No. 29 SPRING 2008

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Published by The University of Liverpool School of English. Supported by:


Philip Davis Sarah Coley Angela Macmillan Brian Nellist Christopher Routledge John Scrivener Jen Tomkins Enid Stubin Les Murray The Reader 19 Abercromby Square Liverpool L69 7ZG See p. 119



ISBN: 978-0-9551168-8-9



The Reader welcomes submissions of poetry, fiction, essays, readings and thought. We publish professional writers and absolute beginners with emphasis on quality and originality of voice. Send your manuscript to The Reader Office, 19 Abercromby Square, Liverpool L69 7ZG, UK. New York Office, Enid Stubin, 200 East 24th St., Apt. 504, New York, NY, 10010. SAE with all manuscripts please. Printed and bound in the European Union by Bell and Bain Ltd, Glasgow


The Reader magazine is published by The Reader, a not-for-profit organisation within the University of Liverpool. The organisation has grown out of the magazine, which was launched when the founder editors were literature teachers in the Continuing Education programme. In what seemed a unique community, free from the constraints of exams or accreditation, readers aged 18–80 and from all educational backgrounds were sharing reading difficulties and enthusiasms. There was a sense of exhilaration: we were reading big and daunting works together with growing confidence. The desire to keep that spirit alive is behind everything we do. The Reader magazine first appeared in 1997. We continue to provide a platform for personal and passionate responses to books, as well as seeking to identify new and exciting writers. We also publish a free newsletter which details our events and projects. Events include Readers’ Days, where people from all walks of life come together to discuss books, stories and poems; large-scale public events like the Penny Readings, which look to recreate the meetings where Dickens would read to thousands; and live events featuring authors as diverse as David Constantine, Doris Lessing and Will Self. The Reader also offers tailored training for organisations that wish to put reading into the heart of their work. The Reader’s participation programme, Get Into Reading, is our largest area of work, actively seeking out new readers in non-traditional or disadvantaged areas. We believe that literature has a purpose in the world beyond the syllabus, classroom or lecture hall, and that its absence from common life is a loss to be remedied. We set up weekly reading groups where facilitators read aloud, ensuring that the words are made real for readers and non-readers alike. This makes a Get Into Reading group profoundly democratic and leaves the power – to join in and to speak, or to remain silent and private – entirely with the individual. Group members report increased confidence, concentration and motivation.


Gabriel Josipovici

Mark Rylance A. S. Byatt

7 10 Philip Davis Tell Me! Editor’s Picks

28 30 Graham Hayes Something to be Said for Dawkins Howard Jacobson Know Thine Enemy 47 A. S. Byatt Living Forms 120 Andrzej Gasiorek The Call of the Human

14 16 27 37 44 53 54 72 Face to Face David Constantine Mark Rylance Kenneth Steven Jeffrey Wainwright Omar Sabbagh John Kinsella Penny Fearn

18 Mark Rylance Tanks Mona Lisa

34 Kenneth Steven

11 Ian McMillan Letters to a Younger Self: From Jack Brooks to Peter Finch and Back 69 74 Kate McDonnell Fight or Flight Angela Macmillan At the Quiet Limit of the World

39 Gabriel Josipovici Love Across the Borders 125 Raymond Tallis Heart of Darkness



Joanna Trollope

Howard Jacobson

Kenneth Steven

77 80 83 88 Enid Stubin Our Spy in NY: Menuspotting The London Eye Keeping Heart Jane Davis What the Papers Say Brian Nellist Ask the Reader

103 Good Books: short reviews by Clare Williams, Wendy Kay, Bea Colley and Jen Tomkins 105 Brian Nellist William Trevor Cheating at Canasta 110 Brian Nellist Patrick McGuinness, 19th Century Blues 113 Sarah Coley Neil Curry, Other Rooms

90 93 Lynne Hatwell Meet the Reading Group Suze Clarke Joseph Conrad, The Shadow-Line

38 Tom Ashley Syrian Picture No. 65 115 Buck’s Quiz 116 Prize Crossword By Cassandra 117 Quiz and Puzzle Answers 118 Contributors

57 Four Helpings of Wordsworth By Stephen Gill, Joanna Trollope, Michael O’Neill and David Wilson 96 99 Sarah Coley A Letter to Milosz Christopher Routledge Crime Spree: Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet



Philip Davis


omething happened to me during this year’s Penny Readings. The Reader stages this event every Christmas at Liverpool’s magnificent St George’s Hall, in memory of Dickens’s own appearances in the city – costing (in folklore) one penny. For Dickens, the loneliness behind a desk gave way to vocal drama, live at the lectern, where he could mesmerise his audience into being one whole family of feeling. This year we were doing something from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale – the arraignment scene in which the innocent Hermione is brought before the court of Sicilia on account of the mad sexual jealousy of her husband, King Leontes. It was informal, a reading with the texts in front of us, and my role was simply that of a foil. I was to stand there, Leontes himself, in confrontation – whilst our star guest, the actress Annabelle Dowler, spoke Hermione’s great words of injured rebuttal. In his terrible delusion Leontes threatens her with ‘justice’. Hermione tells him to spare his threats: what does she care if she dies? She has already lost his love; she has had her daughter taken away from her; her new-born baby boy, deemed illegitimate, has been torn from her breast; and she, Hermione, has to stand in open court accused of being a whore! Then Annabelle said this to me, direct, looking up from her copy:
Now, my liege; Tell me what blessings I have here alive, That I should fear to die?

And then she stopped. For a moment I thought it was my turn and I had missed my cue. Whether the audience registered it or not I don’t



know – but for that split-second I was Leontes, physically shaken, unmanned and unable to answer. What deliberately wasn’t there in the text – Leontes’ failed response – actually happened. Then Annabelle went on, telling Leontes to do so too:
Therefore proceed. But yet hear this: mistake me not…

I think now that I had already been upset by a line or two earlier in the speech. This also was almost to my embarrassment, even though I know the play well, knew I was on public display, and thought I was just trying to be professionally useful. It was when in the very midst of her indignation, Annabelle spoke of Leontes’ love for her:
The crown and comfort of my life, your favour, I do give lost, for I do feel it gone, But know not how it went.

It is suddenly almost unbearably moving that even now when she cannot see in front of her the man who loves her, she still vulnerably loves him or his memory. I am about to discuss future research with the brain scientists who have been working with me on Shakespeare (I wrote about this in The Reader 23). What I want to talk to them about is the way that Shakespeare uses poetic lines as though they were brain waves. I mean: in one line he has the woman say ‘I do feel it gone’ and in the next ‘but know not how it went’. It is very important that ‘gone’ and ‘went’ are on two lines and that the shift from one to the other (forward on the page, but backwards in mental time) almost physically seems to change the wiring and route of the brain itself. I could hear and feel it, trapped there on the stage of St George’s Hall. So: what I am talking about here is the effect of voice – the almost physical effect that a person can leave in us. I remember the first time this happened to me, in terms of poetry. It was 1974 and I was a lonely undergraduate who, with little else to do this evening, decided to go to a poetry reading. I didn’t normally like these things: the poets rarely read their own work well, it being sufficient to them, it seemed, that they had already written it; and I often restlessly lost track of what the hell they meant. But this was a poet called Douglas Oliver, reading from a long poem of his called ‘The Cave of Suicession’. It was about a bereft seeker who took himself and his typewriter into an old abandoned lead mine in the Derbyshire Peak District, called Suicide Cave, and worked and thought and slept there in the dark. I didn’t know what exactly was coming out of this cave, but the voice and its range was electric and daring and risky, on a sort of mental journey. Oliver didn’t recite his poem, he made the poem in front of us again.


All I can remember is the voice. But the next time I heard him, years later, he read a short poem on a connected subject-matter, the death of his son Tom in 1969, a child with Down’s Syndrome. I don’t want to look it up, only remember it. So I will say to you that it began with a refrain from a negro spiritual, ‘Lay my burden down’, ‘Lay my burden down’. And as the poem went on, deeper into the child’s death, the refrain went into becoming finally: ‘Lay my bird in down’. It didn’t feel like a pun, it wasn’t merely clever; but it was a sort of magical transmutation of voice, and a gentle putting of the child to sleep. A few days after that first reading in 1974, I saw Douglas Oliver in the library but was too shy to go up to him to say, as I wanted, how great his reading had been. Eventually, I met him on three occasions. He died of cancer in 2000, at an unbearably young sixty-two. Though I hardly knew him, I knew his voice and something of what his presence stood for, and regularly, at odd times since, have felt something missing in the world. This isn’t just about poetry or drama, but what they themselves are about. That is to say: in life, you know that people who get close to you have a particular and distinctive blind feel to them in your mind, in your heart. Or as Douglas Hofstadter says in I Am a Strange Loop, even deep in your brain: ‘People, no less than objects, are represented by symbols in the brain… the extent of each one depending on the degree to which you faithfully represent, and resonate with, the individual in question.’ I love that ‘resonate with’: the internal echo of the living ones, or of voices from the page, or of loved ones dead. The Reader is always in search of those individual voices we need to hear. But this particular issue is dedicated to them – to David Constantine, to the novelists A.S. Byatt and Howard Jacobson speaking outside their novels, to the older voices of Wordsworth and Joseph Conrad. I began by talking about a reading in Liverpool’s St George’s Hall. But 2008 is the year in which Liverpool – this magazine’s home town – becomes the European Capital of Culture: good on us! This will culminate in a literary festival, between the 7th and 9th of November, put on by the University of Liverpool and its School of English, with Reader events before, within, and around it. Some of the writers who will be appearing – Howard Jacobson, Seamus Heaney, Melvyn Bragg, Doris Lessing, Philip Pullman – will be giving us work to publish in forthcoming issues of this magazine we hope, as a taster for those of you who can come to hear their voices live and as a compensation for those who cannot. In the remote Highlands Wordsworth heard a young woman in the fields singing in a language he could not understand. Yet he felt it was like something ‘breaking the silence of the seas / Among the farthest Hebrides.’ We do our best by the waters of the river Mersey.


This issue is dedicated to voices that should be heard. We live surrounded by words and sound, radio, print, TV and now the internet too, but there are those who add to the clamour with more purpose. Wordsworth and Conrad and Milosz are featured here along with newer voices which help bring clarity or at least direction. We have new fiction from Gabriel Josipovici and from Raymond Tallis, and new poetry from David Constantine, John Kinsella, Kenneth Steven, Jeffrey Wainwright, Penny Fearn and Omar Sabbagh (one of The Reader’s favourite new poets). In three linked pieces Brian Nellist looks out for individual voices in both poetry and fiction. Other highlights:
Howard Jacobson We asked our own Graham Hayes to give a moderate

account of Richard Dawkins’ controversial The God Delusion, and then let Howard loose.
Round Table on William Wordsworth In issue 25, we assembled a

group of writers to wrestle with Milton’s Paradise Lost, letting personal responses make sense of his great forbidding poem. Now it is Wordsworth’s turn. Stephen Gill, Joanna Trollope, Michael O’Neill and David Wilson take on The Prelude with a series of chosen passages.
Mark Rylance It is, as Mark commented, ‘an unusual interview’. The

actor offers us insights into his craft and his vision of life.
A. S. Byatt examines the ways that novelists have taken up the slack

after the absconding of God. Post-Darwin, post-Freud, human identity is an arena of DNA and sex. Can science and our own biological reality offer a route away from our narcissism?


Ian McMillan
Ian McMillan hosts the hit weekly show The Verb on BBC R3, dedicated to investigating spoken words around the globe. He wants you to know: ‘John Murray are publishing my verse autobiography Talking Myself Home in the Autumn of 08, and we’ll be hearing more from Jack Brooks in that’.


very other Thursday my mother would catch the 37 LP bus (LP stood for Larratt Pepper, the bus company boss’s magnificent name that made him sound like a magician or a private eye. Most of us couldn’t bring ourselves to call anybody Larratt so we all called him Lariat and his buses were called, inevitably, Lariat’s Chariots) to the next village of Great Houghton, where she was born, to have her hair done by her old mate Muriel. I’d get home from school and if my brother was out I’d let myself in and wait for the sound of the bus going up the street and my mother’s heels down the path and the door opening. I can feel the fresh winter air on my face now as I write this, forty-odd years later. She’d come in and plant the big brown paper parcel on the table. ‘Yes, I’ve been to Jack Brooks’s,’ she’d say, like she said every time. I’ll tell you what: you can keep the Bodleian Library, and Foyle’s, and those great bookshops on the Left Bank in Paris. Give me Jack Brooks’s any day, in Great Houghton’s Latin Quarter. Give me his fortnightly parcel full of comics. Give me that moment in the front room with the sound of Mr Page’s piano coming from next door and the smell of my


mother’s hair lacquer filling the room like a sweet promise just as I begin to open the parcel. That’s what reading is, I guess: it’s an axis where memories meet the present moment and the promise of the future; it’s a machine for reminding yourself who you once were, who you are and who you want to become. The thing about Jack Brooks’s magical parcel was that it wasn’t full of High Art. It was full of decidedly Low Art: The Beano, The Dandy, The Victor, The Valiant and what my mother called ‘A Commando Book’ (calling magazines ‘books’ still persists in my part of Yorkshire, and a good thing too). In The Victor The Tough of The Track trained on Fish and Chips and fought a perpetual class war against Flapper Farmer; in The Beano The Bash Street Kids shouted ‘Yaroo’ and put drawing pins on the teacher’s chair; In The Dandy Beryl the Peril was like none of the girls in my class at school and in The Valiant The Steel Claw scared me to death and I had to go to sleep with the light on. Those comics had a sheer delight in language and a masterly sense of plot and suspense; they were funny, and frightening, and I delighted in reading them again and again. A few years later, when I thought I was sophisticated, I got my mother to order the Boy’s Own Paper. Sadly, it was 1967 and I was too late: Jack Brooks had to inform my mother that the Boy’s Own Paper was no more. In my memory I cried, but maybe in real life I didn’t. Now these days I love reading strange and unusual poetry and prose; I’m just working my way through the wonderful Anglo-Welsh (as they used to be called) poet Peter Finch’s Selected Later Poems, published by Seren. Peter has been described as a ‘one-man Welsh avant garde’ and I won’t argue with that. The book is full of sound poems, found poems, and texts wrestled and reworked until they cry for mercy and then dissolve into giggling. Here’s his ‘Text Message From Ffynnon Denis’ which, as he says in the notes, is ‘one of the lost holy wells of Penylan, in Cardiff. Its waters were said to cure bad eyes’: ‘Fnd tp Rth Pk Lk/a pond H2o seep/sme bbbls &/1 duck\trfic cne & frdg./put drp on eye in/strng drzz/mke sgn of crss./dnt do a thng.’ Marvellous! Maybe you need to know that Roath Park is a park in Cardiff, and maybe you don’t. Here’s some of his variations on William Carlos Williams’s Icebox poem: ‘I have sold your jewellery collection,/which you kept in a box, forgive me./I am sorry, but it came upon me/and the money was so inviting, so sweet/and so cold.//This is just to say I am in the pub/where I have purchased the fat guy from/Merthyr’s entire collection of scratch and win./All I need now is three delicious plums//Forgive me, sweetie/these things just happen.’ I’m sure that one of the reasons I love poets like Peter Finch is because of those fortnightly parcels from Jack Brooks’s little shop in Great Houghton. Those comics excited me with the possibilities of language and what you might call a delight in the out-of-the-ordinary and


although I enjoyed The Famous Five and The Secret Seven and Biggles and Gimlet they seemed at times too, well, into the ordinary. And you couldn’t say that about The Steel Claw. So, as far as my own reading is concerned, I moved from Jack Brooks’s parcel to DC Comics (via a detour to Classics Illustrated, a series of comic strip versions of the great books: it was here that I first encountered Moby Dick and Robinson Crusoe) where I loved the lesser heroes like Metal Men (let’s be honest: I fancied Platinum) and Green Lantern, to fantastic American magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland; then as an adolescent I landed, like an explorer dropping onto the planet Zog, on Science Fiction. I remember picking up a science fiction magazine when I was looking for copies of Justice League of America on a second-hand comic stall on Wombwell market and I was hooked. I loved the experimental end of Science Fiction best; plot has never been something that’s interested me too much but I liked the way that SF could mess about with concepts of time and space and sometimes with language and grammar. I collected John Carnell’s New Writings in SF series and it was here that I came across great experimental writers like Brian Aldiss, Christopher Priest and a writer who is now forgotten, Vincent King. There was one story by Vincent King about a species growing up on a planet that turned out to be Earth, and it became obvious as the story developed that life had begun on our planet when a toilet was flushed and the detritus dropped onto the surface of a barren rock in space. You can’t imagine how exciting it is to read that kind of thing as a young man; in fact I’ve just gone onto a second-hand book website and ordered several issues of New Writings in SF because my original copies have got lost somewhere and I want to see if Vincent King is as good as I thought he was! So these days my need for experimentation and linguistic excitement, begun on those distant Thursday afternoons, is mainly satisfied by poetry that pushes the envelope; the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets like the marvellous Ron Silliman (have a look at his addictive blog), and English experimenters like Geraldine Monk and the late great Bill Griffiths. And now, in a sense of completion and wheels turning full circle, my middle daughter Elizabeth has opened the Sparkle Beauty Room in Great Houghton, just a few doors down from where Jack Brooks’s shop used to be. Okay, maybe it’s not much of a sense of completion, but I told you I wasn’t very good at plot!
Selected Later Poems by Peter Finch: Seren Books New Writings in SF available from as are Vincent King’s novels. Salt Press publish The Salt Companion to Geraldine Monk and The Salt Companion to Bill Griffiths. 13

David Constantine
David Constantine is one of our very favourite writers in The Reader ever. But when we asked him our questions, he said he couldn’t answer any without anguish. That’s the last thing we’d want to… Featured on page 16

Penny Fearn
What do you see from where you are?

John Kinsella
What do you see?

An open boxset of ‘Frasier’ and a clothes horse.
What book or poem would you like to have written?

‘The Waste Land’, T. S. Eliot
Your own best work?

When it makes sense but is subtle, wry and dark.
In three words describe your ideal reader.

Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory all rolled into one. It’s called ‘Earth’ and/or the Western Australian wheatbelt. I am looking out into darkness, it is still about a hundred degrees (thirty eight celsius), and I might just be able to hear the night noises of a tawny frogmouth. The air is thick with insects.
Like to have written?

Paradise Lost
Your own best work?

Patient, interesting and bright. Featured on page 72

It’s always the poems I am working on.
Ideal reader?

Vegan, anarchist, pacifist Featured on page 54

John Kinsella by Christopher Williams


Omar Sabbagh
What do you see?

Kenneth Steven
What do you see?

Jeffrey Wainwright
What do you see?

I’m in Beirut at the moment. Right before me is a wall. Surrounding me on all sides, shelves upon shelves of books. Neither is where I take my inspiration.
Like to have written?

I can see the west from where I’m writing now; west and north are most vital to me.
Like to have written?

The Gospel of John
Of your own work, what pleases you?

My new writing position looks at a basement light-well that’s waiting for crocuses but in the summer my open-air table looks out over the Tiber valley.
Like to have written?

Douglas Dunn’s Elegies: if I didn’t enjoy it and admire it so much I would really be very very jealous – it comes naturally to me.
Your own best work?

Knowing when a poem is finished.
Ideal reader?

War and Peace or Shakespeare’s history plays.
Current reading?

Quiet, questioning, kind.
Current reading?

When a poem is affecting and moving at the first reading, without being boring or banal.
Current reading?

The Complete Borrowers Featured on page 37

Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. On the subject of Musicophilia, I hear ‘Country Roads’ in my head: imagine if it never goes away! Featured on page 44

I am rereading Conrad’s Lord Jim for the umpteenth time, for my graduate research work, and finding that Conrad is so goddamn subtle that there’s no end to how much depth one can plumb in his work Featured on page 53

15 Kenneth Steven

Jeffrey Wainwright


18 Via del Corso
Incognito here he will become the one he is. The room looks into the Via della Fontanella, A promising name, five windows in from the Corso Main artery of the blood of carnival From one of the entrances and bowls of life Brimming, the Piazza del Popolo. He fits the city, he has a certain purpose And he will have in to live with him Only the deities who help, he wants them appraising His table and chair, his shelf of books, His box of manuscripts, his roomy bed. Oh he Has come here very hungry, his eyes were starving. So now to hell with martyrdoms and contortions! To hell with all the sad deposits of the tide of Christ! The Corso will deliver him straight to the heart’s terrain Of goat, acanthus, fig against the rising moon, Bucolics, the columns sprouting among the pines, Wreckage and seedground. Out of the earth He will lift himself her beauties, his writing hand Is desirous of learning the other arts. This man sensing The possibilities of the Via della Fontanella Believes the point of the earth and her sun and moon and stars Is him. Every dawn asks him What will you do for the good of your life today?



26 Piazza di Spagna
Down his right side on the flowered steps And at his feet in the piazza From before the birth to beyond the dying of the lengthening days There is the din the living make As though his narrow room were faced on those two sides Like a deep sarcophagus Life rioting along them in a densely connected frieze, Centaur, hippocamp, siren, the moving Between forms, the partaking one of another, Eyes bright with a purpose in the foliage. He Cannot sort them now, he cannot rhyme them or scan them To what they exactly are, the gift has gone, He lies already heraldic in the hubbub of Chaos, The bacilli eating his lungs of inspiration Have stopped his mouth with blood. He suffers noise And cannot make a music. Only at nights The hearth of friendship warming his left side He listens to the fountain in the emptiness Under the stars, the endless renewing of water That is like the speaking softly of a constant writing. He swaps her white carnelian from hand to hand. He will go under a roof of violets and daisies (His friend has promised) holding her letters as though In there he could bear to read them.

Goethe arrived in Rome at the end of October 1786, determined to live as he wished. He registered with the authorities under an assumed name, as a German painter: Filippo Miller, tedesco, pittore. Keats arrived in Rome in November 1820 and died there the following February. The carnelian was a leaving present from Fanny Brawne. The two houses, 18 Via del Corso and 26 Piazza di Spagna, are ten minutes walk apart. 17

Mark Rylance
Philip Davis interviewed Mark Rylance during the Liverpool leg of the tour of I Am Shakespeare written by Mark Rylance himself. The play is a quirky and often comic celebration of the question ‘Who wrote the works of William Shakespeare?’ ‘The majority of people agree that it was the actor from Stratford,’ writes Rylance in his programme note, ‘But also, the majority of people have not looked very closely into the history. For many years, some people have doubted, from what we know of the actor’s life, that he would have been able to write the plays and poems, and may therefore have served as a “front” for a hidden author, or collaborated more extensively than we imagine. I have been surprised again and again by the strength of emotion this historical question of identity raises. An understanding of the creation could reveal a creative process most beneficial to modern drama and society as a whole.’

