Not a Cirque du Soleil act but three remarkable, independent women, two real, one fictional, two English, one Scotch- Irish. All born in the last decade of the 19thcentury; all long departed but kept alive in my bookshelves.


Not so long ago, travelling in China, I came to the ancient city of Dali, situated on the shores of Lake Erhai and in the shadow of the Cangshan mountains and it was here that I came across a bookshop, something that I was beginning to think did not exist in the whole of China. I can forgive Chairman Mao for the chaos and death caused by the ‘Great Leap Forward’; that was just a bad decision, like Prohibition. But I cannot forgive him for the lasting catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution when he replaced all poetry, art and craftsmanship with himself. In China Chairman Mao IS culture. His statue is the principal work of art in the lobby of my hotel and in this rare bookshop the shelves are lined only with various editions of the little red book, yellowing maps of the Great March and treatises on Communism.

The owner of the bookshop, who spoke English, invited me to sit down, share the ritual egg-cups of tea and listen to him eulogise a man who had disposed of fifty million of his fellow countrymen. When asked if I knew of an English lady called Violet Cressy-Marcks, I admitted I did not and, when I arrived home, I looked her up.

Information on Violet proved to be quite thin. There is no autobiography or biography and only the barest of outlines in Wikipedia, which told me she was born Violet Rutley in South East London on 9th June 1895. She was twenty two when she married Captain Maurice Cressy-Marcks with whom she had a son, William, in 1921. In 1925, freshly divorced, she discovered her true love while crossing Africa from Cairo to Capetown – the pleasure of travelling alone. The next winter she spent north of the Arctic Circle, travelling across Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish Lapland by sled drawn by reindeer and ending in Baluchistan. In 1929 she rode the Amazon by steamer, surveyed its upper reaches by canoe and crossed the Andes into Peru by horse. Afghanistan, Russian Turkestan and Siberia followed. In 1935, just as the Italian army was attempting to add Ethiopia to its African Empire, she travelled from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, stopping to visit the war fronts in Eritrea and Ethiopia. There is no record of her meeting any Ethiopian officials, but it cannot be by chance that a year later Emperor Haile Selassie, forced into exile, became a temporary guest at Hazelwood House in Hertfordshire, a home Violet then shared with her new husband, Francis Fisher.

In 1937 came the journey that brought Violet to the attention of my bookseller. It was Violet’s sixth visit to China and, like Honeybee, she made a list of objectives before she set out:

  1. To enter China from Burma. This was more by necessity than choice, although I feel it suited Violet to make her journeys as difficult as possible. The Japanese, already occupying Manchuria, were continuing their invasion west, while the centre of the country, from North to South, was a battleground between Mao’s Red Army and Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang. Skirmishes between various war lords and the presence of bandits added further danger to the journey.
  2. To visit the Communists and speak to the leader of the Eighth Route Army. Violet was not the first or only foreign journalist to interview Mao in his mountain stronghold at Yenan; American correspondent Edgar Snow had done that as well as Agnes Smedley, later accused of spying for the Russians. A photograph shows Violet looking a little like a housewife as she poses with Mao. But the mere fact he met with her shows he took her seriously.
  1. To study the war and the morale of the troops. I skipped most of this section. The request in her will that her biography should be shown first to the Head of MI5 suggests that the British government may have sponsored some of her travels. Alas there was to be no biography as the chosen writer, who had spent three years working for British Intelligence agencies in Constantinople, died before writing the book.
  1. To visit Lake Koko Nor in Tibet. Finally some sightseeing! At 4,300 square kilometres, the largest lake in China, Koko Nor is situated high on the Tibetan Plateau. As night falls and the yak drivers sleep in their warm tents, Violet sits by the side of the desolate lake, watching, till dawn. ‘Still, I liked the solitude, which is to me the kindest of all travelling companions. Sun, moon and stars, wind, rain and snow never fail to woo me more ardently with her by my side. ‘

When war became global two years later Violet was back in South West China, a war correspondent for London’s Daily Express. There was a spell as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross and when war ended she was at Nuremberg reporting on the trials of German war criminals for a London newspaper.

Photographer, archaeologist, ethnologist, zoologist, journalist and part-time spy, Violet travelled alone and light, with just a tent, a typewriter, her note books and a camera, for it was an age when it was still accepted that a single person could be an expert in several fields. ‘Adventurous travel’, she once said, ‘is no place for a man’.

What an ordinary extraordinary woman; fearless, competent, resourceful and adventurous. Twice married, a mother by her second husband of two boys, Forest and Ocean, both named after her real passions. She died in 1970. Nice to think a Chinese bookseller in Dali remembers her.


‘Trilby’- it has a nice ring to it; a name for the sort of self-possessed young woman to be found in a rich aunt’s villa in the South of France. The name of a Bond girl. You would be right if you think it’s the name of a man’s soft, felt hat, now only worn by rich racehorse trainers; but the hat was named after a girl called Trilby, the heroine of an 1894 novel that turned out to be a blockbuster.

Trilby O’Ferrall was a grisette, living in the Latin Quarter of Paris during La Belle Epoque where she worked as a blanchisseuse du fin and as a part time model for artists. The death of her father, an Irish gentleman and cleric, obliged through addiction to strong drink to flee to Paris and the later death of her mother, a barmaid and ‘Highland lassie of low degree’, had left Trilby an orphan and guardian of her younger brother.

One day, descending the stairs from the studio of Durien, a sculptor, where she had been modeling ‘in the altogether’[1], Trilby hears music coming from the apartment below and, on an impulse, knocks and enters. She is greeted by three amateur artists, Sandy, a bearded Scot and occupant of the studio and his two friends, Taffy, a good-humoured Yorkshireman, and Little Billee, a slender, sentimental young man of twenty years. Trilby’s outfit, an army overcoat over a petticoat and a pair of man’s shoes, her self-confidence as she sat down and crossed her legs and rolled a cigarette left the ‘toffs’ bewildered and besotted. So too was the pianist, the bearded and sinister Svengali. In an age where piano legs were curtained off to avoid any incitement to passion, the sight of Trilby’s slender, white ankles caused her male audience to shift uncomfortably in their seats. But the piano stopped and jaws dropped when Trilby kicked off her shoes to reveal that rarest of human features, a perfect pair of pedal extremities.

Trilby soon became a regular and popular visitor to Sandy’s studio, appreciated as much for her charm and lack of vanity as for her sewing and cooking. It was during an evening of song, with Svengali at the piano and his friend, Gecko, on violin, that Trilby revealed her one defect, a total lack of singing voice, a flaw that did not prevent Billee from decorating the studio with a study of Trilby’s feet and falling in love. After rejecting countless proposals of marriage from Billee, Trilby finally accepts, knowing that their social backgrounds were incompatible.

Billee makes the mistake of announcing his engagement to his widowed mother, Mrs Bagot, who arrives post-haste in Paris with one question in mind regarding her son’s fiancée – ‘Is she a lady?’ Although ready to flay her dearest friend alive in order to make her son a pair of gloves out of the skin, Mrs Bagot was not prepared to allow Billee to marry an unchaste siren and duly drags him back to England. After a period of sulking Billee returns to his art, later becoming a successful painter and member of the Royal Academy.

Years later, intrigued to learn that the greatest female singer of the age was known as La Svengali, Billee travels to Paris to investigate and is astounded to find Trilby singing like a nightingale. When Svengali collapses and dies from a heart attack in the box, Trilby, no longer under his hypnotic gaze, can no longer sing in tune, reverting to her former personality with no recollection of her life as a diva. Shortly after this transformation and with no apparent indication that she is suffering from a fatal illness, Trilby fades quietly away surrounded by mystified doctors and the distraught Billee descends into madness on hearing Trilby call for Svengali with her last breath. Soon after, Billee also takes to his bed heartbroken and surrenders life with the manly calm of a true gentleman.

How did this Victorian pot-boiler, largely unread today, become a huge best seller, a novel that launched hundreds of dramatized versions across Britain and America, a character that had hot-dogs and ice-creams and a hat named after it and persuaded the mayor of Macon, Florida, to change the town’s name to Trilby? Mainly, perhaps, because it was the first literary portrait of romanticized Bohemian life and of an idealized Belle Epoque Paris. It also introduced a new type of heroine, a self-confident gamine who eschewed corsets and rolled her own cigarettes. Then there was the character of Svengali, a term that still lives with us today as a person who has an evil, controlling influence over another, but without the anti-Semitic characteristics that George Orwell deplored in the novel’s character. There is an amusing sarcastic tone throughout and the language is littered with real French argot. The narrative was also stoked by Du Maurier’s illustrations and by its delivery in eight suspenseful instalments in Harpers magazine.

Trilby’s creator, George du Maurier was born in Paris in 1834 to an English mother and French father. Moving to London around 1850 he worked as cartoonist for Punch and as illustrator of popular magazines. He and his wife, Emma had five children of whom only Sylvia, born in 1866, and Gerald, born in 1873, achieved fame of differing sorts.

Sylvia married Arthur Llewelyn Davies, a lawyer, with whom she had five sons. They were chosen by Arthur’s best friend, the playwright JM Barrie, as models for ‘the lost boys’ that feature in the stories of Peter Pan. Kate Winslet impersonated Sylvia in the 2004 movie ‘Finding Neverland’.

Gerald was a successful theatre manager and actor; he is best remembered now as the father of novelist Daphne du Maurier, for lending his name to one of the most popular brands of cigarette of the 30s and 40s and as the subject of this classic limerick:

There was a young lady called Gloria
Who was had by Sir Gerald du Maurier
And then by ten men
Sir Gerald again
And the band of the Waldorf Astoria.



Nina Hamnett was a real-life Trilby, a true Bohemienne and good-time girl who had a good time without upsetting anyone except her family and other sale bourgeois individuals. After publication of her memoirs ‘Laughing Torso’ in 1928, Nina became an international trademark for indoor fun after midnight.

Born in Tenby, Wales in 1890, Nina was educated at the Royal School for Daughters of Officers of the Army in Bath where she showed flashes of unconventional wisdom and a complete disdain for authority. Later at art school in London, where she was fortunate to have Frank Brangwyn as a teacher, she posed in the altogether for the French sculptor, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who chiseled her nude torso from marble and became an early entry in her list of lovers. ‘I’m in the V&A with my left tit knocked off’ she would claim later[2].

Excited by a visit to Paris in 1912 where she met Jacob Epstein and his wife, Nina returned in 1914, rented a studio on the boulevard Raspail and enrolled in Marie Vassilieff’s art school, where Fernand Leger was teaching at the time. On her first night in Paris Nina was dining alone at Rosalie’s, a cheapish restaurant which Epstein had recommended, when Modigliani walked in, sat down at her table and after introducing himself, offered his art for sale. Nina bought a drawing of a head for five francs. Soon she was accompanying Modi every day to the Dome and the Rotonde, sometimes posing for him (‘Modigliani said I had the best tits in Europe.’) and joining him in week long parties. ‘At Van Dongen’s studio negro boxers sparred with the guests… and Nina danced naked under a black veil’.

