Saturday, 13 October 2012

It's that time again...


The name has been revealed.

In amongst all the political upheaval over the EU getting the Nobel Peace Prize, the recipient for literature has been rather overlooked. Not that Mo Yan is a household name...yet. The first Chinese citizen to receive the award in its 111 year history, Yan is very much a product of the education of life having left school at 12 to work in the fields and subsequently serve in the army.

Indeed, praised for merging 'folk tales, history and the contemporary' with 'hallucinatory realism', Yan's best known books Jiuguo (The Republic of Wine), Shengsi pilao (Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out) and Tanxiangxing(Sandalwood Death) are embedded in culture and experience.

It is still in this humble attitude that the 'overjoyed and scared' author will receive his Nobel Prize for Literature in a lavish awards ceremony on December 10th.

The Conscientious Objector...


On this day...American poet Robert Lowell is condemned to prison for evading the draft in 1943. Considered one of the founders of the confessional movement, Lowell would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and serve as the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress - yet as a 26 year-old his words only seemed to get him into trouble.

Writing of his decision not to join WWII, Lowell said in his letter addressed to then President Roosevelt: 'Dear Mr President: I very much regret that I must refuse the opportunity you offer me in your communication of August 6, 1943 for service in the Armed Force'. Such a response earned Lowell a year long sentence served first in New York and then Connecticut - an experience recalled in his poem 'Memories of West Street and Lepke' from his collection 'Life Studies'.

Seemingly an ideologically headstrong cohort, Lowell was not the first, and will surely not be the last writer to suffer for their personal convictions.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Deer Stalker Hats and Monocles: the Annual Sherlock Pilgrimage...

Some people fish, others paint and others watch television. Yet 70 members of the Sherlock Holmes Society spend their spare time making a pilgrimage to the Reichenbach Falls and acting out scenes from their hero's final struggle with Moriarty. Here is a video of them in action.

The Apprentice...

On this day...Aldous Huxley was hired as a schoolmaster at Eton in 1917. After deterioring eyesight had put pay to a career in medicine, the future author of 'Brave New World', returned to his alma mater to teach French. Yet it is one of his students that is arguably more noteworthy. Eric Blair, who would later use the pen name George Orwell, was impressed with his teacher's mastery of language despite Huxley being, by accounts, a poor educator.

This is only one of many relationships forged between authors throughout history. Famous pairings include:
  • C.S. Lewis & J. R. R. Tolkein
  • Bram Stoker & Oscar Wilde (Stoker married Wilde's fiance)
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald & Ernest Hemingway

Saturday, 2 June 2012

The Queen's Secret Library...

Screaming children, camping trips and torrents of rain. It must be a Bank Holiday weekend. Yet here is where the British spirit kicks in. Celebrating 60 years of Queen Elizabeth II's reign, jubilee fever is spreading across the nation.
Yet perhaps take a moment to consider. What was the world like 60 years ago? What books, if I may so bold, was the Queen herself settling down to read as she was preparing to assume her responsibilities?

Well, here's a snapshot of her (unofficial) library....
  • The Currents of Space - Isaace Asimov 
  • They Do it With Mirrors - Agatha Christie
  • The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemmingway
  • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - C. S. Lewis
  • East of Eden - John Steinbeck
  • Men at Arms - Evelyn Waugh
  • Charlotte's Web - E. B. White (all books published in 1952)

Yet perhaps it is one particular piece of non-fiction work that has seen good our monarch thus far. Indeed, maybe, just maybe, the Queen has tucked in her handbag her own copy of Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking.

Alas for us, we will never know.....

The Charmer...

On this day...The charismatic author and poet Vita Sackville-West died in 1962 at the age of 70. Born into an aristocratic family, Vita seemingly fulfilled parental expectations through her marriage to career politician Harld George Nicholson. Yet this perfectly ordinary facade was somewhat thrust away by an altogether more exotic lifestyle. Although she and her husband enjoyed a stated closeness, it was understood to be an open marraige, and one which Vita strayed from through numerous partners, including, most famously, the novelist and pillar of modernism Virginia Woolf. Indeed, it was as a result of this affair that Woolf wrote Orlando, described by Sackville-West's son as 'the longest and most charming love-letter in literature'.

