Archive for the Literature Category

Work in progress…

Posted in Literature with tags , , on September 26, 2012 by alexlarman

In case anyone’s wondering why I haven’t updated my blog in ages, this man is the reason:

 

I’m currently writing a long-threatened book about John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, for Head of Zeus. Provisionally titled Rochester: Sex, Power and Poetry at the Court of Charles II, it won’t be finished or published for a little while yet, but it’s taking up much of my time and energies at the moment. So expect blogging to be a bit lighter than it has been for the past few months. The trade-off is that you can expect the inside story on the book as and when it happens…in the meantime, here is one of my favourite Rochester stories.

‘It is of Isaac Barrow (a famous theologian of the age) that the familiar story is told of a playful match at mock courtesy with the Earl of Rochester, who meeting Dr. Barrow near the king’s chamber bowed low, saying, “I am yours, doctor, to the knee strings.”  Barrow (bowing lower), “I am yours, my lord, to the shoe-tie.”  Rochester: “Yours, doctor, down to the ground.”  Barrow: “Yours, my lord, to the centre of the earth.”  Rochester (not to be out-done): “Yours, doctor, to the lowest pit of hell.”  Barrow: “There, my lord, I must leave you.”

Cripes.

 

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The Plantagenets

Posted in Literature with tags , , , , on June 10, 2012 by alexlarman

Apologies to regular visitors to the blog – I’ve been somewhat busy of late with working on my first book, a biography of the poet Lord Rochester, but I will update when I get a chance (or when something interests me enough to spend an hour or so writing about it.) Here’s a reprint of a recent review that I did for The Observer. 

“The prince was drunk” is the attention-grabbing first sentence of Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets. There follows an account of the 1120 wreck of royal prince William the Aetheling’s flagship, The White Ship, and the subsequent centuries of alternating triumph and disaster visited upon the Plantagenet dynasty, up until the beginning of Henry IV’s reign in 1399.

Jones, a protege of David Starkey, writes with his mentor’s erudition but also exhibits novelistic verve and sympathy. Following his acclaimed account of the Peasant’s Revolt,Summer of Blood, this is a great popularhistory, whether you are au fait with the machinations of medievalism or whether Magna Carta mystifies you.

Jones offers vivid psychological portraits of the Plantagenet kings. Richard the Lionheart is flawed but chivalric, patriotic and drawing such respect from his enemies that his great nemesis Saladin wrote to him in 1192 to say that there was no king to whom he would rather lose his empire. But his brother, the wicked King John, is given short shrift, with his habit of torturing wealthy nobles until they would pay ridiculous amounts of ransom; he was cruel even by 13th-century standards.

One of Jones’s strengths is an eye for the small but enlightening detail of character. Edward I, or “Longshanks”, persecuted all who disagreed with him, whether it be his expulsion of the Jews in 1290 or his conquest of Scotland in 1296. He was so dominant in person that he was said to have scared a man to death, unlike his son Edward II, whose incompetent rule, bedevilled with military defeats and unwise adherence to his favourites, ended with his murder in 1327. Jones notes that the method of his death, traditionally held to be by a rectally inserted red-hot poker, “is almost certainly quite untrue”. The medieval wheel of fortune is ever-present. The greatest of all the Plantagenet kings, Edward III, is succeeded in 1377 by one of the very worst, Richard II, and the whole process of civil war begins again.

The book offers unforgettable characters, and it’s always clear whether Jones loves or hates the people that he writes about, describing key figures such as Thomas Becket or Piers Gaveston as “splendid” or “insufferably arrogant”. If the book has a flaw, it sometimes seems to flit away from these people too soon, leaving the reader keen to find out more about such marginal but important men as the mystic Peter of Wakefield and the historian Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Over and over again, the point is implicitly made that the greatness of England was an accidental occurrence, rather than a planned evolution.The Plantagenets is proof that contemporary history can engage with the medieval world with style, wit and chutzpah. It is a long book at more than 600 pages, but remains engaging throughout.

