriter

This extraordinary piece of engineering allowing a polyglot to spin between four languages and keyboards.  Manual typewriters, mind, not bits of software. ‘Zarian possesses an extraordinary typewriter which enables him, by simply revolving the bed of type, to write in...

Letters on a clothes line

Picasso seems to have had an ambivalent relationship to letters.  He tortured himself by reading tirades from his ex-wife, and here, suspends letters in full view, like clothes on a line, to reproach himself.  For what?  For whatever they accused him of, or for simply...

Cosmic understatement

On Saturday we visited the permanent exhibition at CERN near Geneva.  Among the exhibits they had some sound-pods, armchairs that enveloped you while you listen to an audio guide available in four languages.  These weren’t necessarily  translations of each other, so...

Understatement – not a bad idea

At the CERN permanent exhibition we saw a display of Tim Berners-Lee’s one-page proposal for an information management system that a few tweaks and iterations later became the World Wide Web.  We liked the low-key handwritten encouragement at the top of the page:...

Understatement – on being Jewish

Imré Kertesz’ novel revolves around a slightly unhinged hero, but given he survived Auschwitz only to end up in another totalitarian sanity-warp, he’s actually rather grounded.   Source: Kaddish for an Unborn Child, Imre Kertész, trans. Tim Wilkinson (New York:...

Understatement – dead or alive?

Jane Austen is a fount of wryness.  Here she is playfully, gently breaking some bad news of the state of some trees to their owner:  ‘I will not say your mulberry trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive.’   And if you liked these examples of...

A paean to paper

When developing this website, I created the Paper Shaper category to celebrate this wondrous material.  This lengthy praise of paper by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer about sums it up, referring to many of the main touch points, literally and figuratively, of...

Letters better late than never

The war-time life-line of letters is summed up here. Their erratic arrival in a region of Italy where the battle front moved back and forth like a changeable weather front, with allied soldiers passing through under cover, sometimes asking only for a glimpse of a map...

Poetry as plough

Elsewhere Mandelstam connects poetry to recall.  Here it is a time-turning plough, bringing the deepest layers of time to the surface. And, you could add, enriching the present by turning it over with old soil, aerating both. ‘Poetry is the plow that turns up time so...

Poetry as connector

Since good poetry (good writing, for that matter) transcends time, I liked this phrase of Molly Peacock, a Canadian poet, that ‘poetry exists against time’, together with the ‘indiscriminate gusto’ it permits her in traversing poetic landscapes near and far, across...

It’s New Year’s Day – call someone!

This made me laugh on the one hand – a funny image to receive a phone call from a dog – but it also made me think about loneliness, which is always accentuated at times of togetherness, such as New Year.  So, let me wish you a happy new year, and encourage you to pick...

A simple summary of perfection

  Grossman has a simplicity and clarity to his writing and I like his definition of perfection, not as an absence of flaws, but as an expression of the essential. I am also intrigued by the notion that it is ‘always democratic … always generally accessible’....

Roll your own, but don’t swallow them

Dr Gibson, the wry Scottish hero of this best of Gaskell novels, suffers a series of underwhelming apprentices, often to give them a start in life at the request of their parents. Here we have a father about to hand over his son to Dr Gibson’s care, and concerned that...

OK in bits, but not on the whole

This is a classic case of ‘damning with faint praise’.  The individual’s component bits just made it to ‘very nice’ but somehow failed to add up to anything other than dullness. ‘It’s difficult to say.  I think he’s very nice in all his bits, but rather dull on the...

A cut above the rest

The clear-cut class divide wasn’t as neat and sharp as the speaker’s comments imply.  In fact, there was some fluidity across class bounds in the case of women being attracted to this handsome man, land-agent or not. ‘I never think whether a land-agent is handsome or...

People of education

Of course, the reproving stepmother has only a social gloss of education, while the girl she criticizes has the deeper learning and the more impressive intellect, and a naturalness that allows her to use colloquialisms. ‘… Proverbs and idioms are never used by people...