When not dancing naked on the tables of Montparnasse, Nina was often homeless and penniless, living on bread, cheese and wine, fortunately in a country that produces the best in the world. She survived mainly because she was popular, which enabled her to refuel as a frequent house guest of the rich and famous like Brancusi, Ezra Pound, Sinclair Lewis, Coco Chanel and Jean Cocteau. She danced for Eric Satie, sang a duet with James Joyce, played a nose-flute in Edmond Dulac’s studio and entertained Stravinsky and Diaghilev. In Antibes she sat next to Rudolph Valentino at the piano and sang her signature sea-shanties for him and his wife. Nancy Cunard helped her as did the kindly Marie Vassilief. Although no intellectual, Nina must have been good company but most importantly she treated her famous friends with discretion in both volumes of her memoirs. She was promiscuous in an indifferent sort of way, ‘Can’t see anything in it myself…. But they seem to like it so I let them get on with it.’

There was a little income from the sale of her paintings, but hers was a minor talent and she was unwilling to apply herself. Nevertheless she exhibited at the Salon d’Automne and Salon des Independents. Walter Sickert bought her paintings. Her portrait of Sir Osbert Sitwell is on display today at London’s National Portrait Gallery and her pictures still sell at auction, a small oil fetching between four and six thousand pounds but, as Daniel Farson points out, she was always more interesting than her art.

Back in England Nina found work with the Omega Workshop designing and making fabrics, murals and furniture under the direction of Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry who became another of her lovers. Fry’s portraits of Nina show a rather serious, subdued Nina, not strikingly attractive but with that whiff of upper-class, bourgeois origins that she tried so hard to shake off.

By strange coincidence, she met Sir Gerald du Maurier on the cross-Channel ferry and in the preface to her second volume of memoirs – ‘Is She a Lady?’ she quotes from ‘Trilby’: ‘There is no place like the gutter for getting a clear view of the stars’. I wonder whether the stars dimmed for her in those last years. But she remained faithful to Bohemia to the end, spending much of her last years in the Fitzroy Tavern rattling a few coins in her tobacco tin to let others know she needed someone to buy her a drink.

She died in 1956 soon after falling out of her bedroom window.

The books:

  • Journey into China; Violet Cressy-Marcks; Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1940.
  • Trilby; George du Maurier; first published in 8 parts in Harper’s magazine, 1894
  • Laughing Torso; Nina Hamnett; Constable, London, 1932
  • Is She a Lady? Nina Hamnett; Alan Wingate, London, 1955
  • Modigliani, The Pure Bohemian; June Rose, St Martin’s Press, New York, 1990
  • The People’s Album of London Statues; Osbert Sitwell and Nina Hamnett (Illustrator), Duckworth, London, 1928
  • Soho in the Fifties; Daniel Farson; Michael Joseph, London, 1987

[1] This is the first recorded use of the euphemism for ‘naked’

[2] Nina’s marble torso can be seen in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.



My book collection’s not what it was; it’s been diminished by divorce, unwise lending and the occasional cull, nibbled away by damp and silverfish and now dispersed in various locations throughout the apartment and garage. But to call my books a ‘collection’ is a misnomer; collections accumulate from a lifetime of knowledgeable research, focused upon a particular author, subject or theme, often with the object of future financial gain. My own efforts have been plagued by a characteristic lack of resolute purpose, domestic upheavals and poor funding. In extreme cases of booklust you need to be both wealthy and celibate.

Thomas Jefferson was a serious collector, amassing an important collection which he sold to the US Government to replace the Library of Congress, torched by the British during the War of 1812. Jimmy Page, once lead guitarist of Led Zeppelin, has the wherewithal and the knowledge to collect works on the Arts & Crafts movement as well as anything remotely associated with Aleister Crowley, including the occultist’s former residence, Boleskin House, on the shores of Loch Lomond. The ‘completist’ collector must have every scrap and fragment produced by a chosen author. Umberto Eco’s properties in Milan and Urbino are reputedly crammed with 50,000 titles, much of them devoted to semiotics. Other people collect books shaped in circles, books bound in metal boards, pop-up books and books that open like accordions. Nostalgia is an inducement to collect and I spent a lot of time and energy that could have been more usefully applied to a career tracking down key books I had enjoyed as a child in the 1940’s.  

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Book of 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood. Errol Flynn splendid in red tights


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Buffalo Bill Annual from 1949

Popular writers in my youth had odd first names like Enid, Somerset, Rider, Edgar, Aldous and Wyndham. My collection began with Rudyard Kipling, switched to illustrators like Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and Heath Robinson and then to books on space travel, before I realised I wanted every book that took my fancy. When a bookseller asks me what authors or subjects interest me I am unable to provide a coherent answer. Being an avid reader does not make you a bibliophile and separating the book lover from the book collector is what John Hill Burton in ‘The Book Hunter, Etc.’ called the ‘disposition to possess’. Possession, or rather the need for,  dealt with by A S Byatt in her Booker Prize winning novel of that name, if unchecked may infect you with bibliomania, a word first documented by Phillip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield in a letter to his illegitimate son at school in 1750 advising him of its dangers. I would describe myself as an inconstant book lover overcome with occasional bouts of lust. I’m sad to report that the English poet AE Houseman, heavily represented among my books, referred to bibliophiles as ‘an idiotic class.’

Books are a lonely interest and not one to trot out at social gatherings. However, I recently showed a dinner guest, a lady librarian from Brazil, a few of my treasures. ‘You and I are people of the book” she confided, as if she had discovered that we were both members of some secret society. People of the book are finding life more and more difficult. Soaring rents have robbed the high street of second-hand bookshops and there are few bargains to be found on the internet. Gone are the days when books could be bought by the yard in London. Book covers, once a canvas for talented artists like John Piper and Michael Ayrton, are now designed by technicians using keyboards.

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Michael Ayrton’s dust jacket and illustration for Poems of Death 1945

Books themselves are cheaply produced and digitally printed on machine-finished, coated paper; however long you keep them they will never give off that scent of foxed antiquity. Nor of course will they merit a description of the paper and font as in this example from ‘Dress – An Essay in Masculine Vanity and an Exposure of the UnChristian Apparel Favoured by Females’ by Eric Gill, the English Arts & Crafts sculptor and typeface designer: 

Printed in the summer of 1986 at the Yellow Barn Press, Council Bluffs, Iowa by Neil Shaver. The book was printed on a Vandercook Press and handset in Eric Gill’s 14 point Joanna. His Perpetua is the display face seen on the title page. A Gill Floriated  Initial is used on page one. The paper is Mohawk Superfine Text, an archival quality paper. The pattern design used on the cover and endpapers was made for this edition by the wood engraver, John DePol. There are 200 copies in this edition and this is Copy Number 122.

Music! and as moving as a paragraph of Flaubert. These details are to a book lover what a film’s end credits are to a movie enthusiast.

While the sheer volume of titles obliges major public libraries to arrange their stock according to the Dewey Decimal Classification, a sort of mathematical version of Linnaean taxonomy, the bibliophile is free to indulge his or her own particular whims. Samuel Pepys, a stickler for order, liked all his 3,000 books to have an even appearance, which he achieved by the use of varying sizes of wooden blocks; others prefer artistic confusion. Library organisation, the perpetual spring cleaning, the weeding, the reclassifying and rearranging, according to principles of colour, topic, size or aesthetics as new titles arrive, is one of the pleasures of owning books.

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Art books arranged by size & colour


‘Lunacy and the Arrangement of Books’ by Terry Belanger is only one of many books concerning library organisation. One lunatic scheme he mentions was proposed in an 1863 American book of etiquette which decreed that the perfect hostess will ensure that the works of male and female authors be properly segregated on her book shelves. In all personal collections there exists an invisible category of ‘lost’ books – those stolen, lent and never returned or stupidly not purchased when the opportunity arose. Topping my list are the 1919 edition of Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination’ illustrated by Harry Clarke (lent to a ‘book keeper’) and WB Yeats’ 1893 three volume ‘Works of William Blake’, left with a bookseller in the Boulevard Haussmann, and costing then, in 1970, no more than dinner for two at Maxims. I might also mention my encounter with a very handsome edition of a Conan-Doyle classic. Inspired by Paolo Uccello’s 1436 funerary monument to Sir John Hawkwood in Florence’s Duomo, I borrowed a copy of Conan-Doyle’s ‘The White Company’ a novel about the English mercenary, from the American Library in Paris. Pasted inside the front cover was a label telling me that the book was a gift from Gene Kelly. Below the label the dancer and movie star had left his signature and the date of his donation, 1951, the year he filmed ‘An American in Paris’. I returned the book with some reluctance.


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Paolo Uccello’s portrait of Sir John Hawkwood  in the Florence Duomo




There are moments of good fortune however. In 1997 Honeybee and I were passing Hatchards, the Piccadilly bookseller, still where it first opened in 1797, and saw a display of JK Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’. Honeybee thought his Lordship might like a copy and we inquired within only to be told that the author had insisted the book should not go on sale until after 4pm, when the schools closed. We returned after 4pm and made our purchase. ‘Perhaps’, said the assistant, ‘you would like a signed copy; there’s no extra cost.’ More recently, in the unlikely Sydney suburb of Manly, I came across a first, 1848 edition of Howard Staunton’s ‘The Chess Player’s Handbook’. Staunton was responsible for organising the world’s first International Chess Tournament in 1851; he helped design the chess pieces that are still required for competition and he edited my three volume, 1866 Works of Shakespeare, beautifully illustrated by John Gilbert. Small potatoes, but, nevertheless, a mildly pleasing find.


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An illustration from The Chess Player’s Handbook

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Staunton’s 1866 edition of Shakespeare

Part of the attraction for a bibliophile lies in the aroma of leather, bindings, pages, glue and bookmarks. The Nostalgic aroma of old books, that sweetish smell with notes of almond and vanilla, comes from the decomposition of lignin in wood-based paper. So powerful is this scent, with its link to memory, recalling, for the bookish, the pleasures of reading old classics and scouring through second-hand bookshops, that it is now available in bottles. ‘Dead Writers’ perfume, a ‘bookish blend of heliotrope, vetiver, black tea, clove, tobacco, musk and vanilla’, claims to capture ‘the unique olfactory pleasures of old books’. Honeybee, aware of my attraction to the smell of antiquarian literature, now adds a dash of ‘Paper Passion’ behind her ears when she welcomes me home from the local hostelry on a Friday night. 