However, it should not be assumed that Sackville-West's only contributionto literature was a liason with one of its most profound assets. The author of The Edwardians, (a critique of aristocratic society) and All Passions Spent, Sackville-West also became the only writer to ever win the Hawthornden Prize twice for her poetry and wrote biographies of both Joan of Arc and Aphra Behn. These achievements were crowned in 1947 as she was made a Companion of Honour for her services to literature.

Monday, 16 January 2012

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes continue....

Following another action packed series, the BBC have announced that 'Sherlock' will return for a third installment. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the main role, the series has been praised by both critics and audiences alike, with viewing figures of 10.7 million for its first episode.

Its creator, Stephen Moffat, had been coy when asked about a possible return, telling the BBC that there was 'no guarantee we'll be bringing him back'. Yet following the series' conclusion, 'The Reichenbach Falls' last night, Moffat wrote on Twitter, 'Of course there's going to be a third series - it was commissioned at the same time as the second. Gotcha!' The commission echoes Conan Doyle's own ressurection of the character who had supposedly been killed off after toppling off the Reichenbach Falls with Moriarty in 'The Final Problem'. Dates of filming and broadcasting have yet to be announced.

The Stickler for the Rules...

On this day...Antonio de Nebrija presented the first Spanish grammar book to Queen Isabella I in 1492. Since compared to names such as Erasmus, de Nebrija, who later latinized his name to 'Aelius Antonius Nebrissensis', had dedicated his life to furthering classical education is his native land.

His 'Gramatica de la lengua castellena', which was the first book to study the rules of a Western European language other than Latin, was split into four books: Orthography, Prosody and syllables, Etymology and diction, and Syntax. A fifth book aided those learning Castillian as a foreign language.

Upon presenting the book to the queen, she is said to have asked, 'Why would I want a work like this? I already know the language.' Nebrija reportedly answered, 'Majesty, the language is the instrument of the empire'

Monday, 2 January 2012

A Christmas Extravaganza...

With the last mince pie eaten, the decorations taken down, and the return of work looming, one could be forgiven for experiencing a dose of the post-Christmas blues. The new year however, entices optimism. On a personal level; resolutions, new opportunities, reunions and family. On a literary level; award ceremonies, new releases, anniversaries and enjoyment.

If trying to reconcile the two is proving a seemingly impossible task, why not ease your way in by catching up with some of the tv literary highlights from over the holidays? From enthralling 'Great Expectations' to the more light-hearted 'The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff', from the much loved 'Chronicles of Narnia' to the biopic 'Becoming Jane', there are hours of entertainment available. Suggestions and links for these and many more are located on the right hand side of this blog. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Cats marauding as ghost pirates, what more do you want?...

Yesterday saw 'Cats Ahoy!' being honoured as the lastest recipient of the Roald Dahl Funny Prize. The rhyming picture book, written by Peter Bently, was named the funniest book for children aged six and under and was articulately summised by chair of the judges Michael Rosen, 'Cats marauding as ghost pirates to steal fishy bounty from lily-livered humans: what more do you want from a funny book?'. Bently was honoured alongside Liz Pichon, whose book 'The Brilliant World of Tom Gates', a 'must for anyone who doodles, likes to wind up their sibling, has a serious caramel wafer habit and enjoys having their chuckle muscles exercised', won in the 7-14 category. Both were awarded prizes of £2,500.

The Tragic Welshman...

On this day...Welsh poet Dylan Thomas died in 1953 at the age of 39. The child of an English master and seamstress, Thomas was born in Swansea only months after the outbreak of the First World War. Despite his Welsh heritage, Thomas was brought up to speak only English, and continued to use the anglicised form of his name throughout his life. An ill child, and undistinguished student, Thomas spent his time keeping poetry notebooks and between the years of 1930 and 1934, accumulated over 200 entries which would later form over half of his published works.

