John Symonds’ on E. V. Rieu’s translation of Homer’s The Odyssey

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.

John Symonds Crowley biography

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:-

Dear Sir,

‘ 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. 

Yours truly,

John Symonds.

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A catalogue of Art & Literature, 1870 – 1920, from Anthony D’Offay

John Gray

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.

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Richmal Crompton on writing for children

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…

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Ethel Mannin on writing

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…

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Collected books that appeared a hundred years ago. No 1) The Red House Mystery by A.A.Milne

Jot 101 Red House MysteryMost 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

Compton Mackenzie on his ‘tricks of the trade ‘

Whisky_Galore_film_posterCompton 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

Ferlinghetti the Beat is given the Boot


Lawrence Ferlinghetti pic

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died a few months ago aged 101 was a hero to many in the fifties — as publisher, spokesman, and owner of San Francisco’s City Lights Bookshop, he became the eminence griseof the Beat generation. He was also a best-selling poet with his second collection, A Coney Island of the Mind(1958). It is less well known that in the UK this collection was received far less enthusiastically, to say the least. In fact it was pummelled by fellow poet and critic Al Alvarez, who reviewed regularly for the Observer, where this review appeared in 1958.


Alvarez, like Geoffrey Grigson, who despised him for promoting the ‘ confessional school ‘ and for approving suicide, among other things, had a reputation for physical and mental toughness. A rock-climber and poker-player, who published books on both subjects, he despised Romanticism in poetry, and the genteel perspective of poets like Larkin and Betjeman, preferring the gritty world view of writers such as Lowell and Berryman. And like any tough guy Alvarez spoke his mind. If a poem didn’t measure up he said so without equivocation. And in his view, Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mindwas bad. In fact it was ‘extraordinary bad’.  Alvarez’s review is worth reading, not only for what he says about Ferlinghetti:


Mr Ferlinghetti’s reputation largely depends on his extra-literary activities; he has stage- managed many of the San Francisco Beatniks; he owns the City Lights Bookshop where they sometimes meet; from it he has published some of their verse. He has also fooled around with that latest sub- literary form of publicity, poetry and jazz…’ 


 But also how he saw the Beatnik movement.


‘ The Beatnik’s pose is one of rejection and eccentricity; they say ‘ no’ to society, daddy and sense, and ‘yea ‘ (Whitman’s word) to the great exploited body of Mother America and to what Jung, had he seen them, might have called ‘ the collective inertness. ‘ None of this, of course, makes up a literary revolution. It is simply a minor revolt, another scrabbling for fame and rewards with different slogans. And Mr Ferlinghetti is, at least, less belligerent than his colleagues. At heart he is nice, sentimental, rather old-fashioned writer who, he admits, ‘ fell in love with unreality’ early and has since developed a penchant for words like ‘ stilly’, ‘shy’, ‘sad’, ‘ mad’, and ‘ ah’. He also has a pleasant little talent for verbal whimsy—‘ eager eagles’, ‘ the cat with future feet ‘, ‘foolybears’ and the like—which no invoking of the usual private parts will change from low-level Edward Lear into tough surrealism.
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Conscious and unconscious erotica

Mark twain pic

Some writers knowingly produced erotica; others unknowingly published smutty material. Here are a few examples


Pietro Aretino (1492 – 1556), Sonnetti Lussuriosi(1524)

The Sonnetti Lussuriosiof this poet, gossip and writer of witty plays was a collection of verses and erotic drawings that, like the Kama Sutra, demonstrated positions for sexual intercourse. Though the book proved very popular, it earned the wrath of the Pope, an erstwhile patron of Aretino, along with Emperor Charles V. Aretino lost his papal patronage, but he also was taken to task by the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, Dr John Donne, who objected that some of the sexual positions were missing.

Norman Douglas (1868 – 1952), Some Limericks(1928)

The author of Old Calabria and South Wind, also compiled Venus in the Kitchen, a collection of aphrodisiac recipes, and the privately printed Some Limericks. The latter, which has been described as ‘ irreverent, scatological and erotic ‘ , was accompanied by ‘ scholarly ‘ notes that sent up the sort of po-faced critical apparatus so beloved of Ph D candidates.

W S. Gilbert ( 1836-1911) and Arthur Sullivan ( 1842 – 1900) . ‘ The Sod’s Opera’.