Against Nature

Posted in Literature with tags , , , , on November 9, 2011 by alexlarman

This is a piece I wrote for the current issue of Five Dials magazine about ‘decadence, dandyism and debauchery’. 

Judged by most standards of polite behaviour, Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes, protagonist of J.-K Huysmans’ 1884 novel A Rebours or Against Nature, falls somewhat short. Huysmans makes the case early on for his anti-hero being one of the less clubbable of men when des Esseintes is said to ‘realize that the world is made up mostly of fools and scoundrels.’ Although he allows himself the odd moment of fun – ‘unnatural love affairs and perverse pleasures’ – it is not long until he hides himself away in a lavishly decorated villa on the outskirts of Paris, making sure that he was ‘guarding against hankering for human society, any nostalgic regrets.’ And that, which concludes the novel’s prologue, is more or less it for plot. If you’re looking for incident, stick with War and Peace. Plenty of both there.

If analysed from a literary perspective, Huysmans’ novel is simultaneously beguiling and hugely frustrating. Beguiling, because in its otherworldly marriage of naturalistic description and surreal incident, it summons up a world quite different to virtually any that had been seen in literature before. And hugely frustrating, because it tantalises the reader with the thought that, had the likes of Joyce and Eliot been born 20 years earlier, they would have read Huysmans and taken the whole concept of modernism in an entirely different direction. Eliot’s Prufrock might seek to assert his necktie rich and modest with a simple pin, but des Esseintes has beaten him to it by wearing ‘suits of white velvet with gold-laced waistcoats’ and ‘by sticking a bunch of Parma violets in his shirt-front in lieu of a cravat’. Yet, like Prufrock, he is unimpressive of appearance; he is ‘anaemic and highly strung’, with ‘hollow cheeks’ and the lingering remnants of childhood illness.

From such unprepossessing beginnings comes one of the greatest examples of the literary decadent and dandy. The great dandy should feature some, and preferably all, of the following examples of unusual behaviour:

1)      Unusual, flamboyant and eccentric dress sense.

2)      A healthy contempt for the universe, whether religion or his fellow man.

3)      An exceptional intelligence, often not academic but made up of a fierce desire to question society’s norms and values and hold in contempt what others hold sacred.

4)      An affinity for the perverse in all its forms.

5)      A self-destructive side that will ensure a youthful death.

6)      A fierce loyalty to a few people and ideas, ranging from the trivial to the profound.

Des Esseintes scores highly on this scale; the last doesn’t apply at all, given his essential nihilism, and arguably the fourth is less relevant after his youthful debauchery, but the crucial mix of personal vanity and contempt for the universe is here in spades. He doesn’t score as high as Lord Rochester, for whom all the above apply, but it’s hard not to see Huysmans looking at such noted French decadents as Edmond de Goncourt (who had, one imagines in the voice of Withnail and I’s Uncle Monty – we shall return to him – instructed Huysmans to only be interested in ‘cultured beings and exquisite things) and, especially, Baudelaire, from whose work the title and central philosophical conceits of the novel are taken. Like Les Fleurs du Mal, Against Nature is essentially a sensual book where impression and surface are all, where the gaudy pleasures of rich and almost cloying language wash over the reader, for whom resistance against the sybaritic excess can only be futile.

Des Esseintes proudly describes himself as a Pessimist, not in the sense of a miserable bugger shrugging but in something closer to Schopenhauer, with the clear-sighted vision that you can only be saved from utter disillusionment with the world if you never expect anything from it in the first place. Perhaps ironically, he shares this with Larkin, the ultimate miserable bugger poet of the twentieth century. When Larkin writes in ‘Aubade’ of religion, ‘that vast moth-eaten brocade created to pretend we never die’, or sneers in ‘Vers de Societe’ of how ‘the big wish/Is to have people nice to you, which means/Doing it back somehow/Virtue is social’, one sees how clearly the strain of intelligent cynicism that Huysmans is espousing stretched into the literature of the next century. Perhaps tellingly, in 1884 the significant literary developments – Tolstoy’s publication of The Death Of Ivan Ilyich, the first staging of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and Engels’ The Origin Of The Family, Private Property and the State, as well as the publication of Against Nature – were all taking place outside the English language.