You are a great and an authentically strange actor. Bacon’s line in the play seems characteristic: ‘I love secrets, codes, and masks.’ Would you say this area of anonymity and identity is important in what you’re like as an actor? I love secrets, codes, and masks. Bacon is the candidate for Shakespeare in I Am Shakespeare that I love the most – he’s the one I have to be careful I don’t favour in the play. I admire the other candidates too but he is the one who’s helped me the most and he clearly loved those secrets and codes. Are there times when as an actor you are trying to get into a Shakespeare play, when you feel you need a sense of cracking the code in order to do it? I think there is a joy of doing a Shakespeare play – probably of researching one as well – but with with the acting you have to go further than


the academic does because you have to find out the cause, the emotional need to say something, which I suppose scholars will propose but they don’t have to actually stand up and prove whether it works or not, whether it’s believable to people, to the other actors and the audience. When playing a part like Hamlet over four hundred performances there is an ongoing discovery of layers of meaning in your understanding of what a scene or a line means, but also suddenly what’s happening in the world can change the meaning. Hamlet says: ‘The time is out of joint; Oh cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right.’ You know what that means but then Tiananmen Square happens and you see a young man in front of a tank, and you suddenly have a considerably more powerful sense of meaning that young revolutionaries must have. But there’s a difference between the code and something contemporary that could help stimulate your imagination. The code is something to do with really making decisions. If you’re playing the Duke in Measure for Measure, for example, you have to decide at the end whether he is a manipulative bastard or a philanthropist. Is his speech to Claudio about the absolute of death a version of torture or a rather naff bit of advice, or is it that he wants young Claudio to be less reckless, and is therefore giving him a death experience? Those kinds of decisions are crucial, and take a number of code-breakings to come to the right decision. As with many considerable actors, there’s something quite anonymous about you. Although I Am Shakespeare is concerned with identity, there are also parts of the play that suggest thoughts exist almost prior to people. I’ve seen you in Measure for Measure and there’s a lot that comes at pace and feels improvised but crucially there isn’t a stability of character. ‘Be absolute for death’, the Duke says, but at that moment it seems this is an idea that is called into being that needs to be thought by Claudio and has to be given somewhere. It’s as if meanings are coming in and out of you, and I don’t think you’re worried about identity, I put it to you, at all. [Mark laughs.] Don’t laugh too long because I can’t put that into the interview! It’s very funny. Maybe I’m not so scared of being called a crackpot as other people but in my own personal world I have a flexible identity. I take on other people’s identities and I’m very greedy for them, for lots of different identities. I’m wary for some reason, like an animal would be wary of a zoo, of being pinned down as one particular identity. I travelled back to my home town in Nottingham at one time to see you in Macbeth, and the actors told me afterwards that this is somebody who doesn’t



care what people will think and who will protect the group. You know the funny thing is I forget. When I’m working on something like Macbeth, I absolutely forget how far out it is, how out of consciousness, and I am like a child. I just find it so fascinating, and then I remember to think if people are enjoying it and following the story, but I’m not thinking will they be offended. I’m always rather amazed when I realise that what I’m talking about is off the radar of most people. I get the sense that your ability to move between different thoughts and identities isn’t simply greed but is to do with quite archaic beliefs. Here is an example from the play, I Am Shakespeare, which I enjoy, but for the most part the play can’t do for you all that you want it to do because the identity issue is split between too many people. But when your character is not quite involved in that whole area of the club of the illegitimate, then the play becomes very strange for a moment – suddenly darker, and although the characters and the actors look very separate, what’s really interesting about identity is how one person could be all of them and move between them. That one person in a way is the sort of person you are. I think it’s the sort of person Francis Bacon was too, in my impression of that period he had the ability to be Shakespeare… The man who wrote The Advancement of Learning doesn’t look like a playwright. The language is powerful but the framework that he works within is linear, progressive, he believes in satisfaction rather than delight. His essays are very poetic but I think he suffers under Macaulay’s diatribe against him. There’s a much more compassionate and witty man there than people realise, someone who wrote with a left hand and a right hand. That’s interesting because that wouldn’t contradict the fact that a man who wrote one thing wouldn’t be the same as a man who wrote another. It’s said about him that he wrote in different styles. That line that I give him – why did Da Vinci the inventor of the tank want to paint the Mona Lisa? – that’s the kind of model that I have for Bacon. What you’re really doing is reinventing Shakespeare as Bacon – it’s still the same thing, you want to be one person who can be many people! I think I’d get more from ‘Shakespeare’ being a group actually, but I probably do have an interest in archaic beliefs. I’m interested in platonic type ideas and very interested in indigenous people’s faith, and pagan faith, and I’m a practiser of those ideas. I believe that the laws of courtesy apply on this side of the veil and on the other side of the veil.


What do you mean by courtesy on the other side of the veil? Places such as this building, The Playhouse, have ancestors who contributed enormous amounts of effort or money. Their collaborative effort created a spirit, this building has a spirit. You can see it has been a music hall. The many performers, stage hands, audiences, have had experiences here, and all that vitality has added to the place. There is a spirit that is left behind much as we leave the dust of our bodies around. So there are rules of courtesy or of thanks when you come into another person’s space on both sides of the veil. Robert Bly, the American poet, said to me once – he said it to a group of men – ‘your depression is in direct proportion to your inability to praise’, and this has really stayed with me. I feel that those elemental spiritual things need to be acknowledged The thing that Shakespeare is very good at teaching is that we should be wary of hierarchical responses. In my acting especially, and now a little bit in my writing too, I feel more of a vessel than the sole creator. I have to do the necessary work, the reading and preparing, of course, and mulling and heating myself up in a certain way like you’d heat up a pot, but ideas are really gifts. Can you explain that sense of above and below and say why Shakespeare would be interested in that? From the work I’ve done on the comedies, particularly with the scholar Peter Dawkins at the Francis Bacon Research Trust, I’ve become convinced that the Tree of Life, the Kabbalistic Tree of Life is really the backbone structure of Shakespeare’s comedies. The Tree of Life has those ten principles, archetypes, which are probably developed from the Egyptian into the Judaic system. In Much Ado About Nothing, for example, at the top of the tree, you’ve got Don John and Don Pedro – John the thinker and Pedro the speaker. One is the archetype of wisdom, love, and the other one is the archetype of intelligence, the reflective. Then you’ve got Beatrice with the perception of warlike Mars, ‘Kill Claudio’. Below her, you’ve got Benedict, with mere thought and not a lot of perception – the Mercury position. So you’ve got Mercury, Mars, Saturn. And on the other side you’ve got Venus. Pedro is trying to bring Beatrice and Benedict together, while John is trying to separate them. You have these archetypal characters developed with great naturalism. What’s above, the divine, is here in us too. This is turning what would be static allegory into a sort of force field in which the spaces between apparently static things is where the drama comes into being. That is the love of the code for me. But let me just finish your question. At the wedding scene when that huge terrible thing happens – when


Hero is denounced on the brink of marriage by Claudio and by her own father – Friar Francis creates that clarifying space. Friar Francis comes in with enormous wisdom, way above everything else. But at the same time, at the bottom of the pile, you’ve got Dogberry, absolute chaos, chaos of language, chaos of understanding, and yet Dogberrry is the one who finds the evidence that will clear Hero. Both figures are needed. There is a lot of low fun with that chaotic character down below, but at the same time Shakespeare gives him the key, the entrance, into the resolution of the mysteries. This makes the Stratford man very interesting because in a way he is Dogberry. The evidence about the Stratford man shows that he is the antithesis to the consciousness of the author you would expect to find behind his plays. What is most challenging to me is, if someone else wrote the play, such as Bacon, then what is the importance of this Stratford entrance point? It’s kind of obvious I guess, I mean it makes a lot of people feel a lot better about themselves. I like the idea of this somebody who is extraordinary pretending to be ordinary. I saw a matinee of Much Ado where you were opposite Janet McTeer. As Beatrice she was saying disparaging things about Benedict to you in disguise mode, and at one moment, with a shrug more than with the mouth, you say ‘fair enough’. Now, I think, in theory, if an actor starts putting his own words in Shakespeare I’m very annoyed, but actually it seemed to come out of the body, and out of the atmosphere between you more than out of the character. I do that quite a bit you know, little noises and shrugs and things. Other actors used to mock me in a friendly way at The Globe about it. It seems to be a sort of response to the atmosphere rather than character driven. Your characters are quite inchoate and good for that reason. They’re quite fluid. So in Macbeth you are the one actor who has convinced me that the spirits are actually there. When you talk about them they are more there than you are. Some speeches come from the character, and some speeches come from the object of the speech, and you’re good at that. I tend not to go in with a concept of a character now. I don’t know if I even did before, certainly not by the time I was doing Hamlet. I was preparing extensive lists of everything the character had said about himself, everything he said about others, everything everyone else said about him, and then just solving lines and scenes and finding where that brought me rather than interpreting those lines and scenes. That may be why they seem quite fluid. One of the technical things you do, which interests me a lot, is that sometimes you’ll let a line just go all the way through and then wait, and have the audi-



ence wait for the meaning at the end. In I Am Shakespeare, for example, you’re talking about Shakespeare as a plagiarist and you say: ‘Italy, Italy, Italy, but you haven’t been to Italy have you…’ and there’s no emphasis. You do that a lot in Shakespeare. It’s as if you want to get past, to get over the speech, and then the speech happens afterwards. Are you conscious of that as a technique? What are you up to when you’re doing that, do you think? That’s very perceptive of you. I’m hiding the fact that I’m planting it, I’m planting and hiding… It’s about timing. You get past the thing, and then you have to go back into it for a split second, so it’s only a wobble. Exactly, it’s interesting because it happened just last week – the lines stopped getting a response, they weren’t as amusing to the audience, and I realised that I was going straight to it, too straight, whereas if I was going to do something else, like put the map of Italy here, to pull attention off, the response would come back. I don’t know why it is, but it makes a difference in how the line is planted well. It helps people to feel too that the play, the event, is not prescribed. I’m always trying to get the feeling that it is happening spontaneously. And that is important with the Shakespeare, particularly, otherwise you get the authorised version. Yes, yes, it’s very important. His writing changes over the course of his writing career, the movement of full stops in the middle of lines and things and the verse changes too to be more like spontaneous speech. ‘Matching cause’, that was the phrase you used in the question and answer session after the play… You said that there’s always a matching cause because art is based on obstacles and if something great happens it is because of a blockage elsewhere. This balancing act seems to be part of your sense of the structure of things. So to challenge you – what is your own matching cause? I think there are a number of matching causes really. I wasn’t able to be understood until I was about six. I could speak but I don’t think I used consonants at all – I can’t quite remember why I wasn’t understood but my brother was the only one who could understand me. I was sent to speech therapists. So very early on I had the impression that it was difficult for me to communicate with other people. I was also intensely shy and self-conscious as a younger person – I’m better now because I have an identity as an actor, but even before I was nine or eight I was playing parts, and maybe that helped me to find language and words, copying people who were in stories or on television. That world of pretending to



be someone else always had more liberation, more chance for expression, for experiencing things, than the real world, so to speak. Do you think the vulnerability has moved into your capacity to be surprised by the outside world? Maybe so. I get a great buzz from being with a group of people but I need to have a task and a play. I think it’s that obstacle of feeling a little self-conscious or outside of groups in real life. That obstacle prepares me for the theatre where I love the interaction. The stage and the interaction seems real and intimate. ‘Where do people exist who do not exist?’ Very good, yes. That’s Mathew’s favourite line in the theatre. Well I feel that sometimes, a kind of weird feeling like that. Where does religious happen for you? You clearly have a whole world view that you work within. I am a pantheist I suppose. And an eclectic. You put a lot of things together in that whole. But say a bit more about the pantheism. I live my life as fully as I can, I mean, I’m not so sure that our consciousness as human beings is the greatest consciousness – it can be destructive and it’s capable of such cruelty and blinkeredness. The soul of the animal and the soul of the world is something which can be appreciated and it may be helpful to our society. That’s something that Shakespeare does, he ensouls people, he ensouls things, and that is one of the reasons Shakespeare plays are good to do. He ensouls people almost unconsciously. I don’t really practise a religion. I have a faith, and I have a spiritual practice, but I don’t care for religion really. My faith in the simplest sense is that there is a force of love. There is a collective consciousness that is beyond my conception, and there are different levels of that consciousness, but it is a consciousness that one can work with and that one has in different degrees. I think there is a rhythm to that energy and that it is something to do with timing and the working of the year, and I think that a lot of those folk festivals, or Celtic festivals, a lot of these things that were crushed by the Civil War and the industrial revolution were a great loss to this culture, and I search for them in other cultures. The rhythm of getting a line right, is that also part of that greater rhythm?



Oh yes. Those crop circles that happen overnight are part of it too. I suppose I think of it in terms of everything is in another consciousness at work in our midst. What does it want to do? Or perhaps the question is what does it want us to do? Well that’s a really fascinating question. I think it wants us to think outside ourselves. There are often patterns in the ideas that we have, images that are in our consciousness. Geometric structures that are unfamiliar, DNA type patterns, mind patterns, very interesting type communication from symbologies. Shakespeare is one of the greatest understanders of those shapes and configurations, would you say? He seems to understand those charged spaces that come into being even if only intuitively half created by himself. I think that the plays can do that. We’re only just coming to understand the kind of energy, the force field that the plays create. One of the things people say about my enquiries into Shakespeare is that I deny his theory of genius. It’s not true! I do think Shakespeare is a genius, a very inspired genius in a strong line of inspired geniuses that share a court of the muse which really exists and which can be sourced by a particular type of human being. This ability to access it is probably to do with the genes and physical makeup of that person, or maybe to do with the society that person has been born into and the circumstances of their life. I’ve got one last question. Post-Globe, what is your mission? To make new works. I want to make new works of theatre with what I’ve learned. I’ve given twenty-five years of my life to predominately exploring this Elizabethan period, and now I want to make new works. At the risk of embarrassing you, I need to say to you that there are people who one doesn’t know you are glad are in the world, and for me you are one of those. Thank you so much. Your questions have been so perceptive, I mean I’ve talked very openly with you about stuff I would normally mask and veil.


Mark Rylance

Like chalk from a cliff
For some of us it’s best to sniff the grail cup, For some to drink, and for some just to pretend. We walked in circles, crossing Caminos, Singing and letting petals fall in the side streets of Santiago. When we reached the road to Finisterre We stood together with our navigator, and our thoughts rose Like seagulls spiralling above the town, returning Again to the western sea where Roman legions feared They’d fall off the edge of the earth. Christians too, Reversed the road sign. All should end safely, dryly On the paved slope of this westward facing acropolis And no one fall in the sea beyond the collection plate Of human worship. But everything had already fallen in the ocean anyway, Five brightly nyloned bicyclists, Two men and a hydraulic truck for fixing lights, Road signs and fruit boxes, an entire university, A couple of police stations, with all their vehicles, Anarchist graffiti, a water fountain, and a pilgrim; each one In its own time, like chalk from a cliff, fell into the sea As we walked. You dreamed of two thieves fleeing the law, Their brutal childhood gathering to a knife’s edge, Slashing the face of a policeman in a mind slashing Pill induced despair, which you embraced, and offered Sanctuary in your heart. It made you cry. Unable to walk, You had to lie down until the Cathedral censer swung so high It made you gasp like a little girl. And that was it. Djabo, send me five funny monks swinging on a knotted rope To swing a censer so high it almost breaks the ribs of my chest. This woman I love, she feels things deeply.

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion Black Swan, 2007 ISBN 978-0552773317

Graham Hayes


his interesting and provocative book sets out to show that the ‘God Delusion’ is just that. With characteristic wry humour Dawkins explores the origins of the religious phenomenon, reviewing the arguments for the existence of a god, marvelling that many otherwise intelligent and erudite individuals allow their critical faculties to be suspended and the need for evidence to be abandoned in favour of ‘Faith’. He finds the concept of a compassionate god strangely at odds with the vindictive tyrant represented in the Old Testament and although a more enlightened interpretation of the Bible is current, some pretty weird beliefs still prevail. He is mystified that there is a reluctance to criticise religious beliefs and practices which is not present in respect of other aspects of human behaviour. Dawkins has much fun from examining the beliefs of the creationists and their view that complex biological mechanisms derive from ‘intelligent design’ not chance. He agrees that chance is not a tenable explanation, but chance is not the same as natural selection, which is the real comparison and is a cumulative process which breaks the problem of improbability into small elements.


He shows that the basis of generally accepted morality is not dependent on religious belief. Indeed he reserves much of his disapproval for the pernicious effects of ‘religion’, quoting examples from a wide spectrum of beliefs, principally the ‘Abraham’ trilogy of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He compares the intolerance of the religious right in America with that of the Afghan Taliban. Time and again he expresses wonderment and delight at the universe in which we humans live and clearly he is happy that evolution provides a rational explanation for it – at least until future evidence comes along to modify it.

Great scientists of our time who sound religious usually turn out not to be so when you examine their beliefs more deeply. This is certainly true of Einstein and Hawking. The present Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, told me that he goes to church as an ‘unbelieving Anglican … out of loyalty to the tribe’. He has no theistic beliefs, but shares the poetic naturalism that the cosmos provokes in the other scientists I have mentioned. In the course of a recently televised conversation, I challenged my friend the obstetrician Robert Winston, a respected pillar of British Jewry, to admit that his Judaism was of exactly this character and that he didn’t really believe in anything supernatural. He came close to admitting it but shied at the last fence (to be fair, he was supposed to be interviewing me, not the other way around). When I pressed him, he said he found that Judaism provided a good discipline to help him structure his life and lead a good one. Perhaps it does; but that, of course, has not the smallest bearing on the truth value of any of its supernatural claims. There are many intellectual atheists who proudly call themselves Jews and observe Jewish rites, perhaps out of loyalty to an ancient tradition or to murdered relatives, but also because of a confused and confusing willingness to label as ‘religion’ the pantheistic reverence which many of us share with its most distinguished exponent, Albert Einstein. They may not believe but, to borrow Dan Dennett’s phrase, they ‘believe in belief’.


Howard Jacobson
‘Just finished a new novel. About obsessional jealousy and its consolations.’


xciting times for religion, what with the Vatican telling Judas he can return to the Celebrity Big Brother House and Professor Richard Dawkins, in his role as evangelist of disbelief, offering a walk-on part to every crackpot who ever took the name of God in vain. How many humanists, sceptics and agnostics Dawkins contrived to lose to religious faith in the course of his two-part extravaganza, Atheism: the Musical, there is no scientific way of quantifying, but at a rough emotional count I’d say he recruited a million new believers for every minute he was on the box. Nothing returns one quicker to God than the sight of a scientist with no imagination, no vocabulary, no sympathy, no comprehension of metaphor, and no wit, looking soulless and forlorn amid the wonders of nature. On the eve of his television series, Professor Dawkins explained to The Independent where beauty resided for him – in Darwinian evolution. ‘It starts from primeval simplicity (relatively easy to understand) and works up, by plausibly small steps, to complex entities whose genesis, by any non-gradual process, would be too improbable for serious contemplation. . .’ Have you ever heard anything sadder in your life? If Dawkins had a little more bend in him, and I had a little more of the milk of human kindness in me, I would throw wide my arms and gather him to me. ‘But my dear, dear Professor,’ I would say, ‘do you not see that “prime-


Howard Jacobson


val simplicity working up by plausibly small steps to complex entities” is not what anyone means by beauty? Never mind that you are right. Never mind that you have science and reason on your side. Something else there is that human beings crave, not dreamed of in your philosophy, some other way of grasping meaning, some other sort of elegance and harmony your deafness and blindness to which leaves you stranded in the universe like a stranger.’ The intellectual nullity of Dawkins’ argument – that what you cannot scientifically prove cannot be, and that it is only religion that makes good men do evil things – follows, as surely as complex entities follow primeval simplicity, from the sorry blankness of his imagination. Take as an example his brutally illiterate reading of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac. For Dawkins, this hairspring parable of covenant, initiation and love, balancing obedience to God with devotion to your own flesh and blood, and explaining to a community the history and meaning of its abandonment of human sacrifice – a myth of civilisation, in other words – demonstrates nothing except the blood thirst of the Patriarch. That the ambiguities of the story have for centuries engaged and moved not only biblical commentators and the devout of three divergent faiths, but philosophers, anthropologists, historians, psychologists, poets and novelists, Dawkins doesn’t know or chooses not to remember. Not very scientific, either way. We do not deny the existence of Bible stories unpretty in their implications. The story of Judas – another soul left stranded like a stranger in the universe – for one. Great plot. Disciple betrays son of God with kiss in garden, leading to an arrest, leading to a crucifixion, leading to an ascension, leading to Christianity. Same disciple, meantime, suffers paroxysms of remorse, gives the money back, coughs it up from his entrails, keeps it and goes mad, hangs himself, or wanders the earth in a perpetuity of shame, depending which legend you believe. But becomes byword for greed and betrayal, forever associating the Jew with those vices (Judas/Jew – not an association that would have worked as well with Andrew, James, John or Bartholomew), and in the process lopping away the Jewish origins of a faith which its promulgators would rather you forgot ever had a Jewish component at all. So no, from a Jewish point of view, not an example of religion at its most conciliatory. I made a television film about Judas some years ago for Channel 4. Sorry, Judas, it was called. Some serious theological discussion, some art criticism, a few film clips, a bit of fooling about, but at its heart the argument that Judas was more fiction than fact, that it is theologically inconsistent to have traduced him for bringing about the will of God, and that it was by the agency of his perfidious character that anti-Jewishness became from earliest times embedded in Christianity. Not an


original argument. I got it from that brilliant work of angry and impassioned erudition, Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil by the late Hyam Maccoby. Mr Maccoby turned out to be disappointed by the programme, for which I continue to be sorry. I think he would have liked it to be more sober and more scholarly, which is not what television does. He wasn’t alone in not liking it. Correspondents to The Times complained of its flippancy, its irreligiousness, and its untruths. There was, they said, no justification for re-evaluating Judas, no reason to quibble with scripture, and no anti-Jewishness embedded in Christianity. And now – ha! – I am vindicated by the Vatican. Or rather, Hyam Maccoby is. They haven’t said ‘Sorry, Judas,’ exactly, as we had the Pope doing in our satire. And they haven’t said ‘Sorry, Howard,’ or ‘Sorry, Hyam,’ either. But they are seriously reconsidering Judas’s significance to Christianity, and his part in the cataclysmic history of its relations to Judaism. Which is a start. So there you are, Professor Dawkins: even that which religion appears to have set in stone, and which in your terms, yes, has been the cause of innumerable injustices and deaths, is susceptible to change. It has taken an unconscionable time, I grant you, but we should be grateful at least that more flexible minds than yours go on bending themselves to interpreting scripture. But there is something else I want to say to you. You cannot rout your enemy if you are determined not to know him. Religion comes in many more shapes than you appear to be aware. Not everyone who goes to Church or Synagogue believes that God made the world in five minutes the day before yesterday. Some of them don’t believe in that sort of God at all. And of those who do, only a few are what you call fundamentalists. If I made a programme about atheism and wheeled in Stalin and Pol Pot as prime examples you would have something to say about it. At the last, it is not religion that is the root of all evil, it is certainty. And the secular can do certainty every bit as well as the religious. It is a great thing to attack fundamentalism. But it would be an even greater thing to save religious people from it. And yours is not the way.

This essay was originally published in The Independent.


Kenneth Steven

That Year
That year the plough hit a hollowness, A missing thing whose sound stopped him, Brought him to his knees, His both hands dragging that wet blackness back. A hole in the earth. Seven, and the last light Honeyed from the west across the fields. He heard his heart; lowered himself through emptiness, Dropped into the softness of a cave kept silent Who knew how many hundred years. His eyes saw only darkness, then slowly woke, found walls Curving the place to a beehive, a cupped heart Woven out of careful stone, shaped smooth to something Whose name was buried with the hands that built it. Yet all at once he knew what this had been; The whispers, soft as candle flames, breathed his hearing, A peace shone from the dark and welled his heart So full he dragged the tangle of his hat away, stood bowed, As somewhere up above the curlews flew their evensong.