The humorous double act that gave us so many wonderful operettas also composed The Sod’s Opera , among the characters of which are Count Tostoff and the Brothers Bollox ( a pair of hangers on) and Scrotum, a wrinkled old retainer. Oddly, there are no records of a public performance, though it would be refreshing if some village Opera society put on their version of it.


Anais Nin ( 1903 -77 ) The Delta of Venus.

The friend of pornographer Henry Miller got together with Nin and an army of hard up writers to form a sort of porn factory which turned out several erotic works, some commissioned by an anonymous tycoon. Ms Nin was also a novelist and a prolific diarist.

Felix Salten aka Siegmund Salzmann ( 1869 – 1949) Josefine Mutzenbacher.

The apparently wholesome author of Bambi(1929), a children’s story which recounted the struggle of an orphaned deer, which was later immortalized by Walt Disney, also penned an extremely well received erotic novel that painted a very accurate picture of  the life of a prostitute among the petit bourgeoisie in fin de siecleVienna. Today it is regarded as equal in status in the German-speaking word to our own Fanny Hill. Continue reading

Fifty Works of English and American Literature We Could Do Without

10418545309Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey and Charles Osborne let rip in their iconoclastic 1967 book.

Extracts chosen by publisher Nicholas Parsons in his Book of Literary Lists (1985)


Beowulf ‘Admiring comment on its poetry is about as relevant as praise for the architecture of Stonehenge.’


The York Mystery Plays ‘…The Bach St Matthew Passion, Verdi’s Requiem, the Karlskirche in Vienna, and the sculpture of Michelangelo  are ( as religious propaganda) a far cry from the cynically concocted doggerel of a committee of drunken monks at St Mary’s Chapel, York in 1350.


The Faerie Queen, Edmund Spenser ‘…the punishing length, utter confusion and unremitting tedium of Spenser;s contribution serve not only to impress uncreative minds, but to illustrate generally that English literature is not an easy option’.


Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, William Shakespeare ‘…the prototype of Western literature’s most deplorable and most formless form, autobiographical fiction’.


Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’…it is impossible to rate his naïve and fevered imagination any higher than that of the gentlemen who walk through the West End of London with sandwich –board imploring us to flee from the wrath to come’.


Tom Jones, Henry Fielding’(Tom is ) a tom cat of remarkable passivity who has to be seduced of flattered into his series of love affairs and finishes as a jeune premier in a Doris Day musical , married to the girl next door with full parental blessing.’ Continue reading

Famous men and the books they read as children

Found in the Christmas 1930 issue of The Bookmanis the following account by Thurston Hopkins of some famous men’s responses to his questions about the books they recall reading in childhood. There is even a facsimile of a fragment of the letter Shaw sent to Hopkins dated 29th  December 1929.


In an introduction to his survey Hopkins regrets the passing of the ‘ mainstays ‘ of popular children’s literature—Robinson Crusoe and Hans Christian Anderson’s Tales—in favour of thrillers and mystery stories. Luckily, some of the old favourites do feature in the choices made by these eminent men.


Rudyard Kipling


Mr Kipling was probably born with a taste for curious and out-of-the-way books. At fourteen he was in the editor’s chair of the United Services College Chronicle, and was allowed the run of the head master’s study—-that ‘brown-bound, tobacco-scented library’ that he speaks of with such reverence in his chronicles of school boy life. Kipling stolidly read his way through the whole library. There were many of the ancient dramatists, a set of the ‘ Voyages of Hakluyt’, a literary treasure which do doubt supplied Kipling with much information that he makes us of in his later books; French translations of the Muscovite authors, Pushkin and Lermontoff; the ‘ Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’, afterwards parodied by him in ‘Departmental Ditties ‘; there were volumes of Crashaw, Dryden, Alexander Smith, L.E.L., Lydia Sigourney, Fletcher’s Purple Island, Donne. Marlowe’s Faust, Ossian, ‘The Earthly Paradise’, ‘Atlanta in Calydon’ and Rossetti. Continue reading

The Bronte Country in Wartime


Hutchinson article Bronte Top WithinsThe journalist George Hutchinson (see previous Jots) was living in wartime Bradford when he visited High Withens, the supposed ‘ dwelling ‘ of Mr Heathcliffe of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Up on the lonely moors Hutchinson finds it hard to recognise that ‘England is at war’,


‘ Indeed,  though the only indication in the whole locality is the scores of little evacuees and mothers, mostly from Bradford. The moor air and country rambles they have exchanged for city life should be of lasting benefit to these children and to many a mother, I am told, the rural beauty so near to Bradford has been quite a revelation—which in itself is salutary.’