The temperature at which paper combusts is the title of Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel ‘Fahrenheit 451’ in which he writes of a future society where books are banned and burnt if found. There are enough examples throughout history of the suppression of dissent through the incineration of literature to know how likely this is to continue. In 364AD the pagan Library of Antioch was torched on the orders of the Catholic Roman Emperor, Jovian; In France during the 13th century ‘crusaders’ attempted to entirely eradicate the ‘heretic’ culture of the Cathar people by burning their literature; in 1497 followers of the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola deemed it necessary to protect the morals of their fellow Florentine citizens by burning every copy of Boccaccio’s Decameron and all works of Ovid found in the city. One of the most notorious book burnings took place in Berlin’s Opernplatz on May 10th 1933 when the Nazis burnt 25,000 works of literature, including those of Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, HG Wells, Ernest Hemmingway and Heinrich Heine. Heine’s inscription on the bronze plaque that now marks this infamous spot – ‘Where books are burned in the end people will burn’ – correctly foresaw the present day indiscriminate destruction of human lives, libraries and cultural artefacts by Islamic State

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My copy of Dante, illustrated by George Grosz whose works were burnt in 1933

Libraries are temples of high romance; I refer, not to those libraries with Kiddy Korners, rows of PCs, shelves of DVDs and weekend sausage sizzles, but those like The National Art Library at the V & A or, even better, The London Library, whose understated entrance in a quiet part of St James Square takes you into the largest independent lending library in the world. In those aisles of quiet you may sit where Dickens, Thackeray, Tennyson, Darwin, Bram Stoker and Kipling once sat, turning the pages of an incunabulum with your white cotton glove. How good is it that the current President of this most English of institutions is Sir Tom Stoppard, a Czech refugee from Zlin in Moravia. Splendid too the words of Thomas Carlyle, founder of The Library in 1841: ‘All that mankind has done, thought, gained or been: it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books’.

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The very elegant and atmospheric London Library

Romance is not restricted to a library’s surroundings and the books on its shelves. There is also the feeling, in that mandatory silence, of mysterious possibility, the chance of igniting passion from simple eye contact and the thrill of sliding a billet-doux across the polished mahogany, all with the knowledge that you both share a common passion. Truman Capote understood the romantic association of books when he chose the New York Public Library as the setting for Paul to reveal his feelings of love for Holly Golightly. Giacomo Casanova was a lover of books as well as of women and spent his final years in humble reflection as librarian to a nobleman in Bohemia. Poet and novelist Philip Larkin devoted his whole adult life to quietly administering the contents of the Brynmor Jones Library in Hull.


When book lovers dream they dream of their own particular Holy Grail of literature. Last night I dreamt I was in India. A young guide led me through the urban chaos of some pleasant hill-town and stopped outside an open-fronted shop. Stepping through the haphazard display of bric a brac – tied bundles of old magazines, oil lamps, brass trays and stuffed wildlife – I spied a cardboard box containing a dozen or so books. The price, the proprietor told me, was 250 rupees (about $5) for each book or 200 if I took the lot, a concession I happily agreed to. Back in my hotel I pulled out the treasure I felt sure existed among the otherwise worthless selection of Victorian novels. It was a fine first edition of ‘The Jungle Book’, bound in dark blue buckram with three elephants blocked in gilt on the front cover. Inside was the inscription – Macmillan & Sons 1894, and the author’s signature. The last book in the box, although less desirable, also turned out to be a prize – a first edition of Kipling’s ‘Barrack Room Ballads & Other Verses’. Gradually my initial euphoria began to fade. I knew I wasn’t suffering from an attack of Post-Colonial Political Correctness because, like any sane person, I can read ‘Kim’ or Caesar’s ‘Gallic Wars’ without feeling distraught at the evident evils of imperialism. What was nagging at my conscience was the thought that I had taken advantage of the kindly seller, for the Jungle Book alone, on the open market, could cost me as much as US$11,000. The dream turned into a nightmare and I woke up. I’m still looking for ‘The Jungle Book’ but I do have a copy of ‘Barrack Room Ballads’.

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The Romantic side of Empire




I still tend to think a lot about food even though I’m an occasional and indifferent cook and my teeth and gums can now only cope with Baby Porridge and Heinz Teething Rusks. Memories of Duck number 512,948 (depuis 1890) at Le Tour D’Argent, my mother’s bread pudding, an andouillette at La Courte Paille, a plate of grilled red mullet in a Sicilian port – they’re always popping up in meditative moments or pleasant dreams. These cuisine memories are constantly jogged by a collection of culinary ephemera – menus, bills, wine labels and tasting notes, all from favourite restaurants and wineries collected over the last 40 years. They are supplemented by Michelin and Gault et Millau restaurant guides from the 70s and 80s, Larousse Gastronomique, The Penguin Companion to Food, all of Jane Grigson’s books and Mediterranean Seafood, a unique and creative mix of biology and seafood cuisine, written when the author, Alan Davidson, was British Consul in Tunis. All of these books are food for thought as well as thought for food.

When it comes to actual cookbooks, Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail Eating is popular in our kitchen and Gerard Depardieu’s Ma Cuisine (Paris 2005) is a great hymn to classic French Provincial cuisine, which, sadly, is not what he serves in his restaurant, La Fontaine Gaillon in la rue de la Michodiere. Many of the recipes in these, and in other foreign food cookbooks, are unworkable in Australia. Coq au Vin? Try asking a Sydney butcher for a rooster or a capon for that matter. And no, it doesn’t taste the same using the drumsticks of a pale, cling-wrapped battery hen, now sold sans skin in a bid to eliminate any vestige of taste. Similarly don’t bother with quenelles de brochet, jugged hare, or anything with pigeon, offal or Roblochon. Alas, speed and health are the new drivers of cook books. Here are five elegant books about food and wine as enjoyment and kept solely on my shelves for the pleasure of their company.

Les Hors D’Oeuvre  Sont Un Jeu D’Enfants
Michel Oliver
Paris, 1969

img_3708I like this book for its Quarto format (ring-bound for easy reference while cooking), its charming, hand-painted illustrations, the fact that it deals only with classic French dishes and its historical importance.

In the early 60s, after a brief spell selling Jazz records in Bordeaux, Michel Oliver went to work for his father, Raymond, at that time proprietor and chef of Le Grand Vefour, an ancient Mecca of French haute cuisine. In existence since 1784, the restaurant has fed, among others, Napoleon and Josephine, Victor Hugo, Jean Paul Sartre, Colette and Jean Cocteau, who became a regular and designed the menu. Some of the restaurant’s best years came after Raymond Oliver acquired it in 1954 and in the next decade when it earned its third Michelin star while Michel worked his way through the kitchen to become Maitre d’Hotel. In 1970 Michel left Le Grand Vefour, and with the royalties from ‘La Cuisine est un Jeu D’Enfants’(1963), which sold three million copies, and subsequent additions to the series, opened four restaurants – Bistrot de Paris, Bistrot Romain, L’Assiette au Boeuf and the Bistrot de La Gare, all of them offering the complete opposite  of the cuisine classique of Escoffier served at his father’s tables. The food was lighter, simpler, with more emphasis on presentation, and much, much cheaper. In the early seventies at the Bistrot de La Gare on Le Boulevard Montparnasse, with its ravishing Art Nouveau interior, you could eat for as little as US$11 (no credit cards accepted) including wine. Championed by Henri Gault and Christian Millau, who had begun a popular food guide in 1965, the restaurants were a huge success. This was Nouvelle Cuisine before it became confused by ‘fusion’, decorated with camel snot, skid marks and rare fungi grown only on the West flank of Mount Fuji and presented in tiny stacks in the middle of plates the size of hubcaps. Michel did not invent Nouvelle Cuisine; the term was first used in the 20th century by Henri Gault to describe the food prepared by Paul Bocuse for the maiden flight of Concorde on March 2nd 1969, but he certainly popularised a new form of French dining. Except perhaps for the Salade de Pissenlits au Lard I have never found any of Monsieur Oliver’s hors d’oeuvres on a Sydney restaurant menu; probably too simple for our sophisticated tastes. Unless you make one of his recipes yourself, you will have to go to France to try them. Don’t waste time looking for L’Assiette au Boeuf or Bistrot de la Gare next time you are in Paris; they still exist but the magic has gone. Le Grand Vefour, still there in the Palais Royale, has now only two stars, but is still worth a visit.

Aromas & Flavours of Past & Present
Alice B Toklas
London 1959

img_3710I like this book because it is as ‘much for the mind as for the kitchen’, because it is full of rococo recipes and because it goes right against the present wave of books demanding we eat faster, cheaper, healthier food. There are whole chapters on Cooking with Champagne, Cooking with Cognac and Ratafias (fruits, berries and flowers soaked in brandy or gin). I’m surprised it’s not banned.

Many of the recipes are steeped in history and their ingredients lavishly soaked in wine, sherry or cognac. We have Pike in half-mourning, Truite en Chemise, Perfumed Goose, Sweetbread and Artichoke stew, Queen of Sheba Cake, The Ribbons of Sarah Bernhardt and Vespetro, requiring 2 pounds of sugar and 2 quarts of brandy, anjelica root, a pinch of powdered orris root and coriander seeds. Then there is Ducks Mademoiselle where we are instructed to inject, using a hypodermic syringe, the bird’s breast and legs with 20 or 30 doses of burgundy wine. Hmmm.

Alice was the life companion of Gertrude Stein, a writer whose only quotable sentence is ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’. Each Saturday, in their shared Paris apartment at 27 Rue Fleurus, the couple hosted a salon frequented, among others, by Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway, Matisse, Picasso and Braque.

‘Gertude wrote and talked and Alice cooked and talked’ and when Alice did speak, people listened for she had, according to one witness, a voice ‘like a viola at dusk’. After Gertrude’s death in 1946 Alice looked comfortable as she had inherited much of Stein’s estate as well as their shared art collection, which included works by Cezanne, Bonnard, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso and Lautrec. Alas, Gertrude’s greedy relatives claimed and removed the choicer paintings while Alice was on holiday. It was almost certainly to relieve the ensuing pecuniary hardship that in 1954 she published the Alice B Toklas Cookbook, famous for its inclusion (excluded of course from the American edition) of a recipe for Haschich Fudge, the ingredients of which included canibus sativa. Aromas & Flavours followed in 1959. Nevertheless poor Alice died in poverty. She rests alongside Gertrude in Pere Lachaise cemetery: They were one of the very first couples to be openly gay.

This is not a book of a television show presented by a matey Jamie Oliver or the X rated Nigella; it is a mature cookbook written by an intellectual. Alice’s advice has a very personal ring to it in contrast to the very impersonal instructions to be found on the internet. She would find incongruous a typical Sydney dinner that included a Thai starter, Italian main and German dessert. She disliked refrigeration, believing it took the life out of food; cream, she insisted, should not be frozen but unctuous. Her recipes never indicate how many a dish would serve, that would depend on the appetites of the diners and their enthusiasm for the dish. If the waiter is harrying you to choose a side of fries, rice or baby carrots to go with your crispy, soy-roasted pork belly, remember Alice’s advice – an entree does not necessarily have to be served with something or on something; don’t be frightened to enjoy things on their own.


