Michael Wilding’s Spiked review of Displacement



Very pleased to say that the renowned Australian writer Michael Wilding has reviewed Displacement handsomely for Spiked. Here’s the link – http://www.spiked-online.com/spiked-review/article/the-loneliness-of-the-high-rise-free-runner/20005#.WVmAJjOZNok

And here’s the text. Thanks, Michael.

The loneliness of the long distance free-runner

Through all the formal variations of the English novel, one theme recurs: the two nations. The huge divide between the rich and the poor, between the privileged and and the indigent. Disraeli’s classic treatment of it in Sybil presented an England polarised not only in terms of class but of geography. So did Elizabeth Gaskell in North and South. Derek Turner follows the model of Charles Dickens with the huge contrasts embodied within one city, London.

But in the years novelists have been dealing with this theme, things have changed. The old polarisation between workers and employers or urban workers and landed gentry is no longer representative of current realities. In Derek Turner’s novel, Displacement, the family that once would have been characterised as working class consists of the redundant, the unemployed and the casualised. The mother is dead, the father ‘has not had any paid employment since Thames Tides Transport had capsized 15 years earlier’. A family tradition of working the river, going back generations, has ended. His son Mike gets into dope, then the harder stuff, then illicit entries and eventually does time in Brixton. The other son, the novel’s protagonist, Martin Hackett, has few prospects.

During his meeting with the school careers-guidance counsellor, the only suggestions had been working for the council, or perhaps the infantry.

When we encounter him he is working as a bicycle courier.

Martin had been lucky to get his job, cycling across London, delivering packages. Normally they wanted graduates. It was money, it helped with his fitness and it let him see parts of London he might otherwise never have known.

But his passion is for climbing high buildings at night, free-running. Climbing and then leaping from roof to roof.

All there is now is the air, and the moment – that perfectly calibrated movement – the concrete roof blurring before his left foot finds the uttermost edge and he leads with his right across the awful crevasse at the bottom of which are sharp metal bins and the cruel street.

Alongside this exhilaration, the recurrent note of the novel is isolation. Martin climbs alone, only once does he ever encounter another climber. If occasionally he sees or is seen by someone through a high window, the glass ensures his absolute separation from those inside. He is like Heathcliff, similarly isolated, looking in at the life he is excluded from. Except that Martin has no wish to enter or participate.

Doing it is enough in itself, because it allows excellence impossible elsewhere. That no one else can see him doing it doesn’t matter – he knows what he can do. That no one else sees it in a way makes it finer.

His courier work keeps him similarly isolated. Except for the brief exchanges with snotty, superior receptionists, he is alone on his bicycle all day. It is not just that Martin belongs to no community, but that no community is shown anywhere. This is a marked development in the condition-of-England novel. Sybil presented an England of two separate communities. The workers were exploited but there was sufficient sense of community for some of them at least to engage in collective activity. Those days have gone. Community, solidarity and the rest of those grand sonorities have vanished. Martin is accepting of this, and happy that it is a feature of his obsession.

It seemed there was no community of free-runners, and that seems proper to Martin, who has never known community.

The free-running is vividly described, in both its physicality and exhilaration. It is such an extreme concept that it might have seemed something from magic realism. It certainly has its potential as fantasy, as symbol, as metaphor. While being anchored in reality. And it brilliantly solves one of the problems in writing about an exploited and demoralised working class, or unemployed class – the problem that the material is not greatly enjoyable to read. You can go for images of degradation and deprivation, but they are not much fun. And concern can so easily become, or sound like, condescension. I remember my mother’s shock at hearing Richard Hoggart talk on television of his working-class parents, referring to the grime of factory dust embedded in their faces. ‘Don’t you ever write anything like that about us’, she said.

Deprivation and despair are readily enough represented in Displacement. But they are importantly not the totality. Turner’s protagonist has his hopes, his literal aspirations as he climbs. It is both physically exhilarating, a literal ascent, and also a mental and emotional release, an achievement and a satisfaction. Mountaineering was, probably still is, one of those upper-class leisure pursuits. WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood appropriate it for The Ascent of F6, Freudianising it rather than politicising. It’s mother they discover at the top. With Displacement, the activity has been reconfigured. Martin’s girlfriend realises how it fits in with his worldview, the way he used to talk –

All that about society, and all of us being shat on from a great height, and how you wanted to look down on them for a change!

Now it is the proletariat climbing. Well, it always did but tended to be left uncredited in the background as guides, sherpas, rescuers, useful adjuncts but not featured.

So he has risen out of the common, climbing out of London’s gorge.

Grim as Turner’s overall vision is, it is not without hope and it is not unrelievedly bleak. Martin has another escape, through poetry. You don’t have to be wealthy or privileged or leisured to write poetry. Poetry is accessible.

He continued reading and even writing poetry, but his conversation atrophied, because there was never any opportunity to use any of the beautiful words that raced in his head.

And then the novel accelerates as Martin becomes a celebrity. He is noticed on his free-running, and becomes a story in the press. The arrival of the young, brash, public-school educated journalist to do a story on him provides a splendid episode in the tradition of English class comedy. And the novel’s action elsewhere moves out of England, when Martin takes his girlfriend on holidays to Europe. The varieties of tone and setting save Displacement from seeming programmatic. Its dominant image of free-running expresses an exhilaration –

…to free-run with the grandest backdrop of all, outwit security, jump over the system.

A taut, compelling and absolutely original take on contemporary Britain, Displacement is a memorable and deeply rewarding read.

Michael Wilding is the author, most recently, of In the Valley of the Weed and the memoir Growing Wild.

This review appeared in Spiked in July 2017, and is reproduced with permission


Connor Post review of A Modern Journey


James Connor on A Modern Journey

James Connor’s kind and thoughtful review of A Modern Journey now available for edification at his unique Connor Post news aggregation site – “an outstanding wordsmith” etc. Blushes – but thanks!


Growing Wild by Michael Wilding



Growing Wild, Michael Wilding, 2016, Melbourne: Arcadia, pb., 302pp., Aus$39.95

A hoicked-up small boy sits astride a yoked-up heavy horse, while three sun-stained men smile at posterity. Hairy hooves press good grass, lush trees shade old ridges, and though the cover is black-and-white we feel the burden of that 1940s sun, the texture of that workwear, conjure the sleepy scents of horse and soil, hear the muted afternoon. It could be a tableau from Cider With Rosie, or an image from Mass-Observation, the social research organisation founded in 1937 to document British working-class life. The latter is apposite, because that meadow was in Worcestershire, and that bare-legged boy would become Michael Wilding, class campaigner, radical and “proto-post-modernist”, progenitor of “new writing” in an outpost of old empire.