Librarian as satrap

Having known nothing but kindness among librarians, this striking description of a martinet guarding his books almost at the point of a gun is memorable.  Hard to relax and tuck in to your chosen tome, if you’re being glowered at by the gamekeeper. ‘Readers are forced...

Thoughts on the physiology of reading

As conveyors of ideas and knowledge, books have a wondrous physicality to them, more individual the longer they are in circulation. I love the accretions of ownership in secondhand books – the name in the flyleaf, some odd scribbles inside the back cover, a bus ticket...

Poetry as recall

Slowly I’m building a collection of quotations defining poetry.  With a few more in the bag, we can lay them all out and see what it looks like.  This one has had me thinking: composing poetry as a recollection of things that haven’t yet been uttered.  Could that...

Gift-bearing ambassadorial winds

Having a love of Persian poetry, known only through translation, and of Chinese poetry, engaged with tentatively and carefully in its original spareness, I loved this embroidered, sweeping, generous sentence. May you be blessed with gift-bearing ambassadorial winds...

How to unlock a door

This is a curious and endearing account of the cleverness (aesthetic and psychological) of a child of two artists.  Claude, the son of Picasso and Françoise Gilot, managed to break down his mother’s resistance to being disturbed during a crucial moment of creativity,...

Fewer means, greater mastery

Further thoughts on creative constraint.  In this case, it seems a question of simplifying what you work with, to yield a more concentrated mastery of fewer moving parts.  And the notion of ‘strength in reserve’ reminds me of some advice I received from my finest...

Caught in your own time

Time is a theme which enthralls me, in particular the extent to which we are shaped by our time (century, generation, whatever), and the extent to which we can transcend it.  So I was struck by this comment of Picasso’s, especially coming from someone widely...

When restraint liberates invention

Although this refers to art, it seems the same in other forms of invention: there is sometimes a curious connection between constraint, without constriction, and creativity. ‘Then, too, forcing yourself to use restricted means is the sort of restraint that liberates...

Language as refreshing as fresh-brewed tea

Such a fresh image to describe how a foreign language makes you feel.  Here, a refreshing, fragrant black tea chucked into a teapot. Doesn’t it make you want to invite some Armenians for tea and let them talk?   ‘There was some fine water boiling in a pewter...

Jangling the keys of your language

A lovely way to signal a pride and enjoyment of one’s language, a linguistic version of jangling your Ferrari keys so everybody knows what a cool car you drive.   ‘These are people who jangle the keys of their language even when they are unlocking nothing...

An invitation in your pocket

A sense of feeling like a grand guest, as if Tamerlane himself has invited you and the world is at your feet.  As long as you really are ‘invited’ that is, and not ‘summoned’, which might be a terrifying prospect. ‘You ride along feeling you have an invitation from...

A coral coinage

What an exuberant description of wild strawberries!  A coral coinage with the berries singing not only in batches, but in tune! ‘Once in Abkhazia I came upon whole streaks of northern wild strawberries … How happy this coral coinage of the northern summer made me! ...

Expressing allegiance

Mandelstam seems to have seen something timeless in the curve of a horse’s neck in Armenia, and discerned a proud allegiance to a people ‘older than the Romans’. ‘Once in a while my horse would bend down to the grass, and its neck expressed its allegiance to the...

A dancing class for trees

Something utterly comforting about orchards, especially old and haphazard ones.  But I never thought of them as a dancing class for trees and like the distinction between the shy apple and the capable cherry.  Blushing peach and glowing apricot, not to mention the...

The generous and beautiful word…

Adam Nicholson writes of a scroll Homer found rolled beneath the head of a female mummy: Hawara Homer, written on papyrus in about AD 150, in the Bodleian. How can something so flimsy, perishable, inflammable, soakable, edible (for some species) still be beautifully,...

The best part of books…

Obvious when you put it like that. But it’s got me trying to think of what’s actually happening in books when things aren’t ‘happening’. Because there’s always something happening, even if it doesn’t look all that active.  And then try distinguishing between the...

