It’s the little things that count

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.

When I was a student at university in the 1980s there were no courses on middlebrow literature, the term given to popular novels published in English between 1900 and 1950. I studied history so I can’t say for certain how the English literature courses were structured but I shared digs with a student who was studying Beowulf and Old English. I imagine the degree would then have taken him through Chaucer, Milton, Austen, Hardy and ending at Woolf. Times have changed. The Middlebrow Network website lists 36 academics as either core members or as sitting on the advisory board. Kate Macdonald, writing in a post called Why studying middlebrow matters commented on the reasons for this change in literary studies:

The study of English literature has been enlarging its boundaries radically in the past thirty years. My private theory is that the increase in the numbers of people studying at university level in Britain since the 1990s means that we need more and new research subjects for the ever-rolling stream of PhD students. The academy’s capacity for writing dissertations on Shakespeare, Woolf and Hughes was becoming exhausted under traditional terms of scrutiny. Something happened to allow literary criticism to widen its borders. Now, we study not just what people read, but how people read, why they read, what they thought about what they read, and the marginalia printed all around the important things that people read, which they also read, and were changed by, without noticing. The traditional authors and works are still studied, but the overflow is accommodated most creatively through middlebrow studies.

Middlebrow studies is now a Thing. A Good Thing, in my opinion. From reading Dostoevsky, Camus, Sartre, Borges and Calvino in my twenties, I have returned to the reading tastes of my childhood when I read Biggles novels, the novels of Roman Britain written by Rosemary Sutcliffe, children’s classics such as Stig of the Dump and more modern children’s novels such as A Dog So Small: that is to say, popular fiction. One Thing has replaced another Thing, because this Thing is quite clearly not that Thing.

But not quite. I began reading Arnold Bennett’s Evening Standard reviews with the belief that I would quickly find myself reading the popular novels of the 1920s: those “shockers” that Buchan claimed he wrote. What have I read so far? A tragedy set in an upper class rural family emotionally-at-sea; a tragedy set in eighteenth century Germany that exposed the brutal consequences of anti-semitism and a Russian folktale. And now, I am reading Sacheverell Sitwell’s The Cyder Feast, a collection of self-published poems that link us with the rural world described lovingly in the Georgics of Virgil.

Osbert and Edith Sitwell

From left to right  Sir Osbert Sitwell (1892-1969), Dame Edith (1887-1964), Sacheverell Sitwell (1897-1988). — Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Of the poet, Bennett wrote in his review of the 16th of June, 1927:

I have for years maintained that Sacheverell Sitwell is one of the most original poets of his generation…His mind is not only original but lovely. He never writes anything of which you could positively assert that it was not distinguished. He experiences sensations, and he gets effects, which, so far as my knowledge goes, nobody ever experienced or got before. I derive a most exciting pleasure from his work.


Frontspiece of The Cyder Feast

Compare Bennett’s review with the comments made by Emanuel Eisenberg in The Bookman in the November of that year. Speaking of the three Sitwells – Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell – he wrote:

They are all insufferable poets — insufferable minor poets, I mean, and minor poetry rarely becomes unbearable to me, since I can usually find a transient pleasure in efficiency of manufacture.

Or this from Louis Untermeyer in The Saturday Review in the June of 1928.

Apart from a dissonance or two, an inverted image, a strained and dislocated adjective, these horticultural verses might have been written in the eighteenth century as well as (and possibly better than) the twentieth.

And that from someone who quite liked the book.

Bennett’s talent, as far as I can make it out from these reviews, is that he looked at Everything, rather than that Thing or this Thing. Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Sitwell (Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell), Kafka were given the same once-over he would give to Forster, Chesterton, Warner or Bates. If he did not understand what he had had read he did not hold it against the author. Eisenberg and Untermeyer’s beef was that The Cyder Feast was not modern enough. Bennett would not have dwelt on the issue. His concern was promoting the best in literature to as wide an audience as possible, be it traditional or modernist.

What did I make of The Cyder Feast. In answer I will quote this from Bennett’s review:

…when somebody comes along and says that he cannot understand Sacheverell Sitwell, I sympathise with that somebody. There is a certain amount of Sacheverell Sitwell that I do not understand, or only half understand.

I did well with the first twenty five poems, being the most Virgilian in nature, linking nature with architecture and history. After these poems, the words drifted delightfully into my mind and then delightfully out again.