Which is not to say that the literate English-speaking audience weren’t taking note of this extraordinary book.  Whistler went out and bought several copies on the day it was published, telling all and sundry who would listen that it was a work of timeless genius. One of those who didn’t tell him to go and copulate with goats was Wilde, for whom Against Nature was a key text.  He announced that ‘the heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain’, and makes veiled but extensive reference to it in The Portrait Of Dorian Gray, referring to it as ‘the strangest book that he had ever read‘, going on to comment that ‘it seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him.’ It would have been clear to any of Wilde’s circle which novel he was referring to, something that he discussed avidly with correspondents and, more reluctantly, at his trial. Yet there is a crucial exchange between Dorian and his Wildean mentor Lord Henry Wootton, which sums up the book’s extraordinarily complex appeal:

‘I am so sorry, Harry’, Dorian cried, ‘but really it is entirely your fault. That book you sent me so fascinated me that I forgot how the time was going.’

‘Yes: I thought you would like it’, replied his host, rising from his chair.

‘I didn’t say I liked it Harry. I said it fascinated me. There is a great difference.’

‘Ah, you have discovered that?’ murmured Lord Henry.

Against Nature is not a likeable or particularly enjoyable book. It has no plot to speak of, no sympathetic characters or even many notable events. What it does do is to exert a weirdly woozy hypnotic fascination, somewhat akin to smoking a huge amount of opium in some lavishly upholstered velvet-draped boudoir and half-listening to some rambling yet utterly compelling story, told by an adventurer.

The book’s most influential appearance in the 20th century was possibly in Bruce Robinson’s seminal film Withnail and I. While the book itself only appears once (as Marwood prepares to pack and leave the decadent life he has been embroiled in behind), its influence is clear throughout the film. The two protagonists of the film lead a similarly debauched life to Des Esseintes, although their existence is less one of gilded luxury and sumptuous furnishings as it is drug-fuelled paranoia and hysterical squalor. Yet there is the same sense of Withnail, in particular, being as much a man out of time and place as Des Esseintes, with his arch, Byronic hero-meets-Dickensian grotesque persona reinforcing the sense of a misanthrope who simultaneously loathes and is misunderstood by society. And of course, the character of Uncle Monty represents nobody so much as the decadent outcast with charm, money and lechery in equal measure, simultaneously discoursing on the finer points of Baudelaire and attempting to rape Marwood.

At the end of the film, Withnail is left alone, doomed to recite Hamlet’s ‘I have of late, wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth’ soliloquy to a group of uninterested wolves in Regent’s Park. This is the unifying factor between dandies, decadents and debauchees, the certain knowledge that they are doomed, and that, like Eliot’s Gerontion, they will stiffen in a rented room before their time. Whether it is Rochester dying at 33 of his alcoholism, coupled with syphilis and the all-encompassing ‘the pox’, Sebastian Horsley’s heroin overdose or Julian Maclaren-Ross finally succumbing to poverty and despair, it is a sad but essential aspect of the dandy that their life and career should eventually end in a tragic end.

Des Esseintes does not expire at the end of Against Nature. For Huysmans, one feels, this would be all too straightforward an ending. Instead, he, like Withnail, is condemned to a fate rather worse than death, as his iconoclastic lifestyle leads to a descent into ill health. At first, he appears to have achieved his crowning achievement by taking no other food or nourishment than a peptone enema three times a day, but the cruel irony is yet to come, when his doctor (‘who was imbued with all the prejudices of a man of the world’) informs him that, in order to recover his strength, he must ‘abandon this solitary existence, to go back to Paris, to lead a normal life again, above all to try and enjoy the same pleasures as other people.’