Receipts and Relishes, being a Vade Mecum for the Epicure in the British Isles
Bernard Darwin
London, 1950

img_3709Some might say ‘Epicure in the British Isles’ is an oxymoron, like ‘Fun Run’ or ‘Australian Fashion Week’, but I’m here to praise a book, not a country’s cuisine. Books are more than their content. There’s the feel, the right combination of format, typeset and paper, the quality of decoration and illustration, the provenance and the added ephemera – those little press cuttings and handwritten recipes that previous owners have tucked inside. This charming little book ticks all those boxes. Inside my copy you will find a yellowing press cutting with instructions on how to make Bedfordshire Clangers for Bonfire Night, a letter from Norah McQueen from Grangemouth recalling how her Grandmother made Sheeps Head Broth and the annual dinner menu of the Devonshire Branch of the Food and Wine Society with its entre of Brixham lobster and mussel pie. It is easy to see from the recipes, which are arranged geographically, why Britain is known as the land of a thousand cakes and four cheeses. I think you must be English and elderly to fully appreciate this book because it is the names of the dishes and places that resonate: Tiverton Chudleighs from Devon, Plum Shuttles from Rutland (buns for Valentine’s Day) and Fidget Pie from Shropshire. There are Potted Lamperns, Solomon Grundys, Parkins, Lardy Johns, Singin’ Hinnies and Kattern cakes, made by the people of Ampthill, Bedfordshire, sold on St Catherine’s Day and named after Catherine of Aragon who was once imprisoned in the local castle and remembered for her kindly interest in the local lace-makers. These are the peculiar dishes of a peculiar people handed down from one generation of housewives to another.

The Wines of Gala
Salvador Domenich Felipe Jacinto Dali
Paris 1977

img_3721Salvador Dali, Spanish Surrealist painter and eccentric, was also a gourmet, wine lover and Romantic. In 1929 the 25 year old Dali met and fell instanter in love with Russian immigrant, Elena Diakonova, and in that same year bought a small fisherman’s cottage at Portlligat where they began living together. Elena was ten years older than Dali and comfortable in the company of artists and writers, for she had been the lover of Max Ernst and was, at that time, still married to Surrealist poet Paul Eluard. After their marriage in 1934 Dali wrote:  ‘I name my wife Gala, Galushka, Gradiva; Oliva for her oval face and the colour of her skin…’ and Gala she became, remaining his Muse for the next 50 years. There have been many famous Muses, Man Ray’s Kiki de Montparnasse, Jeanne Duval, Charles Beaudelaire’s ‘Black Venus’ and Francis Bacon’s George Dyer come to mind. Georgia O’Keeffe was the Muse of photographer Alfred Stieglitz and Victorine Meurent is said to have inspired Manet to see the world in an entirely new way. But for longevity and intensity of passion, for the volume and quality of the works she inspired, none can match Gala. Many of Dali’s works are signed with both their names. ‘It is with your blood, Gala, that I paint my pictures’.



In 1968 Dali bought his wife a castle in Pubol (near Gerona), where she would go for weeks at a time and sometimes for the entire summer with the agreement that Dali could only visit with her written permission. It was in these periods of loneliness, frustration and depression when deprived of her company that Dali produced two books devoted to important elements of their life together: The Dinners of Gala (1973) and The Wines of Gala (1977).img_3736

The Wines of Gala begins with ten Dali wines, including the Wine of Ay (Champagne), Lacrima Cristi, Chateau d’Yquem and, of course, Jerez de la Frontera. They are followed by Gala’s wines, grouped under the ten emotions or characteristics they evoke and display, so we have wines of Joy, wines of Sensuality, wines of Dawn, Generosity and Light. Do not expect tasting notes, great vintages and advice on food pairing; this is a book on wine as art, life and history and as a bond between lovers. Dali’s illustrations are a combination of ‘doctored’ old masters, impudent cartoons and paintings full of saucy symbolism, at the same time, both beautiful and unsettling. After Gala’s death in 1982 Dali lost much of the will to live, hanging by a thread until he drifted off on 23rd January 1989 to the music of Tristan and Isolde.


The Art of Cuisine
Toulouse-Lautrec, Maurice Joyant
London, 1966


Another cookbook from an artist, although Lautrec did not actually write this elegant book; that was the work of Maurice Joyant. The friendship between Lautrec and Joyant, or ‘Momo’ as his friend called him, began when they met at school in 1872 and lasted until Lautrec’s death in 1901. The friendship endured because they were both bon vivants and because they were both involved in art. While Lautrec painted Maurice managed Boussod, Valadon et Cie., art dealers, the same company (then called Goupil et Cie.) that had fired Vincent Van Gogh and where his brother Theo had worked as Manager of the Boulevard Montmartre branch. It was Maurice who gave Lautrec his first retrospective in 1893, organised his exhibition in London in 1898 and published the first biography of the painter in 1926. It was also Maurice who persuaded Lautrec’s mother, La Comtesse Adele, to donate her collection of her son’s art to the Lautrec Museum in Albi. Finally, it was Maurice that compiled and privately published the first copies of this book. But do not think that Lautrec had no hand in it.img_3718 He and Maurice both came from families where food was not just a matter of survival. They ate in the best restaurants and kept note of the dishes and their preparation; they hunted, fished, cooked and entertained together and kept records of what they served. They both saw the planning, cooking and presentation of food as art, art that would be reflected on the menus designed by Lautrec.

It is the menu covers, examples of Lautrec’s art not seen in the usual monographs, that make this book so charming. Today many of the dishes are totally impractical, especially outside of France. They were written at a time when cookbooks were exciting and imprecise and when the Cancan was danced sans culottes; Oui Madame, sans culottes!





















There’s always a mountain of advice on what books to take with you on holiday although many of those recommended seem to have been written to be read in a deck chair and requiring minimal concentration, the theory being that if you are on holiday you will not be in the mood for serious thought. As I’m on permanent vacation I thought I would take along some of the books that have been sitting on my shelves for years, waiting for me to mature into a reader of grown-ups’ literature, as opposed to adult literature which I have been reading since the age of 14.

Sentimental Education
Gustave Flaubert, 1869
Penguin Classics 1964
Translation by Robert Baldick

When living as a student in London I formed a durable romantic attachment to a lady nearly twice my age, so I was unsurprised to learn of 14 year old Flaubert’s enduring love for Elisa Schlesinger, a married woman of 26. In ‘Sentimental Education’ Flaubert draws on his experience to tell the story of 18 year old Frederic Moreau’s passion for Madame Arnoux, a married mother of two.

While the theme is similar to Balzac’s ‘Lily of the Valley’, Flaubert’s work is much grander in scope, being set in Paris during the 1848 uprisings against Louis-Philippe and Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’etat that ended French monarchy, confirming the 1789 Revolution’s ideals of France as a Republic.

Frederic is on his way home to Nogent sur Seine by riverboat, when he meets Jacques Arnoux and falls instantly for his wife, feeling his world suddenly grow bigger. To pursue Madame Arnoux he leaves his widowed mother in Nogent, takes rooms in Paris and befriends her art dealer husband. The death of an uncle provides him with a small fortune, a large portion of which he squanders on a carriage, servants and fine clothes in an effort to impress her. But as for declaring himself, he does nothing, ‘paralysed by the fear of losing her forever’. ‘He envied pianists their talents, soldiers their scars. He longed for a dangerous illness, hoping that he might arouse her interest’. After learning of her husband’s infidelity and Frederic’s passion for her, Madame Arnoux finally agrees to a rendezvous. But on this special night, with Paris ‘bristling with bayonets’ as the February Revolution unfolds, her child is sick and she fails to appear. Believing he had been deliberately stood up, Frederic turns his attention to two women, Madame Dambreuse, the widow of a rich banker and Roseannette, a coquettish courtesan, the former for her wealth and influence, the latter for her beauty and accessibility. Frederic loses interest in Madame Dambreuse when she reveals her true, unpleasant character and abandons Roseannette after the death of their lovechild and her return to her former metier of demi-mondaine. There is one final meeting between Frederic and Madame Arnoux. ‘We have loved each other well’, she says. ‘But without belonging to one another’, he replies. ‘Perhaps it is better so’ says Madame Arnoux and Frederic returns home to Nogent, poorer and wiser, crushed with the understanding of the futility of his hopes.

There is a splendid cast of characters, including Mademoiselle Vatnez ‘who longed for riches simply in order to crush her rivals under her carriage wheels’, the arch-socialist Senecal, ‘who wanted to reduce mankind to the level of the barrack-room, send it to the brothel for amusement, and tie it to the counter or the bench’ and Pellerin the bitter artist, rejected by every Salon for twenty years.

A wonderful book. Madame Bovary, here I come.

The Leopard
Giuseppe di Lampedusa, 1958
Fontana 1969
Translation by Archibald Colquhoun

It is 1860 and Garibaldi and his Thousand Redshirts are about to invade Sicily in an attempt to add the island to a unified Italy. Sicilians, secretly, are already taking sides, preparing to resist or assist il Risorgimento. Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, ‘bound by chains of decency if not of affection’ to the ancient Bourbon regime, is ‘unsettled by the new world as well as the old’. Reflecting, in his country estate of Donnafugata, on the decline of his prestige and how the wealth of centuries has been transmuted into nothing more than ‘ornament, luxury, pleasure,’ the Prince decides in favour of unification. ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change’. Among those willingly embracing change are his impoverished nephew Tancredi Falconeri and Don Calogero Sedara, the new man, clever, manipulative, but ignoble. Tancredi spurns the advances of the Prince’s daughter Concetta and marries Angelica, the daughter of Don Calogero. The Prince is resigned; Concetta’s heart, ’under her pale blue bodice, is torn to shreds’.  A splendid ball, at which Don Calogero presents his daughter (‘a rat escorting a rose’), celebrates the changing order.

In a sort of ‘aside’, the Prince’s Jesuit chaplain, Father Pirrone, pays a visit to his widowed mother where he finds his sister, Sarina, in tears on account of her unmarried daughter’s pregnancy and the prospect of facing her brutal husband, a man of honour, ‘one of those violent cretins capable of any havoc’.  Learning that the pregnancy was a deliberate act of revenge by the son of a neighbour cheated long ago out of his share of an almond grove by the Priest’s father, Father Pirrone successfully arranges a marriage in exchange for a portion of the disputed land. A classic tale of lex talionis, of revenge served cold, of the endless vendettas that smoulder among the families of pastoral Sicily.