How to speak to an editor

Clearly, authors are simply too humble in approaching editors. This is how it should be done, straight to the point and don’t forget to pay me. In this story, the children need to raise some cash and Noel hits upon the brilliant idea of flogging his poetry. Except...

A man with no plan

We went to a charity bazarre the other morning, and came staggering out with a sack load of books. Before heading into the airy 1950s ‘salle communale’ across the road to load up on home baked cakes, scones and jams the International Women’s Club had churned out to...

On spherical emotions and the need for adjectives

Never thought of emotions as spherical before, but grasp the need for their many-sided expression.  And the fact that emotions being often neither only positive nor negative, but sometimes ‘both together and something even more’, you need all the adjectives you can...

Manuscripts as moments in time

I have long felt this sense of time’s encapsulation in manuscripts, and I like this example of a manuscript being dated to a single day over 1,000 years ago because of the precision with which an unknown illuminator drew planets in orbit. Having occasionally been...

Communication before comprehension

Over the years I’ve encountered a road block that stumps many people in the appreciation of poetry.  Including people who can fully embrace other artistic expression such as painting and music. One way to remove that road block is to reassure them that you don’t have...

Civilised conversation

A fine selection of subjects to talk about with a new acquaintance. This is the boy’s first (and last) encounter with a new girl in the neighbourhood, before she shuns him in favour of another boy. These stories, drawing on the author's own childhood, see the world...

Work as ingratiation

The nature of work, both in the ideal and in reality, captures my interest. Noting the many unhappy faces on a rush-hour bus or train is to mind the gap between the ideal and the reality for most people, and ask if it is just the way of it, or if meaningful work for...

On clothes and calls

In Grahame’s account of a Victorian childhood, the boys are baffled by the adult penchant for putting on formal clothes and then going to call on people, when they could just as well mess about at home in their old clothes. Clothes as a topic of conversation are also...

Running away to sea

At least in his imagination, this boy runs away to sea after being banished to the nursery or lifted by the scruff of the neck or otherwise humiliated by the omnipotent and unreasonable Olympians, whom we call adults. In many cases, the inevitable triumphs of...

Gallows’ humour

One of the most impressive and humbling aspects of some people living under oppression is their capacity to crack jokes about it.  I am known for having a sense of humour, but in this I would fail and simply sink into abject misery and fear.  First up, the Poles,...

Paranoia reaches its logical conclusion

Apparently Stalin had a moment of dazzling self-knowledge shortly before his death, stating: “I’m finished, I don’t even trust myself.” Source: quoted in The Cold War, John Lewis Gaddis (London: Penguin Books, 2007 [2005]), p. 104

Why, Chagall, why?

According to Orlando Figes, Chagall was invited to decorate the streets of Vitebsk in celebration of the first anniversary of the October Revolution.  Bemused local officials asked the obvious question: ‘Why is the cow green and why is the house flying through the...

Communism meets sheep

A wonderful analysis of Communism and why it didn’t quite add up for this Romanian farmer, as described by Donald Hall who travelled in Romania in the 1930s, living and working alongside Romanian peasants and farmers.   ‘Now suppose you have two cows,’ he said. ...

Kingly encouragement

Surely one of the pithiest, funniest and most ebulliently floor-wiping book criticisms in the history of scribbling and patronage.  All those long days and late nights scratching away with a quill on blotchy parchment so you can present your king with a glorious...

Anodyne angels

These Victorian children, based on real life characters (Kenneth Grahame’s siblings) are spirited and independent minded. And utterly unimpressed with the pious presentation of angels in their carefully vetted religious reading. In one painting they do find some that...

The best room in the palace

How do you impress a girl on first meeting? By divulging details of the chocolate room in your dream palace, of course. There is a lovely illustration of this irresistible place by Mayfield Parrish, surely the finest room of all. For what palace could be complete...

