Featured Poem: Ode To Autumn

Thursday October 4 is National Poetry Day here in the UK and to mark the occasion we are going to be posting some of our favourite poems each day in the coming week.

At the Sefton Festival of Literature last week Andrew Motion was asked by a member of the audience which poet, living or dead, he would most like to meet. He named, among others, John Keats and in conversation afterwards agreed that ‘Ode to Autumn’ would be his choice. This poem is one of those works of art without which it is inconceivable to be alive. Motion asked us to consider that in the morning of September 19, 1819, this poem did not exist. By the evening it did:

Ode To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease;
For Summer has o’erbrimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twinèd flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barrèd clouds bloom the soft-dying day
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river-sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.


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James Ellroy on Dashiell Hammett

On Saturday The Guardian newspaper printed a superb piece by James Ellroy on crime writer and sometime Pinkerton detective Dashiell Hammett, who is generally considered the first to have taken the ‘hard-boiled’ detective story into the territory of ‘literature’. Ellroy himself operates in these waters and his article is both insightful and admiring, calling Hammett ‘the great poet of the great American collision’:

Hammett’s vision is more complex than that of his near-contemporary Raymond Chandler. Chandler wrote the man he wanted to be – gallant and with a lively satirist’s wit. Hammett wrote the man he feared he might be – tenuous and sceptical in all human dealings, corruptible and addicted to violent intrigue. He stayed on the job. The job defined him. His job description was in some part "Oppression". That made him in large part a fascist tool. He knew it. He later embraced Marxist thought as a rightwing toady and used leftist dialectic for ironic definition. Detective work both fuelled and countermanded his chaotic moral state and gave him something consistently engaging to do.

Here’s the link to the article again.

Posted by Chris Routledge. Powered by Qumana

It’s Art, Stupid! Andrew Motion at the Sefton Festival of Literature

The Sefton Festival of Literature opened on Wednesday September 19 and closes with a performance by poet Jackie Kay at the Atkinson Gallery in Southport on Sunday September 30. This is a small festival but manages to attract some big names, including John Mortimer with ‘Mortimer’s Miscellany’ and Andrew Motion, who read poetry and from his memoir In the Blood on Thursday night at the Atkinson. Motion is best known these days as Britain’s Poet Laureate, a post he has held since 1999 and which he intends to relinquish after ten years. But he is also a celebrated biographer and ‘flag waver’ for poetry, especially through the Poetry Archive. For those most familiar with Motion’s ‘By Order Of …’ poems his reading in Southport gave a refreshing and very personal account of his poetic life beyond the state appointment.

The evening began with poetry. Motion battled with a radio microphone in the period before the interval, but his reading was emotional and engaging. Many of the poems were elegies of one kind or another and his elegy for Philip Larkin, with whom he struck up a friendship during his time as a lecturer at Hull University, was my personal favourite. Larkin’s capturing of light in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is remembered in Motion’s own poem but although the poem recalls Larkin’s way of seeing with quite startling clarity, it is a remembrance, not a repetition.

Motion also read two poems about his parents: ‘Serenade’ about his mother and ‘The Mower’, about his father. In the latter an aside about his father buffing the ‘by appointment’ crest on the mowing machine even though it couldn’t be made to shine may indicate the poet’s thoughts on his own official stamp. These poems tied in well with readings from his autobiography In the Blood, published in 2006. As he hinted in the following question and answer session, here was the material that helped form him as a poet. Andrew Motion is known as a poet of innocence, loss, and remembrance, but as this reading showed he is more interested in understanding memory than presenting statements of events. Much of the work he read could be described as courageous, intensely personal, and fiercely truthful. But as he explained this is not the truth of the courtroom and the history book. It is much more interesting than that.

The Sefton Festival of Literature is organised by Sefton Council. Next week we will be featuring the winning entries in the festival’s creative writing competition.

