Tales from the South Seas

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals.

In The Evening Standard of the 23rd of June 1927, Bennett’s review of Sylvia Townsend Warner‘s novel Mr. Fortune’s Maggot was published. He described it as:

A fantastical, moral, philosophical tale of the South Seas. Original and rightly malicious humour. A sharp, surprising wit. A coherent beginning, and a coherent end. Some authentic pathos, but a lack of power. It is a book of which every page has definite quality, but which considered as a whole, is unsatisfying.

Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 17.32.36

Sylvia Townsend Warner, from the National Portrait Gallery

As always with Bennett, I would both agree and disagree. There is something in what he says about the beginning and the end; in the middle I felt as if I had to make an extra effort to turn the page. But it was worth it, that is if you define enjoying a book by feeling your eyes moisten and chin quiver while reading the final pages. Here is where I feel Bennett missed an opportunity. In this tale of an English missionary to a fictional South Sea island who realises that the one convert he succeeds in making is actually having him on, Warner never loses her ability or desire to to describe people at both their most ridiculous and most wonderfully human. Hence, the moist eyes. We are noble in our self-delusion and even more noble in our recognition of it.

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First page of Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, from http://www.coxandbudge.co.uk/

On the 23rd of June, Bennett noted in his journal that T.S.Eliot came to tea and arrived very late, despite assuring Bennett that he would not. They talked about books and theatres. Later that evening, he dined at the Other Club (a political dining club set up in part by Winston Churchill) and chatted with Maynard Keynes: “very agreeable and rather brilliant.”

Like Bennett, I had read Warner’s first novel, Lolly Willowes before reading Mr. Fortune’s Maggot. Bennett had read the praise for it before he read the novel and was disappointed. I had not read the praise and I was not disappointed, although I still felt that extra effort to turn the middle pages. This is neither here nor there. But she was a successful writer (Lolly Willowes was the first Book of the Month choice in the U.S.A.) and like many successful writers from that period faded somewhat from view. She was not forgotten but she was neglected. She seemed to have no axe to grind (although her her depiction of Lolly Willowes would justifiably give her the label of feminist) and I sometimes wonder if it is the absence of axe-grinding that determines whether an author survives the passing of the years.


My American tragedy

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. The answer was a resounding yes. However, I became tired of reading old books and felt the need to bring myself up-to-date. I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals. This week, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreisler. 

The temperatures have finally dropped below 40ºC, and I can now sit down and write a new post without dripping sweat on the keyboard. Not that I have a great deal to write. It’s not often that I give up on a book but that’s what I did with Theodore Dreisler An American Tragedy. The warning signs were all there, if I had just bothered to read them in Bennett’s review:

I am not going to recommend An American Tragedy to all and sundry dilettante and plain people. It is of tremendous length. It is written abominably, by a man who evidently despises style, elegance, clarity, even grammar. Dreiser simply does not know how to write, never did know, never wanted to know. Dreiser would sneer at Nathaniel Hawthorne, a writer of some of the loveliest English ever printed.

For this and other reasons he is difficult to read. He makes no compromise with the reader. Indeed, to read Dreisler with profit you must take your coat off to it, you must go down on your knees to it, you must up hands and say “I surrender.” And Dreiser will spit on you for a start.

As an indication of just how reluctant I was to be spat on, I should point out that I read instead Elizabeth Taylor’s A View of the Harbour.

Taylor wins on judges' ruling. Dreisler disqualified for spitting.

Taylor wins on judges’ ruling. Dreisler disqualified for spitting.

The review appeared in the Evening Standard of the 30th of December, 1926. It was the end of a year in which Bennett had set himself the target of 365,000 words and which, as he pointed out in a journal entry on the 20th of December, it was a target he had reached and would surpass. It was also the first Christmas organised by his partner Dorothy Cheston. Bennett had separated from his wife in 1921. Although separated his wife never agreed to a divorce but Dorothy changed her surname by deed-poll to Bennett. Their time together was relatively short  (he died in 1931) but happy. They had one daughter, Virginia.




“Great prose or not”

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, the statement, backed by facts, “famous writers have more readers.”