Growing Wild tells of Wilding’s peregrination from puritanical, proletarian English provinces to intellectual eminence in Australia. It also constitutes a mini-cultural history of the 1940s-1980s, enlightening about both England and Australia as seen by an unusually cultured and self-aware observer. The Oz adult was partly prefigured in the British boy – “Did I spend my whole childhood in fuming and resentment? Sometimes when I look back on it it seems so.” He portrays 1950s suburban Worcester as an edgeland – “…the margin of the Marches, the border of the borderland, the second degree of peripherality.” This sounds over-complicated, but certainly his childhood was convoluted with cross-cutting class gradations, all setting themselves apart and allotting others by accent, clothes, demeanour, occupation, politics, sexual morality, or the tidiness of their gardens.

His dour, frustrated, foundryman father (who had yearned to go to university) was often at contrariety with his cheery, conservative, musical mother, “as if cavalier and roundhead coexisted in the same family”, and may have resented his son’s easier path to fulfilment. His father’s case fed Wilding’s later politics, but in the short term he turned snob, hating cultivating the family vegetable plot and ‘correcting’ his father’s speech. Their parlour was sometimes another “battlefield of the class war, fought with words rather than deeds” – a humdrum continuation of Hudibras, Worcester writer Samuel Butler’s mock epic of the Civil War, whose hero is held back by his “dialect and discourse”. But not all of childhood was a combat zone, nor was all Worcester waste. Wilding looks back from the far side of the world, and falls under an enchantment of old names, while the Severn still swells with secret meanings in his dreams.

He worked as postman, farm labourer and deliveryman, but also sold a story to BBC radio at 18. Oxford offered opportunity, but he fretted even under those somnolent spires, and no amount of acceptance proved enough. He edited Isis, but felt always on sufferance, prisoner of proletarianism. He festered, devoured Jude the Obscure, refused to alter his accent, but also avoided “unstylish” contemporaries of comparable class, his itchiness emblematised by his ill-cut academic gown (shades of Widmerpool’s overcoat), which he believed accentuated rather than elided his origins. Then came real escape – English lectureship at the University of Sydney.

Carrying his cargo of small resentments, he fell in with local leftists, then campaigning against censorship, drugs laws, Western foreign policy, imperialism, racism and sexism. To that coterie there were clear linkages between political constraints and cultural traditions, made more plausible because anti-communists were sponsoring high-end journals like Encounter, and Leavisites operating at the sharpest end of metapolitics. Australia looked like a universe, and Wilding expanded into its well-fed wideness, its endless evenings of fine food and thrown-open windows, horizon-altering drugs, easy sex, open-ended discussions about everything, “the systematic deregulation of the senses mandatory for the followers of Rimbaud and the enthusiasts for Brautigan.” He talked and published tirelessly, striving to push boundaries, erase differences, usher in a shibboleth-less world. To him, narratives narrowed possibilities, and were in any case inapplicable to modern life – “Our lives, our careers, our aspirations no longer seemed expressible by the traditional narratives. Or maybe we just hoped not”.

But if lives, careers and aspirations really were no longer expressible, they could be controlled, and like many others in the perfervid Seventies Wilding voiced bleak suspicions about society, producing a regular Nation Review column called “Wilding’s Paranoia”. He started sceptical, but “the extreme speculations proved to be true”, and increasingly he saw Western societies as stamping-grounds for self-aware socioeconomic forces seeking to cozen populations into buying product along with their “conservative, reactionary” worldview. (The conservative reactionaries would seem to have been spectacularly unsuccessful.)

One of Wilding’s manifold merits is candour about his cohort. While Sydney’s Push was “unrelenting in its refusal to recognise the validity of any authority, it had its well-defined pecking order”, and was “committed to pluralism with all the fervour of fanatical monotheists”, while litterateurs opined oxymoronically “there should be no ‘shoulds’”. The Aquarian ideas have aged badly, and some of the erstwhile avant-garde are now excoriated as ists and phobes, while the conscious uncoupling of Westerners from their heritage has led to “the denial, rejection, surrender of history”, a “de-humanising and de-politicising, or at any rate de-radicalising, agenda”, an existence “without hope, without destination, without comprehensibility”, “suspicion, disillusion, and nihilism”.

At 75, Wilding remains admirably open to ideas, an honest liberal as critical of PC idiocy as of conservative complacency, and is manifestly determined to persist ploughing his personal furrow. He notes, boyishly defiant, “I thought being a writer you could say excessive things, troublesome things, even outrageous things, and get away with them. And even when I found out you couldn’t get away with them, it still seemed worth saying them.” Indeed, it was.

This review first appeared in the Spectator Australia on 3 June 2017, and is reproduced with acknowledgements

My Scots Gothic travelogue for Chronicles

Old North photo 7 - ponies on Traprain

The July issue of Chronicles contains my travelogue about Lothian – Iron Age equestrians, Traprain Law, the legend of the saltire, Rosslyn Chapel bizarrerie, Mary Queen of Scots, Covenanters, Edinburgh cemeteries, Scottish independence, Greyfriars Bobby, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta…

Dancing into darkness – Holbein’s Dance of Death



The Dance of Death, Hans Holbein, London: Penguin Classics, 2016, 184pps., pb., £9.99

If age is synonymous with canonicity – an assumption increasingly questioned – Hans Holbein’s 1523-5 Dance of Death qualifies as ‘classic’ on that score alone. But his striking work is also defining in deeper ways, epitomising the Reformation, when humanism, mercantilism, and artistic and scientific advances clashed and combined with classicism and Catholicism to launch the modern world. This is the first time the “Penguin Classics” descriptor has been applied to illustrations, but it is an admirable fit, and to concrete its status the Dance has been complemented by Holbein’s Alphabet of Death, and contextualised learnedly by cultural historian Ulinka Rublack.

Holbein is famed for his portraits of Henry VIII, Thomas More, and others – especially The Ambassadors in London’s National Gallery, his 1533 dual portrait of French diplomatists, Renaissance Men surrounded by the accoutrements of accomplishment as well as discord, between whom across a mosaic floor lies a monstrous anamorphic skull. The Dance of Death is less obviously appealing, being made up of 41 grayscale woodcuts, each just 65 mms high x 48 mms wide, but like the portraits it amply repays attention. The publishers have magnified the images four-fold to make it easier for us to appreciate the artist’s highly textured micro-universes, with their hyper-realistic settings and moral messaging.

