We at Jot 101 are always looking for new examples of bilious, scornful or downright libellous remarks. A number of collections have been scoured and selections made, but in Matthew Parris’s Scorn with extra bile ( 1998) we seem to have found a truly impressive collection of insults, including a very well known one from my own uncle, the first Baron Riddlesden ( aka Denis Healey ).
Some of the better insults are, alas, too long for inclusion, but here are some by writers that are equally entertaining, but pithier. There is also a hilarious semi-parody of the somewhat overrated children’s writer A.A. Milne by Dorothy Parker (photo above).
…an umbrella left behind at a picnic.
George Moore on W. B. Yeats.
A church lit but without a congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an eggshell, a bit of string.
H.G. Wells on a book by Henry James.
A hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tried out a few of the old proven ‘ sure-fire’ literary skeletons with sufficient local colour to intrigue the superficial and the lazy.
William Faulkner on Mark Twain
I wish her characters would talk a little less like the heroes and heroines of police reports
George Eliot on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
I cannot abide Conrad’s souvenir shop style and bottled ships and necklaces of romanticist clichés.
Vladimir Nabokov on Joseph Conrad
Tell me, when you are alone with Max, does he take off his face and reveal his mask ?
Found in a paperback reprint ( 1952) of Rieu’s translation of The Odyssey is a typewritten carbon copy of a letter to the translator from John Symonds, the biographer of Aleister Crowley, dated 22nd September 1961. Alongside it is Rieu’s handwritten reply to Symonds from his home at Hurst Avenue in north London, dated six days later.
Such items are rare. Editors rarely reply to letters from readers. I once received a very long typed reply from the poet and writer on art, Edward Lucie- Smith, not long after his Penguin anthology of contemporary poetry came out. I can’t recall exactly what I objected to, but I think it was something to do with the fact that Lucie-Smith had had the audacity to include a comparatively young poet — Geoffrey Hill—while excluding a veteran of the Auden generation, Geoffrey Grigson. I must have made a cogent case because Lucie-Smith’s friendly reply was much longer than my original letter to him.
Symonds’ letter to Rieu turned on an objection, not to the quality of the translation, but to the character of Odysseus. Here is the letter in full:-
‘ Some years ago I bought your versions of THE ODYSSEY and THE ILIAD, and put them on a shelf beside my bed, intending one night to begin reading them, and thus fill a literary gap. And there they remained until this month when I took down THE ODYSSEY, removed the paper wrapper, felt the fine blue cloth binding, gazed at the clear print and began reading.
Splendid and immortal yarn! But what a barbarian Odysseus is. He is like a comic-strip superman of the Daily Mirror. And then I came to Book XXII which you describe in your introduction as ‘ the magnificent climax ‘. What is magnificent about it ? The cruelty of Odysseus appalled me. Merciless butcher, without charity! He won’t even spare the tearful women. The horror described on page 324 made me feel sick and I flung the book into the fireplace.
I shall apply myself, somewhat warily, to THE ILIAD.
When the editor of The Complete Self-Educator (c1939) recruited the thirty-five year old Cedric Dover to write the section on biology for his multi-author book, he knew what he was going to get. Dover (1904 – 61), an Anglo-Indian entomologist, born in Calcutta, who had signalled his passion for insects by publishing The Common Butterflies of India at the tender age of seventeen, had gone on, despite the lack of a degree, to write learned papers on entomology for various journals, but soon afterwards changed his focus to race issues, bringing out such books as Half-Caste, Know this of Race and Brown Phoenix.
Dover’s new interest in race was undoubtedly engendered by his status as a mixed-race person in a land dominated by white people. On arriving in London in 1934 from India, where he had abandoned his wife and three children, he soon became involved with V. K. Krishna Menon’s India League. He later corresponded for a number of years with George Orwell, usually on the subjects of politics and race, and in a letter of 1940 Orwell reprimanded him for spelling the word negro with a capital ‘n’. As a supporter of Stalin at this time, principally because he believed that the Soviet leader stood for racial equality, Dover would have antagonised the author of Animal Farm, and indeed Orwell included Dover on his notorious list of persons not to be considered as potential writers of anti-communist propaganda, where he was described as ‘ a very dishonest and venal person whose main emphasis was anti-white ( especially anti-USA ), and reliably pro-Russian on all major issues’.