It has been a while since I crunched some numbers. The idea came this time from an article written by Mikhail Simkin in the Journal of Quantitative Linguistics. Using the results of a blind test where readers were presented with anonymous excerpts from the novels of Charles Dickens and Edwin Bulwer-Lytton, Simkin showed that:

  • the results were on the level of random guessing – that is up against a giant panda using a specially adapted panda-friendly keyboard, you would in all likelihood lose.

He then argued that:

  • famous writers are different from their obscure colleagues because they have more readers – the corollary being that the quality of writing does not differentiate between them.

As you can imagine this kicked up a bit of a stooshie, which Simkin summarised in another article in the journal of the American Statistical Society, Significance.

They sit around all day, eating bamboo and could probably tell the difference between Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton better than you. Source: Wikipedia.

They sit around all day, eating bamboo and could probably tell the difference between Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton better than you. Source: Wikipedia.

Simkin then went on to develop his argument using data from the Goodreads website. Looking at the top ratings given by readers to the works of Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton, he argued that given the proximity of average top ratings for both writers, once again, what differentiated them was solely the number of readers. All of which got to me  to thinking, what would a similar study show when looking at arch-cultural-rivals Arnold Bennett and Virginia Woolf. Funnily enough, it would look like this:

Watch those numbers stack up.

Which, when turned into a handy bar chart, looks like this:

The mighty bar chart


The results are very much in line with those that arose from the study carried out by Simkin, namely that:

  • the difference between the number of ratings for the two writers is noticeable: 2,725 – 91,010 for Virginia Woolf and 41 – 1,788 for Arnold Bennett;
  • the average listed rating is very close for both writers: 3.76 for Virginia Woolf and 3.77 for Arnold Bennett;
  •  Virginia Woolf’s advantage as regards 5 star ratings is small: Virginia Woolf’s average being 26.9% and Arnold Bennett’s being 23.8%,

and of course:

  • “…famous writers just have more readers.”

Objections to all of the above are, like the demons of the man from Gadara, legion. Not the least being, I did not carry out a blind test to distinguish extracts from the works of the two writers. But if nothing else, it has made me consider with a little more depth the validity of any notion of an accepted literary canon. I now have it in mind to repeat the same experiment with Joseph Conrad and H.G.Wells.

Coming up next, The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard.

If you were wondering, I scored 8 out of 12 on the test. 

Note: I made corrections 23rd May 2014 to the title of the chart, Virginia Woolf’s average and range of ratings for Arnold Bennett following suggestions made by Mikhail Simkin.


Putting the text into Textals.

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, what the Textal app can do for you. Oh, and for you too.

After Google Ngrams and Google Trends  comes the wonderful iPhone App Textal. As the developer’s introduction puts it:

Textal is a free smartphone app that allows you to analyze websites, tweet streams, and documents, as you explore the relationships between words in the text via an intuitive word cloud interface. You can generate graphs and statics, as well as share the data and visualizations in any way you like.

It’s easy to use and gives you words clouds that look like this:

How to Live on 24 Hours a DayThis was generated using Arnold Bennett’s self-help book How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, first published in 1910, and it is very intuitive, as you can see. You can build a more detailed picture by selecting a word from the cloud, for example, focusing on the word literature we can see that:

Statistics Or what about those collocations:


Word pairings? Why, the work of a moment:


And, of course, my own favourite – the graph:


I wrote a piece about How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. Running that through Textal produced the following cloud:

How to Live on 24 Hours a Day blog post

I’m not sure why the colours but it was after an update and I imagine they show correspondence in the use of words in the text. Now the fun begins. Looking back at the word cloud for Bennett’s book, and passing over the core comprising of words such as one, will and time, it is words such as business and programme that stand out. Not surprising, given that Bennett was writing the book for the growing class of white-collar workers. Looking at the word cloud for my post, it is literary, family, Virginia (Woolf) and servant that stand out. Not surprising, given that I was using Bennett’s book to point out the part played by servants in British society in the opening decades of the twentieth century. And having a go at Virginia Woolf, of course. Do the Textal word clouds point to a wilful misunderstanding on my part of Bennett’s book? Speaking for myself, I would be surprised if it was otherwise.

Should an application such as Textal be used with care, keeping in mind the need at all times for context and the widest perspective possible? Of course it should. But if experience shows us anything, it is that genies do tend to jump out of bottles at the earliest opportunity.

Next time, graphs to show the state of my literary taste.