Doubtless, in these days of local lockdowns, such salubrious open-air refuges from unhealthy urban landscapes, are appreciated for different reasons.


Hutchinson had already visited the Bronte Waterfall, not far from the Haworth Parsonage and this was not his first visit to Stanbury, the nearest village to High (or top) Withens, which he had never managed to reach before. On the way there he popped in to see the famous Jonas Bradley, former Head of Stanbury School and an international Bronte expert, at his home, Horton Croft in the village. Here he was invited to sign, not for the first time:


‘the third of the visitors’ books that Mr Bradley has kept since 1904. These books contain thousands of signatures, and his callers, they will tell you, have come from places as far apart as Glasgow and Godalming, Bulawayo and Brooklyn…’


This was probably the last time that Hutchinson saw Bradley, for he died early in 1943, aged 84, his obituary appearing that year in volume 10 of the Transactions of the Bronte Society, which he had helped to found many decades before. In this obituary Bradley’s reputation worldwide as a Bronte expert was confirmed. He had indeed been visited by ‘American University professors, statesmen, film directors and writers..’ Continue reading

Marie Corelli in 1909


Jot 101 Bookman Corelli 001Winston Churchill, Queen Victoria, Tennyson and William Gladstone admired her; Mark Twain and most of the Press did not. She is said to have outsold Dickens. Some of her novels went into twenty-five or more editions. In an era when writers like H. G. Wells were promoting the  New Woman, she reviled this modern phenomenon, and yet some of her heroines could be said to have embodied the virtues—a sense of adventure, a resoluteness and a curiosity– of this type . She promoted Christianity and yet wrote about occultism and transcendence. In her private life she dressed as a rather twee lady, but was a hard-nosed businesswoman in her dealings with publishers and the Press. She had a reputation for ostentation. Owning the grandest house in Stratford-on-Avon ( now an outpost of the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute ), she had  acres of trim garden, a tower for writing and a gondola on the river. Her readers adored her, so why, nearly a hundred years after her death is Marie Corelli, arguably the best-selling female author of all time, now almost totally forgotten ? If you wish to buy a first of her many novels today, you need not part with more than a tenner—often much less. From being a former Queen of the subscription libraries Corelli has become a literary curiosity, fit only for examination in academic studies on the cult of celebrity and the role of the popular novel in society.

Corelli sold millions of books, but was she ever any good ? The Bookman, a serious middlebrow literary journal, certainly saw her  as a significant writer. In May 1909, at the height of her fame, a whole issue was devoted to an appreciation of her life and work by A.St John Adcock, the magazine’s editor, who called on various admirers to support his view of her greatness. Firstly, Adcock takes aim at those ‘cocksure’ critics who set themselves up as the final arbiters of good writing: ‘ There are a thousand times as many critics who have never written a line of criticism, but are not therefore the less cultured, impartial, competent.’ Adcock then turns to the ‘ superior ‘ critics of Marie Corelli:

No living author has been more persistently maligned and sneered at and scouted by certain members of the Press—by the presumptuous and struttingly academic section of it particularly—than has Miss Marie Corelli; and none has won ( by sheer force of her own merits, for the press has never helped her) a wider, more persistently increasing fame and affection among all classes of that intelligent public which reads and judges books, but does not write about them… Continue reading

Fay Inchfawn

Inchfawn cover pic 2 001Discovered at Jot HQ is this first edition of one of the ‘Homely Woman’ pocket volumes by the prolific female writer Fay Inchfawn ( aka Elizabeth Rebecca Ward, 1880 – 1978), whose work is forgotten now, but whose books, which included popular verse, religious works and children’s literature, were once, to quote the blurb from her publisher Ward, Lock & Co in 1947,  ‘to be found in countless homes, for more than half a million have been sold’.