Caricature of Arnold Bennett by Oliver Herford, found on The Project Gutenberg, clearly alluding to his prodigious output.

On the 15th of June, we get a glimpse in his journal of the working day of a bestselling British novelist of the 1920s: gets up early; breakfasts on fruit; observes his street from the balcony; writes 800 words by 12.15; lunches at the Reform Club; returns by bus; continues writing; theatre in the evening.




Is that a floppy hat you’re wearing Mr.Donne or are you just pleased to see me?

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, Dr. Johnson’s Lives of the Poets.

John Donne

I bought a Penguin edition of the collected poems of John Donne when I was nineteen. I read the poems with all the emotional depth and maturity that a nineteen year old boy can bring to complex wordplay, classical allusions and meditations on love and death. From the two or three poems I can remember reading (being three times a fool, man being or not being an island and lovers compared to compasses – this was the age of discovery after all – are the fragments of memory that have survived), I was able to construct my mental image of seventeenth century England as a land of men in floppy hats with a penchant for being painted in their coffins. Sometime later the floppy hatted men were replaced by the Levellers, who very probably rarely bathed but knew their way around a cow, who in turn were replaced by men wearing round helmets and carrying guns. Such is the way of the world.

The floppy hatted men revival can be dated to the publication of Dr. Herbert Grierson’s Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century in 1921. Of Donne he wrote:

Donne’s metaphysical eulogies and elegies and epistles are a hard nut to crack for his most sympathetic admirers. And yet they have undeniable qualities

The cause of the floppy hatted men was taken up and promoted by T.S.Eliot in a review of the anthology he wrote for the Times Literary Supplement. The book, he wrote, was:

 …in itself a piece of criticism, and a provocation of criticism; and we think that he was right in including so many poems of Donne…as documents in the case for ‘metaphysical poetry’.

Although he doubted whether a school of poetry existed that could be described as metaphysical he argued that what Donne and poets such as Andrew Marvell and Abraham Cowley had in common was simple and pure language. But more than this, he placed Donne and his compatriots firmly in the mainstream of English poetry.

Dr.Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, all 66 volumes, was a critical and financial success. The eighteenth century had an itch that just had to be scratched when it came to the lives of famous and dead poets. Just like our own century but possibly with more of an eye for Beckham, Posh Spice and Prince Harry.  John Wilkes, radical, politician, journalist and serial womaniser, chanced his arm by saying in the presence of the great man at a dinner in the May of 1781 that, being only a poor patriot who could not afford the whole set, Dr. Johnson should make him a gift of it. Dr. Johnson appeared not to hear this but a complete set was sent to his lodgings. Dr. Johnson himself noted that he had written nothing else as highly commended as the Lives of the Poets.

Edmund Waller

In his chapter on the poet Edmund Waller (1606 – 1687), Johnson points out that at the death of his father he inherited a yearly income of £3,500, worth £566,000 in 2012. After attending Eton and King’s college, Cambridge, he was elected to parliament at either the age of 16 or 18. He was close to the seat of power. This is not a metaphor, he was often standing close enough to King James’ throne to overhear his private conversations. According to Johnson he had already developed his system of “metrical harmony” in his poetry and from which he never deviated. Critical of King Charles and his attempts to run roughshod over parliament, he nevertheless avoided being identified with the growing parliamentary opposition. Depending on whether you were a) King Charles or b) John Pym, puritan, parliamentarian and opponent of the king, Waller either made a last ditch attempt to to avoid civil war by appealing to moderates in the city of London, or was plotting to open the city gates to the king’s forces, who would then murder every MP they could lay their hands on. Either way, he avoided being executed, others were not so lucky (it helped that Waller confessed everything, blamed his compatriots, was a great persuader and had huge amounts of money with which to bribe officials), and settled into a comfortable exile in France. Given permission to return by Cromwell he wrote a poem praising his greatness and when Charles II returned to claim the throne, he wrote him a poem too praising him. He married twice, was returned as an MP on two more occasions, was regarded as a great speaker, famous for keeping a good table and all round great guy. He died in his bed on the 21st of October, 1687. Quite a life and not a floppy hat in sight. In my defence I can only say that it is not the first time that a nineteen year old boy has been let down by his emotional intelligence.

Apart from being a useful antidote to the floppy hatted men school of English history, has Johnson’s Live of the Poets added to my literary taste? Sadly, no. Unlike Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which still elicits admiring raisings of eyebrows, to admit to reading Johnson’s Lives of the Poets is only ever accompanied by a piece of tumbleweed rolling silently behind you. It is not a social act. So, a sombre (2,4) and we are back over the line.