Eight graphs in search of an answer

Have I got a real graphathon in store for you graphateers! Eight, that’s right – eight, graphs! I may even have a conclusion too. Just who the heck bought all those books in the nineteenth century?

William Gladstone (1809-19898), prime minister on four occasions, had he looked back on his century would have wondered how there was space for everyone to fit on the country. In his lifetime the population of Great Britain almost doubled:

Population growth 1830-1900. Source: measuring worth.com

Population growth 1830-1900. Source: measuring worth.com

It was also a much wealthier country, as measured by GDP, and not by our Dickensian images of urban poverty:

Nominal GDP growth 1830-1900. Source: measuring worth.com

Nominal GDP growth 1830-1900. Source: measuring worth.com

Wages, after a rocky start at the beginning of the century and following the victory over Napoleon, either kept inline with prices or, after 1850, often ahead of them:

Changes in prices and wages 1790-1914. Source: 'A History of the Cost of Living' John Burnett

Changes in prices and wages 1790-1914. Source: ‘A History of the Cost of Living’ John Burnett

Railways covered the country. The bursting of the railway bubble in the 1840s was followed by a second burst of railway building in the 1860s and every decade until the First World War, more line was laid:

Construction of railway lines  1827-1910. Source: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Construction of railway lines 1827-1910. Source: National Bureau of Economic Research.

As a result transport costs dropped by 97% (and all the clocks marked noon at the same time throughout the country):

Freight costs shillings per ton mile 1800 - 1865. Source:  'The Transport Revolution in Industrializing Britain: A Survey' Dan Bogart-

Freight costs shillings per ton mile 1800 – 1865. Source: ‘The Transport Revolution in Industrializing Britain: A Survey’ Dan Bogart-

At the same time literacy rates, as measured as bridegrooms and brides who could sign their own names, rose. In the case of women, almost doubling:

Literacy rates among bridegrooms and brides 1841-1900. Source: http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_novel.html

Literacy rates among bridegrooms and brides 1841-1900. Source: http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_novel.html

More people, more wealth, a national railway network, falling transport costs, rising wages and more people who could read all had their impact on the world of books. From being the preserve of the rich, they became available to, well, almost everyone:

Price Structure of Books Published 1811-1895. Source: http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_novel.html

Price Structure of Books Published 1811-1895. Source: http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_novel.html

With more to choose from:

Published Titles Listed in 'Publishers' Circular' 1840-1901. Source: http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_novel.html

Published Titles Listed in ‘Publishers’ Circular’ 1840-1901. Source: http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_novel.html

People chose novels. As the graph shows, although they may have attended church every Sunday, unlike their grand parents at the beginning of the century, they did not want to read about it:

Market share by genre 1814-1899. Source: http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_novel.html

Market share by genre 1814-1899. Source: http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_novel.html

So, these are the statistics behind the publishing successes of Dickens, Trollope, Oliphant, Hardy, Gissing, Butler and Eliot; and the even greater, but largely forgotten, successes of Annie S. Swan, Florence Marryat and Frederick William Robinson. A cultural revolution in which the people decided they wanted, above all, to be entertained by what they read.

Are the any flies in that particular ointment? I certainly hope so. If memory serves me right (and it never has up to now) Arthur Marwick in his study of the changes wrought to British society in the First World War, The Deluge, calculated the size of the middle class prior to 1914 as 10 or 11%, approximately 4,600,000 people. That comes to less than the population of Madrid in 2013 and expressed thus, seems too small a statistic with which to factor in to explain the publishing revolution of the previous century. Go further back and it seems even less certain as a cause for the rise of the moderately priced novel. In The History of the Cost Living, John Burnett numbers as 300,000 the new professional class who in the 1850s

constituted the risk-takers and innovators who made the major economic decisions on which Victorian prosperity rested.

Are 300,000 businessmen, industrialists, scientists, metallurgists, bankers and accountants enough to kickstart a middle class literary revolution? Simon Elliot in Some Patterns and Trends in British Publishing 1800-1919 argued that:

[this] simple fact ising population and increasing literacy] alone cannot account for the size and nature of the increase recorded [of book sales in the United Kingdom]

So, probably not.