Religious and political conventions were under heavy bombardment in proud cities like Reformation-ready Basle, where Holbein created his Dance, but innovators were also inheritors. Holbein was wonderfully fresh, but the concept stemmed from a 1280 poem, Le Dit des trois morts et les trois vifs, by Baudoin de Condé. Condé’s concept of a homiletic interchange between feckless living and ghastly dead transmuted swiftly into other languages and pictorial art across Europe. The word “macabre” was in use in France by 1376, and prelates or monarchs were often commemorated by Transi tombs, double-decker compositions representing them in both worldly splendour and mouldering actuality; an English example is Bishop Fleming’s (d.1431) in Lincoln Cathedral. In the fifteenth century the Dance was sometimes performed as a masque, Dominicans and Franciscans guised as skeletons capering grotesquely with others representing all grades of society – Terpsichore treading manic measures with Thanatos. Catacombs and ossuaries became sites of prurient pilgrimage from Paris to Bohemia and England (Hythe in Kent, Rothwell in Northamptonshire).

Catholics had always been told they should prepare themselves for orderly dissolution – property disposed of, wills made, family farewelled, masses ordered – in preparation for translation to Heaven, but death would always have been surrounded by fascinated fear. The comfort intended to be drawn from Dances or viewing the disjecta membra of saints through rock-crystal windows was often a pious platitude. The clownish cavortings of cadavers across chancel arches or convent walls were gallows humour, a natural response to the stark facts that child mortality in the 1520s was around 30% for the under fives, and adult life expectancy in the forties (Holbein died at 45). The Swiss, furthermore, were both importers of neighbours’ conflicts and exporters of mercenaries, and so grimly familiar with war. In Holbein’s accessible format, an old message gained new immediacy –

“Death was no longer up on the wall, removed from everyday life, but came home in many of these scenes….looked at closely by well-off people seated in comfortable wide, cushioned, beautifully carved chairs.”

Edification was now also at-seat, outré entertainment.

The idea of death as universal equaliser is a cliché, but in the hands of Holbein it was carried off with exuberant originality. The skulls beneath his subjects’ skins are always grinning, mocking their dignities, plans and pretensions, and lacerating their shortcomings. The fur-collared Senator engaged in politic conversations has noticed neither the pawing beggar, nor prone Death holding up an hourglass, because a demon blows a bellows into his ear. The Advocate accepting a fee has temporarily forgotten that he too is subject to punitive Law, which leers into his face and seems to drape a companionable ulna around his shoulders. The terrified Duchess sits up in her four-poster bed (a foreshadowing of the likely design of her tomb) to see skeletons cackling and fiddling, playing a tune even she must dance to. Even those to whom Death ought to be neither stranger nor terror are taken unawares – the Pope having his foot kissed, the Cardinal surrounded by sybaritic vines, the Bishop yanked away as his flock scatters in flight. Skeletons scramble riggings to claim the Seaman, pound dulcimers to beguile the clearly unmusical Old Man, relieve the Pedlar of his vast backpack (although he does not look grateful), drive the struggling Ploughman’s skinny horses out of furrow, and stalk out of a hovel clutching a yelling Child while his family gapes aghast. Holbein’s Dance simultaneously bolstered Christianity and satirised many of its exponents, and inculcated virtue while impaling the social order as neatly as one of his ossiferous japesters pierces “The Knight” through vain armour.

While never revolutionary, the Dance would have had a semi-democratising effect, Rublack notes – “None of the elites are shown conducting the business of government in a responsible way”. These elites being largely Catholic (and aristocratic), this kind of art was conformable to the Reforming, mercantile climate in early 1520s Basle. But in 1526 the woodcutter who executed the illustrations died, and ten further pictures never materialised. Holbein was compelled to seek work in Antwerp and England, although he returned to Basle to retain citizenship, where he designed the title page of the April 1529 ordinance that introduced the Reformation officially. (Two months previously, enthusiasts had instigated a purgative, cantonal ‘cleansing’ of religious artworks, ironically including some of Holbein’s.) He seems to have found the city increasingly uncongenial, and in 1532 returned to England, where he died in 1543 (his burial place, appropriately, is unknown). His Dance was republished in 1538, but it was only after his death that it really became celebrated, with innumerable editions in many languages.

Dances would be published across Europe into the nineteenth century – in England, William Combe’s wry 1814 text was brought brilliantly to life by Rowlandson – but post-Darwin, it became harder to see death as part of a Plan, or release to some (always nebulous) higher state. The Victorians had a neo-Gothic streak, but they also swept away the past with brusque energy. As Europeans lived longer and saw through old enigmas, death became less familiar, and more frightening. This process appears to be ongoing, judging from our obsession with healthcare and security, and growing interest in fields like cryogenics, genetic engineering and life extension. We seem if anything less able to face intractability with equanimity than were sixteenth century Helvetians. Hopefully this welcome addition to Holbein historiography will make some of us better people, or at least let us see ourselves in civilisational context – and this, after all, is the defining purpose of classics.

This review appeared in the May 2017 Spiked Review, and is reproduced with permission

Into the valley – Michael Wilding’s In the Valley of the Weed


Into the Valley

In the Valley of the Weed, Michael Wilding, Melbourne: Arcadia, 2016, $29.95

“Old radicals become quietist” a character in Valley of the Weed tells Plant, the appropriately-named private detective investigating the disappearance of a high-profile academic. “They stop socialising. Stay at home and surrender to the comforting millenarian conviction that change will come, but in its own time.” One who has not surrendered is Michael Wilding, ex-vanguardist of Australia’s 1970s “new writing”, a post-modernist before the term existed, but now through force of events transmuting into a kind of cultural conservative. Notwithstanding his differences with the Australia of forty years ago, he is anguished by its present etiolation, and detests the looming ‘rational’ robotism in which everything Western can be automated and alienated, commodified and controlled.

The establishment Wilding lacerated or lampooned was long ago captured by its enemies, and ideas then thought revolutionary have ossified into the intolerant orthodoxy of “The Cathedral”. But old enemies have returned, if anything in greater strength – censorship, conformity, ignorance and nastiness. Now the iconoclastic litterateur satirises P.C. pearl-clutchers and priests as gleefully as once he impaled mainstream politicians or real-life Edna Everages. Valley of the Weed is the latest of some fifty books by Wilding, all of them remarkably adding something to, or defending, the Western canon. This book is dedicated to Barry Spurr, one of Australia’s most eminent victims of the ultra-Left’s Two Minute Hates. (Wilding also paid tribute to Spurr last year, in an essay on Milton’s Samson Agonistes – another poetical thinker who fell out with his times – for The Free Mind, the Festschrift produced to protest that despicable defenestration.) This is the fourth novel to feature Plant, who is sketchily delineated, but seems in some ways a simulacrum of the author – cultivated, a disillusioned radical, an un-dogmatic observer of trends, and would-be righter of wrongs.