This strict edict – that the dandy and decadent must come to ignore their own inclinations and tastes in favour of embracing organised fun, the safe, everyday excitements and distractions that are considered acceptable for the average person – is society taking its revenge, a more refined and long-lasting revenge than simply allowing the dandy to die. Des Esseintes might retort, as any dandy would, ‘But I just don’t enjoy the pleasures other people enjoy’, but it is no good. The book ends with true tragedy, as he realises that ‘like a tide-race, the waves of human mediocrity are rising to the heavens and will engulf this refuge’. The dandy will seek refuge, spiritual and physical, in trying to escape these waves of mediocrity, but a flesh and blood human is no match for the inexorable tide of uncaring, implacable destiny. Yet their words, and lives, serve as an example to the rest of us. Whether it’s Wilde, Rochester, Des Esseintes, Byron or anyone else, their willingness to stand outside society and condemn banality serves as far more inspirational than any prurient account of simple carnal pleasures. For ultimately, dandyism must stem from one man, a man who had the courage to stand up in a rulebound, restrictive and cruel society and, armed with little more than faith and certainty, could declare that he was the way, the truth and the life. Those who follow in the footsteps of such men will never truly be alone.

The Fry Chronicles

Posted in Literature with tags , , , on September 30, 2010 by alexlarman

Reading Stephen Fry’s splendidly entertaining and compelling second volume of memoir, the thought struck me with some vehemence: What exactly is Stephen Fry going to be remembered for? For his seminal work with Hugh Laurie, probably. For his excellent performance as Oscar Wilde in the biopic, perhaps. For his appearances in Blackadder, possibly. For his near-suicidal departure from a West End play and flight to Bruges? Doubtful. But for the apparently endless quiz show appearances, advert voiceovers, bit parts in films, Twitter updates, general ubiquity? It seems incredibly unlikely. Lest we forget, Fry – apparently a cuddly, loveable figure – makes no bones about describing himself as a self-loathing and deeply unhappy man, with his bipolar disorder and ongoing issues about his Jewish background and sexuality feeding into his work in a compellingly unusual way.

It’s sometimes as if there are two entirely different Stephen Frys both battling for space in the public eye. (No doubt there is an entirely separate entity who exists for private consumption as well.) There is the erudite Cambridge graduate, plummy-voiced and tweed-jacketed, who has more or less cornered the market in what the general public seem to expect of an intellectual. (Fry was once described, cruelly but with an edge of accuracy, as ‘a stupid person’s idea of what a clever person should be’. ) Then there’s the other, more complex man, someone whose latent insecurity led to him quitting Twitter briefly because he was upset by some ill-judged comments about him, and who was famously celibate for 14 years. So, can the real Mr Fry stand up?

In his earlier volume of autobiography, Moab is My Washpot, Fry explored, largely without recourse to self pity or after-the-fact moralising, the decline in his fortunes that led to his expulsion from Uppingham for theft, followed by his near-constant playing truant from his subsequent schools, ending up, notoriously, with his imprisonment for credit card fraud. The book ends on a positive note – he is accepted into a tutorial college to prepare for Cambridge entrance – but it’s a remarkably grim and surprisingly affecting journey.

After the fall, the rise. In The Fry Chronicles, it’s roughly split between his glittering career at Cambridge, with much made of his famous friends – Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie amongst others – and his success within the Cambridge Footlights, and his later rise to a sort of low-level fame on various sketch shows, and riches from his involvement in rewriting the book of the musical Me And My Girl. If you disliked Fry, this might seem another exercise in faux-modest smugness, a ‘stop it, oh stop it, oh go on tickle my tummy and praise me to the skies’ book that promises even more luvvie namedropping anecdotes in future volumes.