Sadly it is Thomas' blighted personal life that seems to so often overshadow the remarkableness of his poetry. Having married a dancer in 1937, Thomas was considered to weak to serve in World War Two, instead writing scripts for the government. Indeed the immediate post war period was one of literary success, with the emergence two of his best known works, 'Deaths and Entrances', and 1953 radio play 'Under the Milkwood'. However, by now a committed alcoholic, Thomas soon took a turn for the worst. Whilst in New York to take part in his play, Thomas suffered black outs, turned blue and slipped into a coma, before finally dying of pneumonia. Despite his tragic and early death, Thomas is still celebrated as one of the nation's best loved poets.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Anger at Anonymous..

Yesterday saw William Shakespeare's name being removed from sign all around Warwickshire, the county of Startford-upon-Avon. One might think this a work done by vandals, or perhaps even vehement Marlowe fans, but it was in fact an act carried out by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust as a campaign against new film 'Anonymous'. Premiering yesterday, and starring Rafe Spall, Rhys Ifans and Vanessa Redgrave, the film is just the newest medium by which people are seeking to put forward the argument that the man we know as Shakespeare was merely a 'barely literate frontman for the Earl of Oxford'.

Thus, in a backlash against this attempt to 'rewrite English culture and history', the Trust has put in place a campaign by which 9 road signs and 10 pub signs are being taped over, as well as a sheet being placed over a memorial in Stratford-upon-Avon itself. The trust said, 'Today's activity barely scratches the surface, but we hope it will remind people of the enormous legacy we owe to William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon'. The film 'Anonymous' is in cinemas from October 28th.

The Literary King...

On this day...English monarch Alfred the Great died in 899 at the approximate age of 50. The only English royal to be attributed with such an epithet, Alfred is renowned for his miltary achievements, not least the protection of his Anglo-Saxon kingdom from the Vikings. Yet what is perhaps less well known about the youngest son of Æthelwulf of Wessex, is his penchant for learning. Inspired by Charlemange, Alfred created a court school, not only to educate his own children, but also, countering the perception of aristocratic snobbery, to educate those of lesser birth who showed intellectual potential. Indeed, after only a short time, 'they were seen to be devoted and intelligent students of the liberal arts'.

If the younger generation were embarking on a process of learning, it also made sense for Alfred to cement that of the elder, and so he ensured that literacy became a requirement for those holding a position of authority, especially in religious capacities. The king chose to lead this charge on education himself, beginning a Alfredian programme of translation of books into English that he deemed 'most necessary for all men to know'. These works included Gregory the Great's 'Pastoral Care', Boethius's 'Consolation of Philosophy', St. Augustine's 'Soliloquies', and the first fifty psalms of the Psalter.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Will it be a barnstorming performance?...

The king of all literature prizes is upon us once again. With the winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize to be announced later this evening, it seems an appropriate time to remind ourselves of the contenders. The 'odds on favourite' position lies with Julian Barnes, a four time previous nominee, for his work 'The Sense of an Ending'. Yet he faces fierce competition from Carol Birch, Patrick deWitt, Esi Edugyan, Stephen Kelman and AD Miller, the other five authors to make the shortlist. Here, you can watch the nominees reading extracts from their own novels. Make sure you tune in to catch the winner.

UPDATE: Julian Barnes has been announced as the 2011 Man Booker Prize winner

The Class of 1386...

On this day...The University of Heidelburg was officially opened in 1386. The oldest univeristy in Germany, and only the third established in the Holy Roman Empire, Heidelburg has many things to boast of. Not least is its alumni, whose numbers include 30 Nobel Laureates, German Chancellors, and even a Pope. However, for those of a literary persuasion, there are also several notable associations. Perhaps the most decorated is Nobel Laureate Carl Spittler who was rewarded 'in special appreciation of his epic, "Olympian Spring"'.