There are times a poem really seems to come from nowhere, to be an utter surprise to one’s own pen. Of course I know full well there’s more to it than that; poems come from deep places in the subconscious, triggered by a certain event or memory, a particular wandering thought. But I can well understand the Classical belief that poems were supplied by the Muse, a spirit being bearing the gift of something new, something unseen and magical. Because there are times poems land whole, require no re-working, are exactly the way they first spilled onto the page. They are almost invariably the special ones, standing in stark contrast to the others, that had to be fought for, chiselled out of darkness, laboured over intensively for days. No, it is those poems that are borne whole out of the fire that are the purest; the inner editor (we all suffer from one) has had no chance to destroy that purity, to end up editing out its clearest light. And so one inevitably feels that it has come out of nowhere, a magical thing for which one can take no credit. It has come from beyond oneself. I wanted in the poem to create a sense of the left emptiness, the ‘missing thing whose sound stopped him’. There are the two levels there – the land of the plough and of everyday work that the man leaves above, and then this extraordinary space below, but in a sense those two worlds exchange places. The tangible world of which he has been part falls away and he passes through into an emptiness, which was at one time filled but now is like the imprint of a fossil. You find these places, Celtic Christian sites like Clonmacnoise, an ancient monastic settlement on the River Shannon, and they are really fossil imprints of a strong spiritual feeling. And there’s the sense just in the very last breath of it, ‘the curlews flew their evensong’, as though he has understood something about this place, but that place itself has not been understood. It has been forgotten or has lain dormant and not understood for so many years. I didn’t want entirely to fill that space. I wanted the emptiness he goes through to survive so that in a sense every time the poem is read, every time it’s found, there is a replication of that space and the finding of it, and the filling of it by that individual. As a poet you have to learn how to be still and quiet in order to let the poetry sound. That business of listening is absolutely integral to the whole thing. When a poem falls from the pen it will be written, as this one was written, in no more than five minutes but then of course I’ll go back to it, possibly an hour later, possibly a day later, and start to get a sense of what the sound of this poem is to be. I start by reading it aloud, the whole mess – it is absolutely a mess! But I think at the very heart of it, each poem has got its own unique sound and there’s a characteristic sound patterning too. The second visit to the poem is a process of listening,


cutting away and discarding the words that lie outside that particular globe of sound. Here I wanted to create a kind of beehive shape – that’s how I imagined the space that he goes through and into. Some of the things I keep may seem to be superfluous but it’s really important to me to keep those little bits that anchor the event in reality. I call it the ‘kindling of detail’. In this poem for example it’s important that this happens at seven o’clock in the last light, no matter how prosaic that specific detail may seem to be, because of the significance the discovery is going to have for the man, the reverberation. He has a transcendent moment that is absolutely believable and fixed. In the same way, it is important that the man is ordinary, of the land, of the soil – I wanted him rooted in this world, and that fits in with my own faith and spirituality, the idea of ordinariness meeting transcendence. It’s about uniting what might be two disparate sides, bringing them together and underpinning them. Otherwise that space, that emptiness that is being described might just become nebulous, too ethereal and float away. The physicality of the encounter is crucial, the plough hitting the hollowness – and also the way that it just happens. I tend to find I pass through what I will call meteor showers of poems. For many months I write the odd thing; I have a cabin where I hide away to compose children’s stories, short fiction, essays – now and again a poem will grace the desk by the end of the day. But it often feels somewhat contrived, a ‘craft’ poem. This business of writing is, after all, a craft just as much as acting or painting or playing the violin; it is all about keeping the pen sharp and ready, about practising listening. Such a period can last several months; indeed I often reach a point when I believe it’s all over, that there won’t be a new shower of stars at all. And then it happens. As unexpected as lightning out of blue sky. One poem and then others, several and sometimes many. A large number of the poems in my latest collection Salt and Light were born in such a way, among them this poem. I didn’t even know where I was when I began writing the words; I was as much searching as the man in the poem. Somehow or other I was there, though (wherever there is) to the extent that I could hear and see and touch what lay around me. Somehow I’m more there than anything else. The writing cabin is a kind of tardis, a place not in and of itself but a transporter, a conveyor. And as the worker in the field begins to understand what he has discovered, so do I. And as he is filled with wonder and reverence for what he has found, so am I. For in the deepest sense it is not mine, it has not been made by me. It came from somewhere else: it was a gift.



The Somewhere Road
The car hummed out the dirt track west And the sun was low, a ball of orange-pink Flickering the trees and fields, Peaching soft the level land, painting the sudden somewhere of a house, Stranded in a field, deep in a sea of grass. And every house was still a story, and in the undug fields Were books, whole tomes, untouched, unwritten – Yet I could see their edges, in stray geese and bob-tailed deer, And in the eyes of those who stopped beside the road To smile, their faces made of light.

Wild Irises
A gale of children swept in today With wild bunches of flowers. They left them laughing on the kitchen table And in a gust were gone. All day they ran themselves free Up hills and down; At seven they came home, blown out, Sunset burning their faces. Now the house is asleep; It leans into the wind, smoke Hurrying at an angle from the chimney – The flowers on the table shining.


Gabriel Josipovici
‘The best thing I read last year was Rosalind Belben’s Our Horses in Egypt’ (Chatto) and in homage to Malcolm Bowie, who died last year, I reread his book on Mallarmé and the Art of Being Difficult and thought it was quite wonderful. I’m struggling with a new novel. Carcanet will be publishing two new novels of mine in 2009.’


ake your coat, Veronica says to her son as the 11.52 express from Milan glides soundlessly into the main line station of Geneva and comes, almost imperceptibly, to a stop. Make sure you haven’t forgotten anything. On the platform she takes his hand. – Can you see a taxi sign anywhere? she asks him. – There, Mum! he says, swerving off suddenly to the left. Once again she marvels at how big he has grown in the past few months. In the taxi she gives the driver an address and sits back, peering short-sightedly at the passing houses. – Are we going to see Philippe? – Not now. We’re going to the hotel first. – And then we’re going to see him? – No. Tomorrow morning. He is silent, playing with his backpack. Then, – Is this Geneva? he asks. – Yes. He is silent again. – I thought we could go for a boat-ride on the lake, she says. Would you like that?


He is silent, staring out of the window. – Would you? she repeats. – I don’t mind, he says, not looking at her. – Hôtel du Soleil, the driver says, pulling in to the kerb.

The next morning, at breakfast, he asks again: – Are we going to see Philippe today? – Yes, she says. – Where does he live? – Not far from here. We’ll walk. In the street she says: – Look, one can see the lake from almost anywhere in this city. – Come on, she says, stopping and waiting for him. Why are you dawdling so much this morning? She holds out her hand but he does not take it. He reaches up to my armpit, she thinks, soon it will be my shoulder, and then he’ll be as tall as I am. She looks at her watch: – We’re early, she says. Let’s go and have a coffee. – I don’t want a coffee. – You can have a coke. Though autumn is drawing in it’s still warm enough to sit on the terrace. – Don’t do that, she says, as he sucks noisily at the dregs of his coke through the straw. He puts the glass down on the table. – Do you want another? she asks him. He looks at her in surprise: – Another coke? – Why not? she says. We’re on holiday. She laughs, but he goes on looking at her, puzzled, across the table. – Or something else? she says. She fumbles in her bag, takes out a packet of cigarettes, selects one, lights it. – What’s the matter? she says. What are you looking at me like that for? – Nothing, he says. He retreats into himself. – Go on, she says. Have a milk shake. – Will you have one? – No. I don’t think so. But why don’t you? – No thank you, he says, in his most adult tone. – Another coke then? – No, Mum, he says, I don’t want anything,


She calls for the bill, stubbing out her cigarette as she does so. From her bag she takes a pair of soft black leather gloves. She draws them on, pressing between her fingers, smoothing them over her wrists. – Do you like them? she asks, holding up her hands for him to see. – They’re all right, he says. – I think they’re very nice, she says.

In the street she takes a piece of paper from her bag, examines it. The boy waits, looking idly round him. – Come, she says. She pushes him ahead of her. They round a corner. She says: – Look out for number 52. He walks beside her. She can feel the heat of his body against her side. – Here, he says. She presses the buzzer and the door opens. Opposite them is a lift. – Fifth floor, she says to him. In the lift she opens her bag and feels about inside it. Then she examines her face in the wall mirror. The lift stops. The inner doors slide open. They get out. Three doors give onto the landing. She peers at the name on one, moves to the next, rings a bell. Silence. – Come, she says to the boy. Stand here beside me. She rings again. Silence. She waits. Finally she says: – All right. We’ll come back later. The lift is still there. She opens the door and pushes him in ahead of her. In the street she hesitates a moment, then turns right in the direction of the lake. – What are we going to do? he asks. – We’ll have a little walk, she says. He walks beside her, absently. They pass a café. – Come, she says. We’ll have a drink. He follows her onto the terrace. She finds a table and sits down. – What will you have? she asks him. – Nothing, he says. – You must have something. – I’m not thirsty. – On a hot day like this? – The waiter is standing beside them. She orders a glass of wine for


herself and a coke for the boy. When he returns the waiter makes a great show of opening the bottle and pouring the contents into a long glass half-filled with ice. The boy stares ahead of him. – Go on, his mother says, when the waiter has left. Drink up. She peels off her gloves and lays them on the table beside her. – I’m not thirsty, the boy says. – It’ll do you good. – Mum, he says, it’s the second one this morning. – Never mind, she says. This is a special occasion, Reluctantly, he draws the glass towards him and sips the drink through the straw. She has finished her wine. She is examining her face in a pocket mirror taken from her bag. She applies some lipstick. She returns the lipstick and mirror to her bag, snaps it shut. – Go on, she says, Drink up. – I’ve had enough, he says, She calls the waiter, pays. She puts on her gloves, stands up. – Come, she says. In the street the boy says: – Mum, I need to pee. – Wait till we get to Philippe’s. – And if he isn’t there? – He’ll be there. They retrace their steps. In the lift mirror she again checks her face. The boy stands beside her, impassive. Once again she presses the bell. This time, after a pause, there is the sound of footsteps. The door opens. He stares at them in surprise. – Veronica! he says, when he realises who it is. What are you doing here? – Are you alone? she asks him. – Yes, he says, still staring. – May we come in? He steps aside. She pushes the boy in ahead of her. – Where’s the lavatory? she asks. He needs to go. He closes the front door. – I’ll take him, he says. When he returns she has gone into the large light living-room next to the entrance hall and is standing at the window. – Veronica, he says, coming towards her. What do you want? Then he sees the knife in her hand. – No, he says, Veronica. Put that away. He reaches out a hand to push her away but she brushes it aside.


– Veronica, he says. She leans into him and pushes the knife into his stomach as far as it will go. He gasps and sinks onto the sofa, dislodging a large glass ashtray on a little table by the sofa, which slides to the floor and smashes to pieces. She stands over him, puts her left hand on his shoulder and pulls out the knife. He gasps again and seems to fold in two. She wipes the blade of the knife on his trousers and puts it back in her bag. The boy is standing at the door of the living-room. – Come, she says. We’re going. He stands, looking into the room. – Philippe’s not feeling very well, she says, taking his hand and turning him towards the front door. In the lift she examines her face in the wall mirror. – Come, she says, as they leave the house. We’ve got to get to the hotel and collect our bags. She sets off down the street. He trails a few steps behind her.

In the train he sits opposite her, staring out of the window. Finally he says: – Will we have to go back to Geneva? – No, she says. I don’t think so. – I’m glad, he says, I didn’t like it much. Did you? – I liked the lake, she says. – I didn’t like it much, he says, putting on his most adult expression. It was too pretty pretty. She laughs, hearing the expression in his mouth. – It was, Mum, he says. Didn’t you think so? – I suppose so, she says. Now be quiet. I want to sleep.


what need we know of the workings of Nature in order to appreciate how consciousness may be a part of it?
there will most likely be a rule but I do not think an earthquake thinks as I think, nor the coral, nor the wasp’s nest for instance I think I can decide whether to dive today: yes or no it feels simple enough and started only this morning – it does not feel as though a billion steps have come to this: I will / I will not flop off the stern today then suppose otherwise: suppose I’ve burnt my foot and this black tissuey skin is shredding by rule – not one that ‘decreed’ I would burn my foot today, but one that said the cells will fall this way and this way shares a property with the growth of coral and the wasp’s nest and even with the shuffling of plates or dominoes?



faith in reason is the trust that the ultimate natures of things lie together in a harmony which excludes mere arbitrariness
the periodic tiling of the wasp’s nest, or coral but then a fox under the breakfast table and faith in the order of things takes a knock, though it was, as you would expect, running for its life at the time so there will be a thus and thus does this mean that as I descend the page the arbitrary must always elude me, that however much I strive to be undeliberate, cut paste and randomize or go automatic out of dreams or dominoes, or the thoughtless ingenuity embodied in the mouse, the arrival of Kirkland’s Warbler here, or August as Kintore, though yet to be understood by you could be, should you be interested enough? what would really count? can I who’s seen my Dad take the coal-hammer to treacle-toffee and a Christmas nut act words no explanatory power on earth could crack? Stop it now. We cannot have faith in the arbitrary, though some profess it, and are happy that freedom must equal chance. Are they more comforted than those of us who long for it all to lie together?
These poems will be included in Jeffrey Wainwright’s new book Clarity or Death! to be published by Carcanet in June 2008. 45

A. S. Byatt by Michael Trevillion

A. S. Byatt
‘I have just finished Stefan Zweig’s Die Welt von Gestern (The World of Yesterday) – which I was reading to improve my German. It is a wonderful picture of the world before, during and after the First World War, and ends with some marvellous moving pages about suddenly finding himself a stateless person and “enemy alien” in Britain at the beginning of the Second World War. My reading seems to be confined to that period as I am writing a novel which begins in 1895 and ends in 1918.’


t a conference in Venice I heard the critic Thomas Pavel give a splendid paper on the changes in the presentation of human nature during the history of the novel. In the beginning, he said, characters had immortal souls, and their actions took place in a battle between good and evil for the salvation or damnation of these souls. In later sentimental novels, souls had been replaced by hearts, and what mattered was romantic love, and the recognition of other selves. Later still, he said, the heart had been replaced by the psyche – a system of unconscious drives, revealed in dreams, not clear to the characters, though controlled by the author, who like the analyst, understood the forms of energy and action. Iris Murdoch, I think, felt that humans – including those of her characters who were philosophers and psychoanalysts – had not understood the shift in the moral world that had come about with the absconding of God, the vanishing of external, metaphysical moral authority. Her analysts tend to be daemonic, manipulating what she described as a ‘system’ and a ‘mechanism’ of sado-masochism. The effect of the understanding of Darwin’s evolutionary idea on lit-



erature has been deeply studied. Characters in the novels I read as a girl struggled with the meaninglessness of the chance world of gradual development of species, and death as a final end. I believe European novels went on using the Biblical and Christian stories as paradigms long after many of the novelists had lost their belief. Forms of art change more slowly than forms of thought or belief. Both Freud and Darwin put sexuality at the centre of human nature. In Darwin sexual selection is one of the important ways living creatures stay alive and pass on their characteristics. Freud thought all human action was driven by libido, and libido was sexual desire. This is reinforced and complicated by thinkers like Richard Dawkins, who sees all life as driven by ‘selfish’ genes, seeking self-replication and outliving the bodies in which they are temporarily housed. Freud saw what he called ‘the germ-cell’ as immortality. The body dies, the gene lives on. I’d like to make a brief comparison between two major American writers to show how I think these ideas have affected fictive forms. They are Saul Bellow’s Herzog (1964) and Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal (2001). Herzog’s hero, Moses Herzog, is Jewish, and a scholar who studies European Romanticism. His two names, Hebrew Moses, Germanic Herzog, define him ironically as a leader of men – he cries out, from time to time, that he had wanted to be a marvellous Herzog. But he is entangled in sexual disasters, cut off by successive divorced wives from his children, in a bodily and mental mess. He writes an increasingly wild series of letters to the living and the dead, trying to keep alive the history of European culture. One of the phrases that recurs is a question to Heidegger about ‘the fall into the Quotidian’, and a fall into the quotidian – into unredeemable ordinary life – is what has happened to the marvellous Herzog, a clever idiot. He writes a wild letter to an ex-tutor about the general ‘hatred of the present’: ‘This hatred of the present has not been well-understood.
Perhaps the first demand of emerging consciousness in this mass civilisation is expressive. The spirit, released from servile dumbness spits dung and howls with anguish stored during long ages. Perhaps the fish, the newt, the horrid scampering ancestral mammal find their voice and add their long experience to this cry…’

But Herzog has no real means of self-expression. His world is reduced to two things – sex, and cruelty. His moment of vision is a chance visit to a children’s court where two ordinary stupid people (one of them, the mother, disabled) are on trial for having beaten and killed a child. Herzog imagines the child’s terrible death. He


experienced nothing but his own human feelings, in which he found nothing of use. What if he felt moved to cry? Or pray? He pressed hand to hand. And what did he feel? Why he felt himself – his own trembling hands and eyes that stung. And what was there in modern post… post-Christian America to pray for? Justice – justice and mercy? And pray away the monstrousness of life, the wicked dream it was?

Herzog ends being looked after by a mistress who is kind and beautiful and has a religion of sex which she believes can cure his ailments. She encourages him to go into a hospital and rest. The letter-writer is defeated. The human being might survive. If Bellow is looking backwards in pain, Roth is glaring at the present. David Kepesh, the central character in The Professor of Desire, teaches a class about ‘novels all concerned to a greater or lesser degree of obsessiveness, with erotic desire’. He wishes ‘to disclose the undisclosable – the story of the professor’s desire’. He makes a pilgrimage to Kafka’s grave in Prague. He is taken to meet a woman who says she is the prostitute Kafka visited. He asks questions about the writer’s sexual habits, that is, the writer’s body. He is expected to pay to see her pussy. This is all he finds of the tragic, witty, complex mind of Kafka. Literature reduced to gravestone and whore, death and the body. Kepesh’s story continues in The Dying Animal. He is now a famous professor and TV personality. He falls in love with a Cuban student, called Consuelo, remarkable for her big breasts. He reflects on the wildness and personal freedom of the sixties, and also on an early American community, full of ‘riotous prodigality’, ‘licentiousness’ and ‘profuse excess’, which was called Merry Mount, a version of the Venusberg. He has, like Herzog’s Ramona, a kind of religion of sex – sex for pleasure, not for procreation:
Because only when you fuck is everything that you dislike in life and everything by which you are defeated in life purely, if momentarily revenged. Only then are you most cleanly alive and most cleanly yourself. It’s not the sex that’s the corruption – it’s the rest. Sex isn’t just friction and shallow fun. Sex is also the revenge on death.

The quotation which is the title, The Dying Animal, comes from a poem by Yeats – ‘Sailing to Byzantium’:
Consume my soul away. Sick with desire And fastened to a dying animal It knows not what it is.



Yeats’s speaker has an immortal soul. The Professor of Desire ends watching Consuelo of the beautiful breasts, hairless after chemotherapy, preparing to go under the knife and die. In Richard Sennett’s brilliant sociological book The Fall of Public Man (1977) there is a description of an extraordinary experiment in Paris in the seventies. Sennett’s thesis is that modern humans define themselves to themselves in terms of their private lives, and define their private lives in terms of sexuality. He says:
In the last four generations, physical love has been redefined, from terms of eroticism to terms of sexuality. Victorian eroticism involved social relationships, sexuality involves personal identity. Eroticism meant that sexual expression transpired through actions – of choice, repression, interaction. Sexuality is not an action but a state of being, in which the physical act of love follows almost as a passive consequence, a natural result, of people feeling intimate with each other.

It is in this context that he describes the Parisian experiment:
A primary relation between narcissism and sexuality can be drawn in terms of images people have of their own bodies. An interesting study conducted in Paris over many years has shown that as people come to take their bodies as more and more complete definitions of their own sexuality, the ‘symbolising’ of the body becomes less and less easy for them. As sexuality becomes an absolute state fixed in the form of the body, the people who are those bodies have increasing difficulty imagining phallic forms in natural organisms such as plants or feeling a relationship between bodily movement and the activity of a cylinder or a bellows… The study concludes that the result of this narcissism is a decrease in the ‘metaphorical’ imagination of the body, which is to say an impoverishment of the cognitive activity of creating a symbol out of a physical thing.

Self-definition in terms purely of sexuality is one consequence of the thought-patterns of the last half-century. I’d like to mention a paradox that interests me about human identity in the time of DNA analysis, and fertility treatments. Someone said that the question posed by the nineteenth-century novel was ‘Who is the father?’ We can now know who is the father, if we choose to find out, and increasingly we do. The British inventor of eugenics, Francis Galton, once said that the one right he felt every human being should have was the knowledge of his (Galton was not interested in women) own identity. People in Britain obsessively research their own genealogies on the Internet. At exactly the same time we


have developed medical techniques for bringing about the birth of human beings with very new forms of hereditary identities – humans born from donated eggs, donated sperm, possibly cloned cells from homosexual couples, brought up by couples, same-sex, heterosexual, to whom they may be related, or not, in all sorts of ways. What interests me, as a novelist, about all this, is how such a human being constructs his or her idea of his or her identity. Such newly created kinds of humans may be happily or unhappily brought up, contented or discontented – what is certain is that they will need to define their selves to themselves in different ways from children in nineteenth-century novels, orphans or members of large families, lost heirs or illegitimate children inheriting the ‘sin’ of their parents. I wondered, when I first began thinking about the Selfish Gene theory, whether the interest of novelists would shift from romantic love to parental love – from the desire for the Other to the need to know and preserve and care for the genetic group to whom we belong. I have attended the Darwin seminars at the London School of Economics, and listened to passionate debates about the relative powers of Nature and Nurture in the identity of living forms, including humans. I have also listened to discussions of the origins of altruism – from the sacrifice for the good of the genetically related, to the social benefits of co-operation. All these things are full of conflicts and compromises, tragic and hopeful, in which novelists can find both imagery and stories. Ian McEwan does so, and he is not the only one. The passage I quoted from Richard Sennett deplored the increase of a narcissism which he said caused ‘a decrease in the “metaphorical” imagination of the body, which is to say an impoverishment of the cognitive activity of creating a symbol out of a physical thing’. My final remarks concern the illumination that neuroscience, and the study of the activity of the brain, is beginning to bring to our understanding of how art works, and what it is. Over my years of writing I have come to see the delight in making connections – of which metaphor-making is one of the most intense – as perhaps the fundamental reason for art and its pleasures. Once, seduced by the poet William Carlos Williams and his pronouncement ‘No Ideas but in things’ – I decided to write a novel without metaphor, a novel of statement and description, without figurative language. I found I couldn’t write at all, and had to give up. Scientists are beginning to be able to watch minds – brains, that is – at work as they respond to art. Philip Davis, at Liverpool University, has been working with scientists on responses to Shakespeare’s syntax, and has found that the connecting links between neurones stay ‘live’ – lit up for longer – after responding to Shakespeare’s words, especially his novel formations of verbs from nouns, than they do in the case of ‘ordinary’ sentences.