Some indication of Dover’s obsession with combating racism can be founded in his chapter on blood and blood groups in The Complete Self-Educator. After discussing the genetics of blood, he concluded that
‘ while blood groups are determined by inheritance, the blood has no further hereditary significance. There is no ‘blood relationship ‘, and mothers do not hand on their blood to their children as is often supposed. There is no social or hereditary advantage in relationships with people of the same blood group…
And in these days, when ancient blood myths are being used for disgraceful political purposes, it is important to know what we are talking about when we talk about blood. No one is someone else’s flesh and blood. No one can keep his blood pure, except by keeping it clean and healthy. These superstitions not only clutter up our language and our thinking. They help to play us into the hands of the enemies of human decency.’
On the subject of races, Dover was equally emphatic:
‘…human groups ( they can hardly be called races) have been broken down and built up by migration and crossing followed by periods of isolation, and their characteristics are now being shuffled by further crossing. All human ‘ races ‘ are mixed races.’
On the issue of biology and society Dover argued that Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest was a natural process that occurred over time.
‘It is a question of space, food and numbers. It is therefore a distortion of the truth to apply it justifies war and the inequalities of capitalist society. We do not need war to eliminate the unfit, especially as it first eliminates the fittest. We do not need exploitation masquerading as ‘ free competition’ for ensuring the survival of the fittest and the improvement of mankind. There is room and food for all, and those who spread such travesties of biological thinking already have more than they need. And they are by no means the fittest…’
Anthony d’ Offay ( b. 1940) was once one of London’ s leading dealers, with a reputation as a specialist in late nineteenth and twentieth century art. He opened his first gallery in 1965 aged 25, but closed it in 2001.The third catalogue he issued was entitled Art and Literature, 1870 – 1920. We found this lip smacking treasure house of goodies lying about Jot HQ the other day. Undated, though probably published sometime in the late sixties ( evidently, d’Offay’s London telephone number was Welbeck 7566), the catalogue is a miscellany of drawings, designs, posters ,original artwork, a few printed books, the occasional literary manuscript and collection of letters from prominent British and continental writers and artists. Some items stand out
On the literary front, there is an unpublished holograph manuscript of ‘an important ‘ poem by Mary Shelley on the death of her husband Percy B. Shelley, who drowned in 1822. The price of £350 seems on the face of it a bit steep (for the time) for a mere three stanzas, until one thinks of how highly rated the author of Frankenstein is today. According to D’Offay, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the poem was published. In 1876 the critic H. Buxton Forman published Mary Shelley’s ‘ The Choice ‘, which was a tribute to her late husband, but this was a much longer poem. The D’Offay MS may have been a draft of this work, but until its present whereabouts of it is revealed we won’t know.
There is also a holograph manuscript of a draft novel entitled L’Amour Parricide by Charles Baudelaire dated c 1864. According to D’Offay, ‘ the holograph drafts… were lost until recently when they came to light after more than seventy years obscurity.’ D’Offay wanted £75 for this rarity, which certainly doesn’t seem outrageous.
Of the printed items we find The Fairies Wood ( c 1899) by the cult writer Ronald Firbank, who at this time signed himself Arthur Firbank. According to D’ Offay, this is ‘the first copy to be offered for sale in sixty-five years ‘ though he somehow neglected to mention that this example of the first printed work by Firbank was basically just a piece of card printed on one side only. The stanzas themselves are hardly more rewarding than greetings card ‘ verses ‘ which even the most ardent Firbank collector would shrink at paying the £105 asked for. Nevertheless, that same piece of card is currently on sale at an eye watering £3,500.