To further quote from her publicity department:

 ‘everyone of Fay Inchfawn’s delightful little books rings with a true sincerity from cover to cover. She can extract joy from the scullery, yes, even from the wash tub…If Fay Inchfawn cannot bring some compensation to you in your humdrum daily toil—well, nobody can ! She has certainly done so for countless wives and mothers, and if you do not happen to be one of those so fortunate, it is up to you to see what she can do for you. Surely she cannot fail ! ‘


Inchfawn, who lived in Freshford, near Bath, for most of her life, also contributed to women’s magazines, and if she didn’t write for my grandmother’s favourite magazine, The People’s Friend, she should have done. The Day’s Journey, which is one of her ‘ religious works, seems perfumed with peppermint creams and Werner’s Originals.


A Day’s Journeyis a homily which takes its inspiration from The Pilgrim’s Progress. Its homely message seems to be that like Bunyan’s pilgrim, the wanderer through life will overcome all the difficulties that confront him by applying the self-reliance and common wisdom that God has conferred on him and by ignoring all the vices and distractions placed in his way by the ‘Prince of Evil’. Continue reading

Facts found in fiction


Can information found in fiction be trusted? By definition much of it is imaginary, but some of it can sound very convincing. However  most factoids are quickly proved or disproved online (but not so easily in the case of Le Carre, and with mixed results with Borges). Three examples from recent reading…


In Jorge Luis Borges’s short story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (in Ficciones, Grove Press 1962 page 19) he refers to a book that had appeared ‘in the library catalogues of Bernard Quaritch’  – A General History of Labyrinths by Silas Haslam. Quaritch is a real bookstore and is still trading, but the book is imaginary and cannot be found in any library (despite some wag’s  entry at GoodReads  with an Amazon ‘buy’ button.) However 6 pages later in a footnote Borges  writes – ‘Russell (The Analysis of Mind 1921 page 159) conjectures that our planet was created a few minutes ago, provided with a humanity which “remembers” an illusory past.’  A fairly typical Borges conceit? No, the book exists and the conjecture is indeed on page 159,  although as an idea, logically possible, it is swiftly dismissed by (Bertrand)  Russell*.


Nicola Upson’s Fear in the Sunlight (2012) is a ‘cosy’ detective novel featuring the real life crime fiction writer Josephine Tey (1896-1952) as a sleuth and sapphist. She is in 1930s Portmeirion solving a murder, while Alfred Hitchcock is casting a film. A couple of women friends, driving down to join her, stay at the Mytton and Mermaid hotel just outside Shrewsbury. Nicola Upson describes this as a half way house for people driving from London to Portmeirion (on the Welsh coast) then a full day’s journey. She states that it was bought for this purpose by Portmeirion’s architect and owner Clough Williams Ellis. TRUE! Clough actually bought it and  redesigned it in the early 1930s. It is still there on the banks of the  Severn – serving a good afternoon tea, according to tripadvisor.


In Le Carre’s Agent Running in the Field (2019) the aging spy  worries that he will be soon sent to the Retirement section ‘…who will offer me tantalizing openings in the arms industry, private contracting or other laying-out places for old spies such as The National Trust, the Automobile Association and private schools in search of assistant bursars…’ But can old spies just walk into jobs at the A A and the NT? Is that greying bursar at the exclusive boarding school an old spook who has handed in his Biretta? They have served their country and may deserve further employment; certainly after WW2 openings were made in many businesses for old soldiers, especially wounded ones, so it’s hard to hold up the LIE card confidently…

Portmeirion is now a 5 hour drive from London, without stopping and in good traffic. The Mytton and Mermaid  is just over half way and would still make a good stop off. It is  haunted by an eccentric  former owner ‘Mad’ Jack Mytton, or so they say.. Continue reading

Laughing at Poetry

Laughing at SwinburneIn the April 24th 1942 issue of John O’London’s Weekly can be found a perceptive view by the essayist Robert Lynd on the subject of risible poetry written by good poets. He takes his cue from an incident a century before when Thomas Wakley, the founder of the Lancet, stood up in the Commons to mock some puerile lines from ‘Louisa’ by the Poet Laureate, William Wordsworth.