Plant is asked by a retired professor with links to the intelligence services to find out what has happened to Tim Vicars, a well-known academic who has been looking into whether marijuana ought be legalised, but is then vilified when some of his e-mails sent over his university server are published by a leftwing website. These contain “the forbidden words…racist and sexist and homophobic stuff”, so naturally the university fires him to show it shares the same “elevated values” as the students (and divert attention from controversial cost-cutting and department closures). “We have a word for everything” Plant notes stolidly, but there are some we are no longer permitted to pronounce. In an ostensibly ever-freer era, the cockily confident speech celebrated by Sidney J. Baker is ironically shrinking back into itself, its speakers looking increasingly over their shoulders in fear of a visit from the Australian Offence Forces.

Vicars’ banishment and vanishment brings to light a convoluted sexual life, and a mass of contradictions and enigmas about his character, modern academe, drugs laws, the secret state, civil liberties, abuses of the internet, media bias, the literary world, and political correctness – in short the whole tenor of 21st century Australia as it transitions from mateship to tense modernity. The ambiguity that engulfs everything is reinforced by Wilding’s technique of raising possibilities without offering answers, foresting action and dialogue with question marks. He also provides Plant with an interlocutor named Fullalove, who combines recondite knowledge and great articulacy with acute paranoia (exacerbated by cannabis use). Wilding has an interest in conspiracies going back to the 1970s, and a rare knowledge of arcana and esotericism as far back as John Dee, so every situation is open to almost endless interpretations, depending on one’s perspective, or perhaps the levels of tetrahydrocannibinol in their blood. Almost everyone in Plant’s un-Lucky Country is manipulated or manipulator, confused or cunning, mixed in their motives, in some way suspect.

Why was Plant asked to investigate in the first place? Why has Vicars taken such an interest in marijuana, and who stands to gain or lose by any change in policy? Why did he use those “frightful words” on a server he must have known would be monitored – misplaced humour, psychological safety-valve, or a deep plan to extricate himself from intolerable pressures? The “libertarian anarchist” editrix who doxxes Vicars has highly pragmatic politics, moving from Left to Right and back to Left, following the culture (or is she shaping it?). Who sent her the emails? Why did she take such prurient relish in publishing them? Has some secret part of her always wanted to say those words herself? Is she really interested in social betterment – or is it actually all about her? Even the weather at times descends to disorientate, Plant staring out from Vicars’ apartment into a fog where “even absence was obliterated”. He longs, like so many others, for a clearer view, some return to form and narrative, a move away from self-realisation to society, a recrudescence of meaning, the end of post-modernity and its post-truth by-blow.

All this may sound forbiddingly worthy, but the undoubted import is delivered with ease, bejewelled with sparkling imagery – “she looked up like an indignant bird, one of the smaller ones, interrupted in eating crumbs” – and mordantly witty insights into how we live, and a few of the reasons why. Raising possibilities includes raising the possibility of escape, but Wilding is non-prescriptive almost to a fault. He offers no neat solution to Plant’s case – and no easy answers to any problems, except to be aware of what is (or might be) happening, at most a turning off rather than on, a tuning out rather than in, and a dropping out, and off the grid. Luckily for lovers of good fiction and good societies, he will never pursue this quietist course himself, but keep on instead adding new new writing to our old, helping in his engaging, unpretentious way to reinvest the West with sorely-needed significance.

This review first appeared in the Spectator Australia in January 2017, and is reproduced with acknowledgements

Dr. Johnson in Scotland – An Englishman in his Near Abroad




Samuel Johnson was nearly sixty-four when he made an unexpected journey. One day in 1773, the internationally-renowned lexicographer, essayist, poet, and novelist, who somehow combined being one of the great thinkers of Europe with being a personification of bluff Englishness, suddenly switched his great gaze north, in search of a dream of youth. His one good eye ranged restlessly beyond the metropolis whose intellectual life he characterised and whose very language he had helped codify, over the midlands from which he had emerged, across an echoing border and still further north and west, until it lighted at last on certain storm-swept islands he had never seen, but which had long ago taken hold of his heart. He avers in his 1775 account, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, 

I had desired to visit the Hebrides, or Western Islands of Scotland, so long, that I scarcely remember how the wish was originally excited.

How, indeed?

The expedition took many admirers and friends by surprise, because what could there be in such outlandish outcrops to engage the interest of so lambent an intellect? Furthermore, the Great Cham of English literature was noted for anti-Scottish squibs, such as calling Scotland “a worse England”, or chortling that

The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!

He had also been one of the first to doubt the authenticity of James Macpherson’s 1760 Ossian epic poem cycle, which purported to be translations of ancient Gaelic texts, but which Johnson dismissed as being “as gross an imposition as ever the world was troubled with” – a piece of brusquerie which earned him the resentment of many Scots seeking cultural compensation for political subjection.

Remote islands have an intrinsic fascination, and Johnson had read Pliny’s Natural History, the first text to mention the archipelagoes. In the course of a lifetime’s restless reading, he would have come across other allusions and references, ranging from Ptolemy’s Deucaledonian Sea to Thomas Pennant, author of A Tour of Scotland And Voyage to the Hebrides (1772). He may have read parts of the 14th/15th century fantastical-factual Scotichronicon, as well as recent historiographies – and had probably pored over the 1654 Blaeu Atlas, the first atlas of Scotland, but which drew on maps from 1583. If so, he must have been tantalized by The Westerne Iles’ convoluted coasts, scanty settlements, and evocative blue expanses broken only by tiny sloops, watched over by wind-spirits and bare-breasted Gaels propping up cartouches.

Johnson was always aware he had not travelled much, and which other locale within striking distance could be more divergent from modern England? What an adventure such an expedition must have seemed, for someone who always combined melancholia and gravitas with impishness – “frisking” through London in the smallest hours, exchanging abuse with Thames watermen, or rolling down a Lincolnshire hillside to the surprise of old friend Bennet Langton. Eldritch islands lost in mists of spray and tradition were the antithesis of well-lit salons. He was a man who clove to solidity – exemplified in his dismissal of Berkeley’s immaterialism (Johnson kicked a stone hard, and cried “I refute it thus!”).