In many ways, Martin Seymour-Smith’s Bluff Your Way in Literature (1966) can be seen as an opportunity for the author to satirise or criticise the work of writers he felt were overrated or even worthless. His opinions are inevitably heavy with irony.
We have remarked in an earlier Jot that Seymour-Smith was critical of John Fowles, Muriel Spark, C.P.Snow, Malcolm Bradbury and Ted Hughes and that he regarded such generally admired figures as Auden, Pinter , Margaret Attwood and Tom Stoppard as overrated. On the other hand he wasn’t afraid of promoting an unfashionable and controversial individual like Wyndham Lewis, whose reputation had been in the doldrums for decades, or giving a lift to Thomas Hardy, Laura Riding or Rayner Heppenstall.
In an age of political correctness the opinions of such a maverick should be cherished rather than condemned and so in this second and final on Seymour-Smith Jot we ‘ll look at some of his other verdicts on writers or movements in literature, some of which might seem rather quaint or outdated today.
Vomit, menstruation &c.
‘ In poems and novels, these are not only in but are obligatory. However, do not show bad taste and talk about them yourself. Preserve the kind of decency that is expected at parties and gatherings, while praising the fearless and ‘tough’ ( a key word) indecency of modern literature, which is a ‘ major breakthrough’.
All—not merely some—poems and novels, if they are to be major, must be about sickness and mental breakdown. This first became evident from the kind iof poems the poetry critic and poetry editor A. Alvarez began printing in The Observer some years ago: a good example was one which dealt with the theme of miscarriage in the bathroom. Badly written, filthy, insulting and hysterical, with no justification provided for its unpleasantness, it was just the kind of verse that is nowadays needed for magazines.
Found in a cupboard at Jot HQ is this very slim (66 pages), pocket sized guide on how to ‘ get on ‘ in the literary world by surely the one man qualified to help you. By 1966, when the booklet appeared from Wolfe Publishing, who had hitherto brought out other bluffer’s guides to Finance, Music and Marketing, Martin, Seymour- Smith was already the best-known and most industrious compiler of literary reference works in Britain. But unlike many literary critics he came to this point in a meandering way. Having started auspiciously as the undergraduate editor of both Oxford University’s Isis Magazine and Oxford Poetry, he subsequently sailed off to Majorca to tutor the son of Robert Graves, then spent six years as a schoolmaster in Sussex, and it was only from 1960 that he was able to support himself as a freelance writer.
His poetry had already impressed many critics, including C. H .Sisson and Geoffrey Grigson. Robert Nye dubbed him ‘the best British poet after 1945’, but to most readers of novels, he was , with a reading knowledge of twenty languages, simply the most wide-ranging critic of world fiction in the UK. Like Grigson, he was not afraid to court notoriety by his outspoken views on certain modish writers. For instance, he criticized the work of John Fowles, Muriel Spark, C. P.Snow, Malcolm Bradbury and Ted Hughes. He also felt that Shaw, Pinter, Attwood, Auden and Tom Stoppard were over-rated. On the other hand he argued that Hardy, Laura Riding, Wyndham Lewis and Rayner Heppenstall were severely underrated. Even more controversially, he called Wyndham Lewis ‘ the greatest British writer of the twentieth century ‘.
Grigson felt the same about the lack of attention given to Lewis by fashionable critics. In many ways the two critics shared certain traits: Seymour-Smith described himself as ‘ tense, malarial, angry as a bull when roused, ugly, clownish…and a compulsive talker’. Like Grigson, he kept himself away from the literary establishment, ‘mistrusting its machinations and self-importance’. According to the reviewer of Seymour-Smith’s Who’s Who in Twentieth Century Literature, he ‘wasn’t for everyone’. He could be over harsh and mean spirited. His many ‘put downs and undercooked psychoanalysis’ might alienate some readers. However, he compensated for some hilariously biased judgments by his willingness to challenge received wisdom and established reputations. Such a book, the reviewer concluded ‘would be impossible to write today’. Times change. In the current literary world, where diversity and Wokeness count for more than talent and originality, we perhaps could do with someone like Seymour –Smith to kick over the ant-hill.