And finally…

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: 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

It would be great to hear from you.

Robert Bridges: a dreamer, but not tongue-tied

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 Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. 

On Monday, April 22nd, 1930 Robert Bridges, the poet laureate, died at his home, Chilswell House, in Oxford. The following day The Nottingham Evening Post published an appreciation of his life. “The popular conception of him was that of a silent, tongue-tied dreamer, living a hermit’s life on a lonely Berkshire hill. He was certainly a dreamer, but he was neither tongue-tied or lonely. His manner was often forbidding; he had a horror of humbug and those who asked him silly questions fled from his caustic tongue.”

Having read a number of his poems in the collected edition of 1913, the year when he was made poet laureate, I would have been one of those erring in this view of Robert Bridges. Being prone to humbug, I would doubtless also  have fled from his caustic tongue. There are in his poems many thous, thees, thys and words such as shouldst, knoweth and confest. Love is frequently described, as are clouds, seagulls and maidens display a skill in assembling before their lady which I feel would probably be lacking in young women of today. All an easy target for our cynical age. But I will not be the first to fire.

Two poems caught my eye and that stayed my hand. First Triolet:
When first we met we did not guess
That Love would prove so hard a master;
Of more than common friendliness
When first we met we did not guess
Who could foretell this sore distress,
This irretrievable disaster
When first we met?—We did not guess
That Love would prove so hard a master.

Next, Indolence:
We left the city when the summer day
Had verged already on its hot decline,
And charméd Indolence in languor lay
In her gay gardens, ‘neath her towers divine:
‘Farewell,’ we said, ‘dear city of youth and dream!’
And in our boat we stepped and took the stream.

All through that idle afternoon we strayed
Upon our proposed travel well begun,
As loitering by the woodland’s dreamy shade,
Past shallow islets floating in the sun,
Or searching down the banks for rarer flowers
We lingered out the pleasurable hours.

Till when that loveliest came, which mowers home
Turns from their longest labour, as we steered
Along a straitened channel flecked with foam,
We lost our landscape wide, and slowly neared
An ancient bridge, that like a blind wall lay
Low on its buried vaults to block the way.

Then soon the narrow tunnels broader showed,
Where with its arches three it sucked the mass
Of water, that in swirl thereunder flowed,
Or stood piled at the piers waiting to pass;
And pulling for the middle span, we drew
The tender blades aboard and floated through.

But past the bridge what change we found below!
The stream, that all day long had laughed and played
Betwixt the happy shires, ran dark and slow,
And with its easy flood no murmur made:
And weeds spread on its surface, and about
The stagnant margin reared their stout heads out.

Upon the left high elms, with giant wood
Skirting the water-meadows, interwove
Their slumbrous crowns, o’ershadowing where they stood
The floor and heavy pillars of the grove:
And in the shade, through reeds and sedges dank,
A footpath led along the moated bank.

Across, all down the right, an old brick wall,
Above and o’er the channel, red did lean;
Here buttressed up, and bulging there to fall,
Tufted with grass and plants and lichen green;
And crumbling to the flood, which at its base
Slid gently nor disturbed its mirrored face.

Sheer on the wall the houses rose, their backs
All windowless, neglected and awry,
With tottering coigns, and crooked chimney stacks;
And here and there an unused door, set high
Above the fragments of its mouldering stair,
With rail and broken step led out on air.

Beyond, deserted wharfs and vacant sheds,
With empty boats and barges moored along,
And rafts half sunken, fringed with weedy shreds,
And sodden beams, once soaked to season strong.
No sight of man, nor sight of life, no stroke,
No voice the somnolence and silence broke.

Then I who rowed leant on my oar, whose drip
Fell without sparkle, and I rowed no more ;
And he that steered moved neither hand nor lip,
But turned his wondering eye from shore to shore;
And our trim boat let her swift motion die,
Between the dim reflections floating by.

Triolet because of its completeness; Indolence because I’ve always had a soft spot for narrative poetry, particularly when expressed in the first person; of T.S.Eliot’s poetry the only one I’ve been able to understand is Journey of the Magi.