Possibly it was all to do with purchasing power. The young married couple mentioned by Burnett, living in London, no children, had £200 a year left out of an income of £700 (worth in 2013 £16,200 and  £59,000 respectively) allowing them to not only buy whatever book they wanted but also enjoy a dozen oysters at 1/- and a bottle of champagne at 6/- 6d. An urban workman in 1902-3, weekly wage 29/- 10d (£125 in 2013), after spending 22/- 6d on the weekly food budget still had 7/- 4d (£30.70). Enough perhaps to buy an occasional 1/- Yellowback from a W.H.Smith bookstall in a railway station. Our man Arnold Bennett, on the other hand, grew up in a middle class household (by virtue of his father qualifying as a solicitor when Arnold was nine) with few books. Had he grown up in a working class household, as a previous post showed, there would equally have been no guarantee that he would have grown up surrounded by, at least, the best sellers of the day. The English common reader: a social history of the mass reading public, 1800-1900 has been on my Alibris wishlist for a while. Perhaps it is time to buy it.

Next time. H.G.Wells’ Tono Bungay has been read and a graph will be plotted.

Arnold Bennett: of the people, for the people but not necessarily known by the people.

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, Sheffield and the Well Equipped Worker.
But first:

My novel A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts is now available as an ebook.

It can be purchased at:

Support independent publishing: Buy this e-book on Lulu.

Or at: Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Barnes and Noble and the iBookstore

If you’d like to get in touch with any questions about the novel or comments drop me a line at

acityofghosts AT gmail dot com


I once tried to explain Mass Observation to a Spaniard.

-Ah, came the reply. Spies.

It’s not as if Spain knows nothing of collecting social data. The Instituto Nacional de Estadística collects data on just about everything (for example, it was a matter of minutes to find out that last year seventy seven books on the natural sciences were published in Gallego) but therein lies the problem. It all adds up to a big bunch of numbers that are carefully recorded, stored and forgotten. There is little or no analysis. The British, on the other hand, can’t get enough of what their neighbours think, say, eat, read and what they do at the weekends. For a private and reserved people we are incredibly curious about the people that live across the road, preferably over two or three generations.

Before Mass Observation there was Seebohm Rowntree’s Poverty: A Study of Town Life (1899) and in 1851 the three volumes of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor were published. They formed part of the social reforming movement that grew up as a result of the worst excesses of industrialisation in the cities and towns of Britain. Thus they focused on the living conditions of the poorest in society and less on their dreams and aspirations. An exception to this was a book published in 1919, The Equipment of the Workers, issued under the aegis of the St Philips Settlement Education and Economics Research Society.

The authors asked a simple question: “What are the Workers going to do now the War is over?” One thing they were not going do was return to six day working weeks and poor living conditions. The men returning from the trenches would be

…less docile in behavior; more ambitious in outlook

Fine words but as we all know to our cost, they rarely butter parsnips. Apart from forming nearly eighty percent of the British population who were these workers? What did they want? What did they think? Were they Bolsheviks ready to plant the Red Flag over Buck House? Over eight hundred of them, men and women, were interviewed in Sheffield and after studying the results this is what the authors concluded:

A quarter of the interviewees (the Well-Equipped) showed that they were ready for the new world of the 1920s, a world of Education built upon a spirit of renewal. As for the rest, the authors did not

…regard the bulk of the Inadequately Equipped workers as capable of responsible and thoughtful participation in political affairs

Politics was, for all the calls for nationalisation and central control of the press, merely the means by which this New World of Spirit would be established and maintained. So large a group of workers left to fester in their ignorance would lead very quickly to large numbers of them shimmying up flag poles with red flags clamped in their teeth.

What to do? For a start they could bloody well know who Arnold Bennett was. As part of the section of the questionnaire called Data Required To Indicate X’s Love of Beauty, and apart from describing the floor, the interviewer had to ask how many writers, musicians and artists from a list the interviewee could recognise. Second from the top, under Beethoven but above G.K.Chesterton, was Arnold Bennett. Hoppitt, a sign writer, one of the well equipped could not; nor could Youngson, a fitter; Quain, married with six children, knew who he was but had not read him, nor had he read much of anything. Finlayson, a sixty year old gas fitter had a hazy knowledge of Chesterton, Wells and Shaw but of Bennett, he knew nothing. Miss Palfrey, 18 years old, living at home, munitions worker, weekly visitor to the cinema, knew that Ruskin was a lover of beautiful things and that Bennett was a writer. Mrs Quarles, 28, Liberal supporter, not a lover of poetry, knew nothing of Chesteron, Wells, Morris, Shaw or Bennett.