Yet despite his success amongst critics and academics, Spittler is by no means the best known inhabitant of the medieval walls. Mark Twain, who visited the univeristy as part of his European tour in 1878, detailed his impression in the travelogue 'A Tramp Abroad', humorously depicting a student body of aristocratic dandies. Such was the popularity of the American writer, that a US Army base in the city now bears his name. The university also plays fictional host to W. Somerset Maugham's Philip Carey in his novel 'Of Human Bondage' and, perhaps more famously, appears on screen in the Oscar winning adaptation of Bernard Schlink's 'The Reader'.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Jane or Joanne?...

It seems unoriginal to begin another awed tribute to the Hary Potter phenomenon, whose last installment has taken £104 million in its opening weekend in the US and Canada. Instead, across the Atlantic, another famous female British writer was proving that endurance of time is the real test.

Almost 194 years after her death, a rare Jane Austen manuscript has sold for £993, 250. 'The Watsons', an unfinished novel complete with revisions and crossings out, was originally owned privately, yet is now in the hands of the Bodleian Library, who beat off competition from New York's Morgan Library. Having secured money from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Bodleian say that they are 'delighted' to have bought 'such a valuable part of our literary heritage'.

Austen may be worth 105 times less than Potter today, but until Rowling influences 200 years' worth of readers, she won't hold the same place in literary hearts as the beloved Jane.

The Romancer...

On this day...Famous Italian poet and 'Father of Humanism' Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch, died in 1374 at the age of 69. Born in Tuscany, Petrarch spent much of his early childhood in Florence before leaving with his family to Avignon to follow the flourishing papacy of Pope Clement V. There, much against his wishes he was schooled in the practice of law - a profession he could only escape from upon the death of his parents. Instead he pursued his love of classical literature, creating his own Latin epic 'Africa', and his disdain for the ignorance of the intervening centuries led Petrarch to be credited with creating the concept of the 'Dark Ages'.

Although he fulfilled many roles throughout the rest of his life - scholar, diplomat, priest - Petrarch is best known for his poetry, in particular, that devoted to Laura. The identity of the woman is unknown, yet she has become famous world over as the original Petrarchan ideal, which writers such as Sidney and Shakespeare have since incorporated in their own works. 'Il Canzoniere', or 'The Songbook', mainly written in sonnet form, alongside 'Secretum' and 'Itinerarium', Petrarch's guide to the Holy Land, have ensured his place among the greatest and most influential of the world's writers.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Ordinary people, extraordinary writing...

The time has come for the Guardian First Book Award to appear again, yet this time it has a different dimension. The honour for debut writers has traditionally been chosen by expert panellists, who narrow entries down to a longlist, shortlist, and finally a winner. However, this year, for the first time, the full catalogue of submissions have been released online. The 136 entries from publishers include the 2011 Orange Prize winner Tea Obreht, yet the Guardian believes that the public might know better. At the end of this month, the 10th title of the longlist will be announced, chosen by ordinary people, but hopefully uncovering extraordinary writing.

The Scottish Adventure ...

On this day...English poet John Keats visited the home of another famous composer of verse, Robert Burns in 1818. During a summer walking tour in the North Country, whilst traversing 20 or 30 miles a day, Keats came to the family home of the Scottish Bard in Alloway.

The 'Ploughman Poet', who had died 24 years previously, has since been lauded as a founder of the Romantic movement, and influenced not only Keats himself, but also his contemporaries, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Wordsworth. It was here that Keats composed his sonnet, 'Written in the Cottage Where Burns Was Born' - a poem most notable for its premonitory first line, 'this mortal body of a thousand days'. Keats died 43 days short of this number.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Tennis in texts...

Wimbledon may have come to an end, but the sport of strawberries and cream remains all year round in literature. Indeed, from Betjemin poetry, to Shakespeare's histories, racquets pervade countless pages. Here is a quiz about tennis in texts.

The Class Clown...

On this day...Irish playwright, poet and politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan died in 1816, at the age of 64. Born in Dublin to parents both active in the theatre business, Sheridan moved to England at the age of seven and attended the independent Harrow School. The most significant event of his early life however, was not of literary importance, rather, it was two duels fought against Captain Matthews, who had defamed Sheridan's wife-to-be in a newspaper article.