What stops the book being unreadable is that Fry is too intelligent not to anticipate the readers’ boredom at reading about yet another multimillionaire’s wonderful life. He openly discusses his belief that intellectually, sexually and socially he has spent his entire existence feeling inferior to others around him, and that even when he appears to be having a wonderful time of it he’s consumed with self doubt and misery. This current of sadness and, at times, almost absurd hyperbole might leave the reader wondering whether Fry genuinely believes what he writes or if he has given into ‘poor me’ syndrome, but it makes the book a far more compelling read than another bland recounting of success.

As with all Fry’s books, it’s beautifully written (in fact slightly overwritten – he never uses one adjective when three will do) and a very quick read. He helpfully indicates when some stories have already appeared in Moab, though there is an anecdote about a hypnotist which is already in the earlier book.  It ends on a cliffhanger with Fry doing ‘naughty salt’ for the first time, and the promise that the next volume should encompass Fry & Laurie, Blackadder Goes Forth, Jeeves & Wooster and, one hopes, the events of the 1990s that saw him crack up and flee the country and then return to play Wilde. If this is indeed what happens, it is entirely possible that Fry’s lasting achievement might well be these volumes of memoir. Who’d have thought it?

RIP Sebastian Horsley

Posted in Art, Literature with tags on June 17, 2010 by alexlarman

I’ve just heard a few moments ago that the flaneur, dandy, artist and writer Sebastian Horsley has died. I’m deeply upset. I wouldn’t say that we were close friends – he was far too much of a social butterfly to allow more than a few people into that gilded inner circle – but he certainly was someone whose presence in my life made it a happier and more enjoyable one. The group emails that he would send out, boasting about some achievement or other – a Times interview here, a Guardian profile there – were always miniature works of art, featuring carefully worked over witticisms and designed to amuse the eclectic group of aficionados that regarded Sebastian as something other-worldly and eccentric. A typical email would read like this:

‘Hello darlings,

You will find nothing wrong with this play – except its appalling choice of subject.

I will drink and I will take drugs, and in my weaker moments I will even eat, but I will never, ever, go to a theatre.

Why would I go to the theatre to see rape, sodomy, alcoholism and drug addiction? I might as well stay at home.

Not true. You realise all people will be saying every night is: “Who’s that cunt on the front row with the top hat on? I can’t see a fucking thing.”

I’d known Sebastian since 2005, when I was doing some work experience at his agency, Conville and Walsh. Sebastian was by then well known as a flaneur and dandy, and had attracted a great deal of media attention for having himself crucified (filmed by Sarah Lucas), and so a memoir was in the offing. However, Fourth Estate had turned it down, due to various drug-related incidents (including Horsley, high on heroin, threatening to cut his commissioning editor’s breasts off) and the manuscript, provocatively entitled ‘Mein Camp’ was brilliant, shocking, repulsive, hilarious and witty, as of course Sebastian himself was.

Patrick Walsh, the head of the agency, didn’t take long to twig that my own literary interests closely coincided with those of the decadent and libertine, and so asked me to have a look at the manuscript and make some informal suggestions, which I was delighted to. Some of them were purely cosmetic, some were more essential. (That title had to go.) Anyway, I finished, and the great man requested the pleasure of my company at tea.

The first thing I realised about Sebastian was that, underneath the facade, the suits (the legendary suits, of which he had innumerable) and the brio was that he was amongst the kindest, most decent and, for want of a better word, friendly people I’d ever met. I was at the time a rather callow young graduate, trying to make my way in the world of the media, and Sebastian, a considerable figure in his own right, spent hours talking to me about music, art, literature and, of course, sex and drugs, two subjects that he was an expert in. (On one of the last occasions I saw him, he said despairingly that he had opened a brothel in his two-r0om flat. Business was good, apparently, but he had to take enforced strolls around Soho while his workers plied their trade. I have no idea as to whether this was true, but it would have come as no surprise if it was.)