He knew of scientific excursions by fossilists researching the new concept of “deep time”, and the 1772 trip of his botanist friend Sir  Joseph Banks, who had been awed by the basalt cliffs of Staffa. He also wanted to see something of “the ancient state of Britain” before it altered, and to hear Gaelic, long in decline and which most thought must soon disappear. For him languages were “the pedigree of nations”, that once lost could never be recovered. More specifically, as a young pamphleteer he had disparaged the Hanoverians and praised the Stuarts, so that some had thought him seditious. In 1739, he had published Marmor Norfolciense, which contained the lines,

Then o’er the world shall discord stretch her wings,

Kings change their laws, and kingdoms change their kings,

a sentiment interpreted dangerously by some as a “bloody Jacobitical pamphlet”.

The youthful Johnson was certainly not immune to what Henry James would call “the most romantic episode in the world”, but as Boswell noted shrewdly,

Mr. Johnson is not properly a Jacobite. He does not hold the jus divinum of kings. He founds their right on long possession, which ought not to be disturbed upon slight grounds.

James L. Clifford summed up Johnson’s contradictions in Young Samuel Johnson (1957),

Tradition, orthodoxy, strict legitimacy of succession, had powerful appeals. The Stuart cause aroused in him deep responses. But by temperament he was also rational and realistic, placing common sense high in the scale of human values.

Late in life, Johnson remarked to Boswell that if he could have held up his hand to secure the victory of Charles at Culloden he was uncertain he would have done so. But in 1773 he still contained a residuum of chivalry; his reservations about Scots were always tempered by admiration for the dedication of many to their lost cause, their “King over the water”. On top of this, he had heard about injustices meted out to Highlanders in the wake of the ’45 which offended against his sense of natural justice.

Johnson also knew his span was running out. He had always been robust, notwithstanding childhood tuberculosis and scrofula (which had badly scarred his face), his eyesight, partial deafness, and Tourette’s Syndrome, which made him twitch, claw the air and gesticulate uncontrollably at times, and “blow out his breath like a whale” at the end of sentences. But now he was losing strength and starting to have difficulty walking, so there would be few other opportunities to make so demanding a trip.

Providentially, he had to hand thirty-two year old Auchinleck aristocrat James Boswell – energetic, desperate to give Johnson a better impression of his homeland, and himself curious to see the Highlands, which even to many Scots seemed like a barbaric foreign country. He was also understandably eager to show off his celebrated friend to his North British acquaintance – and to have Johnson to himself for an extended period, because he was meditating writing his Life. So on 6th August, Johnson left London on what would be a eighty-three day trek. Thomas Trotter made a now-famous engraving to accompany Boswell’s 1786 Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides – the Doctor in travelling garb, a shambling, awkward, but imposing figure, a large, bushy, greyish wig, sturdy boots, and what Boswell describes as

…a very wide brown cloth great coat with pockets which might almost have held the two volumes of his folio dictionary,

leaning on an oak staff with nails driven in at intervals of a foot and a yard. (Johnson admonishes expeditionaries “no man should travel unprovided with instruments for taking heights and distances.”) His luggage contained an un-bookish brace of pistols – although he left these in Edinburgh, once his fellow-traveller had persuaded him the Highlands were not infested with bandits.

At Edinburgh, Boswell introduced him to some of the leading lights of the “Athens of the North”, and showed him Holyrood Palace, the university, libraries, and courts, while hoping he would not notice the smells wafting from wynds. They visited the church of St. Giles which had been knocked about by Presbyterians, about which Johnson was silent until they arrived at the Royal Infirmary, where a board instructed visitors “Clean your feet!” Johnson turned to Boswell and said slyly,

There is no occasion for putting this at the doors of your churches!

Johnson was always saddened by the destruction of churches, and at St. Andrews he stood bareheaded within the former precincts of the cathedral. When Boswell wondered where John Knox had been buried, the indignant Doctor answered,

I hope in the high-way: I have been looking upon his reformations.

But Johnson was never inconsolably nostalgic. Boswell asked why he ate heavily after viewing shattered antiquities, and received the superbly practical reply,

When comparing a worse present state with a better that is past, you cannot but feel sorrow. It is not cured by reason, but by the incursions of present objects.

They travelled via Dundee, Arbroath, Montrose, Aberdeen (where Johnson was made a freeman), Inverness and down the Great Glen. They examined a wayside hovel, asking the ancient, Gaelic-monoglot inhabitant where she slept, which made her fear they wanted to bed her. Only Boswell had the effrontery to insist on seeing her bed-chamber. They visited the eminent jurist Lord Monboddo – dressed, comically, in “a rustick suit” and little round hat, and holding a specimen of corn from his fields – and the military commanders at Forts George and Augustus. Military commanders were still thought a necessity. Apart from the usual problems of policing a remote region (still occasionally fallen upon by Barbary slavers), it was just twenty-seven years since the Young Pretender had last left for France. He was no longer a threat, nor even “Bonnie”, sunk into dipsomania in Rome, while his religiously-inclined sole sibling had no worldly ambitions. But redcoats were nonetheless needed to enforce palpably unjust laws onto a poor and proud people, still smarting from the severities of “Butcher” Cumberland’s suppression. Johnson despised these laws,

…which, though they cannot be called cruel, have produced much discontent, because they operate upon the surface of life, and make every eye bear witness to subjection.

Under the “Clan Act” of 1715, the estates of Jacobite nobles had been forfeited, while tenants who had supported the crown were given two years rent remission (the Act was mitigated later). Hereditary posts were abolished, and carpetbaggers advanced – many connected with the aggressive Campbells of Argyll, execrated for the Massacre of Glencoe, and furthermore Presbyterian. Some whose septs had dominated the Highlands since time out of mind were still in exile, while others were marginalized. Symbols of old allegiances were also forbidden, aiding cultural amnesia. Highlanders were forbidden to wear tartan, on pain of six months imprisonment or transportation to the colonies. There were disarming acts in 1716, 1725 and 1747 (these “arms” included bagpipes).