Today, when fully formed adults from around the world queue patiently at the portal to Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross Station to have their photograph taken beside the Harry Potter luggage trolley, it’s worth reading another and better children’s writer, the one-time Classics teacher and creator of William, Richmal Crompton, as she explains in an article in the October 1952 issue of The Writer, how she began her career as a writer for adults.
‘I submitted the first one to a women’s magazine and the editor, accepting it, asked for another story about children. I remember that I racked my brains, trying to invent a different set of children from the ones I had already used, and it was with a feeling of guilt and inadequacy that I finally fell back again on the children of the first story. Asked for a third story about children, I wrestled once more with the temptation to use the same set of children, succumbing to it finally with the same sense of guilt. When I had written the fifth story I said to myself: “This must stop. You must find a completely different set of children for the next story.” But somehow I didn’t and gradually the ‘William’ books evolved. They were still, however, regarded as books for adult reading, and I think it was not till the last war that they found their way from the general shelves to the children’s department in the bookshops. And even now I receive letters from adult—even elderly –readers…
…if you are writing about children for children, you must be able to see the world around you as a child sees it. To “ write down” for children is an insult that a child is quick to perceive and resent. Children enjoy assimilating new facts and ideas, but only if the writer is willing to rediscover these facts and ideas with the children, not if he hands out information from the heights of adult superiority. I think the fact that the ‘William’ stories wer4e originally with no eye on a child-reading public has helped to make them popular with children…The plots are not specially devised for children, but I think that if there’s anything I the story that children don’t understand they just don’t worry about it. Children, too, seem to like a series of stories dealing with the same character—especially if it’s a character with which the normal child can identify itself…
In those early days I saw myself as a budding novelist and wrote the William stories —rather carelessly and hurriedly—as pot-boilers. The history of the pot-boiler, by the way, is an interesting one. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Hans Andersen’s fairy tales, Stevenson’s Treasure Island were all written as pot-boilers…Stevenson would have been surprised to know that after his death the story that people connected most readily with his name would be Treasure Island…
Hugh Walpole was once one of the most popular and richest novelists in Britain. Today he is hardly read, though he still has his fans; in 2020 The Hugh Walpole Society was founded in an attempt to resurrect his reputation. Back in the early thirties, when Walpole’s star was at its highest, the journalist and broadcaster S. P. B. Mais ( see previous Jots), while rambling in the Lake District, popped in to talk to him at Brackenburn, his ‘ small stone house’ on the edge of Derwentwater, not far from Keswick. This is the impression of Walpole that Mais published in his Weekends in England(1933).
‘A most charming host I have seldom met. He took me all over his house, muttering , “ I hope I’m not boring you, “ as he turned out treasure after treasure for my inspection. There was a thirteenth century missal, exquisitely painted. “I got that from an old man in Carlisle, “ he said. There were the holograph manuscripts of “ The Fortunes of Nigel “, with scarcely a correction, the proof sheets of the same novel with many corrections, not only by Scott, but also by Ballantyne, there were letters from Charlotte Bronte showing how deeply she loved her husband, letters from Thackeray showing how he disliked Dickens, especially in his relation to America, there were very rare early editions of Kipling and Bennett, and first editions of every Victorian and Georgian novelist, some glorious pictures of C. J. Holmes, Sickert, Bone, Grant and most of the moderns.
Altogether a house of taste.
Then we were taken over the garden and shown the bee-hives and the superb view over the woods of Manesty to the lake.
But the thing that remains most in my mind beyond the lovely pictures and beautifully bound and rare books is the quality of Mr Walpole’s voice.