Robert Bridges was made poet laureate in July of 1913 – “Dr. Bridges’ appointment will delight all who take poetry seriously and should abash jocular gentlemen in the House of Commons,” noted Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, Professor of English Literature at Cambridge University. A year later, on the 28th of July, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo and Britain declared war on Germany on August the 4th. In the 1915 Christmas edition of Blighty, the magazine of the British soldier, published a poem by Robert Bridges, the first verse being:

To the men of spirit unconquerable
Who battle to shield our homes from hell,
This tenderest greeting of love and pride
From those who at home must watch and abide.

You can almost hear him saying “Will this do?” But what else was he going to write? If part of the remit of the Poet Laureate  is to capture and express something of the national spirit, then the above may just have done that for many people. He was seventy years old when war broke out. When he was born Queen Victoria was still a young queen and he grew up in a Britain that avoided, after the Crimean War, any involvement in European conflicts. As a doctor he had witnessed death and had also acted decisively during an outbreak of smallpox in the Great Northern Hospital in 1876. But how would that help an elderly gentleman living in the outskirts of Oxford understand the new type of warfare then being fought?

He was not alone in this type of response to the war. In 1916 Soldier Poets: Songs of the Fighting Men was published and in 1917 More Songs by the Fighting Men was also published. Written by serving soldiers, these poems were described by the Western Daily Press in the January of 1918 as forming part of a springtime of “Georgian Verse” in which new poems were bursting into verse like trees in bud. To A Fallen Comrade, written by 2nd Lieutenant Murray McClymont, begins:

I heard the voice of Spring come softly pleading
Across the fresh and breathing wold today:
The Sun set free from cloudy bonds, was speeding
To greet the earth with each impassioned ray.

Another 2nd Lieutenant, Owen, Wilfred, of the Manchester Regiment would become, in his death, much more famous for his poetry than McClymont. Yet, like the poetry of Bridges, we would would err should we ignore him and his companions. Their voices may not be fashionable, but they are nonetheless the voices of men who served, and died, in the trenches.

In 1920, Horatio Bottomley, M.P. for South Hackney asked the Prime Minister, LLoyd George, if the Poet Laureate had written any of the hymns sung  in the recent unveiling of the Cenotaph, or indeed any of the large public events associated with the war. If not, then should “…he [the PM] consider the question of the appointment of a national poet whose muse is more attuned to the soul of the British nation?” Lloyd George answered by reminding Mr Bottomley that the post of Poet Laureate was for the lifetime of the incumbent, before being interrupted by a Colonel Lowther, demanding to know whether the post should be offered to Rudyard Kipling. Perhaps Robert Bridges was tired of the war by then. A lover of nature, what could he have found to inspire him in the desolation and mud of No-Man’s Land? Perhaps he was working on The Testament of Beauty, a philosophical poem in four books, which I shall not be reading.

It is an oddly reflective reader who considers the creation of literary taste, before deciding on a sad and lonely (7,8). We are back in Virginia Woolf territory. Next, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

The elephant in the living room

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 Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden, first published in 1928. 

In the December of 1916, after two years of war, the Central Powers declared they were ready to negotiate peace terms with the Allies. President Wilson, asked by the Central Powers to broker the talks, asked both sides what their peace terms were. The Allies quickly replied: a free and neutral Belgium, its rights guaranteed by self-representation. The Germans didn’t bother to reply as that was the last thing that they wanted. In the first months of the war the German leadership had stated its war aims in the secret Septemberprogramm, as “security for the German Reich in west and east for all imaginable time.” Belgium would be reduced to a vassal state, large chunks of the French coast would be annexed, an empire carved out of Central Africa and Russia pushed as far back as possible from the eastern frontier.  It makes you wonder why they bothered asking for peace negotiations in the first place.

Edmund Blunden was twenty one by the time the war ended. He had survived two years without a scratch, not physical ones anyway. Reviewing Undertones of War, his account of his time as Temporary Second Lieutenant in the 11th Royal Sussex Regiment, in the Evening Standard Bennett wrote “…The intimate horror of war has never been, and never will be, more movingly and modestly rendered than he renders it.” Blunden was brave as the cutting below from the London Gazette from the 26th January 1917 makes all too clear.

He was also a modest man, never mentioning his award of the Military Cross in the book. His poetry shines through his prose, as does his love of countryside, even the blasted wastelands in which he toiled, officered and strolled through. He witnessed the deadly and deathly consequences of the “red tab’s” tinkerings with maps and plans of attack. It was all a terrible waste. And, like the elephant in the living room that no one mentions, those German troops still occupy neutral Belgium, their masters anticipating that their stay there will be a long one.