Twenty-three years after unification and on his return from an exhausting trip to Naples, the Prince lies dying. His death is not described by those around him – Tancredi, Concetta, the doctor and the Priest administering the last rites – but through the dimming senses of the Prince himself as he draws up a balance sheet of his whole life. At the end it is the same handsome young woman that had attracted his attention on his recent arrival at the station in Palermo, ’the creature for ever yearned for’, who comes for him.

The events of the final chapter take place in 1910 when only the spinster Concetta and the widow Angelica are left living among the dusty portraits in their crumbling palazzos. In a last, cruel episode, much of Concetta’s vast collection of relics is declared unauthentic by the Vicar General and removed from her chapel for destruction.

The story is based upon the life of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s great grandfather, Prince Giulio. Donnafugata is the author’s name for the Palazzo Filangeri-Cuto, in Santa Margherita di Belice, which belonged to his mother’s family and in which he spent his holidays as a child. ‘a kind of Vatican; a paradise of parched scents’. The family palazzo in Palermo was destroyed by allied bombs in 1943.

In 1963 Luchino Visconti made a memorable film of the book with Burt Lancaster (an inspired choice) as the Prince, Alain Delon as Tancredi (‘for whom women fell like ripe pears’) and Claudia Cardinale as Angelica, ‘whose sheets smelt like paradise.’

Jude the Obscure
Thomas Hardy, 1895

In the last years of the 19th century, Jude Fawley, an orphan and dreamer, is living with his maiden aunt in rural England. Inspired by a local schoolteacher, Phillotsen, to read serious literature, he becomes withdrawn and introspective, obsessed with self-education, explaining to the bemused villagers that he intends to follow in the footsteps of Phillotsen, who has left to graduate from one of the colleges in the nearby University town of Christminster. While working as a stonemason and saving money for his education, Jude is seduced and tricked into marriage by Arabella, the coarse daughter of a pig farmer who soon deserts him. On moving to Christminster, Jude’s intention to enter the priesthood is forgotten in his lust for his manipulative and depressive cousin, Sue, who also deserts him to marry Phillotsen, now devoid of any ambition for tertiary education. It gets worse.  Divorcing Phillotsen, who disgusts her, Sue returns to Jude, bears him two children and for a few years they live happily together until Arabella sends Jude the son she claims is his. The child, a half wit, ends his own life after terminating that of his two step-siblings. Sue, unsurprisingly unbalanced by these events, returns to live miserably with Phillotsen, leaving Jude to ‘the hell of his conscious failure’, the bottle, Arabella and an early death.

An epic story of the battle between flesh and spirit in which there are no winners. It was Hardy’s last and least appreciated novel. I couldn’t put it down; but if you are someone who requires a diet of feel-good literature with happy endings, this is not the book for you.

Italian ‘Fumetto’ (strip cartoon) containing: Fort Apache, The Scout from Fort Huachuca and Blood in the Rio Bravo.

Not exactly serious literature, but I’ve become addicted to Tex and it helps me with my Italian, especially lines like: ‘I visi pallidi parlono sempre con lingua doppia’. The first comic strips containing the adventures of Tex Willer, Texas Ranger and his three ‘pards’, Kit Carson, Tiger Jack (his Navaho blood brother) and Kit, his son, appeared in 1948 and at one point reached 700,000 copies per month; they are still selling over 200,000 monthly. The format, four friends dispensing official and unofficial justice, is inspired by Dumas Senior’s ‘D’Artagnan and the three Musketeers’. There is very little feminine presence in the stories; Tex prefers a good, strong mug of coffee on the prairie under the stars to a night with Kitty at the Long Branch. I’m still trying to figure out why I (and millions of Italians) like these stories. The Italians have always loved a Western; and didn’t Sergio Leone at least prolong its cinematic life even if he didn’t save it? I guess some Italians regret they were never represented; you never hear of Buffalo Bill Spadolini or Wild Bill Rossi, do you?




A friend recently gave me a newly published novel that she had abandoned after 20 pages. I persevered because the subject (the story of the Biblical David) was of interest, but the writing was packed with what Elmore Leonard called ‘hooptedoodle’- over the top, cringeworthy descriptions (‘ripe figs, warm from the tree, spilling their sweet nectar through these splayed fingers’). Unsurprisingly, the story of David contained in the Books of Samuel and Kings in the King James Bible is a far better read. I was shocked to see that a previous novel of the author (Geraldine Brooks) had won a Pulitzer Prize, surely devaluing the honour, in the same way Nicole Kidman diminished the value of the Academy Awards in general by accepting an Oscar for wearing a false nose in The Hours.

According to the International Publishers Association, 184,000 new and revised titles, of which 60,000 were digital, were published in the UK in 2013, that’s more books per inhabitant than any other country in the world. ‘A sign of cultural vitality or publishing suicide’ asks literary agent Jonny Geller, knowing that the average person reads between one and five books per year. Although many of these publications will be Government pamphlets, art monographs, technical journals and so on, for those who read in English there’s still an awful lot of books to choose from, even without considering contributions from America and the other Anglophone countries making selection problematic, especially with the demise of libraries and the helpful advice of librarians. Advice is on hand from the occasional ‘lists’ published by respected critics such as 100 Key Books by Cyril Connolly, Ninety–nine Novels by Anthony Burgess or The New York Public Library’s Books of the (20th) Century, but if you restrict your reading to the works included in ‘Penguin Classics – A Complete Annotated Listing’, you cannot go wrong. It was this catalogue that introduced me to the first two books of these three of my recent reads.

Manon Lescault
Abbe Prevost 1731

Not a common name for a girl, Manon, I thought, but it seems this diminutive form of Marie has recently become more popular in France. The only other Manon I’ve come across is the pure but wild water nymph in Marcel Pagnol’s ‘Manon des Sources’, a character very different from the scheming Jezebel of the Abbe Prevost’s title.

Set in France and Louisiana in the early 18th Century and, like many a good book, banned on publication, it tells of the infatuation of the Chevalier des Grieux, a young nobleman, for Manon Lescault, a penniless tart. Des Grieux is studying for the priesthood when he spots Manon (en route, forcibly, to a convent) and, weak-kneed from a coup de foudre, is instanter resigned to his fate. ‘The sweetness of her glance – or rather, my evil star already in its ascendant and drawing me to her ruin – did not allow me to hesitate for a moment’. Although an aristocrat, Des Grieux, coming from impoverished rural gentry, is neither rich nor worldly and when he and Manon run off to Paris to live together the couple descends quickly into a life of criminality initiated by Manon and aided by her dissolute brother. A noble but naïve interloper in a world of theatres, gaming houses, taverns and stews, Des Grieux is ‘incapable of detaching himself from this giggling, empty-headed minx’[i] and asserting his nobler instincts. On the sole occasion he has the opportunity to display courage and a little skill with the epee, he is found trouser-less and tripping over his scabbard. ‘A man,’ he correctly points out, ‘is helpless in his shirt.’

Among the landed gentry, the Abbe Prevost suggests, there exists a noblesse oblige, not just for others, but also for their own fallen members, and when Des Grieux turns to his friend Tiberge for money he is not refused, even though he abuses this honorable friendship by using the funds to keep Manon in a style to which she had never been accustomed, buying her jewellery and sustaining her with haute cuisine. Manon des Sauces. Three times De Grieux is betrayed by Manon, recalling Samson’s weakness for the scheming Delilah, and in the end one is left open-mouthed in disbelief by the perseverance of his passion. There was, he later concludes after the final betrayal, ‘no malice in her sins; she was fickle and imprudent but straightforward and honest.’ Eventually Manon herself is betrayed by a peeved sugar daddy and arrested on a charge of prostitution. ‘Love, will you ever be reconciled with wisdom?’ muses the judge as he convicts Manon and sentences her to transportation to New Orleans.

Needless to say Des Grieux follows her to America and, after further adventures, flees with her into the wilderness of Louisiana where Manon dies of exhaustion and fever. Des Grieux’s family receives him back with open arms, thankful, like many parents, to see the back of an unsuitable match for their child.

This story of how infatuation can make us forgive repeated disloyalty is so powerful that it has spawned no less than three operas (by Puccini, Massanet and Auber). What a dreadful life she gave Des Grieux, one is left thinking, a massive coup de tart, but then it was a life, something he might never have had in some seminary in the Cevennes. He had no regrets. ‘Love, I must add, though it may often deceive us, does at least promise only satisfaction and pleasure, whereas religion expects us to be prepared for a life of gloom and mortification’. Justement.

The Lily of the Valley
Honore de Balzac 1835

In France, in the early days of the newly restored Bourbon monarchy, Felix de Vandenesse, a young nobleman, writes a letter to Natalie de Mannerville, in which, in an attempt to win her, he makes the mistake of revealing his past infatuation with two women, Madame de Mortsauf and Arabella, Lady Dudley. Felix, it seems, has experienced a hard childhood and adolescence at the hands of an indifferent father and a cold, miserly mother who gave all the affection she could muster to Felix’s elder brother. Sent away to school, first in his native Touraine and then in Paris, he is deprived of the pocket money that enables the students to supplement their meager diet. Although academically strong, he is thin, sickly and unpopular, craving love, so that when, finally, he gets his hands on a little cash, he plans to spend it on a prostitute rather than chocolate eclairs. But just as he is on his way to the Palais Royal to surrender his virginity, his mother arrives and takes him home.

With Napoleon confined to the island of Elba, the aristocracy are dusting off their wigs and making themselves more visible; when a ball is held in Tours in honour of the Duc D’Angouleme, Felix is allowed to attend. There, unhinged by the sight of a lady’s decolletage, Felix plants a kiss on her bare shoulder before retreating quickly from the ensuing furore and returning home, where he is once more banished, this time to his uncle’s chateau of Frapesle, set in the bucolic paradise of the Indre valley. By chance, within view on the opposite bank of the river, is Clochegourde, home of the lady who had received Felix’s unwanted attentions at the ball in Tours. It was the home of Madame de Mortsauf, the Lily of the Valley. Unhappily married to a cruel and irascible husband and mother to a son and daughter, both in poor health, Madame Mortsauf finds a soul mate in her (much younger) new neighbor who endures evenings of backgammon with her husband in order just to be near her and to experience the exquisite pleasure of pressing his warm lips to her cool fingers on arrival and departure. Earthly language cannot describe the purity of the love Felix feels for Henriette (his pet name for Madame de Mortsauf), even though, bound by her duty as wife and mother, she can only exhibit friendship in return. Amid much swooning and embroidery, coiled passion, supressed beneath Henriette’s laced bodice and Felix’s satin waistcoat, assumes the energy equivalent of a small atom bomb.

