A haze of artifice

Auden said: ‘The ideal audience the poet imagines consists of the beautiful who go to bed with him, the powerful who invite him to dinner and tell him secrets of state, and his fellow-poets.


A heart made to be broken

Very useful in modern conversation, Oscar Wilde.


Honour the most exalted poet

Philip Hensher rediscovers the rich complexities of The Divine Comedy


The Russian connection

It’s impossible not to warm to the author of this book, a perky Turkish-American woman with a fascination with Russian literature and an irresistible comic touch.


. . . or sensing impending doom

‘What am I? A completely ordinary person from the so-called higher reaches of society.


Cuckoo in the nest

Caradoc King, the well-known literary agent, was adopted in 1948 as a baby into a family of three girls, shortly joined by a fourth, presided over by a difficult, unhappy mother and her feebly adoring husband.


BOOKENDS: Hang the participle

An awful lot of books are being published these days about the English language. David Crystal has a new one out every few weeks, and John Sutherland probably has half a dozen on the go. The Language Wars: (John Murray, £17.99) is Henry Hitchings’s third and unlikely to be his last.


Nowhere becomes somewhere

There have been quite a few anthologies of British eccentricity. Usually they are roll-calls of the lunatic: a sought-after heiress so snobbish she finally gave her hand in marriage to a man who had managed to convince her he was the Emperor of China; a miser so mean he would sit on fish until he considered them cooked; a man so addicted to cobnuts he would, after any long coach journey, be up to his knees in their shells. Men who refused to get into a bath, others who refused to get out of one, or were so quarrelsome they could spot an insult at 100 yards, others who so loved animals they would bath owls (which died), or founded their own religions so they could copulate with the faithful on the high altar (though I gather this was an ambition of the novelist Graham Greene). All the crackpots. So it is a pity that this book has as its subtitle ‘A Gallery of Glorious British Eccentrics.’


Names to conjure with

Sebastian Faulks’s latest book, examining the great characters of British fiction, may be scorned by the literary establishment, but Sam Leith salutes its enthusiasm and humour

Life & Letters: Memoirs as literature

Laurence Sterne remarked rather a long time ago that they order these matters better in France, and happily this is still the case. Fifteen hundred teachers of literature recently protested about the choice of a set book for Terminale L du bac — the exam taken by 17-year-olds. Their concern is perhaps more political than literary. Nevertheless they denounced the choice of book as ‘a negation of our discipline’. ‘We are teachers of literature,’ they said; ‘is it our business to discuss a work of history?’


BOOKENDS: The Elephant to Hollywood

The three knights of British cinema have taken disparate routes in their twilight years. Roger Moore jettisoned a hokum career for more worthwhile pursuits as a Unicef ambassador, while Sean Connery settled into his Bahamian golf-resort to champion Scotland’s independence. Michael Caine, however, has added a further veneer to a great body of work.

Angry old man

Ecce Homo Erectus. Saul Bellow, John Updike … at 77, Philip Roth is the last of three giants still standing; and he actually does stand to write, at a lectern-like desk — scriptern? This verticality is crucial to his ideas of self and spirit, and is fully evident in his fiction, which is nothing if not erect.


Whine, whine, whine

There came a moment, very early in my reading of the latest volume of Christopher Isherwood’s Diaries, when a spell was broken. The relevant entry, written at his beach home in Santa Monica, California, was dated 12 November 1960. And the single, throwaway notation which caused me to re-evaluate, I fear definitively, my admiration for Isherwood ran as follows: ‘Tonight I have to take the Mishimas out to supper.’


Absurdly grandiose – and splendid

The Potteries are one of the strangest regions in the British Isles, and Matthew Rice’s The Lost City of Stoke-on-Trent celebrates their extraordinary oddity.


. . . and they did to us

The craters are all filled in, the ruins replaced, and the last memories retold only in the whispery voices of the old.

What we did to them . . .

The perception of war changes, remarked the poet Robert Graves, when ‘your Aunt Fanny, the firewatcher, is as likely to be killed as a soldier in battle’.

Futile phantoms

Haunted Britain; A Ghost Tour of London; Ghosts of the British Isles;Victorian Ghosts; Railway Ghosts; Hotel Ghosts; Ghosts of the Civil War; Ghosts of Derbyshire/Cornwall/Yorkshire/Devon/Scotland/the Cotswolds.Drop into any local bookshop around the country and you are pretty sure to find a shiny-covered, heavily illustrated paperback about ghosts of the region. The list above was taken from a lightning visit to the pages of Amazon.


A race against time

Lord Palmerston poses severe quantitative problems to biographers.


Curiosities of literature

Sam Leith enjoys two recent miscellanies


Proscribed reading

In 1948, Poland’s new communist government was badly in need of legitimacy and desperate for international recognition. So they did what any self-respecting left-wing government would do, back in those days, in order to win a bit of respect; they held a cultural Congress.

Frustrating but enjoyable

If we didn’t already know that Milan Kundera is one of Craig Raine’s literary heroes, then it wouldn’t be too hard to work it out from his first novel.


Secrets and silences

Charlotte Moore’s family have lived at Hancox on the Sussex Weald for well over a century.


Not as sweet as he seemed

There are already three biographies of E. M. Forster: P. N. Furbank’s two- volume, authorised heavyweight; Nicola Beauman’s less compendious, more engaging middleweight; and my own bantamweight, little more than an extended essay.


Odd men out

The first game played by the Allahakbarries Cricket Club at Albury in Surrey in September 1887 did not bode well for the club’s future.


Our squandered national treasure

Torn with grief, Melvyn Bragg has produced a condolence book for the South Bank Show (born 1978, died of neglect, 2010).