When I was reading Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s extraordinary account of the 1950s meetings of the cybernetics group, which discussed minds and machines and what it was to be human, I came across a remark by a neural network designer about puns. I think it was Von Neumann but can’t be sure. Maybe, this scientist said, we delight in puns because the neurone connections become very excited by the double input associated with all the stored information for two arbitrarily connected things or ideas. Maybe we enjoy this excitement. It occurred to me that metaphors might arise from the same neuronal excitement – a double input, a strengthened connection. I wrote an essay on John Donne’s metaphorical excitement – a sensuality of the brain. During my lifetime we have used various metaphors for the activity of the mind – when I was a girl it was seen as a telephone exchange. Later it became fashionable to describe the brain as a computer – though a computer was constructed by a brain. Then there were all the philosophical problems of whether our perceptions were observed by a homunculus inside our heads – I never understood this one, as I had no idea of what such a homunculus might be, or might be doing. But I have in the last few years come across descriptions, both purely physical and philosophically theoretical, of the way the brain puts the mind together. They are in the work of Jean-Pierre Changeux. When he describes the relations between axons, dendrites, perception, memory, concepts and the world outside a brain, I feel I am reading a description of what I always sensed was happening, but could not describe. He is interested both in a biological and chemical ‘grammar’ or algebra, and in the way in which things we perceive are – by the neurones – retained and combined to make ‘images’ (which still have a sensory input) and ‘concepts’ which are made by strengthened and stabilised collections of neurones, related both by the ‘pruning’ (élagage) of the sensory input and the combinations resulting from the way the mental objects are linked. This may seem a little abstract. A novel is made of language, and arouses both feelings and thoughts in its readers, as it should depict both feelings and thoughts in its people and its microcosm. Changeux’s descriptions of the flesh of the mind – the cells of the brain – and the way they are excited and combine and recombine gives me a sense of understanding the excitement, the drive, the pleasure, I get out of making worlds with words. We have had a lot of the body as desire, and listened to many professors of desire. There is something else – the human capacity to think, and to make feelings into thoughts. It is a way out of narcissism.
This essay was originally presented at the Villa Gillet international writers’ conference in the summer of 2007.



My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint
Neither I nor you have anything left to say. Neither I nor you can mend or, with a final shove, Stay the damage, automatic and forever As a graveyard epithet set in stone, That spoils both our eulogies: a grudge Will take human form and walk on Heavy, clumsy, filthy feet, and with Smiling rotting teeth, venomously pronounce That both our lives were ruined By a cowardice, a dithering, only found In those guilty of some heinous, long-lived Crime, or those who, to sick excess, love. Father, though I’d lose the pleasure of the scan, Could that final ‘or those’ in the stanza above Disappear and then revivify, as it does Each night in tears that realise it as an ‘and’?



Rapture: Tim Discovers the Cosmos
As my cosmology fades, Tim’s forms like a birthing star and brightens. My illuminations go no further than: on a dull day powderbarks glow like conscience. Carnaby’s cockatoos fly back and forth uncertain as the barometer. Brightness forces similes. And we know about them. Once outside the earth’s atmosphere there’s no holding Tim back. He knows the order of the planets without a mnemonic, backwards. He is already travelling beyond them. An asteroid belt is no hindrance. His new, habitable planets — Leed, Watar, Vilantar, and Britar — have the sulphuric yellow clouds of Venus, the redness of Mars, the basic lack of atmosphere on his favourite ‘inner planet’, Mercury. Mercury — days of conflagration, nights of annihilating cold. The extremities define his planets, creation: the body has no limits. In space you can breathe. His — my — cosmos.



Rapture 6: The Crescent of Little Beach
Whale bones within the bay engrain the sands of Little Beach: waves lift from flatness to hit the granite pivot, top dress, then scour. Children make gothic castles out of sand that sticks together just long enough: filigree of kelp, all else beach-combed at first light. Why go further than these trappings of paradise, held in by peaks and islands, the intelligence of granite and scrub, shifting densities of sand? Sail out of the bay where edges fall away into narratives of economics? Dragging of footprints onto the clear, washed panel around about the waterline’s ambiguity, sunlight through clouds, light we expect to find over our shoulders, glancing off currents; bluer-green aura of mirror, a sensation of safety. We expect and accept the indigo depths: out in the bay, sheer weight of weed gripping the floor. Opened out, closed in. Sand compacts in whiteness. Granite Banksias: like mesophytic cultures choosing to share a language of distance and chance, parlay before curving out into the crush of the Southern Ocean. Always diving fresh water. Phrases. Easily injured. Inured, drawn into the crescent, out into the bay, sight is sonar, those blue-green variations in depth voice-overs of a Western Whipbird. Rowdy with tranquillity: Noisy Scrub Bird! Nocturnal ambulation of rediscovery: Gilbert’s Potoroo. The glimmering taint of extinction? Phases of interest. Rest here. Rest easy.


Canto of the Dry River Empyrean (30)
We cross river after river, dry deep into their beds, riparian fragility, cauterising winds whipping sand and dust into an effluvium of white rose we imagine, brought in from elsewhere. I clarify. I see lightning in cloudless skies. I see luscious fruits burgeoning out of riverbanks. I taste and see synonyms for beauty plash against the windscreen. All I see is perfectly out of kilter. All levels are levelled out. We cross river after river.




Faced by famous and great works from the past, it is hard for the modern mind to steer between a natural awe and being daunted. The danger is that we just give up. As an introduction and an encouragement to readers to throw themselves into William Wordsworth’s poem, The Prelude, four writers discuss their favourite passages. Stephen Gill, the renowned biographer of the poet, novelist Joanna Trollope, Michael O’Neill, poet and academic, and David Wilson, director of the Wordsworth Trust, lead the way.

Stephen Gill


illiam Wordsworth’s The Prelude is an autobiographical poem. The first part concerns Wordsworth’s childhood in the Lake District, so that’s probably the part of the poem that most people enjoy with its rich evocation of childhood joys. Then it follows him through chronologically from youth in the Lake District, university at Cambridge, and an amazing walking tour through Europe with a friend called Robert Jones where they walked something like 2000 miles to reach and cross the Alps; we have an account of his life in London, and then of course the poem takes us to revolutionary France from 1791 through to about 1793. The poem concludes with Wordsworth back in this country meeting Coleridge, and writing the Lyrical Ballads when he was twenty-eight years old. But reading the poem what we’re aware of all the time is that there are two time scales at work here for the growth of this poet’s mind. On



the one hand there’s the chronology I’ve just described, but the poem – even the earlier 1805 poem – took as long as six years to write and while he was doing it Wordsworth wasn’t sitting still. Inscribed in the poem there is the poet’s mental and emotional growth from 1798 through to 1805. You can also see the influence of Coleridge strongly in the books where he’s talking about imagination and love. The Prelude starts as quite a short poem, two books written in a burst of creative energy in 1798–9. But then it grew and was reshaped with another great burst of energy so that by 1805 it had grown to thirteen books. Between 1804 and 1805, perhaps thirteen months or so, Wordsworth wrote many thousands of lines of concentrated blank verse – some of the most wonderful, compressed poetry that he ever wrote. That must all have been completed within a year and yet he lived with his poem for the rest of his life. He continued to work on it, off and on, until 1850. There were no more bursts of composition, but we have to imagine Wordsworth growing old. He was sixty-nine when he last revised the poem. Queen Victoria was on the throne and he was a famous man. He was writing about himself in the French Revolution, going back to it, and living with it. The passage I’ve chosen shows the power nature came to bear on him. The poet’s a schoolboy, and he’s been playing with his friends in front of an inn by the side of a lake. The evening comes on, and he describes the pleasure they’ve taken in the afternoon:
The garden lay Upon a slope, surmounted by the plain Of a small bowling green; beneath us stood A grove; with gleams of water through the trees And over the tree-tops; nor did we want Refreshment, strawberries and mellow cream. And there, through half an afternoon, we play’d On the smooth platform, and the shouts we sent Made all the mountains ring. But ‘ere the fall Of night, When in our pinnace we return’d Over the dusky lake, and to the beach Of some small island steer’d our course with one, The Minstrel of our troop, and left him there, And rowed off gently, while he blew his flute Alone upon the rock; Oh! then the calm And dead still water lay upon my mind Even with a weight of pleasure, and the sky, Never before so beautiful, sank down Into my heart, and held me like a dream. (1805 text, II. 162–80)


What I like about this passage is, it’s first of all Wordsworth giving a sense of the pleasure he took with his friends. They’re just little boys, shouting and making the mountains ring, but then the passage turns into one emphasising the quiet, the isolation of this little minstrel on his rock. Most of all, look at the language of this. It’s all about your body being taken over by the outside world: the ‘dead still water lay upon my mind’, the ‘sky sinks down into my heart’, and the pleasure of it all is a ‘weight’. One of Wordsworth’s most used words is ‘joy’, and one of the things I value most in him is the emphasis he puts on trying to foster that in children. In the second book of the poem, Wordsworth says he wants to write about the growth of human personality. Where can one start? Where might one begin? And at that moment he says ‘Well, we must begin at the beginning’: ‘Blessed the infant babe’. And in the passage he takes the child back to the mother’s breast and describes the impact of love upon the baby from the mother, and it’s the mother’s love that guarantees the child’s, his word, ‘apprehensiveness’, his ability to learn about the world. And if this isn’t pre-Freudian, I don’t know what is. And all of this is written in 1799.

This piece is extracted from a conversation between the writer and Melvyn Bragg on BBC Radio 4. Readers who would like to hear Stephen Gill’s warm and wellfelt reading of this passage from The Prelude, will find it by typing this address into the browser window: This will bring you to The Reader’s blog, where there is a link to his reading. Strongly recommended! Two clicks and you’re there.


Edridge portrait of Wordsworth by kind permission of The Wordsworth Trust

Joanna Trollope


think – and actually, I think this about most poetry – that you have to read the passage out loud. Only then will you really feel the drama of it, and the urgency, and the energy: all qualities which are not currently and commonly associated with Wordsworth. A grave mistake…

My seventeenth year was come… I, at this time, Saw blessings spread around me like a sea. Thus while the days flew by, and the years passed on, From Nature and her overflowing soul, I had received so much, that all my thoughts Were steeped in feeling; I only then Contented, when with bliss ineffable I felt the sentiment of Being spread O’er all that moves and all that seemeth still; O’er all that, lost beyond the reach of thought And human knowledge, to the human eye Invisible, yet liveth to the heart; O’er all that leaps and runs, and shouts and sings, Or beats the gladsome air; o’er all that glides Beneath the wave, yea, in the wave itself, And mighty depth of waters.

(1850 text, II. 386, 394–409)


This passage comes from the second book of the immense (fourteenbook) autobiographical poem that took Wordsworth over half a century to complete, and which he referred to, touchingly, as ‘The Poem to Coleridge’. Such a dedication was of course in homage to the latter’s genius, but it was, as well, in homage to their shared belief in the supremacy of poetry, and The Prelude is, amazingly, the first attempt by any writer in English literature, to describe the growth of the human spirit and the development of creative consciousness. It is, really, the first specific chronicle of the imagination. Wordsworth is out of fashion now. He’s seen as wordy and ponderous and self-absorbed. But if you read this passage – finally revised when he was eighty – you will hear the boy of seventeen again, the boy recalled as vividly as if he were still present, the boy who leapt and ran and shouted and sang, and who understood that not only was he at one with all the natural glories of his Lake District childhood, but that these glories were the seed bed for all the passion and empathy and profound understanding that were shaping the future poet, his poetry – and, in turn and in time, all of us who read it.


Michael O’Neill

In a throng, A festal company of maids and youths, Old men and matrons staid – promiscuous rout, A medley of all tempers – I had passed The night in dancing, gaiety, and mirth, With din of instruments and shuffling feet And glancing forms and tapers glittering And unaimed prattle flying up and down, Spirits upon the stretch, and here and there Slight shocks of young love-liking interspersed That mounted up like joy into the head And tingled through the veins. Ere we retired The cock had crowed, the sky was bright with day; Two miles I had to walk along the fields Before I reached my home. Magnificent The morning was, a memorable pomp, More glorious than I ever had beheld. The sea was laughing at a distance; all The solid mountains were as bright as clouds, Grain-tinctured, drenched in empyrean light; And in the meadows and the lower grounds Was all the sweetness of a common dawn – Dews, vapours, and the melody of birds, And labourers going forth into the fields. Ah, need I say, dear friend, that to the brim My heart was full? I made no vows, but vows



Were then made for me: bond unknown to me Was given that I should be, else sinning greatly, A dedicated spirit. On I walked In blessedness, which even yet remains. (1805 text, IV. 316–45)

Wordsworth doesn’t immediately fit the bill as a Romantic partyanimal; here, however, he recalls coming home in the morning, after a night passed in ‘dancing, gaiety, and mirth’, with ‘Slight shocks of young love-liking’ tingling through his veins. Two Wordsworths, as so often, are in play: the young man, all keyed up, ‘Spirits upon the stretch’, and the remembering poet, poised and in sympathetic control. And the blank verse is a musical and mimetic form in Wordsworth’s hands, able to be at one with what it speaks of and able, above all, to modulate. I think of walking back from a disco past French vineyards when I read this passage, yet, of course, Wordsworth’s experience remains gloriously his, even though he enables us to share it. I’ve always admired the lines for the swiftness with which they glide believably from a recognisable experience to a less familiar one, the poet flooded with joy because somehow knowing (even though the recognition is ‘unknown’) that he was meant to be ‘A dedicated spirit’. When Wordsworth scales the heights, one feels obscurely that mere egotism has been swept aside; at any rate, here, the poet delights in what’s outside himself. ‘Magnificent / The morning was, a memorable pomp’: how finely the phrasing mixes up the polysyllabic and the bare, the verb ‘was’ (sadly revised in 1850 to ‘rose’) carrying and conferring the stamp of conviction. Wordsworth fuses the sublime and the ordinary into a single vision in which the ‘solid mountains’ seem to liquefy. It’s as though the ‘empyrean light’ of Milton’s Heaven or Dante’s Paradiso had ‘drenched’ the Lake District. At the same time, everything bears witness to ‘the sweetness of a common dawn’. Seeing those ‘labourers going forth’, the poet glimpses his purpose in life. Touched with the ‘blessedness’ for which Wordsworth gives thanks, the passage creates its own ‘bond’ with the reader.


David Wilson


s everyone knows, the French Revolution began in 1789 when a Paris mob stormed the Bastille. 1790 saw the abolition of the nobility and titles, and in July of that year Louis XVI swore an oath to the new Constitution. The supporters of the Revolution were at their most optimistic during that period. Wordsworth visited France in 1790 and in Book VI of The Prelude (1805) described his feelings – ’twas a time when Europe was rejoiced, / France standing on the top of golden hours,/ And human nature seeming born again’ (lines 352–354). In 1792, when again in Paris, Wordsworth met Michel Beaupuy, who converted him to the revolutionary cause. Wordsworth returned to England a short while after the September massacres in France of royalists and other prisoners. The moderate French government under the Girondins began to lose control to Robespierre and his radical Jacobins, leading to the trial of Louis XVI, which began in December 1792 and resulted in 1793 in his execution and that of his Queen, Marie-Antoinette. The supremacy of Robespierre and the Jacobins brought about the ‘Reign of Terror’, which saw the deaths of some 20,000 to 40,000 people, and dashed the hopes of many of those who had been supporters of the Revolution and its democratic ideals, including Wordsworth. This disillusionment with the failure


of the Revolution became a burning ember that helped to ignite the flame of British Romanticism – the writing of Wordsworth and Coleridge was in a sense both a reaction to the failure of the French Revolution and the desire to ensure that its ideals of fairness and equality for all, and the pursuit of the interests of ordinary people, were safeguarded. In the passage from Book X of The Prelude (lines 523–543) that follows, Wordsworth describes how, while crossing Lancaster Sands (Morecambe Bay Sands) in 1794, he learned the news of Robespierre’s own execution, which had occurred earlier that year, and his great joy at the news:
all the plain Was spotted with a variegated crowd Of coaches, wains, and travellers, horse and foot, Wading, beneath the conduct of their guide In loose procession through the shallow stream Of inland water; the great sea meanwhile Was at safe distance, far retired. I paused, Unwilling to proceed, the scene appeared So gay and cheerful – when a traveller Chancing to pass, I carelessly inquired If any news were stirring, he replied In the familiar language of the day That, Robespierre was dead. Nor was a doubt, On further question, left within my mind But that the tidings were substantial truth – That he and his supporters all were fallen. Great was my glee of spirit, great my joy In vengeance, and eternal justice, thus Made manifest. ‘Come now, ye golden times’, Said I, forth-breathing on those open sands A hymn of triumph, . . .

The oil-painting of Morecambe Bay, Lancaster Sands, illustrated here, was executed by David Cox (1783–1859). Cox was primarily a watercolourist and drawing master who achieved popularity through a series of influential drawing books. He first visited Lancaster Sands in 1834 and from 1835 to 1847 produced a number of both watercolours and oils on the subject of travellers making the dangerous crossing from Lancashire to what is now Cumbria. The scene depicted by Cox must be very similar to that experienced by Wordsworth when he heard of Robespierre’s death. In the passage from The Prelude Wordsworth not only conveys the richness of the setting, but also describes both his relief and his elation. It is a masterful piece: with an economy of words it describes the caravan


Morecambe Bay, Lancaster Sands, David Cox, 1824, oil on canvas, 33 x 48 cm. © The Wordsworth Trust.


of colour and gaiety observed by the poet, the water through which the procession passed and the distant and personified sea, ‘far retired’ – the poet’s interest in the natural world never absent from his mind and his writing. Wordsworth’s concern with the vernacular is reflected by the manner in which the glad tidings are conveyed to the poet, the traveller expressing them ‘in the familiar language of the day’, a moment that resulted in Wordsworth’s feelings of unbridled joy. This is all conveyed in twenty-one lines of verse containing only one hundred and fifty words. A prose writer might require many thousands of words to describe the scene and convey the same depth of feeling and expression of emotion.


Kate McDonnell

Get Into Reading facilitator Kate McDonnell asks: ‘What do you read in times of crisis?’


o you look for literature which directly confronts your experience, or would you rather use reading as an escape from it? It’s personal – almost instinctive – but I think I’ve always gone for the former. At a time when I was facing a life-threatening operation, I found help in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich: an unblinking look at what it is to die which tells you how to live. During the last few years, though, I and the other members of the Get Into Reading team have had to take this question beyond ourselves. In weekly reading groups, we’ve been sharing books with people who find themselves in hard places: homeless men, recovering drug addicts, people with chronic illnesses, people with mental health problems. How do you decide what to read with them? Should you avoid the sore spot, or is that the very area of their lives that people most want to examine? A while ago, a Cancer Information Coordinator who works with the libraries came along to our weekly staff meeting to ask for our advice. Every month she chooses a book and leaves copies of it in oncology clinics for patients to read while they’re waiting for their appointments – a good idea. Her first choice was a book by Gervase Phinn, but she’s struggled to find suitable titles since. Someone suggested another cheerful book to her – Millions, by Frank Cottrell Boyce – so she used that… only to


discover that it’s actually (though indirectly) about two bereaved boys struggling to find coping strategies after their mother has died – probably from cancer. She’s since become so supersensitive that she finds it hard to consider any book that has any death in it at all. Her anxiety is understandable: she has no way of knowing what effect the books will have on people – leaving the wrong book could be like leaving unexploded bombs. But couldn’t Gervase Phinn hurt, too? Couldn’t his sunniness press horribly on the raw emotions of some of those frightened people in the waiting room? Our general advice was to be bolder, to accept that one size will most definitely not fit all, and to trust individuals to follow their instincts to read on… or to put the book down. The advice to be bolder has grown directly out of our experience in Get Into Reading, where we share books by reading them aloud in weekly instalments and turning the pages together. Because facilitators can see the effect of books on people, we can explore highly relevant texts together, as when we read Of Mice And Men, Steinbeck’s classic story of two homeless drifters, at Birkenhead’s YMCA homeless hostel: George’s voice became deeper. He repeated his words rhythmically as though he had said them many times before. ‘Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place. They come down to a ranch an’ work up a stake, and the first thing you know they’re poundin’ their tail on some other ranch. They ain’t got nothing to look ahead to.’ Imagine reading this aloud to a group of homeless men, round a table in the shabby YMCA canteen, each with his own story of brokenness and isolation, whether through drug addiction, prison, abuse or mental health problems. They know how it may apply to them – and they know that you know. Of Mice and Men is set in America in the 1930s, but its core feelings of loneliness and rootlessness reach down through the decades. It doesn’t just patronisingly say, ‘I know how you feel’ (because however much we try, we don’t – quite). It first of all makes us all feel for the characters, for George and learning-disabled Lennie and their hard-to-live lives. Somehow, we make the connection with each other through our sympathy with them and, for a time at least, that makes everything level between us. The passage continues: ‘With us it ain’t like that. We got a future. We got someone that gives a damn about us. We don’t have to sit in no bar room blowin’ in our jack jus’ because we got no place else to go. If them other guys gets in jail they can rot for all anybody gives a damn. But not us.’


Lennie broke in. ‘But not us! An’ why? Because… because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why.’ He laughed delightedly. ‘Go on now, George!’ ‘You got it by heart. You can do it yourself.’ ‘No, you. I forget some a’ the things. Tell about how it’s gonna be.’ ‘O.K. Someday – we’re gonna get the jack together and we’re gonna have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow an’ some pigs and – ‘ ‘An’ live off the fatta the lan’,’ Lennie shouted. ‘An’ have rabbits. Go on, George! Tell about what we’re gonna have in the garden and about the rabbits in the cages and about the rain in the winter and the stove, and how thick the cream is on the milk like you can hardly cut it. Tell about that, George.’ The men in the YMCA, although they usually listened with intense concentration, didn’t always articulate their thoughts on what we were reading – none had ever been in a reading group before and the whole idea of talking about books was new to them – but after reading this passage, one young man with literacy problems, who had a difficult childhood which included spells in care, and who was also an alcoholic, simply said: ‘That’s all any of us wants, in here.’ In response to Lennie’s pleas, George paints the dream picture time and again throughout the novel, but they never do get their ‘little house’ even though, for a brief spell, and much to their astonishment, it really seems that they might. The book has an extremely sad ending. But that was okay with the blokes in the YMCA, too. ‘That’s well-sad, that,’ one of the men commented. But there was also something satisfying about it: it didn’t offer glib answers. The story George keeps telling to Lennie isn’t just escapism: it always starts with grim reality and then moves on to his relationship with Lennie and what might be built out of that, and it really helps both of them to keep hearing it. Our group for people suffering from depression chose to read (from a short list of books I suggested) Tess of the D’Urbervilles together, chapter by chapter, week by week for nearly five months. I have to admit that I found reading Hardy’s vision aloud to this set of troubled people rather a daunting prospect, and I ended each weekly session with a poetry escape-ladder, linked to whatever we’d read in the book, but looking at it in a different way. ‘Are you sure you don’t mind reading something so sad?’ I asked when we were absolutely in the thick of it. ‘Not at all,’ one woman smiled, ‘we all know sadness is a part of life, and we wouldn’t believe in anything you brought in that said it wasn’t.’ ‘Tell how it is with us, George,’ asks Lennie. And sometimes, that’s where it has to start.


A Little
There’s a plaque somewhere where you’re meant to be, a fleeced memory near a baby oak tree. You made my birthday cake when I was four, can’t remember, did you like a cup or a mug? For your strong white tea no sugar, is it me, or have you been gone forever.