But the advance of Enlightenment ideas  – Edinburgh was home to Adam Smith and David Hume – and mercantilism also called time on the clans. Chiefs became land-owners instead of lords, and wardholder clansmen became tenants. Chiefs’ power had ended, although prestige lingered like old perfume. In any case, chiefs had fewer potential followers. Proto-agronomists were introducing less labour-intensive crops, and advocating agriculture that favoured sheep over people. The Highlands, inhabited since the Mesolithic era, were emptying as the uprooted sailed for new shores, some gulled by tracts like one Johnson mentions, which claimed the climate of Nova Scotia was like that of Italy. The Clearances had begun – an insidious dispossession, cloaked in cant, which would carry on well into the 19th century, memory of which still envenoms Scottish nationalism (although many clearers were Scots). Johnson was indignant,

To hinder insurrection, by driving away the people, and to govern peaceably, by having no subjects, is an expedient that argues no great profundity of politicks.

Once off the military roads, travelling became slower and more laborious, often along sinuous heathery lanes scarcely more than sheep tracks. It was also often dangerous, with steep slopes and precipices, and at times they had to dismount from their ponies – doubtless to the animals’ great relief, as Johnson was unusually heavy. This is not to mention the firths, lochs, sounds and straits separating the islands from each other and the mainland – notoriously windy and rocky, with unpredictable weather, complex currents and seething undertows, of which the Corryvreckan whirlpool, the “Cauldron of the Hag”, was only the most feared. The landscape did not beguile the time. Johnson was not an admirer of rugged scenery for its own sake. He frequently referred to the dearth of trees (he exaggerated this, and there has been subsequent afforestation), more apparent the further west they wended. He wrote of the fêted islands of Loch Lomond that they

…court the gazer at a distance, [but] disgust him at his approach.

As for the deep Highlands,

…the appearance is that of matter incapable of form or usefulness, dismissed by nature from her care and disinherited of her favours.

Dislike of this kind of countryside was the default setting of the 18th century; refined travellers sometimes closed the blinds of their carriages to avoid having to see such un-tailored topography. There was growing enthusiasm for “landskips” among artists and aristocrats, but for now  Johnson helped police the taste boundaries, once telling Boswell a mountain he had called “impressive” was only “a considerable protuberance”.

Had Johnson been dreamier, he might have liked it more. With a cultural geography combining trace elements of pre-Celtic ur-myth with Celtic Christianity, Pictish symbolism, Norse mythology, medieval Catholicism, and witch-suspecting Protestantism, the west was invested with uncanniness. Each tide-race was populated with fictive fauna, like the Mester Stoorworm sea-serpent, the seal-human hybrid silkie, or the tiny Blue Men of the Minch. Ashore, the eerie account was equally compendious, every lochan seemingly having its kelpie (water-horse), every tract of ling, rowan, or sliding scree its tricksy brownie or glaistig. Folk-tales were current of the People of the Hollow Hills, the Spirit of the Speckled Mountain, the Unseelie (unlucky) Court, the Little Weeper of Sorrow, the Washerwoman of Death, evil eyes, clan amulets, and midnight coronachs heard where no human piper could be playing. But although Johnson liked traditionary hazes on Tory principle, he treated superstitions with scorn. The only one he did not toss and gore was “second sight”, the supposed ability to see things from afar, or foretell the future. He quizzed believers (many educated) closely, and at last averred that disbelievers

presupposed more knowledge of the universal system than man has attained.


All along the way, and in whatever unlikely surroundings, Johnson emitted opinions and aphorisms on everything – defending Pope Sixtus IV for signing death-warrants on his death-bed, criticising Montesquieu for citing foreign practices to defend “strange opinions”, ridiculing Peter the Great for working as a shipwright to understand shipbuilding (“Sir Christopher Wren might as well have served his time to a bricklayer, and first, indeed, to a brick maker.”). Boswell was equally impressed by Johnson’s interest in medicine, distilling, milling, brewing, whey-making, coining, thatching, glazing, shoes, or potatoes. Eager to be informed – or to show off – Johnson interrogated everyone, to the extent some thought him a practitioner.

Much of the charm of Boswell’s book is showing Johnson in such unexpected guises – the literary lion un-proudly learning from the unlettered. Or the magisterial mind condescending into roguish wit or even clowning – Johnson astride a Shetland pony, brandishing a broadsword, wearing a large blue bonnet, or enjoying the bagpipes with his good ear pressed close to the drone. But he was always alive to indignity. Once, he was unguarded enough to say,

I have often thought, that, if I kept a seraglio, the ladies should all wear linen gowns, – or cotton…I would not have silk; you cannot tell when it is clean.

But when Boswell laughs, Johnson

…retaliated with such keen sarcastick wit, and with such a variety of degrading images, of every one of which I was the object…that I would gladly expunge from my mind every trace of this severe retort.

They came to Glenelg, on the mainland opposite Skye, after a day made tolerable only by having been informed there was an inn, “a house of lime and slate and glass”, which Johnson refers to wickedly as an “image of magnificence”. But they found a damp and dirty room, no food and only whisky to drink, and a smoke-blackened workman who leapt out of a “wretched bed” as the hungry travellers brushed past to their adjacent piles of hay. Johnson hated missing food (“He who does not mind his belly, will hardly mind anything else”). In Scotland, he liked the breakfasts, but shuddered at the slices of cheshire cheese which “pollute the tea-table”. Boswell teased him by telling a hostess that Johnson liked cold sheep’s-head for breakfast, knowing Johnson would be offended to be offered it.

The Cuillin hills dominate Skye, and from them radiate the peninsulas of Sleat, Minginish, Waternish and Trotternish. Johnson and Boswell landed at Armadale (which they spell Armidel) on Sleat, to stay with Sir Alexander Macdonald, head of a clan that came somehow out of those centuries when, narrates the 13th-century Norse chronicle Heimskringla,  “…the hunger battle-birds were filled in Skye with blood of foemen killed.” Later Macdonalds crimsoned themselves with equal enthusiasm (although the clan stayed at home in 1745), and in peacetime devised such pragmatic schemes as selling superfluous Skye and South Uist peasants into slavery. But Johnson’s host, the 9th Baronet of Sleat, was Eton-educated, married to a Yorkshire heiress, and “entirely anti-Celtic” in his tastes. He had raised rents, forcing many tenants onto emigrant ships, and clearly found his antecedents an embarrassment. He showed surprise at his guest’s boyish rhapsodizing. “The Highland chief”, Johnson said, only half-humorously,

…should not be allowed to go farther south than Aberdeen – in general, they will be tamed into insignificance…Were I in your place, sir, in seven years I would make this an independent island. I would roast oxen whole, and hang out a flag as a signal to the Macdonalds to come and get beef and whisky…Sir, I would have a magazine of arms.