The beauty of banquets

This banquet happens after the staged fight between St George and the reluctant dragon, engineered to keep the punters happy.  After it’s over, they all go and feast together and everyone lives happily ever after. Which is as it should be. ‘Banquets are always...

Grateful gods

Adults, as you know, are remote, powerful and unpredictable, giving them a striking resemblance to the Greek gods on Olympia. When they make promises to take you to the circus which they then casually renege on because they prefer to go to a garden party in a mauve...

Feeling, deep as a puddle

Gaskell is as capable as Jane Austen of skewering shallowness and pretension. I like this breezy ‘general friendly feeling’ being humorously shown for what it is, benign but utter indifference. ‘For Mrs Gibson and Molly he had a general friendly feeling; but he did...

For conscience sake?

A quotation from a Victorian novel that has the wit, warmth and brightness of earlier writers such as Jane Austen, nailing foibles in passing comments or throwaway lines by the characters themselves. Here, the charming and lightweight Edith is writing to the main...

High fashion, slow post

One of the features of postal correspondence is its slowness, probably a key contributor to its slow demise, though perhaps one of its endearing aspects, if you allow it.  I was therefore intrigued by the role of letters in the branding and communications of an...

Refinement, one stair at a time

Wise as he is, Mr. Gibson makes one wrong move in his life, marrying a fizzy, dizzy woman, causing grief and dismay to his daughter Molly. Worse, Mrs G takes it upon herself to refine her step-daughter whom she feels has been allowed to run wild with the lack of a...

An original thought

Gibson is one of the main characters in Wives and Daughters, the wry village doctor, and father of Molly, one of the most endearing and admirable characters in English literature. Gibson has a series of assistants working with him, most of whom underwhelm him with...

Plus ça change…

There’s something reassuring in seeing that what appears an ‘issue’ today appeared equally so to people long ago. It puts the issue in perspective and makes it seem an eternal, pointless fuss. So, we lament the sloppiness of texting and emails and the general...

Letters kept, letters destroyed

Given the fragility of letters, it’s astounding how many have survived centuries and even millennia. Added to which it seems quite common for people to have purposely destroyed them, whether because they considered them worthless, or wanted to protect themselves or...

The innovation of envelopes

They’re so ubiquitous that it’s a surprise to learn envelopes were a mid-nineteenth century invention.  Somewhere in Gaskell I remember a character protesting at this new-fangled costly creation. Previously people folded the sheet of paper in on itself to form its own...

Letters tolerably long

Gaskell has many Jane Austen touches in cheerily summing up lightweight characters. But inconsequent as the letter and the writer might be, letters themselves were a lifeline of news and contact. People would sit together while one of them read out a letter that had...

Red letter day

A red letter day is a holiday or a memorable day, something that might be marked on the calendar in red. For me it’s also a ‘red letter day’ when I receive a hand-written letter or card from someone I care about. First, there’s the magic of seeing your name and...

Wine and humility

Horace, it seems, drank humble wine and was himself a humble man. I loved this use of wine as an analogy for the poet and for the transmuting of humility into eternity. ‘This humble wine stands for the humble poet, the freedman’s son, and beyond that for the poetry...

A poem begins

This lovely comment by one of America’s finest and most beloved poets, Robert Frost, on the origins of poems – not in thoughts, but in feelings. ‘A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.  It is never a thought to begin...

Wine’s wonderland

The Romans, using an old Greek word, called southern Italy Oenotria, the land of wine; the Greek word draws attention to the way Greek colonial settlers in southern Italy brought with them the vine and their own wine culture.’ Wine is a constant theme in my life, even...

Wine and time

Having written an entire essay, if not a thesis, on this vital and universal issue, I am always in search of other people showing appreciation for the element of time in making things fine. I even once took quite some time to learn two pages of prose by heart because...

Wine and poetry

Wine as a perfect metaphor for poetry, with the same nature, alchemy and effects. Both can make you heady, or be heart-warming, comforting, or rousing. I don’t think poetry makes people fall over, however. ‘Wine and poetry are quite alike in their natures and their...

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