And suddenly, slowly I’ll fade into the piece of ocean so deep, it looks to be black. Cold like winter mornings, shuddering to get dressed under the covers, dark enough to warrant a pale light. Black as the lane we wandered, looking for a friend, nothing but the road’s texture, we guessed each unexpected bend. I’ll fade and spare you, there’s silence to hold me safe, a calm hand smoothing out my panic, a place of nothing to deafen me into peace.



Not in the good way
I was snuggled in freezer frosted unfeeling, wrapped up empty and alone. Spending selfish Saturdays in lavish ways, and never sharing the remote. I’m exhausted already and now there’s texting, there’s ‘wait at least an hour to reply’, ‘don’t: show it, say it, mean it’. Great advice when I’d just like to try. I’m baby’s first focused look. I’m bambi learning to walk. I’m a pigeon finally poisoned; in short I’m totally fucked.


Angela Macmillan


ome time ago, the thought occurred to me that there must be hundreds of people in care homes, still mentally alert but, for a variety of physical reasons, no longer able to read much or at all. I had only to make myself available and there would be dozens of eager old folk queuing to join my reading group. Now that I have been running reading groups for the elderly for twelve months, I know that the majority of residents in care homes are probably not going to be interested. But for those who are, the comfort and mental stimulation of the reading group can be hugely beneficial in terms of well being. Last week I asked my care home group of six regular attenders what they thought they gained from coming. One said that nothing else she did during the week was so ‘mentally stimulating … Well, it’s stimulating and relaxing at the same time, if you see what I mean’. And I did see what she meant. The meetings are regular, we feel comfortable with each other, people’s thoughts and ideas are taken seriously, and we usually laugh a lot. We read everything from Wordsworth to Wendy Cope, from War and Peace to Wind in the Willows. After some weeks I decided to read Tennyson’s great poem on old age, ‘Ulysses’. Here is the ending of the poem: Come, my friends. ‘T is not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths


Of all the western stars, until I die. It may be that the gulfs will wash us down; It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, And see the great Achilles, whom we knew. Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are, One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Is it simply a poem about Ulysses or is there more to it? Molly said there is more – it’s about being old but not giving in and thinking, ‘This is the end and that’s that’. I asked them which lines they thought true and she gave me: ‘That which we are, we are’. ‘You can’t change things’, she added, ‘you just have to get on with it’. Tommy agreed with her. He said you needed courage and willpower, and love, to go on facing life. I told them that Tennyson had written it in response to the death of a friend and Penny (who had been delighted to find that Ulysses’ wife was called Penelope), said that having lost her husband two years ago she could now understand the line ‘Tho’ much is taken, much abides’. The main requirements of a good facilitator for the elderly are a love of reading, a very loud voice, a thick skin – and the confidence to be able to manage group dynamics. (Because the members of care home groups live together, there are occasional differences and bad feeling between residents.) Certainly it helps to have a background of serious reading, as there is something of a relentless need to find suitable reading material. Not all groups are capable of reading through a novel in weekly instalments. The alternative is to find a good short story or extract from a novel, which will most likely need judicious editing to fit the time slot. For every twenty short stories read, probably only one will be suitable. A lot of literature is about human unhappiness: a facilitator has to be able to judge the mood of their group and know when to avoid the downbeat and whether for example it is wise to read poems that have death or bereavement as their subject. This is not to say we shy away from difficult books but the consequences of choosing the wrong texts are serious. Time is short and precious for the elderly; if they are bored, or upset by the readings they will just stop coming. My second group is rather different. It takes place in a nursing home for the elderly. Each week the home’s activities organiser, Gill sends out invitations to the patients she thinks are likely to be interested. When I arrive, those who have accepted are assembled and enjoying tea with pretty china, and cakes and biscuits from an ornate cake stand. Gill and


another carer always stay with us, which is essential, as usually someone will need attention during the session. The average group number here is ten and we all squash into a small room with no windows. I read a poem and a short story and the whole session lasts approximately one hour. Although we have lost people to illness and to death, at least eight people have been coming regularly since I began in January ‘07. Most members are in wheelchairs and many have suffered severe strokes leaving them with different levels of disability. Several of them have difficulty speaking, some are also rather deaf which means they can’t hear each other, and yet after nine months we all feel the friendship and relaxed pleasure of belonging together in the group. The sheer effort of attending should not be underestimated. Anne, for instance, is a very private, well-educated lifelong reader. She has motor neurone disease and is increasingly unwell. Gill tells me the reading group is the only activity for which she leaves her own room. She is in constant pain and sometimes can barely speak or hold the photocopied poem, and yet she has missed just one session in nine months. She thinks hard and seriously about what we read and is usually exhausted by the end of the session. I have found that the poems that work best are strongly rhymed and rhythmed, and perhaps something remembered from school. My group in the care home are willing and able to wrestle gently with the language of a new poem, but in the nursing home what they really respond to is something that they know: Tennyson’s ‘Lady of Shallott’, Walter de la Mare’s ‘The Listeners’, or something that they know something about: we talked for ages about steam trains and train journeys and the joys of writing and receiving letters after reading Auden’s ‘Night Mail’. After reading Elizabeth Jennings’ poem, ‘Friendship’, people told movingly of their life’s best friends. It is the same with the fiction: novels or stories that remind them of something they have lived will stimulate the best discussion. Life is a constant struggle for meaning and understanding. Towards the end of life the task of trying to fit together all the pieces of experience – some of which have become separated or lost – to make a sense of whole, meaningful life is crucial. The idea of nostalgia, as merely sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, is often considered retrograde but I would argue that the positive and beneficial use of nostalgia can be a re-collecting of past experience which allows a sense of present pride and achievement. The reading of literature stimulates and validates memories and it is, for the majority of elderly members of reading groups, a serious pleasure.


Enid Stubin


t Via Emilia, a rollicking Modenese trattoria in my neighborhood, the menus were suffering from typographical gremlins. Now, I happen to enjoy typos: the sign at my late lamented local market, the postlapsarian Garden of Eden, regularly offered ‘wollnuts’. ‘Gralefrit’ and ‘balm carousel’ confused diners at Fawlty Towers, and on East 21st Street ‘fried calamity’ nudged up against ‘masculine sald’. But at lunch last summer a table of editors from Farrar, Straus & Giroux had complained about the Via Emilia errors, and I was brought in last week, after salmon over greens with my niece, not just to proofread (that is, to red-pencil the usual goofy mistakes only to find them mysteriously restored in the next batch of menus), but to overhaul the whole project. Consider: ‘parmesan’ or ‘Parmigiano Reggiano’? Would anyone understand what ‘Modena’s little tile-baked mountain bread’ is, let alone order it? Having regularly gobbled my way through the entire menu, I came to welcome the silly transpositions and misspellings – maltigliati, the rough-cut pasta that hobnobbed with cannellini beans in a favorite soup, was rendered as ‘baldy-cut’. But William wasn’t kidding, and I arrived, officious after a long day pushing students around, to set all straight with an olive-green Le Pen. The Mac laptop I found poised at a back booth alarmed me: it sat up expectantly, mouseless and daintily unmoored to reality. And on it were the fall offerings, which resisted centering on every line. I asked Johnny how to scroll down and insert



emendations and recognized the central difference between PCs and Macs – did Umberto Eco style it as the distinction between Protestantism and Catholicism? I flung my briefcase, raincoat, and hat onto the commodious banquette and eyed the machine. Tidy and charming, it yielded nothing as I tapped gingerly and saw a regional specialty disappear into the ether. Another few minutes at the touchpad and I would obliterate the restaurant’s entire menu, forcing the place into receivership and making way on the block for yet another upscale kitchen-and-bath shop or strip club. ‘Bring this girl a glass of wine, somebody!’ William thundered, and I began to understand the cachet of finding oneself under the protection of the boss. I also thought of Volodya Vlashkin, magisterial emperor of the Yiddish theater in Grace Paley’s ‘Goodbye and Good Luck’: ‘“Dorfmann!” he hollered like a king. “Bring this child a seltzer with fresh ice!”’ Click, worry the pad, click, and type. Backspace to the left only. Don’t get cute. Whole dishes capered flush right and then hiccupped left. What good was I doing? The exquisite Yukiko ambled over to cast a gimlet eye at the spacing, all of which looked spurious to her. ‘Martina!’ I wailed, but then we got slammed by the early dinner rush, and I was left to my dithering. ‘Balsamic vinegar’ or simply ‘balsamic’? William came over in his chef’s coat and baseball cap to correct my second-guess spelling of ‘azzuro.’ I deliberated: ‘Roast wild boar’ or ‘Wild boar roast’ – the latter sounded like a Friar’s Club extravaganza. Adam carried over a plate of cold cuts, soft cheeses, and tigelle (aha – Modena’s tile-baked mountain bread) with a glass of chilled Pagadebit (‘Floral, aromatic, herbal, honey, and medium body’), but I was sweating. The menus were supposed to go out the next morning, twelve hours after I’d sworn to mail my Spy copy to Sarah Coley. ‘Martina needs to do it’, I bit off, aware of my inadequacy, and so Kiko, Paul, and Shinya covered the tables to allow Martina to perform some fancy formatting that involved realigning margins, flushing left, and centering each line individually – artisanal design, if you will. My wispy knowledge of PC lore proved useless, and while I’d have loved to bustle over and take some orders during the Thursday night crush, I sat, tense, and watched. The final scroll-through posed more moments of anxiety: capitalize ‘Lambrusco’ but lowercase ‘cacciatore’? What was the textual justification? Had I, in fact, established anything in the way of methodology for my editorial intervention? What would the machers of the Society for Textual Studies say? The font for ‘Antipasti’ was subtly smaller than that for ‘Zuppi’ or ‘Paste,’ but who knows whether a change would bounce the whole megillah onto a third page? Those graphic designers – they earn every penny they make. Then, just as it was settled, the enigmatic Mac handed me this quan78


dary: ‘Save’? ‘Save as’? You know the dilemma of replacing an entire file – in this case, a season’s eats. I was ascared. The fruits of my decision would be laminated and cry out my carelessness all winter. I began to match piatti with the folks I’ve yet to meet. Sarah would enjoy the tortelloni di zucca with butter and sage. I’d offer Brian the stinco, a savory lamb shank served with polenta and sautéed spinach (though with just a shrug he could have roasted potatoes and Swiss chard instead). John, who shares my admiration for Nigella Lawson, should definitely choose the gnocco fritto, puffy fritters served with prosciutto di Parma, soppressata dolce, coppa, and mortadella – it’s a dish that dish Nigella would happily scarf down in the wee small hours of the morning. For Chris, the tagliatelle al ragù, noodles with a Bolognese sauce that never fails to comfort – or maybe the lasagna, so popular that it’s the only dish without a descriptor. And for Jen the tagliolini alla vecchia Modena, a heady and elemental bowl of thin noodles with braised garlic, Parmigiano Reggiano, and balsamic. The misticanza, a refreshing salad of microgreens, red grapefruit, and provolone, had been axed after the relocation from Park Avenue South, but one could be rustled up if my name was mentioned. It’s better than having a sandwich named for one at the Stage Deli. Angie might like the salmon special, lemony and bright with diced avocado. And I’d feed Jane and Phil the borlengo, a gossamer wafer fragrant with rosemary and pancetta, scattered with parmesan – sorry, that’s Parmigiano Reggiano – and prepared in a special two-foot-diameter pan and halved and halved again, a savory wedge of satiny crispness and salt. William once saw me applying knife and fork to one and filipped the back of my head resoundingly with his middle finger and thumb. ‘Don’t embarrass me,’ he hissed. ‘Eat it with your hands.’ And you, Reader’s readers – what would you like? Split a pasta appetizer and choose the scaloppine with asparagus? Try the special soup – carrot and ginger – and follow with the grilled bluefish over roasted root vegetables? Have the polpettine di melanzane, eggplant patties with goat cheese, and then share an order of caramelle di Castelvetro, the witty candy-shaped pasta stuffed with pork, spinach, and ricotta? If we’re feeling wicked, we can have the profiteroles or an espresso pannacotta. Or should we double up on everything and feel virtuous about the strawberries and balsamic for dessert? What are we drinking, the tanniny Levata, the earthy Malbo Gentile, or one of Tomoe’s big, fizzy Lambruscos? Order up, ragazzi – this is my party.




his weekend I must find time to read a four-hundredpage manuscript, two proposals for non-fiction books, two hardbacks which must be reinvented in paperback in a year’s time with fashionable, enticing jackets, and a classic which needs a snappy new introduction from the right person. I’m also halfway through a book by Jonathan Safran Foer called Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which has been lying half-finished by my bed for far too long. This is quite a lot of reading to fit into two days, especially as I have a very splashy January cold; a friend I’d like to see who’s departing imminently on a round-the-world tour for six months; some knitting I’d like to finish and the normal business of eating and sleeping to get on with. It’s normal for me to have this much to do. I’m terrible at time management, and really, it’s quite right and proper. When it emerges in conversation that I work for a publisher, people sometimes ask how many books I read in a week, or how many hours of the day are spent with a book – do I really love reading? And they are surprised to hear that my job itself (the office hours) involves anything but reading. It’s the rest of life that the books absorb. Indeed, I was told point-blank by my boss, that the more of my life I sacrifice to reading the better I will do in my career. Perhaps it’s not surprising then, that despite my regular weekend manuscript-load, my new year’s resolution for 2008 is to ‘read more’.


Other new year’s resolutions are more gruelling, I tell myself. I could be trying to ‘exercise more’, ‘become a vegan’ or ‘discover the hidden truth of it all’. But I’m finding this one enough of a struggle. Here’s how it is. I’m eager for more reading in order to advance up the ladder. I’m given a manuscript to read by my boss or another editor – one of my superiors. I read it in order to judge if it’s worth publishing with these questions in mind: Is it well written? Is it something new? Who will buy it? And then there come the more personal kinds of question: Is it worth publishing because it’s a great work of literature or because it will sell lots of copies? Does it move me? Then come the most personal considerations of all, because I’m not reading the book wholly for its own sake or that of the author, but for my sake too. For, if I like the book and the editor who passed it on to me likes it too, we’ve now got something in common; we’ve started a relationship. The next time this editor likes something, they might pass it on to me in hopes that I’ll support them again. The more reading I get, the better I’m doing because I’m building up relationships – so my reaction to a book becomes a kind of currency, which I hope will gain in value. This could all appear excessively Machiavellian but in fact there is little point in being crafty: championing a book merely to curry favour with a colleague could easily backfire. In the absence of experience, a newcomer like me must rely on honesty and instinct. And this means that those tentative relationships with other readers that are based on common liking are really deeper and more worthwhile, parallel in a way to the kind of closeness you have to a writer. My resolution to ‘read more’ is therefore expressive of a wish to do better at my job. But depending on what I’m reading, my progress is either cheerfully straightforward or hopelessly mired in doubt. The job means that I’m constantly reading outside of my comfort zone, both in terms of what I’m reading and the way I’m reading it. When I was younger and reading for my purest pleasure, I devoured books, skipping paragraphs of description or bits I didn’t understand in order to follow the story and find out what happened at the end. If I liked a book, I’d probably read it again sometime, at a more leisurely and attentive pace. Then I learned how to read closely, how to value my first response to a poem or a book and then how to explore and understand what was happening within that response. I began to value the writers and books that most rewarded this kind of close reading; those that taught me something about states of feeling, types of experience, ways of thinking. My acquaintance with The Reader and Get Into Reading has made me think about the practical use of literature. The result is that I want books to provide more than escapism and enjoyment; I want them to teach me and help me somehow too.


These demands are big and the right ones to make, but even so I confess I can be somewhat puritanical in my approach to reading. Especially when I’m approaching contemporary fiction. I’ve found so much of it can be clever and well written but it seems contemptuous in dealing with anything human or everyday, and disappointingly unoriginal in its insights. I’m squeamish perhaps, but I’m fed up with the perception that ‘good’ writing must derive from its ability to shock, to horrify, or that the value of reading is only to expose yourself to what you can hardly imagine in terms of cruelty, neglect, subversion or menace. I’m not really interested in any more quirky journeys of self-discovery either. In the worst of my Scrooge-like humours, the hyperbole that is a prerequisite on the back cover of paperback books appears like a mirage, a code that merely disguises a book I read before and didn’t like. So ‘breathtaking historical accuracy’ means to me ‘worthy but flat’; ‘superbly crafted’ smacks to me of ‘overwritten’; ‘stylish’ is another word for ‘slight’. But all this cynicism leaves a sour taste. I know these descriptions don’t apply to everything being written today, which is why I’m lucky that I’m forced to challenge my own prejudices every time I’m passed a manuscript. Yet, since this challenge is not always rewarding, picture me now, racing through my four-hundredpage manuscript, reading one word in ten while one half of my head is thinking ‘Humbug! Not good enough!’ and the other is thinking ‘Yes, but someone else might like it, and might it sell?’ The result is dizziness and confusion and a fair amount of pomposity, and before the end of 2007 I fear my reading was sluggish and half-hearted and anything but pleasurable (which is when the knitting started: a purposeful entanglement of wool to hide from the confusion of my mind). Bad news for my mental health, bad news for all the manuscripts that came my way, and bad news for my career prospects. My resolution to ‘read more’ this year will take just as much discipline as a weekly trip to the gym, as it too involves building up muscles that are growing flaccid; sometimes it may be just as distasteful as a diet of broccoli. Reading more will mean I must ‘walk abroad’, to put it in Jacob Marley’s terms, a little more; it means rediscovering inquisitiveness and an open mind, and to do more of the reading which keeps my heart up. Translated into other terms it is a resolution to avoid that torpid and shrivelling cynicism at all costs.


Jane Davis


ithin my adult life-time our culture has accepted the demise of the book. It is dying on two different levels. Firstly, least importantly, it is probably about to be superseded as an artefact. I don’t mind. Mechanical print has been a great thing but if something comes along that makes it easier and cheaper to get the living content of books into readers’ hands and hearts then I’m all for going digital. Only I hope the device, whatever it is, is self-powered: I wouldn’t want to be left bookless when civilisation breaks down and we have no national grid. The second death is more serious. We are talking, to blow it up to ultra-grand dimensions, about nothing less than the values of our civilisation. You might not like me going on like that, but that is certainly what Doris Lessing was talking about in her Nobel acceptance speech, ‘A Hunger for Books’ (reprinted in The Guardian, Saturday 8th December 2007). As in her novels, she looks upon our world with clear, puzzled eyes and sees the pattern we are lost in, comparing desperate bookhungry Africa with the careless over-stuffed non-reading West:
We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few years ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and young women, who have had years of education, to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing.

The loss is not among the 23% of our adult working age population who do not have the skill of reading a book and for whom the Govern83


ment has launched a new National Year of Reading, aimed primarily at the poor and unskilled. No, the loss is taking place among those who have the skill but not the will to read and so I wonder whether the emphasis should have been placed on the non-reading or down-dumbing educated people who set our cultural tones and benchmarks. I read the rest of the papers on Saturday 8th December with Mrs Lessing’s words ringing in my mind. There’s Giles Whittell in The Times writing against Shakespeare.
It’s the plays I loathe, and the orgiastic groupthink that drips from every one of them; the industrialised, irresistible consensus, the greatness thrust upon them by brainwashed English teachers… Shakespeare isn’t terrible. He was a decent jobbing wordsmith chosen by accident of history as a vessel for the projected yearnings, every bit as intense as his own, of succeeding generations. He was literature’s Brian (as in Life Of). If he were alive today he’d be a copywriter with a blog.

This ignorant rant is typical of the relation some educated people have to great literature: they want to crush it down to smallness. Perhaps for a modern journalist it is fulfilling to look down on ‘great writers’ and to show they were nothing special. If Dickens were alive he’d be writing EastEnders – he only wrote for the money, you know. And Jane Austen – why, it’s just sex and shopping without the shopping and with no sex: pre-consumer chick-lit. Let’s laugh at those so-called greats. Mariella Frostrup – voice of the BBC Radio 4 programme A Good Read – knows what those greats are good for, and she tells us so in print. I kept this cutting from The Observer a couple of weeks earlier:
We’re told that once we digest the classics we unlock the secrets of the universe, but there are days when I wish I’d learnt to fix a boiler or basic electrics. Literature may be revered in high places but most writers I’ve met are pretty useless at anything else. So we should be grateful there are intelligent children and adults out there for whom books don’t appeal and whose skills lie elsewhere.

Giles Whittell, I suppose, is one of those intelligent adults, and yet one can’t help but feel it is not simply a lack of appeal that fires his rage against Shakespeare. It is the idea of greatness, and perhaps more precisely, of canonical greatness, because the canon, in more ways than one, implies Authority. Who in our free-thinking democracy gave anyone the right or clarity to make literary judgements? Who says Shakespeare’s the best? Of course, in real life, people make critical judgements all the time but there is a weird state of affairs in which it is culturally acceptable to


choose to read Hello magazine or to watch Big Brother, but reading, let’s say, Montaigne, is not something that most educated modern people would mention in public. (All praise to Jane Shilling, who has often mentioned her obsession with that great writer in her Times column, and who once wrote about him in these pages.) People are wary of being seen to choose the difficult, the thoughtful, the slow, as if there were, after all, a nub of understanding in the anti-serious tone of our shared public life: we must mock because what if life is serious after all? Isn’t it better just to go for fun? For irony? And keep it up. My God, we’re glad the Emperor is in the altogether. Let me tell you the story of someone I’ll call Gill. I met her at a Weight-Watchers club, on a Merseyside housing estate, where I had come to lose a couple of stone, and to meet potential Get Into Reading members. I’d brought some books, a short story to read, and was there for a couple of hours meeting people. Mostly they weren’t very interested in what I had to offer. But Gill was interested. ‘I’ll come to a reading group,’ she said. ‘But will you have any better books?’ She didn’t fancy the one I’d been reading, a short story by Tobias Wolff. She looked though the selection I had unpacked and picked up Great Expectations. ‘Dickens. I wouldn’t mind reading that,’ she said. Some of the other women thought it would be boring but Gill said ‘I want to read all those books I thought were rubbish at school. Shakespeare, the classics. I want to understand them. I want to know why they are good.’ (A great response to the canon: meet the challenge.) We try to recruit more mums on the basis that reading is good for your kids. Because what children need is not just ‘the right book’ but an adult role model for reading. Shared reading needs to go on past the age when a child can read for herself, and reading ought to be something the adult is seen to choose to do. So it was encouraging to read the front-page Daily Telegraph report that Ed Balls’ new education strategy is to reach children by targeting parents. The measures will include incentives to encourage mothers and fathers to take part in school life and to read to their children. You can see why this is necessary. I helped a young friend prepare for A level two years ago. He got his ‘A’ grade and is now studying law at one of the great redbrick universities. He was astonished that my first requirement was that he read. His teacher – at a grammar school with some of the best state school results in the country – did not expect the A level English group to read a whole book, still less a whole Shakespeare play. Neither did this teacher have his own (visible) response to literature. He answered the question ‘What do you think, Sir?’ with the bleak assertion, ‘I am not here to think, I am here to facilitate. I am a facilitator.’


We look back with disgust at previous styles of education, those rows of desks with kids bolt upright reciting the times tables, but surely people will look back at us with the same sense of appalled horror: our cynical pursuit of exam passes while the actual skills and enjoyment of reading fade. I turn back to Doris Lessing:
Very recently, anyone even mildly educated would respect learning, education and our great store of literature. Of course we all know that when this happy state was with us, people would pretend to read, would pretend respect for learning. But it is on record that working men and women longed for books, evidenced by the founding of working-men’s libraries, institutes, and the colleges of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Reading, books, used to be part of a general education. Older people, talking to young ones, must understand just how much of an education reading was, because the young ones know so much less. We all know this sad story. But we do not know the end of it. We think of the old adage, ‘Reading maketh a full man’ – reading makes a woman and a man full of information, of history, of all kinds of knowledge.