Lynd then goes on to wonder whether ‘absurdities were so common in the older poets as they came in the period that followed the French Revolution. Shakespeare and Milton seem never to have descended to such unconscious ludicrousness as Wordsworth. I do not think that any of the older poets ever wrote a line that parodies itself so easily as Swinburne’s :–

Swallow, my sister: O Sister


‘One of Swinburne’s loveliest poems, ‘Before a Mirror ‘, Lynd continues, ‘begins with a verse of extraordinary nonsense –at least, containing extraordinary nonsense—and yet who can fail to be moved by it:– Continue reading

Edith Allonby—-the novelist who had to commit suicide to get published

‘I have found another way… ‘So wrote fantasy novelist Edith Allonby (1875 – 1905) in a note Edith Allonby photographfound on her lap following her suicide, aged just thirty, in December 1905. When discovered she was sitting in a comfortable chair dressed in a silk evening gown with fresh flowers in her hair. By her side was an empty bottle of phenol (carbolic acid), the poison of choice (bleach was another) for many suicides in the UK at that time, due to its availability and quick, but painful, action.

For Allonby, a schoolmistress from Cartmel, Lancashire whose two previous works of ‘ satirical fantasy ‘, Jewel Sowers (1903) and Marigold 
(1905),  both set on the imaginary planet of Lucifram, had not sold well, there seemed little choice. In her suicide note she explained that after four years of labour on her latest book , a spiritual fantasy about life and death that she claimed had been given to her by God, her publisher Greening had rejected the manuscript, as had other publishers. ‘I have tried in vain ‘, she wrote,’ …yet shall The Fulfilment reach the people to whom I appeal, for I have found another way…’

That way was an act that would make her posthumous book a sensation at the time, for Greening did change their minds about its publication once the author was dead. It came out in a limited edition, which makes it and her previous two novels, scarce and valuable items today. It is possible that originally all the publishers to whom it was shown simply found the subject matter of The Fulfilmenttoo difficult to deal with. The author herself admitted that her book contained ‘either truth or page upon page of blasphemy ‘. Today, we are more open minded on spiritual matters.  [R.M.Healey]

Edith Allonby The Fulfillment 1905 cover


Pregnant with a new book—-Marguerite Evans writes to fellow novelist Berta Ruck

Oliver Sandys letter to Onions 001Found tucked away in the same envelope with the letter ( see earlier Jot) written to Oliver Onions from Rupert Croft-Cooke is a short letter dated May 24th1962 from the very prolific novelist and magazine contributor Marguerite Evans ( 1886 – 1964) to fellow novelist Berta Ruck (1878 – 1978), wife of Oliver Onions. Evans wrote under three pen names—Oliver Sandys—which she used on some of her headed notepaper—Marguerite Barclay (using her given name) and Countess Barcynska. Evans published an incredible 130 novels between 1911 and 1946, and her oeuvre also includes non-fiction. She has been described as a purveyor of ’middlebrow fiction ‘, which as one critic has pointed out, is not a helpful term in her case. Several of her novels were filmed, most notably ‘The Pleasure Garden’( 1925), which was Alfred Hitchcock’s first completed film as director.

Ruck and Evans did not live too far from one another –Ruck in Aberdovey and Evans at The Ancient House, Little Stretton, Shropshire. In the letter Evans promises to visit the older woman:

‘Would give anything for a long, long chat with you…Am on last lap of book & feeling very pregnant. Thank heaven for that because before, the sensation was like a bad ‘ mis ‘ ! How strange this opus creation  in its likeness  to those functions. Have you not felt the same?

I do hope EAT. is better. Tell him I am truly and regularlyconcentrating on him & it would be lovely to hear he is better & stronger. This isn’t a letter . It is to send love.


Marguerite. ‘

Two years later Evans was dead. Her husband Caradoc, who she had married in 1933, had died aged just 67, back in 1945. A controversial writer, whose collection of short stories, My People(1915) earned him the unenviable title ‘ the best-hated man in Wales’, is now recognised as ‘ the founding father of Anglo-Welsh writing’. On his death Marguerite paid him the greatest tribute by publishing his biography. Her own autobiography, Full and Frank, may shed some light on her friendship with Ruck and may also identify EAT. Ruck died in 1978 aged 100.

I found Chris Hopkins’ online paper ‘ Self-portrait of the Middlebrow as artist’ useful in the compilation of this Jot.    [R.M.Healey]


Jailed for being gay—the experience of Rupert Croft-Cooke

Before 1967, when as a result of the Wolfenden Report,  homosexual acts Croft-Cooke letter pic 001between consenting adults were made legal, many men from all backgrounds, including actors, writers and at least one famous mathematician, were prosecuted and sometimes jailed. The persecution of Dr Alan Turing, the genius who helped the UK win the Second World War, is a shameful blot on the English penal system, but another victim of the law whose conviction has aspects in common with that of Turing is the less well-known writer Rupert Croft-Cooke (1903 – 75).