When Felix is ordered to Paris to serve the newly restored monarchy, he takes with him a letter from Henriette, a sentimental education that would serve a young man well today. Uprightness, honor, loyalty and good manners, which consist of appearing to forget oneself for others, she tells him, are the surest and quickest instruments of success. Maintain an absolute silence about yourself, display your wit but do not be an amusement for others. Assume an attitude which is neither indifferent nor enthusiastic; display a coolness, which may even border on impertinence. Be implacable in your final determinations and avoid the abuse of promises. To maintain his devotion, she advises him to avoid young women, ‘for the woman of fifty will do everything for you, the woman of twenty, nothing’. Finally she urges him to serve all women and love one, who we may safely assume is Henriette herself.

This advice, combined with his continuing devotion to Henriette, serves him well at Court where he prospers. Enter beautiful English aristocrat Arabella, Lady Dudley. With Lord Dudley safely on the family estates on the other side of the channel, Arabella pursues Felix, first for his Gallic éclat, and later on account of his early resistance, which only further stimulates her passion. But the Englishwoman, ‘so slim, so frail, this milk white woman, so languid, so gentle, with such a tender face….is an organization of iron’ and Felix, being a man and consequently imperfect, eventually succumbs. Growing tired of her lover’s continuing ‘turtle dove sighings’ Arabella sets out to destroy the place Henriette continues to occupy in his heart, until finally, under the stimulus of desire, she wrings from him blasphemies against the Angel of Clochegourde. ‘Insatiable as sandy soil,’ she ‘works him like modeling clay’.

News of Felix’s infidelity soon reaches Clochegourde where Henriette loses the will to live and lies dying abed, steeped in opium and recriminations. Having longed to give his life for her, Felix is killing her. When he eventually comes to her bedside she upbraids him with that ‘cruel playfulness with which women clothe their revenge’. Realizing the awful necessity there is for lovers never to meet again when love has flown, Felix defends himself, claiming Henriette has his heart and Arabella only his body, a reference to the incompatibility of heaven and earth, of religion and love. Before dying Henriette confides that she has ‘prepared’ her daughter for him, but Madeleine, despising him for what he has done to her mother, hates him with the ‘deliberation of a Corsican’.

Returning to Paris Felix begins to find fault in Arabella and the relationship gradually deteriorates. ‘What is one to say to a woman who weeps in the morning?’ he asks himself. What indeed. Once free Felix resolves never to pay attention to any woman again, until that is, he meets Natalie de Mannerville. It is her letter of rejection that closes out the story. Natalie, fully informed of the insuperable competition the past would present, gives it to him straight – ‘Let us do away with love between us’ she writes, ‘since you can never taste the happiness of it again, save with the dead.’ Ouch.

The Kindly Ones (Les Bienveillantes)
Jonathan Littel 2006 (English translation 2009)

I don’t suppose the Y generation have any call to hate or fear the Germans; they may well admire them for their stable government, precisely engineered cars and Moselle wines, enjoying the odd Rhine cruise or a finely prepared Apfelstrudel mit schlag. The feelings and impressions of Germany for many older generations were less kindly. In the case of my father, born in 1904, for ten out of his seventy-five years (13% of his life) his country was engaged in unwanted war with Germany. Some citizens of France would have seen their country overrun by Germans three times between 1870 and 1939 recalling the 4th Century invasions by the Huns under Attila. Hunnic legend is still celebrated by the German people in the Niebelunglied, set to music by Wagner and deeply admired by Adolf Hitler, Attila’s recent reincarnation. Winston Churchill seized on the same historical link, describing the Germans invading Russia in 1941 as “the dull, drilled, docile masses of the Hun soldiery, plodding on like a swarm of crawling locusts.” Unlike the plans of any previous administrations, the war aims of the Third Reich included the extermination of European Jewry. The segregation and vilification of German Jews, the attempt to dispose of Gypsies and sub-perfect humans had started even earlier with the object of creating the caste system eloquently forecast by Aldous Huxley in his “Brave New World”. The systematic massacre of Jews, carried out with typical Teutonic thoroughness, was well known to the Allies early in the war but no real efforts to save them were made other than the occasional official statement condemning German “bestiality.” The true extent of Hitler’s euphemistically termed “Final Solution” (more hideous than the vastly superior body counts achieved by Mao and Stalin) only became fully understood after the war, but, for me, no one book seemed to explain exactly the political motives for the holocaust and the extent of the people’s involvement.

Enter Jonathan Littel, an American writing in French whose roman fleuve tells the story of Maximilien Aue, a highly educated young man recruited by the SS and sent to the Ukraine to command an Einsatzgruppe, a mobile unit charged with the extermination of Jews, Communist partisans, Slavs and other undesirables. He survives the battle for Stalingrad and conducts audits of Belsen and other camps where he stands, helpless, between those asking for Jewish and other prisoners to be kept alive as slave labour, a valuable resource in war production, and those anxious to complete their annihilation. He escapes Berlin with the Russian army at the gates and survives to manage a factory in Northern France. Whilst indifferent to the mass carnage and individual acts of brutality he oversees, he is traumatized by his homosexuality and incestuous affair with his sister.

Littel destroys two myths. First, everyone knew. What went on in the camps was known to the local suppliers of goods and services, to the train drivers delivering the wagon loads of victims, to the families of soldiers involved in feeding, guarding and gassing the inmates. Second, it was not mandatory for either SS or Wehrmacht soldiery of whatever rank to assist in the actual extermination process. It seems that through practice many developed an actual addiction to murder. Littel’s book won the Prix Goncourt, the Grand Prix du Roman as well as The Literary Review’s 2009 “Bad Sex Award” for an embarrassing description of Max failing to achieve an erection.

I once took the train from Munich’s Hauptbahnhof to Dachau, a camp constructed in 1933 and finally closed at gun-point in 1945 by the soldiers of the 42nd Division of the American Army. Needless to say the people of Munich, only 15 kilometres away, were totally unaware of the camp’s purpose and business. Although the sinister spirit of the place endures, Dachau has now been manicured by set designers and is full of contemporary concrete shrines to every known religion, with MikesBike tours available to those not wishing to make the 45 minutes train ride. It’s another destination for those caught up in the current fascination with all things Nazi.

Was there proper retribution?  Soon after the Nuremberg Trials, after which only 10 so-called war criminals were executed, the US and Soviet governments lost interest in bringing the culprits to justice, leaving it to Simon Weisentahl and his typewriter to continue the work from an understaffed office in Vienna.


[i] From Germaine Greer’s foreword to Andrew Brown’s translation of Manon Lescault, Hesperus Press, 2004



The most common portrait of Charles Baudelaire is a photograph, which shows him in his middle age, sporting a large, floppy cravat, balding, glowering seriously at the camera because photography was a serious affair in the 1860s and the Age of the Selfie was still far away. But the sitter’s gravity may also have been due to the accumulated burden of poverty, stress, opium dependency and syphilis – that post-coital debt paid by so many lovers – that would prevent him reaching old age. If syphilis remained the untreatable disease it was in the 19th century, every prostitute would now be wearing a government sticker with the message ‘Sex Kills’. When Baudelaire finally succumbed to the illness at the age of 46 he left us the gift of Les Fleurs du Mal, a volume of poems, which, in contrast to the popular themes of the day – nature and its eternal purity – addressed the city and its associated decadence. Using these poems, German philosopher Walter Benjamin, produced a scholarly study of a particular genus of early urban man, now popularly known as ‘Le Flaneur’.

The term has recently been adopted by the fashion house Hermes to describe their latest marketing campaign, launched in London’s Spitalfields, along with brochures containing a full explanation of all the sights. This, of course, is anathema to the real flaneur, who thrives on the unexpected, the fleeting, the serendipitous. He is not to be found on a guided tour or following an umbrella held aloft. Don’t expect the flaneur to be viewing the main event, perhaps a Wren Church; he will be admiring a dandelion behind a tombstone. The flaneur sets out with no particular objective or destination. He is not going to shop or to work, merely to stroll, to idle and to observe. To observe, the observer must remain incognito. “To be away from home yet feel at home anywhere; to see the world, to be at the very centre of the world, and yet be unseen of the world.” For Baudelaire, with the crowd his domain, walking the streets was more exciting than any play or novel. Gaslit Paris was the mecca of flaneurs and even neon Paris remains so. The Grands Boulevards are the arteries, the streets the veins and the arcades the capillaries of the beating heart of that ‘seething city, city full of dreams’. There are few cities in the New World and the Southern Hemisphere suitable for flanerie. I have sometimes seen the word ‘Boulevardier’ substituted for flaneur, but Baudelaire himself was unimpressed by the way Baron Hausmann had remodeled much of his city.

Idleness, disengagement, a fixation on the transient, these are not favoured attitudes today in a world that applauds ambition, commitment and the setting of moral and material targets, that has a horror of doing nothing, of ‘measuring one’s life in coffee spoons’. Nor is surfing the net a pastime of the flaneur; how can it be when you need to key in an objective at the start? Nor can Facebook or Twitter provide you with social contact; you have to exit your front door for that. The flaneur is curious, for curiosity is compelling, ‘the starting point of genius’. But he is not a seeker, for seeking requires an objective, as Herman Hesse fully understood.

‘When someone is seeking, said Siddhartha, it happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means to have a goal; but finding means to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal. You, O Worthy One, are perhaps indeed a seeker, for in striving towards your goal, you do not see many things that are under your nose“.

Because Baudelaire wrote about the dandy, dandyism has been associated with flanerie. And there is no doubt that the writer admired a dandy.

“Dandyism borders on the spiritual and stoical … the last spark of heroism and decadence…a sunset, like the declining daystar, it is glorious, without heat and full of melancholy. But alas, the rising tide of democracy, which invades and levels everything, is daily overwhelming these last representatives of human pride.” Baudelaire’s dandy is the heir of Byron and Beau Brummell rather than Alcibiades and other followers of exaggerated fashion, for he believed that perfection in dress lay in ‘absolute simplicity’. “If people turn to look at you on the street, you are not well dressed’. It was the cut of fine but unostentatious fabric modeled on his uniform as an officer in the 10th Light Dragoons that created the pleasing silhouette that distinguished Brummell as a dandy.

Imagine the dandy, wandering the streets of Paris, He is blasé, or pretends to be, a man of the world ‘who understands the world and the mysterious and legitimate reasons behind all its customs’. He identifies in thought with all he encounters. A beautiful woman smiles at him and he is filled with longing and a sense of what might have been. ‘O toi que j’eusse aimee, O toi qui le savais’! (‘You, whom I might have loved, O you who knew it!’). He sleeps with a cruelly indifferent Jewess, imagining a single tear that might have quenched ‘the icy fuel of her blazing eyes’. Both high life and low life fuel his curiosity and provide material for his poems as they did for the weekly columns of Taki and Jeffrey Bernard in the Spectator, presumably the journal of the flaneur. We are invited into the decadent and erotic milieu of idle monks, drunken rag-pickers, gamblers and prostitutes – free women in Baudelaire’s opinion rather than respectable wives bound to their husbands. The Flowers of Anguish (or Evil or Pain, for mal may translate as any of these) are the host of demons in your brain, which, if liberated by boldness or misfortune, would make you, the hypocritical reader, brother or sister to the decadent cast of characters in the poems and even to Baudelaire himself.