It is now accepted that the young won’t want to read. It is accepted because, generally speaking, older people don’t want to read either. We want new fashionable clothes; we want to drive our four-by-fours, jet out to holidays in the Maldives, employ a Polish nanny, have a second home in Cornwall or Gloucestershire, yes: but read great literature? Get away – we haven’t time. But here’s the punch: it is not about time. The truth is that our desires and imaginations have gone elsewhere. They have gone, as Doris Lessing implies, into stuff. We are ‘stifling in our superfluities’. We have lost connection with our human essence, the ‘full man’. It is we, as much as and perhaps more than the book-hungry, drought-ravaged Africans whom Lessing writes of, who are broken and done for. Because this is the work of all that is termed ‘pretty useless’ by Frostrup:
It is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us – for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed.

But I would pinpoint the cause of this loss more precisely than the mere desire for ‘stuff’. There’s worse: the literary world has been killing itself off. If you are a teacher or literature professional close your eyes now. If we saw culture as an organism, I’m afraid we’d have to say that


ours has been infected by a cannibalising virus. I’m talking literatureimpoverished teachers who turn students of all ages away from reading through their cynicism or burnt-out exhaustion; bad-faith London literati who hype up rubbish; crass journalists – many of them graduates of Oxbridge English courses – who wield power without accepting responsibility; and above all, the narrow-minded ‘literature’ academics obsessed with outdated political notions because they have nothing else in which to believe. I write from the lucky – and unusual – position of someone who ended her university degree wanting to continue to read and study: I had a great teacher. And by ‘great’ what do I mean? That my great teacher taught me to read as myself while at the same time trying to inhabit the mind and imagination of the writer. But that is unusual. Tell me, why should a twenty-year-old man be asked to write an essay on Victorian women writers from a feminist point of view? Are ‘points of view’ just spectacles we can put on – and off – as if we had no eyes, no vision, no way of seeing of our own? I wrote in a rather careless vein, ten years ago, in issue 3 of The Reader, about the earlier Year of Reading:
The government has declared 1999 the Year of Reading. Do we care?

I minded being told what to do by the Government then. These days I am glad of any intervention. I care very much. I want a national programme of Get Into Reading to reach non-reading adults. That should be part of Ed Balls’ strategy for families. I want readers to stand up for great books. All reading is reading, says the National Year of Reading – it doesn’t have to be books. A Morrissey song, graffiti, a leaflet: it is all reading. It’s true, and in one of the best of the early issues of The Reader (No. 8) Michael Macilwee, boxing coach and librarian, spoke of the English teacher who had hooked him with Simon and Garfunkel’s song, ‘The Boxer’. That’s great. But read on – how young Mike set himself to read the entire Penguin Classics library. That’s greater. The Classics library contains more and bigger stuff than the song lyric. And we need great as much as we need lyrical. I want established readers and reading group members to visit what is in effect the National Gallery of Literature. Never mind the latest Time Traveller’s Wife, do some of your own time-travelling: get into the back catalogue. Go visit and soak up your heritage. Learn to love it. Value it. Because without values we’re done for.


Brian Nellist

The Times recently published a list of the fifty most influential British writers since World War II. Why doesn’t The Reader do something similar to help poor wanderers lost in the range of recent and not-so-recent poetry and prose?


I also read the article with interest and sympathy and, leaving aside some regrets at a few authors included, and more at several who were not, I was really glad to see a national newspaper assessing authors across fifty years instead of settling for the latest kids on the block. It stimulated serious conversation as a good game should but a game it remained because though the Oscar went to Larkin, how can you weigh his claims against those of, for example, Doris Lessing? We can all have our say but in the end, it is time by a mysterious process that decides who goes on being read instead of just studied. Dr Johnson speaks somewhere of writers who outlive their century. The writing of our own time, in my own case at least fifty years, always remains under question and what eventually is recognised as ‘literature’, even for the most serious postulants, depends on the eventual consensus of a great variety of perceptive readers. I have in front of me a book published by Constable in 1915 and in their ‘Shilling Series’ appear recognisable authors, Gissing, Shaw and H. G. Wells, but there is apparently nothing to distinguish their titles from Winifred James’s Bachelor Betty, Maud Diver’s The Hero of Herat or Mary Johnson’s Lewis Rand (only one of her four books in the list). Duckworth’s ‘New Readers’ Library’ in 1927 offered works by Gerhardi, W. H. Hudson and Maurice Baring, who still find readers, but even when I am told it is ‘The beautiful vision of Life and Death which has brought joy and comfort to millions of men and


women’ I am not tempted to join the devotees of Michael Fairless’s The Roadmender. ‘Readability’, the term used recently by someone on the Man Booker prize committee, may explain why in a Methuen list of 1911 The Golden Bowl was noted as reaching its third edition whereas Beatrice Harraden (who?) had attained fourteen with In Varying Moods. We don’t really believe in attacking books in The Reader because time will do the sifting and we prefer finding evidence of life to performing post-mortems. When I was a boy the English author most respected in France was Charles Morgan but who now reads The Judge’s Tale? What makes writing endure? Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’ (printed in The Times as its crowning exhibit) famously ends ‘What will survive of us is love’. The little detail that the pair on the monument clasp hands moves the spectator beyond mere respect for a piece of expensive funerary art into claiming what is ‘almost true’. Writing, also, situated too entirely in the interest of the passing moment cannot hold it without appealing to the ‘almost instinct’ in us, whatever that may be. Time is elitist, I’m afraid, though the market is not. But if this argument appeals to an almost Darwinian sense of death, another element alluded to in this issue of The Reader restores some hope maybe. We often, when reading, become aware of what, without blasphemous intention, one might call a real presence in the writing. A personality emerges which is a compound of how the words speak themselves in our minds, prompt thought and feeling, and we come to respect that presence, and in some sense even to love it. Mysteriously the presence can disappear though the voice persists and some late Wordsworth or Conrad, for instance, seems almost to ventriloquise what had earlier been so alive in them. But contrariwise, a presence can sometimes emerge from writing that had seemed anonymous. Do you know ‘The Exequy’ on the death of his wife by the seventeenth-century poet, Henry King? It is one of the great poems of its age, yet his other works are intelligent and well made but lack the unique presence one finds in these wonderful lines. I’ve read a number of novels by Mrs Henry Wood and forgotten them all but there’s a short story in the Johnny Ludlow series about an engine driver missing a signal and killing a man on a level crossing, which remains to haunt the mind; how can you be sure afterwards that you didn’t see the thing and, if you didn’t see it, was it ever actually there? She is a writer always concerned with moral issues but here the anxiety makes real what elsewhere becomes a bit glib. This is why anthologies are so necessary to direct our attention to primary writing by secondary authors. We should recall not simply individual authors but particular poems and prose, which have the kind of presence that we seek. It is the responsibility of us all to join in the debate, fashionable concept, but no single critic or source has the authority finally to decide.

Lynne Hatwell
Since childhood and through a lifetime of working in the NHS, reading has sustained Lynne Hatwell. The hugely popular dovegreyreader scribbles ( is the blog she set up two years ago to share and create an online dialogue about good books, reading and an occasional slice of country life. ‘But none of it can replace a welcoming and enthusiastic face-to-face reading group.’ Modesty forbids her from mentioning that dovegreyreader has been archived by The British Library as a social record for future research purposes.


m I in a reading group? Good grief I’ve been in hundreds over the years, face-to-face, online, postal – any way possible to share my love of reading with others, but all right, only three at the moment but that could go up at any minute. One run by the local library, one a group of about six friends who meet every six weeks and all read the same book, but my absolute favourite is The Endsleigh Salon. I live in a very beautiful part of the country (if perhaps not the hub of the literary universe), the Tamar Valley betwixt Devon and Cornwall, and within a pheasant’s hop of a very beautiful country retreat once known as Endsleigh House, now a private hotel. It was built as a holiday cottage by Georgiana Duchess of Bedford in the early 1800s and is charged with period atmosphere. Set in Repton-designed gardens high above the River Tamar looking across to Cornwall, it’s not difficult to envisage Georgie succumbing to the charms of the artist Edwin Landseer, which she did on many an occasion.


I had the idea that it would make a perfect setting for a different sort of book group. I wanted to run something along the lines of the old literary salon; a place where people could meet and just talk about books, their love of books, books they’d read, books they’d recommend, books they wouldn’t. Surely I wasn’t the only bookaholic out there? We meet either in a lovely little salon room with the original handblocked and listed birds of paradise wallpaper or in the hotel library if there aren’t many guests. This was Georgiana’s library too, which looks out onto her nursery garden where she watched her thirteen children play, and we love it. Initially I invited everyone I knew who was as mad as me about books and about twenty people turned up, which gradually became about ten regulars. For that first evening I had begged and cajoled all manner of free books and magazines from publishers (including copies of The Reader!) who had all responded very generously and those got us off to a racing start with some reading to be discussing. We quickly agreed we wanted this group to be different; many people already belonged to a structured group but we needed some focus beyond a couple of hours of chatting, so we settled on themes for our evenings, thus allowing a wide range of reading and books to be included. Fiction, non-fiction, biography, diaries, letters, anything would be fine. We also agreed that NO book would be frowned upon as of a lesser value than any other. Despite our 5-star surroundings there was to be nothing elitist about this evening, if someone had read and enjoyed a book then that was fine by us. Several people in highly stressful jobs could often only manage light and fluffy; well let me tell you we’ve had some great evenings discussing light and fluffy and many of us have read intentionally out of our comfort zone when challenged to by the rest of the group. So far themes have been wide ranging and fascinating: Humour, America, Whodunit, Spooks and Spies, Summer Lurve, War, Travel, and History for the Stupid, have all given us long lists of brilliant reading suggestions. Coming soon we have The Far East, Autobiography, First Novel, Australia and Sport. Our War evening was a good example of the scope of choices. Iron in the Soul by Jean-Paul Sartre, Suite Française by Irene Nemirovsky, Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks, The Last Post by Max Arthur, The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, Strange Meeting by Susan Hill, Ordinary Heroes by Scott Turow, Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, Castle Commando by Donald Gilchrist and many more added in as the discussion ranged far and wide. The format has settled into the same for each evening: we each have the floor for about ten minutes or so to talk about our book and answer


questions on it. Everyone is welcome and we include new members with ease – we did not want to become cliquey or exclusive. I have been in book groups where that has happened or the groups are closed to new members, often to the detriment of the group; new people with new reading ideas are an excellent way of reinvigorating the discussion so we always look forward to them coming along and joining us. We’ve developed some quirky little ideas of our own too, including a virtual Box 101 for the reading turkeys. These start life as a book that someone has loathed, often diagnosed as a dose of emperor’s new clothes masquerading as cutting edge literary fiction. The book then makes its way around the group over the next few months. If three people are in agreement, in it goes. We’ve also entered into an exciting classics reading project thanks to the generosity of Oxford University Press. Bemoaning all those unread classics we chose four authors who we felt we’d all either neglected or would love to discuss as a group. Eventually we settled on Alexandre Dumas, Thomas Hardy, Ann Radcliffe and Edith Wharton as an eclectic mix. The books duly arrived, have been shared out and we plan to devote some time each month to these. The books will pass around us each with a notebook for successive readers to add their thoughts so that we have some record of the whole project. So there you have it, the easiest and most relaxing book group I have ever belonged to; it established itself with a minimum of fuss and I can honestly say that even after the most hectic day at work nothing deters any of us from the monthly salon evening and the convivial company of fellow book lovers. What more could a bookaholic ask?

Starting Short: Join our website discussion of short stories. Get discounts: To register, send us an email ( and tell us about your reading group. We will email you back with a password, which you can use to get discounted subscriptions to The Reader and to get 20% off Oxford World’s Classics titles. More details on the website. Win books for your reading group: Courtesy of Oxford University Press, we have ten copies of the current Readers Connect title, The Shadow-Line, to give away. Send a review of a book your group has read and loved; the best review will win the books and will be published on our website.

readers connect
In Partnership with Oxford World’s Classics

Joseph Conrad, The Shadow-Line Oxford World’s Classics, 2003 ISBN 978-0192801708

Suze Clarke


t is astounding to think that The Shadow-Line is readable at one sitting (just 130 pages), because when you read you seem to pass through an immense and guideless place, between the young captain’s discovery of self-doubt and the discovered need to trust himself. None of this is speculative – the book tells at one remove the story of Conrad’s own first command of a sailing ship in the Eastern seas. But the fact that neither the captain (who narrates the tale) nor the ship is named gives the journey a shadowy, below-the-feet effect that invites the reader into the young captain’s shoes. That is one thing that Conrad is very good at – making you imagine yourself into difficulties. In one sense, the life of a sailing ship is powerfully integrating, drawing together men and ship, the seas and the winds in one great endeavour: ‘a large, more intense life’ as the young captain says romantically. But when the ship is caught in a dead calm, there is no wholeness. Sense itself seems to disengage:



The darkness had risen around the ship like a mysterious emanation from the dumb and lonely waters. I leaned on the rail and turned my ear to the shadows of the night. Not a sound. My command might have been a planet flying vertiginously on its appointed path in a space of infinite silence. I clung to the rail as if my sense of balance were leaving me for good.

Unable to see, he turns his ear to the night, but his hearing is defeated as absolutely as his sight. The lack of input makes a sensory black hole as if there were nothing out there at all – and no proper boundary between the ‘command’ and ‘infinite silence’, mind and space, apart from the rail he’s leaning on. It’s not merely a fleeting impression; it carries with it a sense of rival reality, as if this could be how things will be from now on, ‘as if my sense of balance were leaving me for good’. But what makes it worse is that those deficits of sense are not just in the captain’s imagination but in his conscience too. Briefly, here is the situation. The ship lost its previous (utterly dissolute) captain in bad circumstances, damaging to the crew’s morale, and needs taking in hand. The new young captain needs taking in hand too. For reasons he doesn’t himself understand, he suddenly left his old berth and was drifting when this command was more or less forced upon his attention. But once he’s made captain, he feels that purpose and energy come back to him – all he needs to do is to get out to sea and all will be well. Instead they get nowhere; they are becalmed within sight of land and there is sickness on board. Everyone is stricken by fever apart from the captain himself, and the cook, Ransome (a man with a severe heart condition). When he finds that the stock of quinine is gone – sold by the awful predecessor – the captain has to tell the weakened men he can no longer help them. Once again a silence opens in front of him:
The silence which followed upon my words was almost harder to bear than the angriest uproar. I was crushed by the infinite depth of its reproach. But, as a matter of fact, I was mistaken.

On one level it’s just an ordinary expression, the silence is hard to bear; but, as before, the gap lets in something without limit – the infinite depth of the reproach that his conscience interprets. It’s there for an immoderate moment, then quashed by the extraordinarily ordinary ‘as a matter of fact, I was mistaken’. The men were simply intelligently listening. But here’s the puzzling thing, I think. The fact of the mistake can cut off infinite reproach but it does not answer it, or dispel it. It stays around and has to be felt, together with his anticipated loss of balance. Both came out of nothing, seemingly, and are not susceptible to explanation. They are part of the great Conradian test that comes upon a life. It is as if there are two versions of Conrad going on at the same time


in The Shadow-Line, physical and metaphysical, just as much as in a book like Lord Jim, where you have the pragmatic Marlow and the imaginative Jim. Only here, those two alternative approaches are in the one man, the captain. It’s not even that you could say the imaginative voice is his younger self or the tougher practical one, the older. They struggle for balance in the same man crossing a crucial line in his life; the two parts forced into the same bare attention to a specific testing circumstance. All at once a terrible storm comes and despite the fragility of the crew they have to exert themselves to set sail in order not to be out of control and destroyed:
And I steered, too tired for anxiety, too tired for connected thought. I had moments of grim exultation and then my heart would sink awfully at the thought of that forecastle at the other end of the dark deck, full of fever-stricken men – some of them dying. By my fault. But never mind. Remorse must wait. I had to steer.

This is not a book where the narrator understands his development from boy to man. The long sentence – where he feels how sick the men are and sinks from exultation to despair – is replaced by short sentences, like a kind of panting, or striking a blow, imagination grinding to a halt as determination kicks into life. The solution is precisely not to feel or know but to act. Put feeling aside, put yourself aside. What terrible and practical advice, at one level. You can know where you’re going, but only if you give up on who you are. This is not just an adventure story for boys, for grown-up boys: the sea is a way to think about struggling for survival and a direction to purpose. Back on shore after he has finally got the ship through the ordeal, the tired but now tried young captain meets Captain Giles, the man who guided him towards this command, and tells him that the experience has aged him. Giles replies:
‘A man should stand up to his bad luck, to his mistakes, to his conscience and all that sort of thing. Why – what else would you have to fight against?’

All at once I have to come back onto Conrad’s side. He is not quite moral, or not conventionally so. How can accident and mistake be ranked alongside conscience or imagination as ‘all that sort of thing’? But you could not ask for a better source of guidance. ‘Keep facing it, always facing it. That’s enough for any man,’ as another captain says in ‘Typhoon’, even though mistakenly facing it was what got him into the storm in the first place. Still, face it. Reading Conrad is better than ‘Sat Nav’ because he gives you your bearings and a mode of propulsion at the same time. As long as you’re in trouble, you’ve got a chance.



Sarah Coley


here’s something odd about the deeds or the decisions you leave until it is too late – almost as if they slip out of ordinary time and stay in the memory as still possible. They’re not of course – they simply don’t have a direction to take and so kick around aimlessly in your head or conscience. Undone deeds belch in the night. I had meant for many years to write to Czeslaw Milosz on behalf of The Reader but kept putting off the letter, scared of something about him, his intelligent poetry with its unpredictable intimacies, or wary perhaps of coming close to his life – a great bleak slice of twentieth-century horror that he survived with a fine idea of balance. I wanted to know what to do with the feeling of sadness that I find comes with reading him (and wanted to ply him with questions) but it seemed impertinent to bother the ninety-year-old poet in that way. His poems are not melancholy; they’re formidable and full of mind, poised between resistance and responsiveness to the world. He died in September 2004 in Warsaw, and my letter wasn’t written. What on earth would I have asked of him? Too much. A Roman Catholic Lithuanian, Milosz grew up in the Polish town of Wilno under Russian rule, born in time (1911) to catch the Bolshevik


revolution. He was living in Warsaw at the time of the Nazi occupation – he managed to get out and made his way back to Wilno but then incredibly he fled back again across four dangerous borders, moving at night, having judged the Russians’ wartime rule to be more unbearable than that of the Nazis. The walls of the Ghetto were being built as he returned but he stayed in Warsaw and wrote and published antifascist poetry under the noses of the occupiers. Afterwards he worked as a cultural attaché for Poland in America and France and chafed under censorship. He defected in 1951, and settled in Paris for a short while, moving to America in 1960, where he was professor in Slavic languages at Berkeley, writing prose in English and poetry in Polish. I love the tangled-up earnestness of his writing. There’s an essay entitled ‘In Which the Author Confesses He Is on the Side of Man, for Lack of Anything Better’, and it would be hard not to warm to this caustic (not tentative) faith in humanity. There’s a constant thread in Milosz’s writing – both in his poetry and his prose – a sense that there is a better way to speak or write or exist that he isn’t matching up to (my unwritten letter hangs heavy here):
In pursuing the impossible, I did learn something. Each of us is so ashamed of his own helplessness and ignorance that he considers it appropriate to communicate only what he thinks others will understand. There are, however, times when somehow we slowly divest ourselves of that shame and begin to speak openly about all the things we do not understand. If I am not wise, why must I pretend to be?

(To Begin Where I Am, ‘My Intention’) Perhaps this inhibition was accentuated by living as an exile, but he describes perfectly the ways in which we dodge each other and ourselves, accepting every day less than we ought to. But when shame relaxes its hold, a deepening takes place in its stead as the cautious communication of ‘what he thinks others will understand’ is replaced by the blurting out of ‘all the things we do not understand’. Then a struggling incomprehension makes people closer, more intimate and needy. He is a careful writer, but those sudden bursts of emphasis mark his poetry too. In ‘Dedication’ for example he writes to the two hundred thousand who died in the Warsaw uprising, his friends and fellow poets among them: You whom I could not save
Listen to me. Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.



He’s very aware that he’s the one left with a voice, spokesman for all. But the lines that follow have got a fierce eye-witness quality about them that takes your breath away:
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it, That I discovered, late, its salutary aim, In this and only this I find salvation. They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds. I put this book here for you, who once lived So that you should visit us no more. (Warsaw, 1945)

The last line is a terrifying form of loyalty, as if honouring their lives means he must have nothing more to do with them. He must simply live. What would it be like to have that decision repeated inwardly – as an act of mind against one’s own thoughts and memories? Another poem from the same time (‘In Warsaw’) helps to explain the seemingly angry lines:
It’s madness to live without joy And to repeat to the dead Whose part was to be gladness Of action in thought and in the flesh, singing, feasts, Only the two salvaged words: Truth and justice.

Of course, ‘the two salvaged words’ are necessary too and (on a line of their own whatever the surrounding sentence) are not to be omitted, but from Milosz’s perspective, they get in the way of ‘joy’ and ‘gladness / Of action’ and they are a bad substitute for a living friend. If the words ‘Truth and justice’ are all that can be given to the dead – all that they can give back – he loses patience. (Though he also says the words, fiercely, in a whisper.) I don’t know what I would have asked of Milosz. Perhaps the biggest question is that one about his determination not to waste himself.



Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet

Christopher Routledge


verybody knows Sherlock Holmes. He is right up there with Hamlet, Heathcliff and Oliver Twist as one of the bestknown characters in all of English Literature. His name is familiar even to people who never read. He is the archetypal fictional detective and a byword for careful observation, rational examination of evidence, and clear-sighted intelligence. Howard Haycraft, whose book Murder For Pleasure (1941)1 was one of the first serious works of criticism on detective fiction, finds many problems with the Holmes stories, yet he concludes ‘But for the tales in which [Holmes] appeared the detective story as we know it today might never have developed – or only in a vastly different and certainly less pleasurable form’. Holmes first appeared in print in 1887, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s short novel A Study in Scarlet. In practical terms this first Holmes story is structurally weak, broken-backed, stylistically uneven, and derivative. It has been noted many times that Holmes arrives at the solution to the mystery using information he has kept secret from the reader, a cardinal sin in detective fiction. But for all that, A Study in Scarlet was revolutionary. Its impact was felt almost immediately on popular culture in


general and on the genre of detective fiction in particular. In the 120 years that have passed since publication, A Study in Scarlet has emerged as arguably one of the most influential pieces of writing to come out of the nineteenth century. As George Orwell asks in his article ‘Good Bad Books’ (Tribune, November 2, 1945), ‘Who has worn better, Conan Doyle or Meredith?’ A Study in Scarlet was published by Ward Lock when Conan Doyle was 28 years old. The book had been rejected by several publishers and like many young writers who would rather see their work published than take a stand, in November 1886 Conan Doyle signed away all his rights for a miserly £25. The following year it appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual and while Conan Doyle did not benefit financially its publication eventually led to a commission to write a second Holmes story, The Sign of Four, for the American magazine Lippincott’s. By then Conan Doyle was well aware that Ward Lock had taken advantage of him and he also offered the new story to British publisher Spencer Blackett. It was published in 1890 and in 1891 Conan Doyle began his long association with Strand Magazine, where most of the Sherlock Holmes stories were serialised over the next 25 years. Holmes’s powers of observation and deduction have become a benchmark for detectives, real and imagined, but Conan Doyle did not invent the rationalist detective. Holmes is preceded by detectives in stories by Emile Gaboriau, Wilkie Collins, and in particular by Edgar Allan Poe. What Conan Doyle did was to transform a sensational figure into a serious literary creation, though it is only relatively recently that he has been treated as such. Poe’s detective stories from the 1840s featured amateur sleuth C. Auguste Dupin and a nameless, awestruck narrator-sidekick. The link with Holmes and Watson is obvious. Poe’s stories were popular, but tales of mystery and suspense, then as now, were considered inferior, even disreputable fare. Conan Doyle was aware of the limitations of detective fiction when he began A Study in Scarlet and wanted his detective to be a cut above the usual mystery story fare. It begins with reassurances that here was a story for a more knowing, more sophisticated audience. Not for his readers the gaudy voyeurism of the ‘Penny Dreadfuls’; here was science and philosophy, music and poetry, as well as murder. At the beginning of the novel, not long after Holmes and Watson have moved into their lodgings at 221b Baker Street, Watson tells Holmes that he reminds him of Poe’s ‘great detective’ character:
‘No doubt you think you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin,’ he observed. ‘Now in my opinion Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s


silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.’ 2

Holmes’s own ability to see the significance in tiny detail is better developed than Dupin’s. It is also placed in the context of a man whose personal habits and mode of living are both regular and chaotic; industrial and artistic. On the one hand Holmes embodies rationalism, scientific endeavour, and careful observation. At the scene of the first murder in A Study in Scarlet he analyses the room, taking measurements, collecting clues, and studying surfaces with his trademark magnifying glass. At this he is better than the police, who are unscientific and ignorant. But on the other hand Holmes is also a speculative man, who plays the violin in a freeform, abstract way and, as becomes more clear in later stories, takes mind-altering drugs. In this respect Holmes combines several great Victorian character tropes: the inspired natural scientist and the disturbed lone genius; the savvy, modern, man about town and the alienated urban outcast. Rather than making him a detached researcher, Conan Doyle gave Holmes a worldly doctor’s eye. His refined analytical skills make him more ‘of the world’ not less. A mark of the significance of A Study in Scarlet is that despite its weaknesses it seems to have established the general structural arrangement of most successful detective stories, as described by critic Tsvetan Todorov in his important essay ‘The Typology of Detective Fiction’.3 It begins with a murder, which appears at first to be the central problem facing the detective. But the real mystery lies deep in the past, long before the central crime takes place. Like all good detective stories A Study in Scarlet extends beyond the ‘murder in Brixton’ with which it begins, to address greater mysteries. Its scope includes the great westward migration in the United States, the alien (to British readers) culture of ‘The Country of the Saints’ and, in the figure of Watson himself, the damaged young men who returned to London from military campaigns in Afghanistan and India. Contrast this with ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841), often considered to be the first true detective story in English. Like A Study in Scarlet Poe’s story features a reclusive detective whose eccentric habits and peculiar talent for reading clues fascinate and amaze the narrator. But the focus of Poe’s story, a double murder and a locked room, is the only mystery. There is nothing of any consequence ‘behind’ the events in the Rue Morgue, even if the solution to the mystery comes as a surprise. This mid-nineteenth-century tale has none of the doubt and uncertainty of Conan Doyle’s, though Dupin, like Holmes, combines rational method with elastic imagination to solve his puzzles. Holmes is essentially a Romantic hero, risking his health, his sanity, even his life,


to be able to see more clearly than those around him. But he is also in his own way an institutional figure, developing his theories on detection and forensic science for the general good. Conan Doyle also went a long way towards making Holmes seem real. The offset narration, taking the form of Watson’s journal, is calculated to confirm the truthfulness of the story. His success in convincing readers that Holmes actually existed would soon become a curse for the real-life tenants of 221b Baker Street who had to deal with the detective’s mailbag. This may well have been one reason for the runaway success of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Victorian readers living in many of Britain’s large cities were afraid of street crime, drunkenness, and seemingly random acts of violence, much of which was blamed on ‘foreigners’ and the failings of the police and justice system. In such an atmosphere Conan Doyle’s masterly construction of Holmes through the authoritative voice of a doctor and military man made him seem a plausible enough saviour. In his extraordinary intelligence, physical abilities and self-reliance, Holmes seems at times a hero more suited to the twentieth century than the Victorian era. Detective fiction after A Study in Scarlet was dominated by amateur and ‘consulting’ detectives, including Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, and, in the United States, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. As Conan Doyle’s brother in law E.W. Hornung once said, ‘Though he might be more humble, there’s no police like Holmes’.

1. Haycraft, Howard. Murder for Pleasure (1941). This edition New York: Carroll and Graff, 1984. p. 61. 2. Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. A Study in Scarlet (1887), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981. p. 25. 3. Todorov, Tsvetan. ‘The Typology of Detective Fiction’. In The Poetics of Prose. Oxford: Blackwell, 1977.



In our blog review of the year, friends of The Reader recommended books they had enjoyed in 2007 ( Here are some of their choices.

Hotel World by Ali Smith
Hamish Hamilton (2001)

ISBN 978-0140296792 Hotel World explores the disconnected lives of five women, brought together in the anonymous world of the Global Hotel. One of the women has died in an accident, and is endeavouring to make sense of her death; another is homeless, and has been begging on the steps of the hotel so long that she has all but forgotten how to speak. Then there is the hotel receptionist who takes pity on the lonely world around her, a nameless girl who works in a jewellery shop, and the deceased girl’s sister, angrily searching for a reason to explain the family tragedy. It is a book to read again and again, as I intend to when it eventually makes its way back to me, after friends have read it. But given the subtle spiritual energy that drifts through Hotel World, it seems appropriate that the book should be left to roam from hand to hand.
Clare Williams

The Kite-Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Bloomsbury Publishing (2004)

ISBN 978-074756653 The story starts with Amir and Hassan as childhood friends in the 1970s in Afghanistan. After a terrible incident, guilt destroys the friendship between the two. Later, as Afghanistan becomes unstable, Amir’s wealthy family moves to America but even in that new and different world he cannot forget or forgive his past until an opportunity arrives in his adulthood to seek redemption. The question is how far will he go to put right the mistakes of his past and will this redeem him?
Wendy Kay


Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
HarperPerennial (2007) ISBN 978-0007200283 Half of a Yellow Sun follows a group of characters through the Nigeria– Biafra war. It is the impact that the political situation has on the different characters that makes this book powerful – some relationships are saved by the war: arguments suddenly seem meaningless compared with the horrific possibility of losing a child or a sister or a lover; some characters seem to fade, the war slowly destroying their faith and their ideology; some find themselves instigators of the war’s atrocities. The ending may feel unsatisfactory for some readers, but it echoes the general mood of unanswered questions and frustration. At the end, I felt uneasy, yet tentatively hopeful for those characters who survive.
Bea Colley

Children of the Revolution by Dinaw Mengestu
Jonathan Cape (2007) ISBN 978-0224079310 Telling the story of Sepha Stephanos, owner of a rather forlorn and dilapidated general store in an area of Washington DC that has been left neglected for years, Mengestu diligently tracks the experience of the lost immigrant in America. It’s set in the in-between spaces both of life and of the city; it presents an America characterised by the displacement and alienation of those searching for a home in a country that promises so much, away from the terrors that have ripped the life they knew to shreds in the name of ‘revolution’.
Jen Tomkins


William Trevor, Cheating at Canasta
VIking, 2007 ISBN 978–0670917266

Brian Nellist


oets learning their craft in the Renaissance were told by the rhetoricians, those who taught what we call now ‘creative writing’, that they should begin with the simplest form, pastoral, and only slowly scale Parnassus to the heights of epic. I am not sure how practical the advice was though Spenser and Milton seem successfully to have followed Virgil’s steps. Today the recommended starting-point seems for most candidates to be the short story and judging by many of the examples submitted to The Reader I am not sure it is a very good idea. Short the form may be but simple it ain’t. Indeed in many ways it involves more complex problems than the novel and William Trevor has behind the mastery of the present collection years of writing longer fiction. We are told that everyone has a book within them; maybe, but only if he and she already know what a book is. They can only write it, that is, if they have also read with the kind of attention that means they know what they admire and what is real to them and then observe carefully not so much what to include as what to avoid.



Too many of the stories we reject start with some such sentence as ‘I looked with distaste at the sleeping form beside me’ or ‘The number 16 was late as usual and by the time I opened my front door I was soaked to the skin’. Openings matter in such a tight form and neither of these sentences inspires curiosity. First-person story-telling is particularly awkward. Such tales ramble on through maudlin confession or rancorous rage with a little experimental adultery on the side. Sustained negative emotion rarely pleases and never instructs as the old rhetoricians might have said. Turn instead to the opening of ‘Old Flame’ in this present collection:
Grace died. As Zoe replaces the lid of the electric kettle – having steamed the envelope open – her eye is caught by that stark statement.

Our attention is taken not by personal testament but by another person’s life. The oddity of what is happening immediately implies a story, hidden as yet. Without our even noticing it, the mixture of tenses implies a mingling of memory with present activity. The tiny detail of the electric kettle gives location and time, something recent if not now. But what about Zoe’s feelings? Nothing is said but we infer something fairly angry from so drastic and furtive an action. In fact, an elderly wife is irritated by the letters her aging husband still receives from the woman he once loved, and might have left home to join, but pathos is controlled by what to the observing reader is also slightly humorous. Slowly the complex emotions of all the people involved are going to take us beyond the simply comic. Or take the opening words of ‘A Perfect Relationship’:
‘I’ll tidy the room’, she said. ‘The least I can do.’ Prosper watched her doing it. She had denied that there was anyone else.

Already we know this is a couple breaking up so we are starting at an ending and the story will help us to understand where we have begun. Again, the feelings are implied, not baldly stated. The woman is guiltily offering a compensation absurdly out of proportion to the event she has caused and the lover either allows her at least that much consolation or is maybe simply stunned. Often in a crisis we cannot tell precisely what we feel, so to rush in with premature analysis is simply unreal. These stories are so perfectly judged that they make you feel, not amazement that they could be done at all, like all too much clever writing today, but as though you could do it yourself. I can’t, of course, since the economy, the knowledge, not simply where to start but what


to leave out, is the result not only of great qualities of heart and mind but of a lifetime’s dedication to the short story by a supreme master. He belongs with Chekhov rather than with Joyce or Hemingway but is to be mentioned in the same breath with them. The last thing the form can tolerate is the garrulous. Economy is like the beam of light focused on the exact spot to be shown. In ‘Cheating at Canasta’ the title story of the collection, a widower revisits Harry’s Bar in Venice because his wife, dying of Alzheimer’s disease, had asked him to and, missing her, he wonders why the promise matters so to him. After all:
In the depths of her darkening twilight, if there still were places they belonged in a childhood he had not known, among shadows that were hers, not his, not theirs.

That she lost most of her memory makes his the more important. But then comes the recognition that the ‘places’ that remained to her at the end excluded him. The flickering remnants of childhood replace the ‘they’ they had been, ‘not theirs’. As in a Hardy poem, laconic utterance of feeling does not so much rhetorically intensify as do justice to it. Or, again, in ‘Bravado’, wonderful title, a Dublin girl attached to the leader of a small street gang witnesses the beating to death of a solitary youth, explained away as retribution for how he had treated the sister of a member of the group. She is never identified when the others are arrested but comes to a realisation:
In a bleak cemetery Aisling begged forgiveness of the dead for the falsity she had embraced when what there was had been too ugly to accept. Silent, she had watched an act committed to impress her, to deserve her love, as other acts had been. And watching there was pleasure.

She knows now but dimly knew then that the given explanation was a lie and that she herself was the not quite innocent cause of the horror. She ‘embraced’ the falsehood because she embraced the perpetrator of the act. The final self-confession has to be dragged out of her in its final sentence, that ‘and’ signalling the something else she can barely acknowledge: ‘And watching there was pleasure’. Of course, I know that it is a shorthand to speak of ‘accuracy’ when the situation has been invented but writing as good as this makes you forget the process by which it has come into being. To enter so completely the girl’s shattered consciousness is an act of imagination which replaces ‘due process’ by an understanding that replaces simple judgement. In the most extreme instance, ‘An Afternoon’, a paedophile gloatingly takes a girl met on a chat line to lunch in McDonald’s but nothing really happens because his aunt turns up as he takes her to his home:


‘My sister knew his chance would come. She knew there’d be a day that would be too terrible for her to bear. He was her child, after all, it was too much. She left a note.’

Inside the broken speech the aunt addresses to the girl, Jasmin, is concealed not only her own anxiety but another story, that of the mother who couldn’t cope and took her own life; ‘She left a note’. The ‘victim’ actually knows what she is up to, poor mite, but the true victim’s tale is never told. It is often the silence in these stories that carries the weight of understanding. The author of a great short story shows much more than he or she is going to explain. In place of protracted description, setting implies the assumptions; in ‘An Afternoon’, for example, a busy urban centre where no one notices what is going on around them but in ‘Men of Ireland’ a remote village, full of gossip and tale-telling. A vagrant returns from England to his parish and threatens to spread scandal that touches his long-retired priest and the priest, innocent of wrongdoing, angrily pays him off. It is through pity or guilt that long ago he had failed to influence the already delinquent child:
Guiltless, he was guilty, his brave defiance as much of a subterfuge as any of his visitor’s. He might have belittled the petty offence that had occurred, so slight it was when you put it beside the betrayal of a Church and the shaming of Ireland’s priesthood.

But for the scandals in the Irish church in the 90s and later, Fr Meade might have been more relaxed with Declan Prunty and his accusations. The person who suffers is not so much the priest himself as Declan without knowing it. He may go off cocky about his little revenge on the village that he left but he has missed the words that might one day have touched him and calmed him when trouble came. Just as so much of Russian life in the late nineteenth century conditions the voices and actions of the characters in Chekhov so here, England and Ireland, town and country, give substance to the individual lives on view. Ireland, and Mr Trevor is Irish by nationality of course, is closer to a past organised round religious faith and the demands of farming the land whereas England is comparatively unstructured, individuals finding whatever consolations they can, usually in relationships without the guidance of allegiances beyond. Yet even in England the faint echo of ancient voices in their minds keeps many of these characters guiltily alive to loyalties and responsibilities. There is no nostalgia here; all the tales are contemporary and in their rendering of compensation or regret all the more accurately modern than stories that take their idea of today from the simplified no-holds-barred mayhem too often promoted as the new


freedom. The greater clarity of Irish life simply means that the characters behave slightly differently. In ‘Faith’ a Church of Ireland rector realises he no longer believes the words he must offer yet remains true to his office out of loyalty to the bullying sister who has fashioned his life and who is now dying. ‘At Olivehill’ tells of the widow of an old Catholic landed family who discovers in newly prosperous Ireland that the estate can only survive if it is turned into a golf course; economics threaten more than even the old Penal times. Stories need a home and too many of those we reject for this magazine are rootless, with ‘characters’ living vaguely inside their own minds, not even realising that is what they are doing. Maybe like the great American Jewish writers, Mr Trevor is lucky in having knowledge from the inside of distinct customs, ways of living, collective dispositions, thereby seeing the more clearly the buried sources from which we live. We have not place in our world for the grandly tragic or the heroic but, like George Eliot, William Trevor rescues the repeatable griefs, the small guilts and the uncatastrophic infidelities from oblivion or the simplifications of gossip and newspaper-speak and restores depth and dignity to ordinary life and the extraordinary things that happen in it. These are the best short stories in the language since Mr Trevor’s last collection.


Patrick McGuinness, 19th Century Blues Huddersfield: Smith/Doorstop Books, 2007 ISBN 978–1902382937

Brian Nellist


onth by month, the waves of new poetry books reach the shore and in the respectable Sundays and TLS are ridden by those adept surfers, the critics. I admit to a sense of guilt as well as admiration when I witness their insight and knowledge yet when I do venture out, not always but often, the rollers seem small in scale if intricate in their movement or, when larger, routine in their challenge. Leaving metaphor behind, I’m struck by how a certain post-modern emptiness easily becomes a comfort zone, offering ready laughter or word-play as an escape; and death, a surprisingly popular subject, offers larger feelings but often evades a still bigger sense of loss. If I remember it right, Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics (is that its title even? I have mislaid my copy) starts with the question ‘Why are there things (essents) rather than nothing?’ It is seeing our lives in terms of a jaw-dropping question like that that we have also mislaid. We settle for daily detail or rush into sorrow and anguish but miss the connection between life’s variousness and the perplexing dimensions of space and time, the large issues of being there – or here.


That is why I was surprised and delighted when at the end of a Reader editorial meeting this collection of poems came my way and I read ‘The Shape of Nothing Happening’:
Dust knows the places we have forgotten, or we never see, marking out the margins of our world: the windowledge’s cracked paint, the bevelled edges of a doorframe, the dado rails, the skirting boards, stifling the emphatic corners of our lives.

What is almost not there, dust, makes us see what ‘we never see’. Out of the corner of the eye we glimpse the nothing that surrounds the neglected something. ‘Dust we are and dust we shall become’ but the portentous warning here reminds us of what we always miss, ‘the bevelled edges’. The resonance of the imagery is handled with an insouciance miles away from our customary cosiness; a chiller wind, like the dust, disturbs the domestic detail. The neutrality of the tone and the strangeness of the point of view here affect the mind far more than any verbal excess:
The dead flit lightly by. They have no ballast, nothing can keep them down. Slowly, like Zeppelins on the horizon, or thoughts coming into view, they go about our lives.

The poem is called ‘The Other Side’ and the back-to-frontness transcends the merely personal. The dead become not familiar phantoms but air-ships, adrift, the ghost-image of the Zeppelin in old grainy photographs, an image of what we all know but have never seen. Partly the power comes from the surprise of the metaphors, the black box of crashed marriages in another poem or snow ‘soft and intimate as marrow’ degenerating into the mire of which we are traditionally made. But even more the rightness of this verse lies in the apparently casual syntax which is always making ease work strenuously; ‘They go about our lives’ where we are used to ‘they go about their lives.’ It’s that capacity to unnerve which, curiously, too often goes missing in the big feelings evoked by death, ‘undisciplined squads of emotion’ as Eliot called them. Detachment is more properly to be called honesty in a poem here, addressed to a sister apparently about the death of a difficult father or step-father:
Unlovable as ever, yet he was brave with that aura of unshared suffering that spared us everything but grief at knowing what we felt was not exactly grief.


Precisely that ‘yet’ which makes the concession to the father mirrors the ‘but’ which makes allowance for his children. The partial rhyme, if oh so distant, makes ‘brave’, undoubtedly him, pair off with ‘grief’ more doubtfully theirs. This is the poetry of a man who reads so there is no irksome ‘intertextuality’ when the weariness of the dying man summons to mind ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’:
But that last day there was only one. Then nothing. None.

No consolation, as we stare at the two full-stops, except that, at least with ‘None’ there will be no more of those ‘tomorrows’ to extend the ‘Lists’, which is the poem’s title. Look! This little book costs only £3 and for the price of three or four newspapers you could have twenty-seven poems to last a lifetime. How could you resist it?


Neil Curry, Other Rooms: New and Selected Poems Enitharmon, 2007 ISBN 9781904634447

Sarah Coley


he impact of poetry often doesn’t come with the book in your hand. It comes after a long acquaintance, when you’re out walking, perhaps, miles from the page, or doing nothing… Suddenly you’ve got words in your ear, more urgent than understood, neither a memory quite nor a fresh thought, but vivid and exactly to the point as in ideal conversation. In ‘Tidelines’ Neil Curry writes about the accumulation of broken stones on the shore, the kind of stuff found beachcombing:
And down among the grit and gravel (never mind the shells) there’s such carmine and cadmium, such amber and (who knows?) pearl, and not one bit of it altogether accident – each with a history of the collisions and contingencies that have broken, shaped and burnished them, as they judder backwards and forwards between the grandeur and futility of it all.

I love his somewhat jagged ‘and not one bit of it / altogether accident’, how in the fragments he finds a backwash of purpose or wholeness, or perhaps the restoring sense is simply that they once have been. They are like souls. But the line that turned up in my ears one after-midnight walk is the last one, ‘between the grandeur and futility of it all’, and the precise word was ‘between’. The setting reminds me of the cliff Edgar describes to lead his father Gloucester from suicide, or the ‘melancholy,


long, withdrawing roar’ in Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’. It’s as though the human responses of grandeur and futility were fully part of the landscape, with grandeur standing up and futility battering down. If that’s it, it all seems hopeless. The sea will come and destroy everything as surely as loss of purpose depletes will, hope and energy. Nothing can hold shape in a sentence that ends with ‘futility’, or so you would think, if it were not for that magnificently inconspicuous word ‘between’ that shows that grandeur returns, if only on the tide, and only for a while. The movement that erodes also keeps giving sight of restoration. This kind of low profile comeback is characteristic of Neil Curry’s poetry. He is unusual amongst modern poets in his use of conversational, almost Browningesque speakers. It’s not all ‘I’, and this gives something of an extra chance to the poetry to tangle with thoughts and notions that aren’t altogether controlled or spoken for. In one of the new poems in this collection, ‘An Abbot Bids Farewell to his Builders’, for example:
He would miss them – there was no doubt of that – these masons, carpenters and quarrymen; their womenfolk too – wives, they said, whores, they were; he knew that much. Not that it had been easy. Those raucous songs they’d bawled out in counterpoint against the Eucharist; and that gargoyle – it had looked far too much like poor old brother Anselm to be funny. Untouched they might have been by what they’d done, but just look at what it was they’d done.

There’s something superabundant in the devotional building that is beyond the builders’ conception and the abbot’s construction – in the space between the first ‘what they’d done’ and the repetition. It’s like a chord inverted so that the same notes emerge with an unexpected sound. In human terms, the limits of character or of knowledge muster the density or presence of something beyond ordinary bidding. Personally I love the fact that you have this brilliant escape of sense in a poem that is simply and earthily funny. Curry’s poetry is often religious but he’s not a pious kind of chap. Other Rooms gathers together the poet’s own choice of his best poems from the last twenty years, together with new work, some of which you will have read in these pages. Neil Curry has often been featured in the magazine, and we are very glad of him. If you have to hear words booming in your ears about loss and futility in the early hours of the morning, let them be from ‘Tidelines’.


1. ‘Whoso turns as I, this evening, turn to God to pause and pray, / While Jove’s planet rises yonder, silent over Africa.’ These are the last lines of which poem? 2. From which country does Miss Matty’s brother, Peter, finally return? 3. Which Canadian fictional orphan is sent by mistake to Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert? 4. Who are the Russians, Dimitri, Ivan and Alyosha? 5. In what country was Alexandre Manette a prisoner? 6. In a novel by Charlotte Brontë, to which country does William Crimsworth go, to seek his fortune? 7. ‘The isles of Greece, the isles of Greece!’ What is the next line? 8. Which 1984 novel is set in Czechoslovakia after the 1968 Soviet invasion? 9. Which voyager is bought by the Queen of Brobdingnag and kept as a favourite at court? 10. Which novel follows the story of Okonkwo, a highly respected member of his village in Nigeria? 11.Which prize-winning novel of 2007 is set in Nigeria during the Nigeria–Biafra war? 12. In which play does the Chancellor of England say ‘It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… but for Wales – !’? 13. Which German novel is the story of the dwarf, Oskar, whose refusal to grow is a response to the guilt of Germany after World War 2? 14. The Mosquito Coast tells of an inventor who sails with his wife and children to a new life in which country? 15. Which poet heard ‘America Singing’?