In 1953 Joseph Alexander, the companion and secretary of Croft-Cooke, a prolific novelist, crime writer, short-story and screenplay writer, picked up two sailors in the famous  Fitzroy Tavern , and took them back to Croft-Cooke’s house  in Ticehurst, Sussex. After they were plied with drink Alexander and Croft-Cooke had sex with them. On their way back to London the sailors got drunk and assaulted some men, including a policeman. After their arrest the sailors agreed to tell the police about their sexual encounter in return for immunity from prosecution. Croft-Cooke and his assistant were duly arrested, tried for gross indecency, convicted and jailed. Croft-Cooke was sentenced for six months and spent time in Wormwood Scrubs and Brixton.

Almost exactly a year earlier Alan Turing had been arrested for the same offence when his lover, Arnold Murray, confessed after a burglary at Turing’s home that he was in a relationship with the mathematician. Turing pleaded guilty and was given the choice of a prison sentence or a period of probation during which he would undergo treatment with female hormones. Continue reading

A jacket for E.H.W. Meyerstein

IMG_5582Found among a collection of publisher’s file copies from the Gollancz archive a novel by  E.H.W. Meyerstein. It was his last work, as he died in the year of its publication (1952). It was a  bibliomystery set in Hampstead entitled Tom Tallion. The blurb and printed notes on the sleeves of thejacket are lengthy and enthusiastic and its anonymous author had probably read the whole book and may have even been a fan of Meyerstein’s work.

 Connoisseurs have long regarded Mr Meyerstein as one of the wittiest and most urbane novelists of the day… This book has the same delightful blend of the prosaic and the fantastic [as his last novel Robin Wastraw]. Mr Meyerstein writes of the most startling events as if they were commonplaces, and through his eyes the ordinary business of living takes on a fabulous quality.

It would be a pity to describe the plot, though we could hardly spoil the reader’s pleasure by doing so. Tom, like Robin, is a reflective boy brought up in a scholarly and eccentric environment, haunted by echoes of murder and arson, pursued by a middle-aged woman, remaining detached from all such extravagances of behaviour and quietly following his own interests and calling. There are exquisite episodes. There’s the day, for instance, when Tom, bored with ‘nature study’ at school, eats the pomegranate which he is supposed to be drawing, then sketches it from memory with a sudden assurance – he thereby discovers a unique theory of art, and painting becomes his vocation. There is the business of old Mr Wilkins sudden death. There was Captain Clements, who erupts into Tom’s life with his sinister interest in the occult. There is Mrs Heene, the missionary author of God or Dog?  who abruptly loses her faith and raise a flag with the inscription: “THERE IS NO GOD (MRS) HIRAM HEENE.’

Continue reading

The Dawn: An experimental poem by Ramon Gomez de la Serna

Found in a box of papers –  this two page typewritten carbon copy of a Gomez surrealist poem page 1 001poem entitled ‘The Dawn’ by the famous Spanish experimental writer Ramón Gómez de la Serna  translated into English by Diego Marin ( author of Poesia Espanola, 1962) and Tomas Bartroli (fl. 1969). It would be interesting to discover its provenance.

In his time Gomez (1888 – 1963) was arguably the most celebrated experimental writer in Spain. Born in Madrid to a middle-class family, he refused to follow his wealthy father into law and politics, resolving instead to adopt the bohemian lifestyle of an experimental writer, and subsequently he began contributing to many of the avant-garde magazines of the period.

Like Sartre in Paris, years later, he established a literary salon in Madrid’s Café Pombo and during the First World War brought out six collections of experimental poems—El Rastro, El Doctor Inverosimil, Greguerias, Senos, Pombo and El Circo. Thereafter he continued to publish experimental writing, including works on Dali and El Greco. His work strongly influenced the surrealist film-maker Luis Bunuel. He is now best known for his lapidary ‘ greguerias’.

One source has described his main characteristics as a writer thus:

‘ his search for a new fragmentary genre of short prose poems, his exaltation of trivial everyday objects, his emphasis on eroticism, his exuberant self-projection and exclusive dedication to art, his playful humour, his contemplative secular mysticism, and above all his cut of the image…’ Continue reading