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Making the case for Victoriana

When people use the word ‘journalese’, they always do so pejoratively. They are not thinking of James Cameron, Bernard Levin or Walter Winchell. They mean a style that traffics in clichés. The poet B. I. Isherville has derided that kind of writing: Where every heresy is rankAnd every rank is serried;Where every crook is hatchet-faced,And

The higher slopes of Parnassus

The Gallery Press, Loughcrew, Oldcastle, Co. Meath, Ireland, ‘August for the people and their favourite islands,’ wrote W. H. Auden in a poem from his early Marxist phase. This holiday season brings from our adjoining island a parcel of poetry better suited to Christmas or some elate private festival, a salvation of riches. Literary

Endearing, fleeting charm

It has often been said that the popularity of J. M. Barrie stands as a warning to those who think they understand the Edwardians and much the same is true of Tom Moore and the Age of Romanticism. With the exceptions of Byron and Scott, Moore was by far the most successful literary figure of

Vanity Fair in W.11

Veiled roman-à-clef novels of this kind are routinely hyped by their publishers as being certain to cause uproar and mayhem. Often they do nothing of the kind and pass almost unnoticed. Rachel Johnson’s acerbic and well-observed bitch-up of life on a Notting Hill communal garden justifies the copious pre-publicity, and I can report that early

The Christian Drang nach Osten

We are still living with the images and legends of the crusades. Were they, as the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote, ‘the most signal and durable monument of human folly that has yet appeared in any age or nation’? Were they, as muscular Christians and imperialists suggested in the 19th century, a matchless epic

A sort of decade

The Sixties are there in the first sentence of the first chapter of this social, political and cultural history of the decade: On the first day of October 1963, as the earliest whispers of dawn were edging across the cliff tops of the Yorkshire resort of Scarborough, the new leader of the Labour party nervously

The primrose path to holiness

‘No thanks. Too much sex.’ Thus an elderly friend dismissed my offer to lend him John Stubbs’s compendious biography of John Donne. His fears are groundless. Stubbs tells us virtually nothing about the paramours who inspired Donne’s youthful poems, partly because no new information is available and partly because the poet’s exquisite testimony on the

An exception to most rules

Waiting for the second volume of a good biography is a painful process. I feel very sorry for anyone who read Brian McGuinness’s excellent Young Ludwig (part one of the life of Wittgenstein) when it was published in 1988. The philosopher’s exciting story broke off in 1921 and fans have been left dangling ever since

The wisdom of Sandy Arbuthnott

‘There’s a dry wind blowing through the East and the parched grasses wait and spark.’ This is not the sort of language we associate with a high-ranking official in the Foreign Office, but things were different in 1916. Not altogether different, however. ‘Islam is a fighting creed, and the mullah still stands in the pulpit