Having barely escaped with his life, Sheridan set up a house in London and began writing for the stage, opening with the play, 'The Rivals'. Although a failure on its first performance, a change of actor ensured that its second was an immediate success, and following another profitable composition, 'The Duenna', Sheridan was able to buy complete ownership of the Drury Lane Theatre. It was there that some of his most famous plays, such as 'The School for Scandal' and 'The Critic', made their debut. At the same time, Sheridan was vigourously engaging in parliamentary work, yet things cam to a head in 1809, when his theatre burnt down. Three years later, he failed to gain re-election after 32 years, and he died in poverty after contracting an illness. Sheridan is buried in Poets' Corner.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Magic turns digital...

J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series has long been a well-thumbed favourite on book shelves across the globe. Yet the popular wizarding tales are now going to be available to a new audience. Rowling has announced that the seven novels will be launched as e-books in September, alongside digital audio books to ensure subsequent generations will continue to be captivated by the magical world of Hogwarts.

The release will coincide with the launch of Pottermore, a site dedicated to the boy wizard which will provide users with an immersive interactive experience. Fans will be able to, amongst others things, choose a wand in Diagon Alley, travel to school on the Hogwart's Express, and be sorted into houses. Yet perhaps most exciting for Harry Potter's loyal following, is the announcement that Rowling herself will be posting new material online that she has been 'hoarding for years'. 'This is such a great way to give something back to the fans who made Harry Potter such a huge success', said Rowling.

The Mouse King...

On this day...German author Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann, better known as simply E. T. A. Hoffmann, died in 1822 at the age of 46. His father was a successful barrister, yet by Hoffmann's second birthday, his parents had separated and he was later to regret his paternal estrangement. Instead, he lived with his mother in Königsberg and was educated by his two aunts and uncle until his enrollment in a local school. Despite displaying a great talent for the arts from a young age, he was held back by his rural setting and took it upon himself to read Göthe and Rosseau, as well as attending lectures by Kant.

The next few years were spent travelling around Prussia in various capacities, trying his hand both at composing and drawing, before being exiled due to some controversial caricatures. A victim of the Napoleonic wars, Hoffmann was forced to return to Berlin, now married, and it was here that his literary career began in earnest, finding success with 'Ritter Gluck'. Yet finding daily work was becoming increasingly difficult, and with failing health, mainly attributed to alcohol abuse and syphilis, he left theatre management to become a jurist. It was to be his last job. Remembered as a pioneer of the fantasy genre, Hoffmann is best known for his work 'The Nutcracker and the Mouse King', on which the ballet is based, and his influence on later authors such as Edgar Allan Poe.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Heroines and Feminists...

From a medieval damsel in distress to a contemporary figure of striking independence, the woman has seen a marked transformation in literature. Following International Women's Week, the Guardian has released a podcast, debating the place of the woman in modern writing. 'Heroines and Feminists' can be heard here

The fugitive...

On this day...Lithuanian book smuggler Jurgis Bielinis was born in 1846. 1864 heralded the start of the Lithuanian press ban, during which all Lithuanian language books published in the Latin alphabet were forbidden by the ruling Russian Empire. Tsarist authorities hoped that this measure, part of a larger Russification plan, would decrease Polish influence on Lithuanians and would return them to what were considered their ancient historical ties with Russia.

However, Bielinis showed resistance, taking it upon himself to form the Knygnešiai society - the largest contemporary book smuggling organisation. Nicknamed 'The King of the Book Carriers', Bielinis was actively sought by the authorities, who promised a large monetary reward for his capture after he had escaped their guards at least five times. During the 31 years of his activity, it is estimated that he and his society illegally brought about half of all Lithuanian books from East Prussia into the Lithuanian mainland during the entire press ban. Bielinis died in 1918 at the age of 71.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The KJV: influencing the centuries....