Thereafter, the book passed into the expert hands of Matthew Hamilton, a fine and experienced editor, and it was soon shaped into a far more commercial and coherent narrative, losing none of its joie de vivre. Sebastian stayed in touch during its construction. I received witty little squibs comparing his predicament to the Count of Monte Cristo ‘and at least that fucker escaped eventually’. Finally, the book came out, and I took the chance, incestuously, to review it for the New Statesman. I wrote that ‘Sebastian Horsley’s autobiography explodes the myth that a “misery memoir” must be as gruelling to read as it must have been to live…this is testament to his style and self-belief’. I went for a celebratory dinner at The Ivy with him, his girlfriend-cum-muse Rachel Garley and some other friends of his, and ended up in some godforsaken basement club at an equally unearthly hour of the morning, drinking cheap sparkling wine and hobnobbing with the demi-monde.

I caught a glimpse of Sebastian that evening, laughing at it all, and revelling in the ridiculousness of it, just as he’d laughed earlier that evening when a customer had mistaken him, in all his finery, for a doorman at the restaurant. And that was the thing about Sebastian that the vast majority of people never realised – that he wasn’t just some posturing pumped-up peacock, but one of the most sensitive and hugely self-aware men out there. He was insecure, hugely so, but never in a ‘woe is me’ way. That, no doubt, was saved for behind closed doors. Did I know that Sebastian? No, of course not. But I saw glimpses of it – Sebastian shopping in Waitrose, ridiculous hat and all, or seeing him in what passed for mufti, minus waistcoats and top hats. (His hats should be donated to the V & A.)

The last few weeks were a flurry of activity for Sebastian, with the opening of a one-man show based on Dandy In The Underworld at the Soho Theatre. I’d been invited to the first night party, but alas a work engagement in Switzerland meant I couldn’t attend. Despite his avowed hatred for theatre (in his last email to me, he wrote ‘There are two ways of emptying a theatre ; the first is to run in and yell “Fire!” The second is to put me on.  I am sure there will be nothing wrong with this production – except its appalling choice of subject’), I think he was excited, and happy, and pleased that he was slowly starting to achieve mainstream recognition, on his terms, and that the dandy really had won out after all.

Goodbye, my old friend. When we end up in the Underworld together, I have no doubt that you’ll still be the best dressed, best read and wittiest man in there.

Sebastian Horsley 1962 -2010

UPDATE: The Guardian asked me to write his obituary, which I was honoured to do. You can find it here.


Sebastian Faulks – One Week In December

Posted in Literature on September 15, 2009 by alexlarman

AWeekInDecember_hardcoverI read, and enjoyed, Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked the other day. It does everything that it aims to do right, in a modest, unpretentious way, and has interesting characters, a refreshingly straightforward tone and a story that is intelligent enough to realise the ironies of its narrative contrivances. Sebastian Faulks’ One Week In December has none of these things. Released to a murmur of disapproval for its presentation of one of its Muslim protagonists, and to other mutters in the gossip columns about the identity of its ‘literary man’, a poisonous, bitter figure called R Tranter, most of the reviews have ignored the fact that it represents a low point in Faulks’ career to date, being a highly self-conscious ‘literary novel’ which, in its portentous cross-character narrative and uniquely patronising pop-cultural and intellectual allusions, is a quick but vaguely unpleasant read, a little like being drunkenly lectured by a successful, articulate but faintly arrogant man at a Notting Hill dinner party.