Posted by Chris Routledge. Photograph of Andrew Motion by James Robinson (+44 077 0949 2890)

Recommended Reads: Black Swan Green

David Mitchell is surely one of the best British novelists writing today and his latest novel Black Swan Green strengthens his claim to that title. The novel’s predecessor, the highly acclaimed Cloud Atlas – an intricately woven tale spanning multiple time periods and different narrative voices – was a truly captivating read, a unique balance of the real and the fantastic. Black Swan Green displays the same intricacy, allowing a truly human and heartfelt story to be told through a conventional artifice. In this novel, the balance is not between reality and fantasy but a carefully explicated portait of a young boy’s struggle between social conformity and individual expression, set underneath the glassy archetypal nostalgia of the early 1980s. The struggle and the setting, the factual and the poetic are written with such a sense of stablility that Mitchell’s prose is simultaneously radiant, amusing and resolute.

A painful minute went by. Green is made of yellow and blue, nothing else, but when you look at green, where’ve the yellow and the blue gone? Somehow this is to do with Moran’s dad. Somehow this is to do with everyone and everything. But too many things’d’ve’ gone wrong if I’d tried to say this to Moran.

Life is not easy for Jason Taylor: it’s hard enough turning thirteen – threatening bullies, those mysterious things called girls, family discord – it’s even harder when that comes with a stammer and you’re a reluctant poet. As Jason attempts to conceal his stammer, it leads to other problems: use of ‘over-elaborate’ replacement words, untold anxieties and low self-esteem. Jason’s stammer becomes fictionalised as the director of missing letters: Hangman. This imaginary character has his own codes of behaviour and has an incredible power over Jason’s life.

The only way to outfox Hangman is to think one sentence ahead, and if you see a stammer word coming up, alter your sentence so you won’t need to use it. Of course, you have to do this without the other person you’re talking to catching on. Reading dictionaries like I do helps you do these ducks and dives, but you do have to remember who you’re talking to. (If I was speaking to another thirteen-year-old and said the word ‘melancholy’ to avoid stammering on ‘sad’, for example, I’d be a laughing stock, ’cause kids aren’t s’posed to use adult words like ‘melancholy’. Not at Upton upon Severn Comprehensive, anyway.)

There is a sincere nature to the book and it is not surprising to learn that a large amount of Mitchell’s own adolescent tribulations are recorded here. Like Jason, he too grew up in a small village in Worcestershire and was a stammerer (not a stutterer, an important distinction), adopting his own rules of speech to manage his problem. It is this skill with words that has enabled Mitchell to develop such proficiency interweaving different registers for his narrators within his novels. His forthcoming novel will demonstrate this skill further, opening up issues about the perceptions and misperceptions in the encounter of cultures. Black Swan Green is an acutely observed account of the transition between childhood and adolescence set against a vibrant nostalgic background, with a sharp injection of humour and a vivid evocation of life in a backwater village in the 1980s. Mitchell’s beautiful poetic and powerful prose exposes this transitionary period for its strains and difficulties, asserting the importance of the individual and in making your own rules.

Posted by Jen Tomkins

Recommended Reads: Einstein, His Life and Universe

By Siobhan Chapman.

Walter Isaacson. Einstein, His Life and Universe. Simon & Schuster, 2007.


Albert Einstein was an engaging and much loved but an aloof and at times emotionally withdrawn individual. His work is a byword for intellectual rigour and, for most people, incomprehensibility. Isaacson’s new biography manages both to describe the complex personality and to offer accessible accounts of the theoretical physics. Most readers will not come away from this book having understood the theory of relativity, light quanta or unified field theory. But they will have the intellectual smugness of understanding a bit more about these scientific landmarks, having been exposed to some remarkable ways of thinking about the universe, and having had the chance to try out some fascinating thought experiments, Einstein’s stock-in-trade.

Einstein certainly lived in interesting times, and he cared passionately about them. Because of his historical and personal circumstances, and because also of his growing political involvement, his biography encompasses many of the major events of the twentieth century. He lived through and reacted to the First World War and its aftermath, the rise of anti-semitism in Germany and the ascent of Hitler, the development of the atom bomb, the creation of the State of Israel and the extremes of McCarthyism. Isaacson handles all these events with aplomb, bringing out both their global significance and their impact on Einstein, and in the process producing a genuine page-turner.