This year sees the 400th anniversary of one of the world's greatest literary achievements. Whilst for some that may immediately conjure up images of Shakespeare or John Donne, it is, in fact, the work of King James, and his now eponymous publication of the Bible. The third English translation, the work required 47 scholars of Hebrew and Ancient Greek and took 7 years to complete, eventually selling for 10 shillings a copy. Only recently usurped by the more more NIV and Message translations, the KJV has inspired centuries of Christians, encouraging them to delve into the word and making their gospel more accessible to others. In a series of recent BBC documentaries, the makings and influence of this masterpiece have been explored. 'The King James Bible: The Book that Changed the World' can be seen here.

The Philanderer...

On this day...German writer Paul Johann Ludwig von Heyse was born in 1830. The son of Felix Mendelssohn's tutor, and a Prussian court jeweller descendant, Heyse was born into a family already heavily connected with the artistic world. Thus he soon befriended names such as Theodor Fontane and Emanuel Geibel, joining the literary group Tunnel über der Spree, before publishing his first poem, 'Frühlingsanfang', in 1848. Although settled on becoming a writer, Heyse's hopes were initially short-lived, as he was discovered to have been conducting an affair with the wife of a university professor and was sent back to Berlin in disgrace.

Yet it was in Munich that his literary revival was secured. Granted an audience with the King of Bavaria, Heyse presented his verse tales, 'Hemen', and preceeded to become known as one of the Nordlichten, establishing his own literary society, Die Krokodile. He continued to write prolifically and his work was recognised in 1910, when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature as 'a tribute to the consummate artistry, permeated with idealism, which he has demonstrated during his long productive career as a lyric poet, dramatist, novelist and writer of world-renowned short stories'. Hysee died in 1914, at the age of 84.

Monday, 14 March 2011

£1,600 library fine...

It has travelled with a naval commander to Hong Kong and Australia, but this week a rare library book has found itself back home in Wallington thirty years on. A 1928 volume of Samuel Pepys' Diary, part of a set worth an estimated £200, was taken out in 1981 by former Royal Australian Navy Commander Ron Robb to help his daughter with a school project. Yet shortly afterwards he returned back home from his posting in London, and did not rediscover the book until recently, when he was in the process of moving house.

Although, at the current rate Mr. Robb would face an overdue fine of more than £1,600, local Councillor Graham Tope has waived it and is just pleased to have the book returned, 'We've had the odd overdue library book, but 30 years must be a's great that this valuable book has been returned to complete the set, particularly as they have been part of the library for so long'. The book is now back with the other volumes of the edition in Wallington Library's Mallison Room.

The Anonymous Writer...

On this day...English author Thomas Malory died in 1471, at the age of approximately 66. The compiler of 'Le Morte d'Arthur', Malory translated the Arthurian romance tales of the King, Guinevere and Lancelot from French prose into eight books of Middle English verse, providing the basis for later literary works such as T.H. White's 'The Once and Future King', and Tennyson's 'The Idylls of the King'. Yet despite a lasting literary legacy, much uncertainty surrounds the man himself.

At least six Thomas Malorys were alive at the time of the books writing, and from those, three main theories have emerged as to the identity of the author. Firstly, it was proposed by John Bale, that Malory was Welsh, hailing from Maloria and related to the poet Edward Rhys Maelor. The second alias is that of Thomas Malory of Papworth St. Agnes - a respected, yet average, country gentlemen. Yet it is to the turn that most scholars look, Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel. A soldier and politician in the early years of his life, Sir Thomas turned to thievery, rape and kidnapping, serving time in both Marshalsea and Newgate Prisons. The most popular claimant, it is this Thomas Malory who died 540 years ago.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The Family Man...

On this day...Romantic poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy moved into Dove Cottage in 1799. The previous autumn had seen the pair in Germany, along with fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. One of his many trips to Europe, Wordsworth was reportedly homesick and thus it was in 1799 that he moved back to the Lake District - the region in which he grew up. His work at this time comprised of 'The Lucy Poems', a series of five poems later included in his 'Lyrical Ballads' collection. Living near Coleridge and Robert Southey, the trio became collectively known as the 'Lake Poets'.