Poems of Baudelaire, A Translation of Les Fleurs du Mal. Roy Campbell; The Harvill Press, 1952

The Painter of Modern Life, Charles Baudelaire
Selected Writings on art and Literature
Penguin Books 2010


“Don’t you find it a beautiful clean thought, a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up.”
Women in Love
DH Lawrence 1913

My uncle’s holiday house was perched right on the tip of the North Foreland, that wedge of South East England that points directly at France, only a narrow private road and a few metres of grass separating house from cliff edge. There, lying in the warm grass, I could train binoculars on the passing shipping and, on a clear day, glimpse the outline of the French coast, while kittiwakes hovered and swooped overhead, guarding their nests in the chalk walls of the cliff. Failing that, there was pleasure, then, in the minute inspection of a blade of grass or an individual dandelion. On the grassy cliff-top, hidden by a tangle of hawthorn, was the entrance to a staircase, carved from the chalk, which spiraled down through the cliff and exited onto an otherwise inaccessible part of the rocky shoreline. Crabs scuttled into hiding as you moved warily among the rocks and pools, green algae lay drying on the stones and the ever-cold waters of the English Channel flowed and eddied in the miniature inlets. At night, every 30 seconds, my bedroom would be swept by a beam of light from the North Foreland lighthouse. In the daytime we would drive down to the nearby seaside resort of Broadstairs where my uncle kept his boat in the tiny harbour and where, in the town, was a vast warehouse of second-hand books.

It was there, and only shortly after I had finished reading ‘Women in Love’, that I unearthed “The Romance of Words”, a work on semantics by Ernest Weekley, Professor of English at Nottingham University and one time tutor to Lawrence. On the fly-page was the bold signature of a DH Lawrence. Was it THE Lawrence? Alas, I gifted the book to someone who I mistakenly assumed would be an everlasting love and would re-incorporate the book into my own library, so I will never know.

Lawrence, on a visit to his old tutor in 1912, fell in love with the professor’s German born wife, Frieda von Richthofen, a mother of three, a cousin of the famous Red Baron and, at thirty three, six years older than Lawrence. Eloping with Frieda, he set out on what his friend Catherine Carswell called his “savage pilgrimage,” an amazing odyssey that took the miner’s son and his aristocratic lady from Cornwall to Austria, to the Abruzzi, Florence and Sardinia, to Sicily and Malta, to Sri Lanka and Thirroul in New South Wales, to Taos in New Mexico and finally to Vence in the South of France.

It is almost impossible not to run into Lawrence somewhere. On the Kiowa Ranch, just outside Taos, New Mexico, once Lawrence’s and now the property of the University of New Mexico, I visited the little chapel, the author’s last resting place and in Mabel Dodge Luhan’s house, Los Gallos, I inspected Mabel’s bathroom windows that Lawrence had painted in an uncharacteristically prudish effort to protect his hostess’s privacy.

Windows painted by DH Lawrence

Windows painted by DH Lawrence

But I came closest to him in 1980 when I was offered rooms to rent in the Villa Arcipresso (often referred to as the Villa Mirenda), a house in San Polo Mosciano, near Florence, where more than sixty years previously Lawrence had written “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”. I was shown Lawrence’s rooms, apparently unchanged from his visit, a spot in the garden where I was told he sat and wrote in the shade and a large fresco in the hallway, allegedly Lawrence’s work representing the lady of the house fleeing from the author himself. My potential landlord, Signor Mirenda, was the grandchild of Lawrence’s landlady; was she, as her grandson claimed, the model for Lady Chatterley?

Honeybee on the front steps of Villa Mirenda

Honeybee on the front steps of Villa Mirenda

Wine Label c. 1980

Wine Label c. 1980

‘Lemon trees, like Italians, seem to be happiest when they are touching one another.’
The Sea and Sardinia

Always seeking the essence of place with his keen and poetic eye, Lawrence produced sublime descriptions of the stations of his journey.

‘The day was gone, the twilight was gone, and the snow was invisible as I came down to the side of the lake. Only the moon, white and shining, was in the sky, like a woman glorying in her own loveliness as she loiters superbly to the gaze of all the world, looking sometimes through the fringe of dark olive leaves, sometimes looking at her own superb, quivering body, wholly naked in the water of the lake.

But Tahiti repelled him as did California, while Ceylon had failed to shift the false idealism, which had so far dogged him. Even the ‘exquisite beauty of Sicily, right among the old Greek paganism that still lives there, had not shattered the essential Christianity on which my character was established.’ His pilgrimage came to a temporary halt in New Mexico, ‘the greatest experience from the outside world’ that he had ever had. ‘It was New Mexico that liberated me from the present era of civilization, the great era of material and mechanical development.’ He felt, at last, exalted. ‘There was a certain magnificence in the high-up day, a certain eagle-like royalty. In the magnificent fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly, and the old world gave way to a new.’

He and Frieda bought a ranch and settled down until a sudden and serious downturn in his health in 1925 sent him back to Europe, first to the Villa Mirenda and finally to the Villa Robermond in Vence where he died 2nd March 1930. Exhumed and cremated at Frieda’s request in 1935, he is now back in New Mexico for good.

‘But better die than live mechanically a life that is a repetition of repetitions.’
Women in Love

Set in the Midlands and in the years following the end of the Great War, Women in Love, follows the affairs of Brangwen sisters, Gudrun, an artist who falls for Gerald, the oafish son of a mine owner, and Ursula, a school teacher who loves Rupert, a physically weak but spirited school inspector. The book also deals with the mutual physical attraction the men share. Ursula and Rupert stagger towards a compromised but settled relationship; Gudrun’s affair ends in tragedy. Gerald, on finding she had betrayed him with a German artist, abandons an attempt to murder her and ends his own life instead. Rupert is, of course, Lawrence, and the mouthpiece for his ideas on life, which were heavily influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘The Genealogy of Morals’. Christian morality, Lawrence argues, has limited the human instinct for creative development. ‘The delicate magic of life’ lies buried in an ‘un-replenished, mechanized’ world from which we must escape. Ursula, ‘wants to strut, to be a swan among geese’ but she ‘lived a good deal by herself, to herself, working, passing on from day to day, and always thinking, trying to lay hold on life, to grasp it in her own understanding. Her active living was suspended, but underneath, in the darkness, something was coming to pass. If only she could break through the last integuments.’

Lawrence’s vision of a society where beauty is more important than bread is so much harder to achieve than success as a wage-slave in the socio-industrial world he despised. Love can change you, Lawrence says, ‘Let yourself fall in love. If you have not done so already, you are wasting your life.’ The sexual act was ‘not for the depositing of seed’ but ‘for leaping into the unknown, as from a cliff’s edge, like Sappho into the sea.’ Love cannot be sought; ‘Those that go searching for love only manifest their own lovelessness, and the loveless never find love, only the loving find love, and they never have to seek for it.

‘The most evil outpouring that has ever besmirched the literature of our country. The sewers of French pornography would be dragged in vain to find a parallel in beastliness.’
Press reaction to Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Periodically the English Establishment exercises its beastly and bigoted prerogative to destroy harmless individuals merely to enforce its mistaken belief it is protecting our morals. Lawrence was a victim as were Oscar Wilde and Stephen Ward. I cannot read about Lawrence without boiling over with rage at the mean-minded treatment he suffered at the hands of his own countrymen. He was turfed out of his Cornish home on suspicion of spying for the enemy (on account of his opposition to the war and marriage to a German), barred from exhibiting his paintings, subjected to hostile criticism of his work and vilified in court after his death by the Chief Prosecutor in his efforts to stop the 1960 publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. To the publisher, Penguin’s great credit the second edition of the book is dedicated to ”the twelve jurors, three women and nine men, who returned a verdict of “Not Guilty” and thus made Lawrence’s last novel available for the first time to the public of the United Kingdom.”

Catherine Carswell, Lawrence’s life-long friend, provides a more moving portrait of the writer than I could ever write.

‘In the face of formidable initial disadvantages and life-long delicacy, poverty that lasted three quarters of his life and hostility that survives his death, he did nothing that he really did not want to do, and all that he most wanted to do he did. He went all over the world, he owned a ranch, he lived in the most beautiful corners of Europe, and met whom he wanted to meet and told them that they were wrong and he was right. He painted and made things and sang, and rode. He wrote something like three dozen books, of which even the worst page dances with life that could be mistaken for no other man’s, while the best are admitted, even by those who hate him, to be unsurpassed. Without vices, with most human virtues, the husband of one wife, scrupulously honest, this estimable citizen yet managed to keep free of the shackles of civilization and the cant of literary cliques. He would have laughed lightly and cursed venomously in passing at the solemn owls – each one secretly chained by the leg – who now conduct his inquest. To do his work and lead his life in spite of them took some doing, but he did it, and long after they are forgotten, sensitive and innocent people, if any are left, will turn Lawrence’s pages and will know from them what sort of a rare man Lawrence was. ‘

I think you will understand from the above exactly what was meant by the sentence “He spent his short life living.” with which the publisher ends Lawrence’s short biography in my Penguin edition of Women in Love.



“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
Hector in Alan Bennett’s play “The History Boys”

Not so long ago there lived a generation of children in a world without television and Playstations, without DVD-players, iPods or mobile ‘phones and, as a consequence, these children spent much of their time out of doors, playing in their backyards and gardens or in the parks and in the streets, for in those days not every male stranger was considered a possible pedophile, there was no fear of melanoma and the traffic was sparser and slower. In the evenings children would do their homework, build and paint airplanes from kits, stick postage stamps into albums, listen to the radio and read. Most of them developed their early reading skills from the bubble encapsulated words of the characters that featured in the vast selection of comics like Beano, Captain Marvel, Eagle or Girl, progressing to the weekly, story-only Hotspur or Wizard. After that there was Enid Blyton, even now, a half century after her death, the fifth most translated author in history after Disney, Agatha Christie, Jules Verne and Shakespeare. Enid, born in Lordship Lane, East Dulwich, a ten minute walk from my grandparent’s house in Court Lane was, even in the 1950’s, considered by some to be politically incorrect and a purveyor of trivia, but she was the children’s choice and the bookshelves in my bedroom carried not only my collection of The Famous Five but my sister’s hand me downs such as “The Children of Cherry Tree Farm.” There were other books, but Grimm’s dark and sinister “Fairy Tales”, Charles Kingsley’s “The Heroes” and R M Ballantyne’s “Martin Rattler” are those that stick in the mind.

Books bind us closer together. The right books enrich your life. Some books, especially those you enjoyed in your early years, will stay with you forever. Even as I sit here writing I see Jason leaping from the bows of the Argo into the arms of the women of Lemnos, the Walker children steering The Swallow towards Wild Cat Island, Long John Silver standing parrot-shouldered on the poop deck of the Hispaniola, and Buffalo Bill locked in hand-to-hand combat with Yellow Hand.