‘ It is quite obvious that in the years to come we shall have to tackle this business of employing leisure much more scientifically than has hitherto been the case. For about 150 years men have been struggling to obtain leisure, and now that they have got it they don’t know what to do with it. Education has been no preparation for it. When the average working man gets any leisure he spends it in the purely passive pursuit of watching films, dog-racing or football. Leisure, which surely ought first and foremost to be an opportunity for giving vent to mans passion to express himself, to create something, is wasted in serving commercial interests.
Our first mistake is to spend our leisure in herds. It has been wisely said that religion is what a man does with his loneliness, and one result of modern civilisation has been to make men afraid of being by themselves. They look upon loneliness as a state to be avoided. In a word they fight shy of it exactly as they fight shy of the word religion.
Too much obedience of the herd extinct has gone along way to destroy our liberty of action and liberty of thought. We follow the dictates of convention and society quite blindly without stopping to think whether we are wise in applying them to our own case. “ It isn’t done,” is our parrot-like remonstrance when someone suggests a convenient but unusual mode of behaviour, like walking coatless in the street on a hot day or drinking tea out of the saucer to cool it.
Our first duty to ourselves is to is to learn to know ourselves, and we shall never do that by always keeping with the crowd. The world is far too full of leagues and societies and clubs and associations. There ought to be an Association for those who vow never to belong to any association.
We have seen in a previous Jot how in The Writer magazine Compton Mackenzie told readers about his writing methods. Inspired by this article, the prolific novelist, anarchist, anti-imperialist and pacifist Ethel Mannin (1900 – 84) offered an account in the same magazine of her own working life.
She begins her piece by declaring that she dislikes dictating her work to another person. It’s too much like ‘undressing in public ‘. Dictating machines were around in her time, so it’s odd that she doesn’t mention these. Nevertheless, she admits to preferring to see her words on paper in the form of typing, mainly because she has difficulties on deciphering her own writing. She continues:
‘ In the twenties, when I was a young writer, I liked to emulate Arnold Bennett and keep office hours for work, and for a number of years I did so…, keeping to the 9.30 -6 working day I had know during my four years of office experience. But in those days life was different. Then I was a young married woman with a baby, a resident servant and a husband coming home at seven each evening. By the thirties I was on my own and living a quite different kind of life. A good deal of it was lived in hotels and pensions all over Europe, but still I tried to keep to a regular working day, though the hours began to be more flexible. I hardly know at what point in the forties I turned into the night worker I now inveterately am. Life changed again; resident domestic helped was replaced by daily women two or three times a week—an arrangement by this time , with an increasing liking for solitariness, I much prefer…I live alone—and like it.
The routine now is that I get into the study between ten and eleven in the mornings and am very often still there at midnight. Most of the day until six in the evening in occupied with mail ( like Sir Compton Mackenzie, I deal with about 4,000 letters a year ); then there are six clear hours till midnight for the book I am working on. I seldom continue much after midnight, feeling too mentally tired by then, though not sleepy. I doubt if it is possible to work for more than five or six hours out of the twenty-four on actual writing. On the days when the mail is less I start work—the actual writing, that is—in the afternoon, but then perhaps a guest is coming or supper and I must finish by seven or eight. Even so, I have been eight hours at the typewriter—a full working judges by non-literary standards. Leaving the study around midnight, I read for a while in bed and my bedside light is seldom out before 1 a.m.—often later…
One thing that could be said of the special Christmas 1930 edition of the literary review The Bookman is that it was sumptuous, and due to its inclusion of art paper, very physically if not intellectually, heavy. Always unashamedly middlebrow in character, a fact borne out by the lack a proper appreciation of D. H. Lawrence, who had died a few months earlier.In fact, the only critique of him focused almost solely on his character, where he is dismissed as a ‘puritan’, rather than the originality of his writings. While other more serious literary journals had given Lawrence the respect he deserved, and the Times had trashed him, the Bookman, devoted more room to reviews of adventure stories for children , modern novels of manners, travelogues and popular histories than it did for serious fiction and poetry. In many ways it was the sort of magazine read by those who took the Yorkshire Post, the Morning Post and the Daily Telegraph. It comes as no surprise that the last two newspapers took full page adverts puffing their book pages. It is indicative of the conservatism of the Yorkshire Post that Geoffrey Grigson, then a junior staffer there, had to exert great pressure on its London Editor to insert a brief notice on Lawrence, a writer of whom, Grigson remarks, his boss had probably never heard.
