Blowing Their Cover

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘It starts with the rats.’ Gotcha, didn’t it? That line got me too. It’s from a blurb for The Plague, and the nameless copywriter deserves a plaque. Those five words conveyed all the ominous menace of the book and got there a lot faster than Camus, bless him. Blurb Your Enthusiasm, Louise Willder’s homage to […]

Satan on the Strand

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Dilettante, poet, sensualist, master of the occult and member of the notorious Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley went as far as possible to spin his own legend, happily identifying himself as ‘The Beast 666’ and rejoicing in the British popular press’s description of him as the ‘Wickedest Man in the World’. Yet […]

A Poet Among the Psychiatrists

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In 1954, Robert Lowell entered the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in New York City after a brutal manic episode following his mother’s death. While there, he wrote about his hopes for the future: ‘I suffer from periodic wild manic explosions that are followed by long hangovers of formless self-pity. What I ask of psychotherapy is […]

About a Boy

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Confessions is a family memoir above all else. Seven generations of the Wilson family were potters. Ceramics, the Pottery towns, Wedgwood business history and the despoiling of Staffordshire’s community spirit by a shallow opportunist called Sir Arthur Bryan provide the background to A N Wilson’s meticulous depiction of his parents’ unhappy marriage. The joys of […]

Monsieur Plum & Mother Rat

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Marina Warner, who writes about myths, fairy tales, symbols and female iconography, is an iconic figure herself. She has been ploughing her furrow now for fifty years: the first of her forty books, The Dragon Empress: Life and Times of Tz’u-hsi, was published in 1972, and the second, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth […]

The Skull in the Hall

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Shortly after he took delivery of a cast of Goethe’s death mask, Thomas Carlyle confessed that it was ‘the face I longed most of all to see … it is all vanished now, and gone into Eternity; nothing remains of it but this dumb lump of lime! There is something very sad and yet very […]

House of Cards

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

It is impossible to travel for very long in the foothills of a certain kind of mid- to late 20th-century English literary landscape without coming across one or other, or sometimes all four, of the Crichel Boys. They feature in Frances Partridge’s diaries almost from one page to the next, James Lees-Milne returns to them […]

Confessions of a New Elizabethan

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

‘Talk to anyone who has read Thom Gunn’, Michael Nott writes in the introduction to this book, ‘and one of the first things they’ll mention is that his poems speak to them on a personal level.’ Nott goes on to quote a fan letter received by Gunn, one of the few the poet kept. Written in the year I was born, its correspondent confesses, ‘I feel caressed by your language as I read it.’ Reader, I

Heroic Work in a Very Important Field

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Uncertain why you are reading this? Good, because I’m not any more certain why I’m writing it. It’s not for material gain – contrary to rumours creeping through the darker reaches of the web, this magazine does not offer reviewers a gull’s egg per word by way of remuneration. Nor, so far, has reviewing brought […]

Fiction, Feminism & Fake Vicars

Posted on by Tom Fleming

The old-style publisher’s memoir, which reached its high-water mark between about 1920 and 1950, was a relatively staid affair. The publisher who wrote it – say, Evelyn Waugh’s father, Arthur, author of One Man’s Road (1931), or Grant Richards, who penned Author Hunting (1934) – was usually the sole proprietor of a

Exit, Pursued by the Law

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

As an elderly and unwell man in the 1630s, Ben Jonson was given comfort by a pet fox, ‘which creature, by handling, I endeavoured to make tame’. The sprightly Reynard was a thoughtful gift from a friend with a rather Jonsonian name himself, Sir Thomas Badger. The cub was both a pleasant companion and a […]

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The Gentleman From Kent

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘Hardly one of the irresistible poets’, was C S Lewis’s assessment of Thomas Wyatt. Other critics have tended to agree, treating him (and the Earl of Surrey, with whom he is frequently paired) as the warm-up act before the Elizabethan headliners. But Nicola Shulman, in this ‘life of his lyric poetry’, thrills to Wyatt, not […]

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Not All Façade

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Edith Sitwell was a myth-maker par excellence. Seizing on a family connection to the Beauforts and John of Gaunt, she presented herself as a medieval tomb sculpture, emphasising her long face, nose and hands with flowing robes, extraordinary jewellery, and headdresses. She could have been the classic spinster in straitened circumstances, enduring a dull life […]

The Frozen Deep

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In 2012 we shall celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth. His reputation has held up well compared with his contemporaries – Thackeray, Balzac, Emerson, Turgenev and Carlyle, for example. A great deal of effort has been expended in recent years to make his writings available in scholarly editions. The Dent Uniform Edition of […]


Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Like most literary academics of my generation, I first came across Alastair Fowler through his superbly annotated 1968 edition of Paradise Lost. John Mullan – a critic Fowler cites, admiringly, and then, very typically, corrects – tells me it would be his desert island book. I’d agree. Fowler – now in his eighties – has […]

James’s Bible

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

At one point in his untrustworthy recollections Kenneth Toomey, the narrator of Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, cattily refers to T S Eliot’s habit of collecting up old book reviews and calling them Selected Essays. It is a deliciously wrong-headed remark, as Burgess, a clever and funny critic who collected his own reviews assiduously enough, knew […]

Conversations on a Concrete Island

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Iain Sinclair has long been one of the most loyal advocates of J G Ballard’s writings – but not without a dash of piquant scepticism. In Sinclair’s last book, Ghost Milk, the Dean of Psychogeography often turns away from his main topic (a blaring raspberry to the 2012 Olympics) to muse on the Sage of […]

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