There are flaws, and since these are largely of the kind that would have been obviated by rigorous copy editing it does look suspiciously as if the quality of the book may have been compromised by the rush from the release of numerous new Einstein papers in 2006 to publication in 2007. For instance, the caption on a picture at the start of chapter fifteen places it in 1927, while the description later in the text insists that it was taken in 1930. There are too many sentences as clumsy as the following (describing one stage in Einstein’s troubled and complex relationship with his elder son): ‘Together he and Hans Albert went sailing, played music, and built a model airplane together’. And several favoured anecdotes turn up repeatedly.

Nevertheless, the anecdotes are one of the many joys of this book. Einstein’s wit, charisma and cautious enthusiasm for fame meant that stories and bon mots are associated with him almost as closely as his theories. Asked by a star-struck reporter during his first visit to America in 1921 for a one-sentence definition of relativity, he retorted: ‘All my life I have been trying to get it into one book, and he wants me to get it into one sentence!’. One book cannot of course tell us everything about such an individual any more than one sentence can capture such a theory. But Isaacson has given us an engaging and highly readable portrait of his formidable subject.


Siobhan Chapman has just finished writing Language and Empiricism, After the Vienna Circle. Her other books include Philosophy for Linguists, Paul Grice: Philosopher and Linguist and Thinking about Language.

Neglected Books

One of the areas where The Reader magazine excels is in looking again at writing that would otherwise get lost in the flood of bestsellers and prizewinners and shortlists. Not neglected books exactly, but things you might have read and haven’t had time to revisit, or things you might never have read had someone not said: ‘Read this. It’s terrific.’ The Reader magazine’s core purpose is to allow great writing and great writers to bob back to the surface. As editor Philip Davis puts it, ‘it is a magazine concerned with the direct effect of books on readers, with the human content and purpose of literature.’

Taking this a little further is the website The Neglected Books Page, which uncovers literary gems that have been hidden in some cases almost from the date of their publication. Site editor Brad Bigelow, who is an IT project manager for NATO by day, says:

Back when I was an undergraduate, I spent many hours wandering through the shelves of the university’s libraries, pulling down anything that seemed interesting. This is how I stumbled across W.V. Tilsley’s Other Ranks, for example, which tends to be the first book I name when asked for an unjustly neglected work. Over the years, I’ve collected books and lists on the subject, such as David Madden’s Rediscoveries series, and I finally decided to create the site about 18 months ago.

In those 18 months the site has accumulated a large volume of material, all painstakingly referenced and annotated with extracts from contemporary reviews. The great thing about it is that it is browsable and serendipitous, just like those library shelves. Here’s the link to Neglected Books again.

Posted by Chris Routledge

V.S. Naipaul on Young People These Days

He’s been everywhere the last week or so. V.S. Naipaul has a book to sell and he seems to think he will do it by going on the radio to talk about how literary culture is dying; how the novel is finished, repetitive, in terminal decline. His curmudgeonly outburst on the BBC’s Today programme coincides with rumblings from the United States about the condition of newspaper book reviewing (bad) and the consequences for publishing of Google’s book scanning antics (bad for business). This may well be the age of the grumpy old man, but that doesn’t mean we have to listen to them. I read a comment somewhere today in relation to ‘cyber-bullying’ arguing that countries are run by people nearing retirement age who have absolutely no idea how under 30s live their lives and who confirm their ignorance by adding e- or cyber- to everything. Zoe Williams at The Guardian seems quite annoyed by Naipaul’s latest too. She says:

At one point, he starts off about Cambridge criticism. You lean in, thinking he might be about to say something of meaning about the poets and independent publishing houses working in Cambridge right now and for the past two decades – and it turns out he’s talking about FR sodding Leavis! Overall, it is just a shame. Bits of his new book might be inflammatory, but mainly he is too pompous to inflame anyone, and even his harshest attacks are too dated and meaningless to stick …

F.R. sodding Leavis indeed. In all of this Naipaul does have one good idea: sack all literature academics and make them work on the buses. But maybe limit it to one day a week, on license from the lecture theatre. And make Nobel Prize for Literature winners work as traffic wardens at the same time.