When the baronet protested,  “Sir, they would rust”, Johnson responded,

Let there be men to keep them clean. Your ancestors did not use to let their arms rust!

Johnson saw an otter at Armadale – almost his only reference to the animal kingdom. He would probably have been surprised by modern eco-tourism – and scornful of my pleasure in seeing golden eagles, or standing in gentle rain in hills above Tobermory on Mull, listening to an intimate colloquy of nesting ravens, “hunger battle-birds” at home in an ash.

Their McKinnon host at Coriatachan provided Gaelic songs, copious whisky, and a “numerous and cheerful company”. Johnson retired early, but he had clearly been over-excited by the atmosphere, writing an ode, part of which runs,

I roam through clans of savage men,

Untamed by arts, untaught by pen

Or cower within some squalid den,

O’er reeking soil.

They stayed at Coriatachan (now vanished) again, giving a delightful image of Johnson at his most relaxed,

…one of our married ladies, a lively pretty little woman, good-humouredly sat down upon Dr. Johnson’s knee, and, being encouraged by some of the company, put her hands around his neck, and kissed him. – ‘Do it again (said he,) – and let us see who will tire first.’

Johnson distrusted ships, and en route over restive seas to Raasay, Boswell records him “high on the stern, like a magnificent Triton”, muttering an Horatian ode Otium Divos rogan in patent, Prensus Aegaeo (“Peace the sailor prays, caught in a storm on the open Aegean”). But unease turns into Odyssean imagery in Johnson’s words as they neared land,

The singing of our rowers was succeeded by that of reapers.

Johnson loved Raasay,

Without is the rough ocean and the rocky land, the beating billows and the howling storm: within is plenty of elegance, beauty and gaiety, the song and the dance.… nor did ever fairies trip with greater alacrity.

Boswell conjures it in detail –

Rasay himself dance with as much spirit as any man, and Malcolm bounded like a roe….much jovial noise…It entertained me to observe [Johnson] sitting by, while we danced, sometimes in deep meditation – sometimes smiling complacently, – sometimes looking upon Hooke’s Roman History, – and sometimes talking a little, amidst the noise of the ball, to Mr. Donald McQueen, who anxiously gathered knowledge from him.

There is a 1970s photo of that room, the stucco flaking, the lath showing through the plaster, taken shortly before the house was demolished. Raasay has melancholy associations for many, conveyed exquisitely in Hallaig by communist-sympathising islander Sorley MacLean,

Time, the deer, is in Hallaig Wood

There’s a board nailed across the window

I looked through to see the west

And my love is a birch forever

By Halal Stream, at her tryst

Between Inver and Milk Hollow…

Johnson respected the dead equally, Boswell recording his “striking appearance of horrour” at seeing uncovered human bones in a hypaethral chapel.

Back on Skye, Johnson met Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald. After Culloden, when the army was combing South Uist for the fugitive Charles, offering a £30,000 reward, Hugh Macdonald, captaining militia but secretly a Jacobite, put him in contact with his resourceful step-daughter. The voyage of Flora, the Prince (dressed as an unusually tall Irish maid), and several boatmen, “Over the sea to Skye” in an open boat has passed into song. Three miles out, a storm came up, but Charles helped maintain morale by telling stories and singing vainglorious anthems. Next day, they rowed for hours without making headway, the Prince’s offers to take his turn refused. They finally got ashore but were fired upon, and then Flora had to find a safe house. When at last they parted, Charles repaid money owed, gave her a miniature, and said he hoped to welcome her some day at St. James’s Palace – while holding four clean shirts, a chicken in a handkerchief, and a bottle each of whisky and brandy. Flora was questioned in the Tower of London, but no witnesses came forward, and she was reluctantly let go. She later went to America, where her sons fought for Britain, and her ship was attacked by the French, and she ruminated wryly that she had risked her life for both the Stuarts and the Brunswicks, for little return.

This was a high point for Boswell –

To see Dr. Samuel Johnson, the great champion of the English Tories, salute Miss Flora MacDonald in the isle of Sky, was a striking sight; for though somewhat congenial in their motions, it was very improbable they should meet there.

The following morning, Boswell found in Johnson’s room a slip of paper on which his friend had pencilled “Quantum cedar virtutibus aurum” (“with virtue weigh’d, what worthless trash is gold”). Another Johnson tribute is incised on Flora’s monument in Kilmuir, at the northern tip of Skye,

A name that will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.

They stayed at Dunvegan Castle, hosted by Norman MacLeod, the 23rd chief of that ilk. The castle stands on the loch-shore, surrounded by lichened gardens, through which courses a cascade called Rory Mór’s Nurse, because the 15th chief couldn’t sleep unless he could hear its tumult. Inside can still be seen things Johnson inspected – the Great Sword, a 16th century claymore (Johnson decided he would prefer a dirk), and the Faery Flag, a tattered silk good-luck talisman of unknown origin, which always had an hereditary custodian to carry it into battles; photographs of the Flag were carried by MacLeod R.A.F. pilots during World War Two. The 23rd chief’s wife was a moderniser, considering quitting the castle altogether, but Johnson disconcerted her by energetically arguing against, saying it was

…the very jewel of the estate. It looks as if it had been let down from heaven by the four corners, to be the residence of a Chief.

Boswell also records her being aghast at Johnson’s appraisal of humanity.

Lady McLeod asked, if any man was naturally good? Johnson – No madam, no more than a wolf. Boswell – Nor no woman, sir? J – No, sir. Lady McLeod started at this, saying, in a low voice, This is worse than Swift.

Johnson was disinclined to leave Dunvegan, but perhaps his hosts were relieved when he departed for Armadale, and thence across to Mull. They ran into a storm, of which Boswell gives a vivid account –

…what I never saw before, a prodigious sea, with immense billows coming upon a vessel, so as that it seemed hardly possible to escape.

A sailor with one eye steered them, the gunwales at times within an inch of the waves, the sails almost splitting, sparks flying from a burning peat held aloft as a signal. The travellers were seasick, but even in the throes of nausea and terror, Boswell could admire his friend, lying belowdecks “in philosophick tranquillity, with a greyhound of Col’s at his back, keeping him warm.” They abandoned ideas of Mull and instead after a dangerous struggle Col got them to safety on his island. “Col” was Donald Maclean, eldest son of the Laird of Coll, striving to preserve his coming inheritance through innovation. He told them stories while they were “stormstayed” – 500 years of Macleans, shapeshifting hare-women, and the “Religion of the Yellow Stick” (the Laird’s 1715 conversion of the Romanist islanders by the expedient of hitting one of them on the head with a cane and driving them to the kirk) – also of his many plans to enrich the island and avert emigration. Sadly, Col drowned not long after they had left his unusually optimistic island.