By December 1930, the recently married Grigson, then aged 25, was keen to supplement his exigent pay as a junior, and so in the year in which John Masefield had been appointed the successor to Robert Bridges as Poet Laureate, he chose The Bookman for an assessment of past Poet Laureates ( his Editor doesn’t seem to have minded this moonlighting). Perhaps another indication that he was keen to make his debut as a serious writer, rather than a hack, was the fact that around this time he placed an advert in the TLS asking if anyone who had material relating to the eighteenth century satirist ‘ Peter Pindar’ ( aka John Wolcot, to get in touch with him, as he was writing a biography. He had managed to obtain a Reader’s Card for the British Museum, perhaps to gain access to books by Wolcot. Continue reading →
It is in The Last of Spring, one of Rupert Croft-Cooke’s many autobiographical volumes that one finds an account of the author’s experience of renting one of the Cornish bungalows built for writers by the eccentric spiritual medium and author, Mrs A.C. Dawson Scott, in the early 1930s.
Croft-Cooke, armed with an advance of £20 from his publisher, Chapman Hall, following the success of his first novel was seeking a cottage in the country that would afford him the solitude and remoteness he needed to write a follow-up. He found one by answering an advert placed in a literary weekly by the novelist Dawson Scott, now better known as the founder of P.E.N. She herself lived in a holiday bungalow near Padstow and had had the idea of buying some land south of Trevose Head to build more bungalows which she would rent out to writers who needed a retreat.
The bungalows duly became a colony she called ‘ Constantine ‘, after the nearby ruins of a church and a Holy Well, aimed at providing accommodation for those attending the Cornish Art and Literature Season in July and August, when she charged £5 a week to tenants. Luckily, Dawson Scott, nicknamed ‘ Sappho’ by her family, charged Croft Cooke the off-season rate of only £1 a week. Meeting his landlady in her London flat to arrange the tenancy was a daunting experience for the novelist. He found
‘ a forceful woman, decisive and grimly affable, obviously a born organizer. I never knew her in Cornwall, yet through vivid descriptions by Noel Coward, who was one of her early paying guests, and others, I see her in fancy in her Cornish setting, square, tanned, blatantly healthy, wearing a djibba, with the wet sand oozing up between her toes, and her hair undisciplined in the breeze, a woman with a purpose. ‘Continue reading →
William White was a professor of Journalism and American Studies, which may partially explain his academic interest in certain American writers, but we at Jot HQ are at a loss to understand why he spent time and good money assembling a collection of the work of such a mediocre American novelist as John Marquand. In his account of how he came to do so, White seems a little embarrassed, as if he needed to justify his ‘ affection ‘ for a novelist ‘not of the first rank ’. And when he brings in the opinion of another critic to support his case, he further mystifies us. According to T. G .Rosenthal, Marquand ‘never achieved greatness but was an excellent entertainer’. Talk about damning with faint praise. The status of Marquand as a novelist is unlikely to alter in the coming years. Today, most of his first editions can be bought for a few pounds, although Do Tell Me, Doctor Johnson , at £60, and The Late Lord Apsley ( according to White the best thing he wrote) at £90 are exceptions. Maybe it was the journalist in White that saw merit in Marquand. But ever the completist, he could not pursue his prey with half measures:
‘ I have just about every first edition of his forty novels, collections of short pieces, books he wrote introductions for, and pamphlets plus reprints, English editions, and translations—275 volumes, not counting periodical appearances…’
In a previous blog on White as a collector we have seen how admiration for a writer, such as Housman, could become an overweening obsession bordering on mild insanity. This confession concerning Marquand only confirms this view. Continue reading →
Most readers know A. A. Milne as the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh, Eeyore, and Tigger, but four years before these characters appeared Milne published his one true detective novel, The Red House Mystery (1922).