Dalson, however, was the shining star. An engine tenter (he tended a fixed engine in a works, factory or mine), he was twenty seven, married and had one child. Apart from a clean floor, his love of beauty could also be seen in the score of Bennett novels he had read. As a guide to building his own library he used Bennett’s Literary Taste, borrowing the books from the public library and the Workers’ Education Association and making synopses of them. One of eight children born to uneducated but loving parents, he had left school at thirteen to bring money into the home. He had read Plato and wanted to ‘get onto’ Wordsworth and Shelley. As the twenties progressed, and the Age of Education and Spirit was not implanted into England, what became of him? Did he discover Lawrence, Eliot, Joyce, Woolf and Lewis? Was he disappointed with Bennett’s later work? Did he buy Penguin paperbacks as he moved into middle age? Did he die of influenza? Bennett would have been interested in him. As for the modernists and the Jazz Age Bright Young Things, is it too flippant to write that they would have asked him to use the tradesmen’s entrance? More than likely it is, so I shall.

No graph today. It will return in the next post on Stella Benson’s The Little World.

Handy in a fight?

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, Bennett versus Woolf. 

On the 30th March 1931, the Western Daily Press (published in Bristol) reported the death of Arnold Bennett, one of the “greatest figures” in English Literature. He was, in the writer’s opinion, the “technical master” of the novel, in the same lineage as Fielding and Dickens. It includes the telling comment, “As a writer of life he shunned the intellectual standpoint and thereby created better works of art.”

Virginia Woolf would probably have agreed with one part of that final comment, although it is unlikely  she was a regular reader of the Western Daily Press. Checking the index for the essays in Virginia Woolf (edited by Harold Bloom) there is in fact no mention of Bristol, which raises the tantalising possibility that Virginia Woolf did not know where it was, far less subscribe to its newspaper. This is not as fanciful as it seems. Frank Swinnerton, Bennett’s friend, writing in Figures in the Foreground, spoke more than once of the importance of getting out once in a while and meeting people. Virginia Woolf, he felt of all the Bloomsbury group, was particularly bad at that. Whatever the truth of this, it would be fair to say that in any Geography test our man Bennett would have outscored Woolf, particularly anything arising from the catchment areas of the rivers Avon, Trent, Severn and Wye.

How different the history of English literature would have been had they chosen to fight out their diagreements via common entrance examinations in Geography. But they didn’t. According to Margaret Drabble in her biography of Arnold Bennett it was Woolf who took exception to a negative comment in an overall positive review of her book Jacob’s Room. It was Woolf who described Bennett as having a “…a shopkeeper’s view of literature.” A good choice of words on her part. Had she written that he had a solicitor’s view of literature (he had trained for a while to be a solicitor) we probably wouldn’t have known what she meant. He was, in the end, provincial.

Matthew Arnold had a lot to say about provincialism. Prose that was extravagant, he felt, was more than likely to be provincial, and far from his attic ideal. Newspapers carried much of the blame for the prevalence of provincialism in British culture, the brutalité des journaux anglais as he reminds us of how the French looked upon our press. English newspapers are not checked by coming into contact with any centre of intellect or urbanity, “rather they are stimulated by coming into contact with a provincial spirit.” The Western Daily Press for example.

It is tempting to look on all of the above as a wider metaphor for the persistent conflict between between highbrow and middlebrow culture, metropolitan and provincial attitudes in Britain. Given that contained within any understanding of the word “tempting” there has to be something of surrendering to it, then that is what I shall do. I shall surrender to it. All of the above is just that, a metaphor for the division between these two worlds. Should you wonder on which side your own tastes fall, ask yourself this: who would you rather have at your side on the fields of Agincourt, the gun deck of the Victory or the beaches at Dunkirk, a reader of the Western Daily Press or Virginia Woolf?

Easy as she goes

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is included. This week Midshipman Easy, written by Captain Frederick Marryat and first published in 1833. 