Anyway, it’s Christmas and a time of gifts, and in my book, there’s no better present than a book. My local bookseller’s holiday catalogue is bung full of new novels, many of which will have been written after a week’s writing course in Ireland and destined to be remaindered in early January. Here are three novels and a book of short stories that will still be around in a hundred years. First editions will be difficult unless you are Donald Trump, but definitely no Kindles, for the attraction of books is also in the handling of them, their smell, the bookplates and inscriptions of past owners and finding that Paris metro ticket you used as a bookmark twenty years ago.

Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West
Cormac McCarthy 1985

In 2010 Wyoming legislation was changed to admit the principles of “Cowboy Ethics”. The new law, which carries no criminal penalties if broken, spells out 10 ethics singled out by Texas author James Owen in his “Code of the West”. The State of Wyoming now admonishes residents and lawmakers to live courageously, take pride in their work, finish what they start, do what’s necessary, be tough but fair, keep promises, ride for the brand, talk less and say more, remember that some things aren’t for sale and know where to draw the line. Although these seem principles that could stem from any civilized society, I can understand the cowboy association. In fact, when my son left home to spend six months overseas with a strange family, he took with him a similar, Western-slanted, letter of advice from his father.

Remember you are a cowboy’s son. We are tough and resilient. We can ride alone for days through unforgiving country or we can join with like spirits to defend our home and families from marauding bandits. We are always prepared; we look after our ponies and saddles and keep our six-shooters in good order so that we can do our job properly. On the trail we can mess down with the roughest roughnecks; in town we can sup at The Golden Slipper without embarrassing the Mayor’s daughter who loves us for our panache. We fear no man because we know that courage itself is a more powerful deterrent to our enemies than our trusty Colt. We are honest, straightforward and uncomplicated, but not naïve. We are not surprised by the knife in the boot or the guile of the bushwacker. We help the weak and stand by our friends. We love women because they are on earth to be loved. But if we are alone on the trail we take our pleasure from the bounty the world offers, be it from the journey itself, from the sip of whiskey at sundown or the knowledge that you are young and alive and a cowboy.  

These were the rules left in the psyche of two or three generations by the great volume of Western literature and films ground out from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, mostly stories of hardship in a beautiful but uncompromising land. Gradually, from the 1960’s the mythology of the period was exposed by books like “Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee” and films like “Soldier Blue”, although the whole question of the “American Dream” had already been questioned by Scott Fitzgerald in that finest of novels, The Great Gatsby. We now see that the future envisioned by the pioneers as they rolled their wagons Westward has been surrendered for a world of soulless communities, fast food, insincere commercial cheeriness, red-neck obstinacy and silicon breasts. From the plains of Kansas to the canyons of Wall Street.

It has been Cormac McCarthy’s lot (with some help from Larry McMurtry and Pete Dexter) to restore some of the grandeur and dignity to the West. Blood Meridian, a story of violence and slaughter based on the true history of the Glanton Gang, a bunch of scalp hunters operating on the Tex/Mex border in the mid 19th Century, has all the beauty and horror of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, the writing almost Old Testament in its blunt purity and intensity. Moving forward in time McCarthy produced his “Border Trilogy”, novels that trace the movement and fortunes of men and horses across the hard land that was “No Country for Old Men”.

Boule de Suif and Other Stories
Guy de Maupassant 1880

Lack of sex played a big part in a school boarder’s days and nights. There were the occasional glimpses of the Burser’s secretary, her clicking heels echoing down the cloisters, but fantasies were mainly fed by the literature available in the School or House libraries where certain passages from seemingly harmless books were singled out to provide some level of erotic stimulus. Charlie and Rose’s moment of passion on the deck of the African Queen from CS Forester’s book of the same name springs to mind. But there was one book in the library that, without containing any overt descriptions of sexuality, provided a special kind of titillation. The title story takes place during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 where ten citizens from Rouen, deciding to flee the conflict by coach to Le Havre, unwittingly enter enemy occupied territory and are placed under indefinite house, or rather Inn, arrest until such time as one of the captured party – Elizabeth Rousset, a plump, attractive prostitute (Boule de Suif or “Suet Dumpling”) – agrees to sleep with the Prussian’s commanding officer. At first Elizabeth refuses, exercising her right to sleep with whom she chooses and declining the Prussian’s offer out of patriotism. The other passengers, who represent a cross section of French society, from the petit-bourgeois Loiseau to the aristocratic Comte de Breville, eventually tire of their detention and, using every form of argument, persuade Elizabeth to surrender herself so that they can continue their journey. Having given herself to the Prussian officer and once aboard the coach Boule de Suif is rudely ostracized by her hypocritical fellow passengers. “She felt herself swallowed up in the scorn of these virtuous creatures, who had first sacrificed, then rejected her as a thing useless and unclean.” There are great similarities between this story and Ernest Haycox’s “Stage to Lordsburg”, filmed by John Ford in 1939 as “Stagecoach” with Claire Trevor playing the Boule de Suif role.

In another story, “A Day in the Countryside”, Monsieur Dufour, a shopkeeper, and his family spend a day on the banks of the Marne near Argenteuil. Two cynical young men that the family meets in a restaurant plan to seduce Madame Dufour and her daughter Henriette. While Monsieur Dufour and Anatole, his shop assistant, fish, Madame Dufour flirts with one of the young men and Henriette falls in love with his friend Henri. The whole interlude by the river is infused by the sleepy lushness of the countryside, the idle hum of bees, a languorous sensuality. On the family’s return to Paris Henriette yields to her parents’ petit bourgeois expectations and marries Anatole, condemning herself to life in a loveless marriage.

De Maupassant fought in the Franco-Prussian war, saved Swinburne from drowning and was a protégée of Flaubert through whom he became acquainted with Zola, Turgenev and Henry James. He died, fittingly as a chronic womanizer, of syphilis at the age of 43.

Across The River and into the Trees
Ernest Hemingway 1950

Hemingway had very firm views as to how a man should live. His main characters were men of action, much like himself – uncomplicated, knowledgeable and philosophical about the craft involved in the violent lives they had chosen, whether it was soldiering, bull-fighting or big-game fishing. Knowing how to face death was also part of that code. Confederate General Thomas (“Stonewall”) Jackson’s attitude to death must have impressed him for they are Jackson’s last words –“Let us cross over the river and rest under the trees” – that provide the book’s title. In what many consider to be one of his less successful books, fifty year old Colonel Cantwell looks back on his recent involvement in WW2 and his passionate affair with a young Venetian Contessa as he hunts for duck in the marshes near Trieste. Knowing that the next round of heart attacks will finish him, he climbs into the back of his staff car and calmly sets his affairs in order before the final hammer blow takes his life. Although The Old Man and the Sea won Hemingway the Pulitzer in 1952, the seeds of his decline are already evident in “Across the River”. Dogged by health problems, alcoholism and depression Hemingway staggered through the last 10 years of his life until one July morning in1961 he walked out onto the front porch of his home in Ketchum, Idaho, and blew his brains out with his favourite shot-gun. It was, says Janet Flanner (1) ‘a permissible act of liberation from whatever humiliating bondage on earth could no longer be borne with self-respect.”

At his best and even with his hard pruned language, Hemingway managed to communicate layers of feeling that more verbose writers never achieve. “In his writing,” says Flanner “his descriptions of the color of deep sea water beside his boat or of the trout’s fins in the pool where he angled were like reports from the pupil of his eyes transferred by his pen onto his paper.” While many famous novelists remain faceless, their personalities and lives seemingly incompatible with their writings, Hemingway himself intrigued as much as his characters. I made the island-hopping pilgrimage to Key West; on evenings at the Closerie des Lilas in Montparnasse I would seek out the chair with its little brass plaque recording the writer’s patronage in the 1950s and in a bar in Genoa I met a man who had competed in (and won) a drinking competition with the author. It was clear from the care with which he pulled a creased and fading photograph of himself and Hemingway from his wallet just what the encounter meant to him.

Venice in autumn has that melancholic gravitas that suited Colonel Cantwell’s tragic end. Harry’s Bar and the countryside of the Po delta also figured in my story with Honeybee but the outcome, fortunatamente, has been somewhat happier.

1. Janet Flanner. American journalist based at “Les Deux Magots” from the early twenties when she began writing her “Letter from Paris” for “The New Yorker” under the pen-name Genet. Member of the Left Bank American colony, which included Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Scott Fitzgerald.

James Joyce 1922

This is an interesting book, not just because of its place in the history of English literature as the first truly Modernist novel but also because of its difficult and exotic birth. Although his greatest book is set in the city of his birth, Joyce spent nearly all of his life in self-exile working as a journalist, writer and English teacher in Paris, Trieste and Zurich. It was in Zurich during WW1 that he first began work on “Ulysses”, which follows a day in the life of Leopold Blum as he wanders through Dublin, carousing with his mates, whoring, arguing, his peregrinations roughly following a contracted version of the journeys of Odysseus and Jason. In its allusions, puns and ribaldry it has echoes of Rabelais. Between 1918 and 1920 excerpts of the book were serialized in “The Little Review” in America where the rude bits, catching the attention of the authorities, resulted in the book being banned. In need of money Joyce turned to a Pastor’s daughter from New Jersey who had arrived in Paris in 1917 and opened a bookshop called Shakespeare & Company in the rue de l’Odeon. Sylvia Beach worked tirelessly, finding subscribers, organizing the printing in Dijon, and on 2nd February 1922, Joyce’s birthday, she presented the Irishman with the first two copies of “Ulysses”, bound in blue Morocco and printed on white Dutch paper. The book was an instant sensation. Janet Flanner was enthusiastic; “In its unique qualities, in 1922 it burst over us, young in Paris, like an explosion in print whose words and phrases fell upon us like a gift of tongues, like a less than holy Pentecostal experience.” Not everyone approved; Gertrude Stein and her companion Alice B Toklas both cancelled their subscriptions to Sylvia’s bookshop.

The book, which almost caused Sylvia’s financial ruin, immediately made Joyce a rich man and even richer in 1932 when Random House paid him an advance of forty-five-thousand dollars when the ban on the book’s US publication was finally lifted. Sylvia, who has her own footnote in literary history, never begrudged the fact that Joyce did not as much as tell her about his good fortune. “I understood” she later wrote “from the first that, working with or for Mr. Joyce, the pleasure was mine – an infinite pleasure, the profits were for him.”

Physical love is hard to write about in fiction; it can sound crude or self-conscious and even famous writers can fail. These last lines of Ulysses, from the longest sentence in English literature, leave you saying yes, this is how it should be.

“…and O that awful deep-down torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the fig trees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rose gardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will yes