By 1922 the forty-year old had become best known as a playwright and writer of screenplays for the cinema, as well as being a prolific contributor to Punch, where his gently humorous style gained him many fans. Thus the appearance of The Red House Mystery must have been welcomed by a growing number of his admirers as something of a novelty. Here was a comic writer trying his hand at a genre that was becoming increasingly popular in what later became known as ‘The Golden Age’ of crime fiction.
Milne’s debut proved immediately popular. The well known critic Alexander Woollcott even went so far as to call The Red House Mystery ‘one of the best mystery stories of all time.’ The action was set (where else?) in a country house party hosted by Mark Ablett and attended by a handful of minor characters. At some point Robert, Ablett’s black sheep of a brother, who was living in Australia, turns up and before long is found shot dead in the head. Another guest, Tony Gillingham, appoints himself a latter day Sherlock Holmes and with the help of his friend as Dr Watson, this pair of amateur sleuths get to work on what appears to be a very puzzling crime indeed.
Milne was a graduate in mathematics from Cambridge and so it comes as no great surprise that at the centre of the book is a logic puzzle, but Raymond Chandler, who twenty-two years later was to demolish the raison d’etre of the Red House Mystery in The Simple Art of Murder, had serious reservations regarding the credibility of the plot. To him the novel was:
‘ an agreeable book, light amusing in the Punch style, written with a deceptive smoothness that is not as easy as it looks . Yet however light in texture the story may be, it is offered as a problem of logic and deduction. If it is not that, it is nothing at all. There is nothing else for it to be …’ Continue reading →
Found among the papers of the academic Patrick O’Donoghue, two clippings of reviews—by Philip Toynbee and Cyril Connolly—of The Outsider (1956), the astonishing debut of the twenty-four year old, largely self-taught, Colin Wilson that branded him a fully paid up member of the Angry Young Men brigade and ‘ Britain’s first, and so far last, home-grown existentialist star’.
An ‘Angry Young Man’ because, rather fortunately for Wilson, The Outsider appeared from the leftish publisher Gollancz in the same month ( May) that John Osborne’s ‘Look Back in Anger ‘ opened at the Royal Court in London. We don’t know whether the two very different reviewers—Toynbee, a Bohemian critic in his forties and a communist, who had been expelled from Rugby School, and Connolly, very much of the Auden Generation, had seen the play before they wrote their reviews, but had they done so, judging from the enthusiasm with which they wrote about the book , it is possible that they identified both book and play as evidence of a ne Continue reading →
Compton Mackenzie is not a writer who raises much interest among readers nowadays. Few literary people today could name more than two of his many novels, the most famous of which, Whiskey Galore, was made into a hit film. However, back in the early fifties, readers of his article, Tricks of the Trade ‘, which appeared in the January 1953 issue of The Writer, would have lapped up this very frank account of his daily writing routine, which retains its interest today.
Mackenzie begins his account by declaring that due to the loss of one eye, he may soon face the possibility of having to dictate his words, something he dislikes. For the moment, however, he still writes ‘every word’. He then reveals some surprises:
‘ I wake about noon…drink a cup of coffee and read my letters…I answer about 4,000 a year, which if you figure it out, means at least six weeks of eight-hour days. Too much! After the letters come the papers, but there’s not a great deal on which to waste time there. I get up about one, and if it’s fine take a stroll round the orchard with a glass of milk at the end of it. Then I dictate answers to those letters and with luck settle down by 3 p.m. to work at whatever book I’m writing. I always have to work in chairs because for over forty years I have had to fight with sciatica. A break of a quarter of an hour for tea, and then work goes on until nine, sometimes later. At 9p.m.a very light meal, and then, in a different chair from the one in which I have been writing my book, I write any article or broadcast I have rashly promised to do. Music on gramophone or wireless until midnight, and then sometimes under pressure I work on without music until one or one-thirty. As soon as I’m in bed I enjoy the longed for recreation of doing The Times crossword puzzle. If I do it in under an hour I win: if I’m longer The Times wins. If I’ve failed to finish in an hour The Times is allowed a walk-over and I put the puzzle aside. Then I read until 4 or 5 a.m., sustained by a bar of chocolate and a glass of milk.’