In her biography of her father, The Life and Letters of Captain Frederick Marryat, Dorothy Marryat recounts an incident that occurred during his campaign to become an MP for Tower Hamlets in 1833. Asked by a voter if he was opposed to flogging in the navy he gave a long and indirect answer. Asked again if he would flog either himself or one of his sons should they ever come under his command, Marryat replied:

“Sir, you say the answer I gave you is not direct; I will answer you again. If ever you, or one of your sons, should come under my command and deserve punishment, if there be no other effectual mode of conferring it I shall flog you.”

We can congratulate ourselves on living in more civilized times yet still indulge our sense of regret that there is not a best-selling author alive today who could give such an answer.

This was the same year that saw the publication of his best selling novel  Midshipman Easy, recommended, of course, by Arnold Bennett. Dorothy writes that the publishers, Messrs. Saunders and Otley, paid him £1200 for the book (worth £88,800 in 2011 according to the MeasuringWorth website in case you were wondering). Jack Easy is rich too at the end of the novel, from prize money won in combat with Spanish and French ships and from the inheritance he receives after the death of his father. Marryat makes sure that life at sea has matured the hotheaded youth and his naive belief in the equality of all men. The drive of the novel, in which mutinies, attacks by evil Italian half-brothers and the years spent at sea are telescoped into a few pages, takes him from his indulged childhood to wealth, marriage and a house in the country. Like Captain Marryat he can now live the life of a gentleman and, like his creator, write long letters to the newspapers in which, complaining of the effects of cheap and sensationalist literature, he could claim “…it would be better at once to stop all national education, for every child that is taught to read is but prepared to receive the poison which is now so rapidly circulating.”

Once more, it is easy to mock (although gently, I hope). Marryat described himself as devoted to the  Liberal cause, denouncing the use of child labour in factories and describing the destitute artisans he saw in Spitalfields as victims of a new slavery. Jack Easy is a precursor of the modern hero in fiction, a man of action whose interior life, nonetheless, clashes with the exterior world, leading to new perspectives, growth and thoughtful reflection. For all these reasons, it is a welcome coordinate of (6,3) that is plotted on the chart.

Talking the talk

This was always going to be tough, like that difficult second album (or is it the third?) after the first flush of success when the creative energy that rises from naive enthusiasm is replaced by the demands and expectations of managers, producers, executives, critics and fans. Having read John Selden’s Table Talk I’m certain he would have had something to say about the above analogy, probably in heavy tones of irony, drawing on legal statutes from the reign of Henry the Second and very probably in Latin.

In 200 pages he covers the gamut from Abbeys to Zealots, stopping off to comment on Bishops in the Parliament, Canon Law, Consecrated Places, God’s Judgements, Popery, Prophecies and the Wife. It is heavily footnoted by the its editor the Late Fellow and Tutor of Brasenose College, Samuel Harvey Reynold, MA., who clearly shared Selden’s love of Latin. The tenor of his writing can perhaps be seen in his entry on Praemunire:

“There can be no Praemunire,” he wrote, explaining that “A Praemunire was when a Man laid an Action in an Ecclesiastical Court, for which he could have no remedy in any of the King’s Courts, that is, in the Courts of Common Law, by reason the Ecclesiastical Courts before Henry the Eighth were subordinate to the Pope, and so it was contra coronam et dignitatem Regis; but now the Ecclesiastical Courts are equally subordinate to the King. Therefore it cannot be contra coronam et Dignitatem Regis, and so no Praemunire.”

You had to be there I suppose. There being 1640s England and being invited by John Selden to his table to listen to him talk. Somewhere in all this I came across a comparison to Samuel Johnson presumably written by someone who had never read anything written by Samuel Johnson.

It is easy to mock such writing which of course is why we do it, and yet he had been included in Arnold Bennett’s reading list. Why? What was it in  the writings of a seventeenth century constitutional lawyer, a member of parliament, a disputer with presbyterians and friend of the playwright Ben Jonson that Bennett thought could contribute to the formation of a literary taste? An answer, I think, can be found in the 1909 edition of The Dictionary of National Biography where Selden’s life is described over ten pages. From them comes the description of an educated man, temperate in his passions but “liberal with his table”, neither a follower of those how claimed the divine right of kings nor of those claimed the divine right of those who regarded themselves elected by God to rule the roost, a believer, above all, in the social contract between a king and his people. Reasons enough for any educated British liberal born in the last decades of the nineteenth century to regard him as worthy of attention and study.