They got to Mull at last – a place of fossil trees, red granites, caves, rockfalls and earthquakes, standing stones and circles – another Maclean domain marked by their castles, and trawled around by prospectors hoping to drag up Armada bullion. They went onto the nearby island of Ulva, where Johnson slept in “an elegant bed of Indian cotton, spread with fine sheets” standing in a puddle on an earthen floor. On Inch Kenneth, they stayed with Sir Allan MacLean, head of the clan, and his daughters. Johnson rejoiced to find a road marked by cart-wheels, and

…this little desart [sic.] in these depths of Western obscurity, occupied not by a gross herdsman, or amphibious fisherman, but by a gentleman and two ladies, of high birth, polished manners and elegant conversation.

As so often, the travellers were struck by contrasts – wilderness and worsening weather outside, while inside were Latin books, and a girl playing a 1667 spinet.

The last island on their itinerary was also the most illustrious. Johnson, tiring of travel, allowed Boswell to persuade him into the mile-long voyage from Mull to Iona – a ferry route in operation continuously since the 6th century. But having been persuaded, he threw himself into the idea – literally, because whereas Boswell and Sir Allan were carried ashore by the boatmen who could not bring their craft alongside, Johnson leapt into the water and waded to land. In 563, the Irish St. Columba had likewise landed on the west coast of this little island of white sand, coloured stones, and puffing-holes, probably in the Bay at the End of the Ocean. It was the perfect land apart, and he promptly raised the Cairn with its Back to Ireland, and a cell. From these would come an abbey, a monastery, and a newly proselytising Christianity.


Iona grew until the Synod of Whitby (664), when its child, the Northumbrian church, opted for Roman dating and tonsures. But even in long retreat Iona was synonymous with sanctity and scholarship. Some of Columba’s remains were carried in the reliquary called the Brecbennoch of Columba, which was brought into battle to bring luck to Scottish arms as late as Bannockburn. This palladium could not prevent Vikings raiding and robbing Columba’s island, nor the massacre of 68 monks in 806, and the relics were sent to other churches  – but still the aura remained, and for centuries kings’ corpses (including Macbeth’s) would be ported along the Sráid na Marbh (Street of the Dead) to St. Oran’s burial place. In 1549, the High Dean of the Isles saw tombs for “fortey-eight crouned Scotts kings”, “four Ireland kings” and “eight kings of Norroway” – but a decade later they were smashed by iconoclasts, who also unroofed the abbey and destroyed all but three of 360 wayside crosses. Johnson repined,

The inhabitants are remarkably gross, and remarkably neglected…The island, which was once the metropolis of learning and piety, now has no school for education, nor temple for worship, only two inhabitants that can speak English, and not one that can write or read.

But he was glad he was there, striding bareheaded among half-walls and outlines of old buildings, visualising that island-universe. It inspired his Journey’s most-cited segment:

 Far from me and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue. That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.

He would have appreciated the 20th century re-roofing of the abbey and reinstatement of some old monuments.

Finally to Oban, news-sheets from Edinburgh, letters from friends, and eastwards and southwards on, easing again into England, but often looking back. It had been, Johnson assured Boswell, “the pleasantest part of his life”, and “I got an acquisition of more ideas by it than by anything I can remember”. His Journey is suffused with a sense of achievement; he was inspired to visit Wales and Paris, and even pondered a history of Skye. Although he would still occasionally be called anti-Scottish, the visit of so respected an arbiter undoubtedly also helped bring England and Scotland closer together.

Looking out an Armadale window one day, he had marvelled –

I cannot but laugh, to think of myself roving among the Hebrides at sixty. I wonder where I shall rove at fourscore!

In 1777, he was still prone to wanderlust – “I am a kind of ship with a wide sail, and without an anchor.” But he would never travel again (except to friends’ houses), or even get to fourscore, dying in London in 1784. Hopefully during his final frightened hours, he saw again images of his odyssey, and remembered sudden insights and Raasay nights – times when he had been supremely happy, when he bestrode an alien landscape and made it almost his own.

This article appeared in the August 2016 issue of Chronicles, and is reprinted with permission

Today’s book finds – Aeschylus, English letters, Hell Fire Clubs, Zweig…

An absorbing few hours today spent scouring old bookshops for anything interesting, with the usual mixed bag of long-sought books and serendipitous finds. First, the Seven Tragedies of Aeschylus, an 1843 edition of Prometheus Chained, The Seven Against Thebes, The Persians, Agamemnon, The Choephori, The Furies, and The Supplicants. Astonishing really to pick up a 174 year old book for 99p – quite apart from the fact that it will fill in some gaps in my knowledge. According to a pencilled inscription in capital letters, the book once belonged to “CORSON, 398 BADDON ROAD, CHELMSFORD, ESSEX”, and also contained a cryptic torn-off scrap of paper bearing the numbers 65, 64, 56 and 41.

Then there is Gilbert Phelps’ A Short History of English Literature (Folio, 1962), according to many something of an overlooked classic, and in any case a brilliant survey of the context of key English texts, giving us some idea why some famous books, starting with Beowulf and ending with D. H. Lawrence, appeared when they did, why there were written in the way they were, and how they were unique or ground-breaking.

Then there is Geoffrey Ashe’s 1974 Do What You Will – A Short History of Anti-Morality, which takes potentially lurid material (Rabelais’ Abbey of Theleme, John Dee, Hell Fire Clubs, de Sade, Swinburne and Crowley) and shows them in context and with humanity, linking them to contemporaneous culture and politics. Who couldn’t get drawn into chapters with titles like “Occult Wife-Swapping”, “A Dukedom in Hell”, “Bubb and Fred” and “The Gothic Plunge”?)

As a coda, Stefan Zweig’s 1944 The Buried Candelabrum. I have only read his captivating essays before, so am looking forward to this novel about the last days of Rome, as decadent Romans await anxiously the pleasure of Genseric’s Vandals. This copy was a 1959 Purim presentation by the Federation of Synagogues (Bethnal Green Talmud Torah Hebrew and Religion Classes) to one Harvey Shenasky of Class 2 for good attendance. It feels slightly piquant to find this story about a vanished world presented by the elders of a community that even in 1959 was starting to vanish from the East End. I fear the owner has now himself joined the ranks of the vanished…

Old books!