He Steals Them, of Course!

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Certain names carry with them the whiff of brimstone. In the world of bibliophiles and booksellers, perhaps no name is more sulphurous than that of Thomas James Wise. Celebrated in his lifetime as the greatest collector in a generation, an accolade made even more impressive by his humble origins, Wise is today notorious as a forger of Victorian first editions. His signature method of reprinting minor works by major literary authors with imprints antedating the acknowledged first editions had, by the time

On a Scottish Portrait

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Pompeo Batoni’s Colonel William Gordon is among the most striking Scottish portraits of the 18th century. Depicting the Aberdeenshire officer receiving an orb and laurel wreath from the figure of Roma against a classical backdrop, the painting grafts post-Culloden Scottish modernity onto antiquity. The result is a dramatic hybrid with an admixture of incoherence – […]

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The Marchioness & Me

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

For the best part of three years now, I have been living with an impossible woman. While it’s a love affair of sorts – why else would I put up with it – her intransigence, snobbery and occasional downright bolshiness have, at times, been a trial. But in return she offers an incandescent appetite for […]

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Fossil Poetry

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

I was a child often distracted by language’s strangeness. Learning the meanings of difficult words proved more enjoyable than board games. Particularly distracting were the traces of earlier history that I could detect in the wording of Christmas carols. Why were the steeple bells ordered to be ‘swung-en’? In what way might the baby Jesus be ‘very’ God? Was he super-extra divine or something not yet understood by me? I pestered the adults around me for explanations and poked my little fingers into the thumb index of the big dictionary

Modernism in Motion

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

One of Katherine Mansfield’s defining characteristics was her restlessness, both personal and artistic: she was always most at home when on the move. ‘Do other artists feel as I do,’ she wondered, ‘the driving necessity – the crying need?’ Ambitious, curious, greedy for experience, she became a formidable innovator, reading and borrowing from other authors, adapting techniques from avant-garde painting, music and new media, and trying all the time to make it new. It helped that she was no snob

Shouty Jane Austen?

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Empire-line dresses, top hats, elegant balls and proper social etiquette. The world of Jane Austen’s novels is one of poise and restraint, both in manner and in literary style. Or so we think. But what if the queen of the balanced sentence was actually a more vibrant and (dare we say it) sloppier writer than we assume? What if Austen’s original punctuation shows a writer

It All Began with a Book

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In 1888, Vincent van Gogh invited Paul Gauguin to live and paint with him in the ‘Studio of the South’, the Yellow House in Arles. To decorate the house for his guest, he painted his second Sunflowers series, for which he is so famous. Van Gogh was besotted with everything Japanese. His invitation to Gauguin had included a portrait of himself in the guise of a Japanese bōnze (a monk). The frighteningly austere image shows his

When Worlds Collide

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In ‘What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear’, a 2012 story by the young Chinese science fiction writer Bao Shu, the end of the world seems near. And yet, after a series of strange and dramatic flashes in the sky, the world keeps going, only now the arrow of time is reversed. Kicking off […]

The Ghost of Christmas Presents Past

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Remember that P G Wodehouse story where Jeeves shimmers into the presence on Christmas morning in a Santa suit, waking Bertie with a steaming cup and a sonorous ‘What ho-ho-ho, sir! God bless us, everyone’? Neither do I. Never happened. As seasons go, Yuletide did not recommend itself to Wodehouse. His favourite carol, he once […]

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The Invention of Amazonia

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

We arrived in Manaus with trepidation. Despite being masked up, gelled up, tested up, we’d seen the images of those early days of the pandemic – the crowded hospitals, the busy gravediggers. We had to go, we’d told ourselves. I had a book about Amazonia to write. The tickets were bought. The city, located in […]

Westward Ho!

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Before the arrival of white men, some seventy million buffalo roamed the great plains of America. Their principal predators were people who, when I was a boy, were called Red Indians, later known as Native Americans. The buffalo made life tolerable in an inhospitable terrain. No part of the beast was ever wasted. The men […]

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Disinterring Anton Chekhov

Posted on by David Gelber

Thirty years ago, Russia’s archives opened their doors to any plausible enquirer. The vast treasures of the Russian State Library and the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art excited biographers, historians and editors, though older archivists, like the dogs in charge of the hay, disliked the invasion of their mangers by foreigners with laptops. […]

Sebald’s Paradoxes

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

When the books of an unknown German writer called W G Sebald began to be translated in the mid-1990s, readers around the world were astounded by their mystery and melancholy, and above all by their deep empathy with the victims of history and the whole of nature. But researching and writing his biography, I learned […]

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The Words upon the Window Pane

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

In 1554 or early 1555, the future Elizabeth I, under house arrest during the reign of her half-sister, Mary I, used her diamond ring to scratch these words on a window pane of Woodstock Manor gatehouse: ‘Much suspected by me,/Nothing proved can be,/Quoth Elizabeth prisoner.’ The inscription, though now lost, was attested to by John […]

A Bangkok Python

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Recently, while I was sitting at my desk at home, a ten-foot-long reticulated python fell past the window. I first saw it reaching out from above the eaves of the house in an attempt to get to a nearby champac tree. It overextended itself and slid off the roof, tumbling inelegantly into the tree’s lower […]

Quilled into Existence: How to Write a Constitution

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Gouverneur Morris was born in 1752 in what is now the Bronx district of New York. He died in 1816, some eight months before Jane Austen. Like her, he was addicted to writing: ‘write’ is indeed one of the words that occurs most frequently in his voluminous diary. Even when old age and illness set in, this did not change. ‘Another year is gone for ever,’ he notes morosely one late, cold January. Then immediately he

Travels in My Kitchen

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

‘The Tipp-Ex Trip’ is how I’ve come to think of it. The trip that never was. It was meant to be ‘The Footsteps Trip’. I am writing a biography of H S Ede, commonly known as Jim, who created Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. I had a plan: 2019 – libraries and archives; 2020 – in […]

A Brush with the Goncourts

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

This month sees the announcement of the Prix Goncourt, the French literary prize awarded since 1903 to the book that meets its nicely roomy criteria of the year’s ‘best and most imaginative prose work’. Previously won by Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir and Michel Houellebecq, it was conceived by the novelist Edmond de

Beer Lines

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The Compasses lies on the edge of an old straight track in a hollow that shelters it from the blast of the southwest wind. It’s in the hamlet of Chicksgrove. You can still see the outline of an oppidum in the field below, where Chilmark stone was mined in Roman times. A second-century Roman bust […]

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Those Dark, Satanic Hills

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Going for a walk is no longer the simple thing it once was. First there were the distance restrictions and the police drones; then, with relaxation of the rules, came nettle rash as we rushed to the same favourite sites, squeezing to the sides of narrow lanes – sorry! – in attempts to keep the […]

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