Recommends: The Birds


First published in Prospect (Issue 198)  

Happy Birthday Edward Lear: 200 Years Of Nature And Nonsense
The Ashmolean Museum, 20th September 2012 - 6th January 2013

Literary conspiracy theorists set a lot of store by pedigree. Last year, Anonymous dusted off the claim that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Queen Victoria trumps Tennyson (a mere Lord) as the author of ‘In Memoriam.’ Edward Lear tried to quash rumours that it was really his patron the Earl of Derby who wrote his nonsense verse.

It must have been a tempting theory: Lear was known for most of his life as a serious landscape painter, who travelled through the Mediterranean, Egypt and India making sketches. The Ashmolean’s collection includes his oils of the plains of Lombardy, and a sweeping view of the pass of Thermopylae. As a young man, he published a book of watercolours of parrots, which garnered comparisons with Audubon, and had the distinction of being the first collection drawn entirely from nature rather than stuffed birds.

Yet seen alongside his illustrated poems, the idea that they aren’t by the same person seems nonsensical. Even if his “Old Man of Thermopylae / Who never did anything properly” has outlived the majestic scene he painted. 

Photos via Harvard

Recommends: Hardy fest

First published in Prospect (Issue 197)  

The 20th International Thomas Hardy Conference & Festival
Dorchester, 18th-26th August

For at least the last decade of their marriage, Emma and Thomas Hardy had become so estranged that she had moved into the attic. Yet after her death in 1912, Hardy began an outpouring of desolate elegies, imagining himself haunted by her: “still she rides gaily / In his rapt thought / On the shagged and shaly / Atlantic spot…”

This is one strand of Hardy’s life and work picked out at the Thomas Hardy Festival, where the “Emma poems” (recently given new life in a slim volume selected by Claire Tomalin) will be read with piano accompaniment. Musical interpretations of Hardy abound, and there will be walking tours of the sites in his novels and performances of his work by poets Roger McGough and Daljit Nagra. Among the lectures given during the week, Professor Michael Irwin will speak on “The good little Thomas Hardy: a century of condescension.” No danger of that here.

Recommends: Prosthetic fantastic

First published in Prospect (Issue 196)  

Wellcome Collection, 19th July-26th October

A photograph of Thomas Hicks, winner of the 1904 Olympic marathon, propped up by two men as he stumbled towards the finish line is one of sporting history’s oddest images of victory. Whereas a failed dope test can now ruin a career, Hicks quite legitimately dosed up on strychnine in brandy during the race to boost his endurance.

The Wellcome Collection’s “Superhuman” exhibition shows the various aids men and women have used to try to achieve things that had previously seemed beyond human power. Often these are everyday objects—the exhibition includes false teeth, tubes of lipstick and an iPhone. More interesting are those paintings and photos which contain the suggestion of an enhancement. For example, a pair of spectacles with a silver nose attached to them present a mystery, until you read that they were worn in the 19th century by a woman disfigured by syphilis.

The show includes prototypes and portrayals of enhancements that have never been realised, as well as those which have become near-indispensable. Side by side, the failures make the successes seem all the more fantastical.

Recommends: Poetry Parnassus

First published in Prospect (Issue 195)  

Poetry Parnassus
Southbank Centre, 26 June-1st July

What is the difference between a poem and a song? In a spoof YouTube video the Pulitzer prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon wryly claimed to detect an allusion to King Lear in the lyrics of Ke$ha’s hit song “TiK ToK” (sample lyric “oh oh oh”). But he will reflect on the question more seriously this year when he delivers the Poetry Society’s Annual Lecture, “The Word on the Street—Parnassus and Tin Pan Alley.” Muldoon’s poetry, laced with obscure words and far-flung puns, has earned him the nickname the “Puck of Princeton” (where he teaches) and he is just as bracing as a lecturer.