Amid the novel’s myriad threads (which include, amongst others, the culture-clash love affair between a barrister and a tube driver he is representing, an evil banker – so topical! – conniving to make billions illegally, the banker’s skunk-addicted son and neglected wife and a radicalised teenager planning a bomb attack) only one really comes alive, and that is the aforementioned account of the ‘literary man’ R Tranter. Faulks has played down who he’s based on but it seems likely that it’s a dig at DJ Taylor, who, as the Guardian dryly noted, ‘is all too clearly based on journalist DJ Taylor. Tranter admires Thackeray and writes for a satirical magazine, the Toad; Taylor has written a biography of Thackeray and writes a literary column for Private Eye.’  Faulks’ digs at the literary scene are sharp, accurate and well-observed, even if the resolution to this particular subplot smacks of the same implausibility that colours the rest of the book.

Alas, the rest of it is less successful. This is partly due to a lack of focus – too many characters means not enough time to get to know any of them, and some appear for literally a couple of pages before disappearing again – but also because Faulks appears to have researched large parts of the book, rather than written it. There are lengthy speeches on banking practice, which are certainly timely, but are also painfully boring for anyone but the uninitiated to read. The depiction of young men being radicalised into terrorism is undeniably still effective, but Faulks cops out by having his young would-be martyr running into the arms of an understanding woman. There is the (intentionally?) hilarious device of having secret code concealed inside pornographic pictures of a young model that these terrorists use – the young woman, meanwhile, is the paramour of a Polish footballer. And so on.

If this is adapted for television it might yet be effective, with good actors and a firm hand on the script. But its strange, half-parodic, half-tragic tone and finally overwhelming sense of its own brilliance defeat the book utterly.

Simon Schama and John Donne

Posted in Literature on May 29, 2009 by alexlarman

PD*10873767I was about to entitle this piece ‘in praise of Simon Schama’ but decided against doing so for two main reasons. Firstly, that would sound like something out of the Guardian, and secondly I was reading an (otherwise intelligent) interview with him in which he described himself as a lifelong supporter of the Labour Party, ‘probably to my death’. However, it isn’t Schama’s politics which I’m here to applaud, but his interest in John Donne. I attended an interesting and well-constructed talk by him and the actress Fiona Shaw last night at the Portrait Gallery, which was, brilliantly, held just by the recently (and happily) acquired Donne portrait, and acted as a kind of follow-up to his recent TV documentary about the poet.

I can honestly say that Donne was the first ‘difficult’ poet that I ever really engaged with. I studied him for A-level, and although I’d been exposed to the likes of Auden, Milton and Hardy before, Donne was the first poet who, after the initial incomprehension gradually wore off, it became clear that underneath all the ‘by my troths’ and archaic misspellings of ‘mee’ and so forth, Donne was a strikingly modern poet, establishing a persona that was equal parts wry, eyebrow-raising libertine, passionate, committed lover and, finally, shameless self-promoter as the Dean of St Paul’s. My interest in Donne coincided with my (then) fanatical obsession with the band The Divine Comedy, whose wry, witty lyrics of solipsistic excess appeared to tally beautifully with Donne’s more knowing poems. Somewhat to my shame, this obsession with personae and image persisted onto university (David Bowie phase now) and I ended up writing an essay on Donne in my finals in which I half-seriously put the case for Jack Donne, privateer and lover, as being a diabolic figure. Excess, excess, but it saved my degree. I later read a John Stubbs biography of Donne which I had to give up on because I grew so weary of the methodical, reductive way it turned virtually every poem into a piece of biographical comment; apparently the idea of Donne not writing a poem from straight personal experience was impossible.

I haven’t actually seen the Schama documentary yet but am looking forward to it. Interestingly, last night, Schama began by asking who’d studied The ‘Flea’ at A-level, which of course I had – but it transpired that it was fairly commonplace these days for that (apparently an ‘easier’ Donne poem than the rest) to be studied in isolation, rather in the same way that someone who has never read any Wordsworth might well know ‘Daffodils’. Yet it seems a shame that such a remarkably rich and interesting body of work might be left off the syllabus for fear it’s too ‘difficult’. Schama might have been occasionally criticised for being a populist and a media don, but frankly if he managed to get a few more people reading Donne I applaud his efforts entirely.