Bennett writes of the importance of regular mental stocktaking warning that “…if you omit this mere business precaution, it may well be that you, too, without knowing it, are little by little joining the triflers who read only because eternity is so long.” Later he adds “…if the memory of these books does not quicken the perception of beauty…does not help you to correlate the particular trifle with the universal, does not smooth out irritation and give dignity to sorrow-then you are…unworthy of your high vocation as a bookman.” By the end John Selden’s Table Talk I had form a surprising liking for the man who, at least from his writings, spoke badly of no one. But having reminded myself of what Bennett described as his own “severely moral mood” when it came to the formation of a literary taste I have no choice but to plot a very disappointing coordinate of (2,8).

From Petrarch’s book to Coleridge on the iPhone

There was a letter from the Italian scholar poet Petrarch that I once came across in Medieval Miscellany, an anthology of Medieval writers. I can’t for the life of me remember it now (I bought it as a present for my dad years ago) but it’s something to the effect that he was giving a book of his as a present to a friend and he listed the adventures he and the book had been through, including almost drowning in a river. This book, which had meant so much to Petrarch as an object, he was now passing on to his friend.

Apart from subscribers to the Folio Society, I wonder who would put the same value on a book they owned today? Not the increasing numbers I see on the metro reading ebooks. I’m not sure if I should include myself in this group, of ebook readers I mean – I gave up putting any value on books years ago, the price of being a librarian’s son, familiarity breeding contempt. But as I read Wordsworth’s Literary Criticism, recommended by Bennett on page 100, on my iPhone on the journey into work I wonder if I am a iPhone reader or just someone who is too stingy to buy a Kindle. I also wonder if I should be reading Wordsworth on my iPhone in the first place.

There is, I tell myself, no reason why I shouldn’t. Each year I see more and more people on the Madrid metro using ebook readers. In fact, I would say from my observations that there are more people using them in Madrid than Glasgow or Edinburgh. But of course there aren’t. Statistics, as someone famous should have said, are the mortal enemies of anecdotes. According to a report on the 10th of October in bookseller.com (Europe set to embrace the ebook) the market share of ebooks in the UK is 6% while in Spain it’s 1%. Which if my reading of National Population Projections 2008 Based from the Office of National Statistics is correct works out at 3,684,000 people in Britain with an ebook and, using the results from the 2001 census available from the Instituto Nacional Estadística, 408,473.71 ebook owners in Spain. So, whereas in Britain I could justify my reading of Wordsworth on my iPhone by saying I was part of an already well-established and growing group of consumers, here in Spain I am a literary pariah.

(The town of Baltar in Galicia, according to statistics from the 2001 census, saw its population drop from 4,018 inhabitants in 1981 to 1,233 in 2001. If the national pattern of ebook ownership was repeated in Baltar we’re talking about 12.33 ebook owners. Not so much a group of pariahs, more a coven of witches. A new census is being carried out in Spain this year so I’ll be keeping an eye on Baltar).

But I did read Wordsworth’s literary criticism and Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner on my iPhone, even though Bennett advises reading anything but short poems at this early stage in forming your literary taste. I had also ordered an anthology of contemporary verse from Salt Publishing. It wasn’t with any other intention than the vague feeling that I should know more about modern British poetry. But my reaction to its arrival in the mailbox showed that following Bennett’s advice had had an effect. I don’t know if it was Wordsworth’s description of poetry as “…the image of man and nature” or asking myself why the Ancient Mariner found himself at a wedding party (was that in the dream that inspired Coleridge to write the poem as well?) but I closed the book without reading more than a line, knowing that it would remain unread.

I don’t know if a reaction that powerful is a good thing. There must be good poetry being written in Britain. But clearly I’m not the person to read it or judge it. There is a price to be paid for developing a literary taste. So, keeping that in mind, I’m plotting E.M.Forster 3, Virginia Woolf 3. There’s movement in the graph but it’s hard to say if it’s in the right direction.

(The book didn’t go to waste. I may not value books as objects, like Petrarch, but my presbyterian soul demands that I recognise their value in how they are used. Books have to be read. I gave it to a friend at work who I knew would be much more opened-minded than me. In return she asked me what was my cut-off date for reading fiction and I told her 1950. The next day she gave me a copy of Elizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs. Lippincote’s, published in 1945.)

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