His address will be a highlight of the Poetry Parnassus, a six-day festival of poetry at the South Bank Centre, presided over by Simon Armitage. Planned to coincide with the Olympics, poets from all 204 countries represented in the games will gather for a marathon of readings, essays and workshops. Fittingly, there will be a tribute to Ted Hughes, who championed foreign writers as co-founder of the journal Modern Poetry in Translation. “The amazing boom of translation,” Hughes told The Paris Review in 1995, had had the greatest effect on poets after the war, including his wife Sylvia Plath: “And she never heard the Beatles.”

Review: The Language Wars by Henry Hitchings

WHAT IS THE good of books on “proper English?” If you felt self-conscious about the way you spoke in the late nineteenth century, you might throw yourself on the mercy of Oliver Bell Bunce’s guide, from 1883, to good English. Its title, Don’t, is menacingly negative, but at least it promises some definitive rules. “Don’t say lady when you mean wife,” Bunce counsels. “Don’t fail to exercise tact”; “Don’t speak ungrammatically.” The last two examples are curiously roundabout and non-specific, but Henry Hitchings finds them “pernicious.” Writing like Bunce’s, he says, reinforces the unhelpful belief that “the avoidance of mistakes is more important than the achievement of excellence.”

Yet Hitchings’s new book points out all of the ideological pitfalls of debating language use, and he takes pains to avoid falling into them himself. Where Bunce’s aspirational Victorian readers wanted to learn to speak “proper English,” Hitchings’s presumably want to know what their attitude to “proper English” should be. On the first page, Hitchings half apologizes for putting the word “proper” in inverted commas: “I might have deployed them in several other places, save for the suspicion that you would have found them irritating.” This bit of courtesy is tongue-in-cheek, but it is followed by a straight-faced justification: “notions such as ‘proper,’ ‘true meaning’ and ‘regional’ are all contentious.”

Feature: Modern Magic

I wrote this feature ("For my next trick") about stage magic and scepticism for Prospect magazine. Two of the most interesting magicians I spoke to were Luke Jermay, who read my mind alarmingly specifically in Finsbury Park's Costa Coffee, and "scholarly magician" Todd Landman (of Essex University's political science faculty by day). They follow in a long tradition of magicians, stretching back to Houdini, who make no claim to supernatural gifts. Yet audiences impressed by the shows' artistry find themselves caught between a desire to believe and the will to doubt.

Here's an excerpt:

In his “scholarly magic” shows, Todd Landman uses tricks to make people reconsider the way they think. He says that, for a recent trick he performed at a party, he stopped a woman’s watch. She said, “‘That’s fantastic, you stopped the second hand for five ticks.’ But others were staring at me with their arms crossed over their chests, and said: ‘You didn’t stop her watch; you suspended our belief in time for five seconds.’ So I ask: which is more plausible? I love that grasping for explanation.”

Recommends: Detective Weekend

First published in Prospect (Issue 193) 

Sleuths! The English Riviera Festival of Crime and Thriller Writing
Various venues in Torbay, 18th-21st April, Tel: 01803 665 800

Although most fictional detectives are eccentric loners, crime fans are an ever-expanding mass. Witness the cult following of Danish TV thriller The Killing or the popularity of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, which has spawned a film franchise and inspired a clothing line by H&M. But the Queen of Crime is still Agatha Christie, whose books have been translated into over 100 languages (a world record) and whose play The Mousetrap is the longest running (from 1952 to the present) in the West End.

The fourth annual Sleuths! crime-writing festival takes place over a long weekend in Christie’s hometown, Torbay. On the Sunday her grandson Mathew Prichard will present a talk about the letters she wrote while on a round-the-world trip in 1922.

This year’s headline act, however, is Colin Dexter, who created one of the best-known sleuths of his generation: Inspector Morse. Having killed off Morse in 2000, Dexter recently revisited the inspector’s youth in the prequel Endeavour, and he will talk about the crime-ridden Oxford of his books at the festival. Alongside the talks, there will be writing workshops, a mystery trail and a psychological thriller play performed by the Bijou Theatre Company.