Posted by Chris Routledge

The Booker Prize: Those Readability Stats in Full

Over at One-Minute Book Reviews Janice Harayda has been having fun with Microsoft Word’s readability stats feature. Sadly this amusing feature wasn’t enough to keep me using Word when I fell out of love with it some time around the turn of the century, so I can’t try this for myself, but Harayda’s experiment on the Booker Prize shortlist is a little shocking. Of Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip she writes:

There are two huge problems with the novel, narrated by a black female university graduate who looks back on the life-changing effect of hearing a white man read Great Expectations when she was 13 and living on a guerrilla-war–ravaged Pacific island. The first is that Mister Pip is written at a third-grade (roughly 8-year-old) reading level, the same as Mitch Albom’s For One More Day. (A list of U.S. grades and their corresponding ages appears at the end of this review.)

How do I know? I once edited books for a test-prep company and, after finishing Mister Pip, realized that its reading level was much lower that of many books I had edited for elementary-school students. So I entered a page of Jones’s text into my computer, ran the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on Microsoft Word …

Read the rest of Harayda’s post here.

Posted by Chris Routledge Powered by Qumana

Reading and Readers Through the Ages

In celebrity and not-so-celebrity interviews in Sunday newspapers one of the most common questions is a variation on “what books are by your bedside?” It seems we are fascinated by what people read. The Reading Experience Database takes this further, exploring the tastes, attitudes, and experiences of readers between 1450 and 1945. Researcher Shafquat Towheed has been in touch to announce that the previously closed database is now freely available:

Have you ever wanted to know who read Byron in the nineteenth century? Or what first time readers of “Jane Eyre” made of the novel? Or what kind of books servants preferred to read? The Reading Experience Database, the world’s largest archive of the experiences of reading in the British Isles (or by British subjects abroad) from 1450 to 1945, is now available to everyone.

… At present, RED contains nearly 10,000 entries describing the reading habits, tastes and practices of British subjects at home and abroad from 1450 to 1945. The majority of this number have been edited and released for public searching and viewing. During the next year, visitors to RED will be able to conduct general keyword searches across all the fields in the database and will also be able to refine their searches by the century of experience, by the name and gender of the reader, listener or reading group, and by the author and title of the text being read. Searches in a single field or in a combination of these fields will yield significant, interesting and even surprising results!

The project seems to be in constant development and is well worth a bookmark, but it will also improve as the number of participants grows. If you come across written evidence of someone reading, whether in a diary entry, a letter, or any other kind of text, why not record it in the database? The Reading Experience Database can be found here. More information about the project can be found here.

Continung Education: Journey to the Centre of the Book

Amanda Boston writes to remind us of her Continuing Education course ‘Journey to the Centre of the Book’ which will run over five monthly meetings starting Wed 10th October from 2 – 4 p.m at the University of Liverpool. Amanda says:

We’ll explore the significance of place, both real and imaginary, in five wonderful novels spanning a century. Each two hour session will focus on reading, discussing and enjoying a number of selected passages. Jane Austen’s 1816 masterpiece Emma will be our departure point and personally I can’t wait to journey to Highbury and to reacquainte myself, in your company, with Emma Woodhouse, Mr. Knightley and friends.  It would be great if you can read Emma before the first meeting but don’t worry if you can’t manage – copies of the passages, and various other goodies, will be provided.

In subsequent months we’ll be reading Hardy’s Return of the Native, Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, George Eliot’s Middlemarch and finally visiting Joyce’s Dublin in his short story collection The Dubliners.

I am really excited about teaching this course as some of my most vivid reading experiences have been with C. E. classes both as teacher and initially as a student.  looking forward to meeting you.

Here’s the link to Continuing Education at Liverpool. The closing date for signing up is Monday 1 October.