You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? Without that waste, call it sacrifice if you will, witnessed by Blunden, those German troops (who did commit atrocities against Belgian civilians) would not have left of their own choice. My search for literary taste here has come up against the uncomfortable truths that history sometimes deals in; also reading the work of a young man when you are in middle-age and seeing that youthful passionate belief in Right and Wrong has faded somewhat. I read his book sympathetically but with an emotional distance that surprises me. Coordinates have to be given, direction maintained and velocity pursued, therefore (10, 10) is given, leading off the graph to unknown territories.

The verse of ten syllables, which we call the English Heroic

If you had been in Westminster Abbey last Friday you might have noticed a tall, balding middle-aged man speaking to himself and counting on his fingers. Although, given that the abbey houses a thousand years of British history you would have had to have been cursed with a phenomenally short attention span to have done so. I was counting the syllables in the epitaphs, such as David Garrick’s

                    To paint fair Nature, by divine command,

                     Her magic pencil in his glowing hand,

                     A Shakspeare rose, then to expand his fame,

                     Wide o’er this “breathing world”, a Garrick came.

                     Though sunk in death the forms the Poet drew,

                      The actor’s genius bade them breathe anew;

                      Though, like the Bard himself, in night they lay,

                      Immortal Garrick call’d them back to day;

                      And till eternity with power sublime,

                      Shall mark the mortal hour of Hoary Time,

                      Shakspeare & Garrick like twin stars shall shine,

                      And earth irradiate with a beam divine.

Which, if my counting and sub-vocalisation in Westminster Abbey was correct is made up of the rhyming scheme AABBAABBAABB; in duple time; iambic in metre, decasyllabic in nature, with a possible feminine ending on the last line (rhyming couplets, in double time, five feet – five groups of two syllables – in a line of ten syllables and the last line having an extra syllable depending if you swallow or not a syllable in “divine”).  “Ah, Rain Man” said  my nephew over lunch in a pub on the edge of Hampstead Heath the following day.

Had I not already bought a copy of The Making of Verse: a Guide to English Metres by Robert Swann and Frank Sidgwick (first published 1934), as recommended by Bennett at the end of chapter 8 of Literary Taste, I’m sure I would still have enjoyed my visit to the abbey. But having read the first ten chapters I feel that I came away with the conceited delight of knowing I was able to do something other people cannot do. A conceit tempered by the knowledge that other people not only do not know that they do not know, but if they did know that they did not know, they wouldn’t care. But it is a lovely book, written in a style that alternates between the dry criticism of poetic failure and the unashamed admiration of its successes. It does not preach, it only seeks to bring you into the writers’ circle of knowledge with the promise of at least being to see how the great poets put together the nuts and bolts of their constructions. Bennett says it much better when he writes of the book “With such a manual in front of you, you can acquire in a couple of hours a knowledge of the formal principles in which in which the music of English verse is rooted. The business is trifling. But the business of appreciating the inmost spirit of the greatest verse is tremendous and lifelong. It is not something that can be ‘got up’.”

The book, to use a wildly inappropriate analogy, has been a real “game changer.” As if something important depended on something else happening which came as a welcome surprise to everyone involved, such as selling cheddar cheese to the French by having the ghost of Albert Camus go on TV and tell them how good it is. I had already read Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets but now I could go back and read his chapter on Milton and understand it when he wrote “…he naturally solaced his solitude by the indulgence of his fancy and the harmony of his numbers” or say to myself “Oh that Alexander Pope!” when I read of him pooh-poohing the alexandrine, twelve syllables(or numbers), instead of ten, and therefore having six feet instead of five. But more than this, much more than this, I could read a verse from Dryden’s The Fire of London,

                 Methinks already from this chymic flame

                 I see a city of more precious mold

                 Rich as the town which gives the Indies name

                 With silver paved, and all divine with gold

and see that the genius of the man lay in the way in which he wrote the last line with two words of one syllable each, in contrast to the preceding three which also have two words but of three syllables, forcing us to adapt the rhythm with which we read the poem. It is this playing with the rules, unlike their classical counterparts writing in Latin two millenia before, that allowed the English poets of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries such a range of expression in their work.

So, for all of the above, I think an outstanding plot of (10,1) is quite justified, a long and low trajectory of a literary taste being formed.

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 (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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