Mackenzie then reveals that he writes using a ‘ very thick Swan pen with a very broad nib ‘ and that he avoids writers’ cramp and developing a large corn on the middle finger by holding the pen ‘ very lightly ‘. He is very particular (one might argue, rather obsessive) about the paper he uses and how he creates the physical book. Continue reading →
Never likely to become a ‘ national treasure ‘, like his fellow centenarian Philip Larkin, Donald Davie has become, in stark contrast, a rather forgotten figure. An academic, like Kingsley Amis and D. J. Enright, but from a very different background ( Yorkshire Baptist ) he was a fellow ‘ Movement’ poet, but not being a novelist like Amis, he became better known as a critic, rather than a poet, though his poetry perhaps deserves to be better known by the ‘ man in the street ‘.
His earliest poetry, such A Winter Talent 1955 was a direct response to the Apocalyptic school that flourished during the Second World War and spilled over into the late forties. The collections that followed, notably Events and Wisdoms(1964) showed a residue of the influences of the Imagism of Ezra Pound, twentieth century Russian, Chinese poetry of all eras, and American poetry. By the sixties he had become a significant figure in English letters as a critic, and it is as such that he wrote for the New Statesman. Two of his reviews here appear among the archive of the academic Patrick O’Donoghue.
In the first, a review of Eliot’s Collected Poems, 1909 – 1962 (11 October 1963), Davie’s perceptive appraisal is a sort of fan letter to the American. As a poet he is seen as a master of self-control, unlike so many poets, preserving only those poems that he feels deserve to live. Continue reading →
Best known for Lucky Jim, of course, Amis began as a poet and had his first collection published by the infamous R. L. Caton of the Fortune Press, as did his close friend Philip Larkin (see article in Bookride ). Amis published very little poetry afterwards ( much to the disappointment of Larkin), but alongside his novels he continued to teach and write about poetry, first in Swansea, where his son Martin attended your Jotter’s old school, and later on in Cambridge.
So it is interesting to find among the archive of the former academic and wartime diarist ( see previous Jots) Patrick O’Donoghue, a clipping of a review of a 1957 reprint of Sidney Colvin’s book on Keats originally published in 1887. In ‘The Poet and the Dreamer’, which appeared in The Spectator of November 22nd 1957 Amis asks whether such a book is relevant today.
He begins by declaring that unlike the work of Milton, Shakespeare and Wordsworth, that of Keats needed no ‘glossary’; he appealed directly to the imagination of sensitive adolescents looking for a romantic alternative to the ‘ real world ‘. Keats believed in Beauty, which appealed to those under the cosh of exam pressures at school and the job interview. Moreover his tragic short life, ‘engaging personality ‘and ‘high aspirations ‘made him an ideal poet in the minds of the young.
However, Amis regarded a familiarity with Keats’ poetry as ‘an obstacle to further literary development’. To Amis ‘a rational reading of Keats, whatever the long-term result, is initially destructive.’ While Colvin recognised the ‘dissonance ‘, for instance, in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, he dismissed it as a minor flaw, whereas Amis saw it as indicative of the poet’s poor technique. Rather than discussing Keats’ faults, Colvin’s book was likely to inspire “another legion of essays maundering about the way ‘the poetry seems to throb in every line with the life of imagination and beauty “ in that sugary erotic extravaganza ,’ The Eve of St Agnes’. Continue reading →