1 9 2 3 4 5 6 10 7


S p o n s o re d b y O x f o rd U n i v e r s i t y P re s s
















ACROSS 9. Eastern invader about to go short (9) *10. Is 24’s Madonna feeling melancholy? (5) 11. Bird given to horseplay (7) 12. Hindu philosophy found in preserved Antarctic remains (7) 13. Old physician as a form of parasite (5) 14. Nearest and reportedly dearest couple (7,2) *16. A suitable match for 24’s work (1, 6, 8) *19. 23 down and 4 down. Madly keen to get hold on boy lacking chromosome for this work (3, 6, 8) *21. Mission for Martha, 24’s heroine (5) *22. See 24 across 23. Chemical element initially found not in our backyard, instead under mountain (7) *24 and 22 across. Soldiers sing about this highly prized writer (5, 7) 25. Banish Isocrates perhaps (9) * Clues with an asterisk have a common theme

DOWN 1. Provider of professional advice for Roman magistrate with so many in France (10) 2. Remain stingy and close (4,4) 3. Compound invoking pathos (6) *4. See 19 across 5. Torch a vine to flush out mouse deer (10) 6. Certainly not annus mirabilis (1, 3, 4) 7. Powerful attraction in this object when Charlemagne touched it (6) 8. Predatory seabird derived from auks (4) 14. Travelling ridge once I discovered the Cardigan Bay area (10) 15. Something to be kept or lost (4,6) 17. Greatest sham but honest about 1p (8) 18. If I taper off it generally whets the appetite (8) 20. Guarantee in return to pester us never again (6) 21. These shares start to quickly undermine our trust and security (6) 22. Eliza is a fair example (4) *23. See 19 across



The sender of the first completed puzzle will receive our selection of World’s Classics paperbacks, while the first correct entry to Buck’s Quiz bags a copy of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. Please send solutions (marked either Cassandra Crossword, or Buck’s Quiz) to 19 Abercromby Square, Liverpool L69 7ZG.

Across 1. Glitch 4. Mosaic 9. John 10. Adulterers 11. Strait 12. Noumenon 13. Glamorous 15. Bess 16. Posh 17. Brightens 21. Reaffirm 22. Lacuna 24. Pigeonhole 25. Viva 24. Nodule 27. Snatch Down 1. Glottal 2. Ionia 3. Coaster 5. Output 6. Agreement 7. Cargoes 8. Quinquireme of 14. Masefield 16. Pierian 18. Galleon 19. Nineveh 20. Simnel 23. Covet

1. Robert Louis Stevenson. 2. Maxim de Winter 3. Howards End 4. Charles Dickens 5. Mr Bingley 6. Charles Pooter, Diary of a Nobody 7. Stevens 8. Lady Chatterley 9. Thrushcross Grange 10. Walter Scott 11. Dr Johnson 12. Rudyard Kipling 13. Brideshead 14. Bleak House 15. A Doll’s House 16. 7 Eccles Street 17. Bertie Wooster 18. Miss Shepherd, Lady in the Van 19. Briony Tallis, Atonement 20. Guiderius, son of Cymbeline


A. S. Byatt’s novels include the Booker Prize-winning Possession, The Biographer’s Tale and the quartet, The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman. Her most recent book is Little Black Book of Stories. She was appointed CBE in 1990 and DBE in 1999. David Constantine is a translator of Hölderlin, Goethe, Kleist and Brecht. Collected Poems was published in 2004 and a collection of stories Under the Dam (Comma Press) in 2005. With his wife Helen he edits Modern Poetry in Translation. Penny Fearn is 27 and originally from Dorset. She works in Essex at the moment as a secondary school teacher of English. Her poetry has appeared in several magazines, including Poetry Wales and Mslexia. Andrzej Gasiorek is a Reader in Twentieth-Century Literature at the University of Birmingham. He works mainly on fiction, especially on the contemporary novel and on literary modernism. Stephen Gill is a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford and a long-standing member of the Wordsworth Trust. He has written William Wordsworth: A Life (1989) and Wordsworth and the Victorians (1998). Graham Hayes is a sailor, woodworker, traveller and retired orthopaedic surgeon. Lynne Hatwell trained as a paediatric nurse at Great Ormond Street in the 1970s and now works as a health visitor in rural Devon. A degree in English Literature has also enabled her to develop and share her love of books and reading. Howard Jacobson is a novelist and critic. His most recent novel, Kalooki Nights, is published by Vintage. His new novel, The Act of Love, will be published by Jonathan Cape in September. Gabriel Josipovici was born in Nice in 1940 of Russo-Italian, RomanoLevantine Jewish parents. He is the author of fourteen novels, three volumes of short stories and six critical books and his plays have been performed on the stage and on radio. John Kinsella’s new volume of poetry is Shades of the Sublime and Beautiful (Picador, March 2008). His new critical volume is Disclosed Poetics: Beyond Landscape and Lyricism (MUP). He is a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University. He is a denizen of the Western Australian wheatbelt. Kate McDonnell is Assistant Manager of The Reader’s community reading project, Get Into Reading, and is also a scriptwriter. She lives in Liverpool with her husband and two children. Ian McMillan was born in 1956 and he’s been a freelance writer / performer /broadcaster since 1981. He’s currently presenting The Verb on radio 3 every Friday night. Michael O’Neill is a Professor of English at Durham University. His second collection of poems Wheel is forthcoming from Arc. Christopher Routledge is a freelance writer and editor. His book Cain’s: The Story of Liverpool in a Pint will be published in September 2008. Find him on the web at Mark Rylance is a renowned actor, director and author. He was Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre from 1996 to 2006.


Omar Sabbagh is finishing an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths College. His poetry has appeared in Poetry Review, Agenda Online Broadsheet, Stand and The Warwick Review, and is forthcoming in Stand. Kenneth Steven is first and foremost a poet. His selected poems have appeared recently from Peterloo, a volume entitled Wildscape. He lives in Highland Scotland. Enid Stubin is Assistant Professor of English at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York and Adjunct Professor of Humanities at NY University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Raymond Tallis switched from medicine to become a full time writer in March 2006. My Head: Portrait in a Foxed Mirror will be published by Atlantic Books in 2008. Joanna Trollope has been writing for over thirty years. Her enormously successful contemporary works of fiction have made her a household name. Her latest novel, Friday Nights, is published in February 2008. Joanna was awarded the OBE in 1996 for services to literature. Jeffrey Wainwright is about to retire from Manchester Metropolitan University to concentrate on writing. David Wilson is an art historian and Robert Woof Director of the Wordsworth Trust.

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Andrzej Gasiorek


vividly remember my earliest encounter with Joseph Conrad’s writing. I’d been aware of him somewhere in the literary canon (as how could I not have been, with my Polish background?), but I’d not read anything by him during my A Level studies. Eighteen years old, a callow first-year university student, I’m told to go away and read Nostromo. Even the exotic sounding title thrilled me. Nostromo. What on earth could it be about? I don’t think I understood much at the time, but I can certainly recall my experience of reading that extraordinary book. The first thing that stuck in my mind was the wide cast of characters and the fully realised imaginary republic of Costaguana, but I was also unsettled by the novel’s curious narrative structure. It played fast and loose with chronology, events were told and retold from different perspectives, and the central protagonist (a man whose various names hinted at his slippery identity) disappeared for a quarter of the book right in the middle of the story. Nostromo was a historical novel of sorts, but a strange and disturbing one; the events it depicted fell into no orderly pattern, and their inner meaning (if indeed there was one) remained hidden. Presiding over the whole tragi-comic mess was that wonderful Conradian caricature, the sententious Captain Mitchell, with his naïve faith in the logic of history. Even then I could see that the man knew nothing and that this darkly ironic text was skewering his illusions as fiercely as it was undermining the beliefs of just about everybody else in the novel. Irony, I suppose, is one of the most noticeable features of Conrad’s work. Born of Polish parents in the Ukraine in 1857, the writer who was



first named Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski experienced both the vagaries of politics and personal suffering when only a boy. His father was a great patriot whose struggle for a free Poland led to the family’s exile in northern Russia in 1862. Joseph was just five. His mother died when he was eight, his father when he was twelve. At the age of sixteen he left Poland and became a merchant seaman, a career he followed until literary success permitted him to devote himself full-time to writing in the language, English, he had only acquired as an adult. By then he had attempted suicide, was prone to overpowering depressions, and had few illusions about the world. Given his early experiences and his melancholy disposition, it is perhaps not surprising that Conrad’s view of reality was not exactly a sanguine one. Few writers have had such an unerring eye for the accommodations people make as they attempt to realise their innermost dreams and the suffering they cause to themselves and to others along the way. At times it appears as though action of any kind is fatally compromised in Conrad’s fictional world, since it is bound to bring about disaster in the end. Even the early novels, books like Almayer’s Folly (1895) and An Outcast of the Islands (1896), deal implacably with human insufficiency and the experience of disappointment, while late works such as Victory (1915) and The Rover (1923) focus on characters who withdraw from life, only to find themselves inexorably drawn back by the bonds of community and a sense of obligation to others. This call of the human prevents Conrad from being entirely a pessimist. His novels are above all marked by the tension that thinking human beings experience between belief and scepticism, between the burning need to have faith in some set of ideals or values and the paralysing fear that everything is meaningless. Nor is this just a matter of abstract philosophical speculation. It is felt in his characters’ viscera, is literally a matter of life and death. Consider, for example, the way that Conrad deals with two suicides, Captain Brierly’s in Lord Jim (1900) and Martin Decoud’s in Nostromo (1904). These two figures could scarcely be more different. Brierly is the respected captain of a highly regarded ship who appears to be the embodiment of rectitude, self-discipline, and professional expertise, whereas Decoud is an elegant boulevardier, a lighthearted wastrel who mocks human aspirations as so much dust. One character would seem to be so sure of his achievements that the thought of suicide could never enter his mind, while the other would seem to be so dismissive of everything that he couldn’t even bother to raise his hand against himself. But it turns out that both men are not what they seem. Brierly’s demeanour conceals a man shadowed by selfdoubt, while Decoud’s nonchalance hides his inner vulnerability. In a brilliant touch, Conrad draws attention to the material objects that are the signs of Brierly’s success in order to suggest that his faith in


external values (and the vanity they feed) are not enough to sustain him:
He had saved lives at sea, had rescued ships in distress, had a gold chronometer presented to him by the underwriters, and a pair of binoculars with a suitable inscription from some foreign Government, in commemoration of those services. He was acutely aware of his merits and his rewards . . . his selfsatisfaction presented to me and to the world a surface as hard as granite. He committed suicide very soon after.

In Heart of Darkness (1899), the narrator Charlie Marlow holds onto the belief that a man discovers himself in his work. If this is so, then Brierly, it seems, has found in work nothing more than a ruse that conceals the self’s fragility behind the façade of a purely social identity. Decoud, in contrast, discovers that his irony offers no defence against intense loneliness. When he finds himself isolated on an island in the middle of the sea he loses all faith in the meaning of his own personal existence and the value of humanity. Putting a bullet in his brain, he drops into the sea and disappears ‘without a trace, swallowed up in the immense indifference of things.’ The passage in which he despairs is worth quoting for the precision with which Conrad anatomises his collapse:
Decoud caught himself entertaining a doubt of his own individuality. It had merged into the world of cloud and water, of natural forces and forms of nature. In our activity alone do we find the sustaining illusion of an independent existence as against the whole scheme of things of which we form a helpless part. Decoud lost all belief in the reality of his action past and to come . . . He had recognized no other virtue than intelligence, and had erected passions into duties. Both his intelligence and his passion were swallowed up easily in this great unbroken solitude of waiting without faith . . . His sadness was the sadness of a sceptical mind. He beheld the universe as a succession of incomprehensible images.

Although the novel explains why Decoud loses all sense of the meaning of his life, it doesn’t offer any answer to his scepticism. Human beings are depicted as so much ‘helpless’ flotsam and jetsam on the tides of life, while their belief in action is an ‘illusion’ that may temporarily sustain them but remains a fantasy for all that. If Conrad was indeed in certain respects a pessimist, then his fiction provides us with an extraordinary record of the struggle – both his and his characters’ – against despair. In novel after novel he displays the folly, rapacity, egotism, blindness, and stupidity of human behaviour, but these displays are almost always tinged with compassion. A major


Conradian preoccupation was the credulity of those whose desire to believe in some overarching redemptive story about human life leads them into madness. The best known example of the consequences of this way of thinking is the character Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, but his fictional brothers in arms are figures like Charles Gould in Nostromo, and Jim in Lord Jim. Every one of these characters is an extremist, and Conrad’s view of extremism was pithily expressed in Nostromo: ‘A man haunted by a fixed idea is insane. He is dangerous even if that idea is an idea of justice; for may he not bring the heaven down pitilessly upon a loved head?’ In Heart of Darkness disaster is pitilessly brought down upon the main protagonist’s head. The novel explores the seamy underside of the imperialist enterprise in the Belgian Congo at the turn of the nineteenth century, and much of what it describes Conrad had experienced at first hand. Kurtz is the supposedly enlightened European ‘renaissance man’ who has gone to the Congo to work as a trader but also as ‘an emissary of pity and science and progress, and devil knows what else’. But he becomes a despot, tyrannising the Congolese natives, murdering those who resist his authority, and doing everything in his power to amass as much ivory as he can. The narrator, Marlow, is sent to find out what has happened to Kurtz and discovers the terrible truth of his collapse, which Kurtz himself summarises on his death-bed with the words: ‘The horror! The horror!’ When Marlow discovers Kurtz’s uncompleted report on the ivory district he is shocked by what it reveals about Kurtz, since it begins by asserting that the whites ‘can exert a power for good practically unbounded’ and ends with a scrawled footnote that simply reads: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’ The seemingly casual remark that has earlier linked the white man’s notion of ‘good’ with the ‘devil knows what else’ is revealed to have been a calculated advance warning, for in thinking about Kurtz Marlow is tormented by the question of ‘how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own’. And Marlow’s horror at what he sees in Kurtz is compounded by his realisation that Kurtz is his alter ego, a figure whose monstrous excesses reveal the consequences of living outside all human codes: ‘There was nothing either above or below him, and I knew it. He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! He had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air’. Marlow experiences a disorientating sense of weightlessness. Confronted by Kurtz’s refusal to be bound by any ethical imperative, he cannot locate himself in moral space. Much of Conrad’s most powerful work addresses the tension he felt between society’s need for binding moral and political principles of some kind and his scepticism that any such principles could ever be grounded in reality or truth.


This is why Marlow finds the central protagonist in Lord Jim so disturbing. Jim is a young English sailor who fancies himself a hero but in a moment of crisis abandons a sinking ship and all its passengers instead of sticking to his post. But the ship doesn’t sink, and its crew are brought to trial and sentenced. Marlow is positively haunted by Jim. The young man has not only betrayed the seaman’s code and his European heritage but also shattered Marlow’s illusions about himself and his own youth. The more Marlow considers Jim, the more aware he is that, like Brierly, he cannot absolve himself of a similar guilt: ‘the less I understood the more I was bound to him in the name of that doubt which is the inseparable part of our knowledge. I did not know so much more about myself’. And the more Marlow reflects on the whole case, the more he realises that it isn’t really about Jim at all but rather about something ‘more chilling than the certitude of death – the doubt of the sovereign power enthroned in a fixed standard of conduct’, a doubt that ultimately leads Marlow to suggest that the very idea of a moral identity may be purely conventional, ‘only one of the rules of the game, nothing more’. We are left, finally, neither with a clear view of Jim nor with a full understanding of Marlow but with a plethora of competing perspectives on the events the novel has depicted. The book is an open invitation to the reader to think through the many complex issues it has raised. Conrad claimed that before the novelist could contemplate writing he must create a personal world, but he insisted that this world should be rooted in a shared experience of reality. Although he was tormented by profound doubts as to the meaning or value of this reality, he never gave in to them, and his work is a testament to his honest exploration of their personal and social implications for human life. In a fine phrase, he compared the art of fiction to ‘rescue work carried out in darkness against cross gusts of wind swaying the action of a great multitude.’ This was precarious work, always liable to fail and always condemned to incompleteness. If his own fictional words were sometimes obscure, making his books hard to understand, this was because he was so conscious of the difficulty of knowing other human beings, still less of judging their behaviour or assessing what they owed to their communities. Conrad once remarked that his objective as a novelist was to make the reader see. He invites us to acknowledge just how difficult it is to be sure that we have understood (really seen) ourselves and those with whom we pass our lives. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow asks his auditors: ‘Do you see the story? Do you see anything?’. The question is also addressed to us. Conrad was never wilfully difficult and wanted, as he put it, ‘to be read by many eyes and by all kinds of them.’ He is a great writer. One can only enjoin others to discover in his novels the challenges and joys one has oneself discovered. Read him.

Raymond Tallis


t’s so easy to kill a man’. We had started off talking about Joseph Conrad and then got on to war. You were explaining as usual: what Conrad meant to you and should have meant to me. About the fragility of human beings. How easy it was to kill a man. ‘All weapons – nailed clubs, Cruise missiles – boil down to the same thing. Ways of turning our common vulnerability to our advantage.’ ‘Quite so,’ I replied. ‘To kill someone, all you need to do is to take sides with nature. The human body is a thermodynamic freak. We live in the teeth of our own improbability: we may not always be glad to be alive but we are always lucky to be alive. The crudest and most casually administered of physical blows: so much irreversible damage. You mount the Second Law, take sides with nature and BANG – end of a man – or a child…’ ‘That’s right.’ ‘Aren’t you appalled by the outrageous mismatch between the simplicity of the injury and the exquisite complexity of the life that it destroys? Between the ease with which a self can be cancelled and the difficulty with which it is brought to physical, psychological and social maturity?’


‘I am.’ ‘The fundamental betrayal is that of perceiving the other’s frailty as an opportunity. To take to arms is to sell out to the permanent enemy: the physical chaos that assailant and victim should make common cause against.’ ‘Indeed.’ ‘A human body, after all, is a grenade with the pin working its way out.’ Outside, it was a blazing hot day. So we had the inside of the pub to ourselves and its heavy silence italicised the particularity of our words and our words italicised the silence. The smoke from your cigarette unpacked itself to nothing. I studied its ‘volutations’ – your word – in the sunbeams slicing the coffered gloom of The Snug. Authentic oak rafters, dark as firedogs, roofed our conversation. Sliced cucumber and cress-scented sandwiches, plated out behind the bar, invoked summer outside the diamonded panes. ‘Just the kind of day,’ you remarked with customary scorn ‘for the unhaunted to romp in, carefree in their pressed white kit.’ A July Saturday, anyway. A Saturday of loosened collars and rolledup sleeves; of jackets carried instead of worn; of bare legs; of fêtes and shows littering dry suburban grasslands or cooped in stuffy marquees; of horn-blaring exits to the coast. All life décolleté in the cloudless heat. Except for us, the haunted: twenty years old, lying low inside The Snug, sensing the static brilliance of the scorching street from within a seasonless diverticulum; opposing its dazzle with our darkness. ‘I suppose I’m thinking of Conrad because it was around here that Marlow told his guilt-ridden stories.’ The pub was near the wharfs where the great ships had come and dockers had decanted the brutality and magnificence and agony of the Empire as someone’s wealth, to be stored in huge and almost windowless warehouses. More darkness: stuffed, stuffy, spidery. In this tap-room, sailors returned from year-long voyages had smoothed high seas to quiet talk; shaped howling winds to murmured anecdote; brought starvation, cruelty, humiliation, vomit, heroism and death to halting articulation; stowed experience suffered in tall ships in tall stories. ‘Our lives hang suspended by a spider’s thread above the dark. And equally the lives of those who would destroy life.’ ‘Same again?’ I responded, unable or unwilling to follow him in this thought. Later (to the sound of the oak door of the Gents creaking like the timbers of a yawing ship): ‘Conrad was obsessed by the dialectic of will and fate – neither making sense without the other, each incompatible with the other… And he brooded on suicide, where will becomes its


own fate as they meet head-on in the act of self-destruction.’ And, finally, as we pushed against the exit door, unmasking a dazzling picture of the street: ‘We need the friction that opposes our movements, for without it we should not be able to move. Freedom can express itself only through the causal nexus, the net of necessity, which seems to ensnare it.’ Dazzled and drunk we plunged into the sunlight, superior in our untimely thoughts, proud of a darkness half-assumed and half-felt. In the burning street between the warehouses, summer met us in a thirsty child howling to itself. The spectacle and sound of its misery was as distant from our only half-ironic gloom as from the ritual and frippery of kit and lawns and tents you had expected me to despise. Whose forgotten self was that grubby toddler, running away from his ice lolly dropped on the pavement, blubbering to the melting tarmac, to an unfeeling world scorched by the sun? Five years later, in your first month as a doctor, you made a careless mistake. Perhaps you were busy, or over-anxious or tired, or distracted by metaphysical preoccupations alien to the world of mere busyness. Potassium instead of sodium in the intravenous drip. The child’s heart stopped, never to start again. The child’s parents believed you had done your best. Even when their shock and grief turned to anger, they had no wish to take action against you. Nobody charged you with anything. You tried yourself in the court of your solitude where a permanent sitting repeatedly found you guilty. You lodged no appeal; for you didn’t want to live on, self-condemned, as the cause of that fatal mistake. You decided that the child’s life should cost you your own. ‘It is so easy to kill a man.’ You mounted the Second Law, took sides with Nature…BANG. Smoke vanishes, words vanish, summers darken, and the marquees are folded. Yet even smoke leaves its cloven footmark in our arteries and airways. And words remain; and there remains, too, the alluvium of daylight, the silt of hours: memory. Fifteen or twenty years on – how long must I have outlived you for such vagueness – the dusty sunlight of that day slants past the wharfs and warehouses of dockland Thames to slice into my northbound doze on a late train back from a lecture. The remembered light and remembered shade, exterior street and interior pub, Conrad and the child, disturb the stale brightness of a non-smoking carriage. I look out of the window at my image staring inwards from the ghostless spaces the hurrying train divides… Are you still somewhere, my friend; still out there, beyond the ‘quinkled’ night; still talking, savouring those rare words and gloomy, esoteric ideas? Was it they that so fatally divided your attention on the day that


unlucky child died? (‘Conrad was acutely conscious of the dangers imagination presents to the practical life.’) Or are you absolute in your absence now, voice- and window-less since will and fate extinguished each other in a final embrace? It is so easy to forget a man… Even smoke can kill a man… So slight an error, so minute a nudge, and yet so great a fall: down through the thousand storeys and million stories of consciousness and out through the bottom of the world. How could any merely human act have had such effects? Only because ‘a human body is a grenade with the pin working itself out’. Could a man be blamed for this, could a body hold all that blame? No mere agent could reach so deep. This is what Joseph Conrad meant. What, dead friend, he meant to me. And should have meant to you.

Raymond Tallis

Joseph Conrad By Muirhead Bone