A Year in Shakespeare: The Comedy of Errors

Cardiff University Library: Special Collections and Archives
Cardiff University Library: Special Collections and Archives. Illustrations by John Austen

After reading Measure for Measure last week in a heavily annotated scholarly edition, I thought I’d take a new tack for The Comedy of Errors and read something designed for pleasure rather than education. It’s hard to get hold of the really, really nice editions on a student budget – neither the city nor the university libraries are likely to put them on loan, and my shelves run more to secondhand paperbacks than illustrated luxury hardback editions.

Fortunately Cardiff University has a handsome, modern and well-equipped Special Collections and Archives division – SCOLAR for short – in the basement of the Arts and Social Sciences Library. I turned up, surveyed the catalogues, ordered a few things and finally settled on a 1939 private press edition, published in New York by the Limited Editions Club.

Cardiff University Library: Special Collections and Archives.
Cardiff University Library: Special Collections and Archives.

According to the notes in the library catalogue, the book is ‘quarter bound in white buckram over decorative paper-covered boards displaying floral and fruit motifs on pink ground with an abbreviated half title set within decorative border on upper front cover.’ Dr Melanie Bigold, my PhD supervisor, gets very excited by bookbinding, and can use it to tell you where the book was first printed and sold and what the printer had for breakfast that morning – talk about judging a book by its cover! As a complete layman in that field, I couldn’t say much about it – but there’s no denying it’s a beautiful piece of work.

The rest of the book held up to the promise of the cover. I can’t say any of the accompanying illustrations by John Austen ever particularly gripped me, but they were a colourful art deco diversion, and the artist had made the best of it given The Comedy of Errors isn’t a visually spectacular play to begin with. The paper was thick and creamy, the margins generous, the typeface bold and eye-catching. After the Arden edition of Measure for Measure where the footnotes often swallowed up half the page, it was pleasant to be reading something with no critical apparatus whatsoever – the last time that had happened was reading The Merry Wives of Windsor in a Complete Works edition where the text was squeezed in to the very edge of the page with hardly any margin at all. Also – in a first for this project – this edition preserves the original first folio spelling, which adds a wonderful texture to even the less interesting lines of dialogue:

Why prat’st thou to thyselfe, and answer’st not?
Dromio, thou drone, thou snaile, thou slug, thou sot.

The Comedy of Errors itself is a piece of comic virtuosity, the story of a pair of identical twins with the same name, separated at birth and unaware of each others existence, and their identical twin servants, ditto. Naturally everyone keeps mistaking Antonio and Dromio for their opposite numbers – I confess that, without the aid of footnotes or an introduction, I didn’t entirely follow who was supposed to be on stage at once – but I think some confusion is part of the point. After various misunderstandings, during which each Antonio is respectively arrested and committed, the play concludes with the usual scene of recognition, and the family reunited.

coe2
Cardiff University Library: Special Collections and Archives

In addition to having the most complex plot, it’s also the most elaborately poetic Shakespeare play I’ve read so far, even more so than Two Gentlemen of Verona, my previous benchmark. The play is written entirely in verse, and goes so far beyond the usual iambic pentameter that characters speak in rhyming couplets for entire pages – as in the quote above – and sometimes break into longer and more discursive hexameter or octameter lines. This elaborate formal invention matches well with the play’s complex, self-confident and symmetrical plotting. Reaching the final lines of Shakespeare’s shortest play, one feels its kinship to the short, controlled, rhetorically intricate forms the Renaissance revelled in, like the sonnet or the double-sestina. It will never have the popularity of one of the bawdier comedies or the bloodier tragedies – it sets itself out to be admired for its technical artistry rather than its drama or pathos – but as a work of self-conscious literary craftsmanship, it’s hard to think how it could have been done better. Reading it in an edition that was itself a work of high-end literary craftsmanship only deepened this insight.

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A Year in Shakespeare: Measure for Measure

Book in one hand, placard in the other!
Book in one hand, placard in the other!

The Languages and Literature collection on the second floor of Cardiff Central Library was the dark secret of my undergrad. When the essay titles came out and the shelves of criticism on Beowulf, Chaucer and Shakespeare emptied as if by magic, I’d abscond to the public library. They’ve a really good range of key texts, the Cambridge Companions and popular histories, and it saved me from having to beg coursemates for books on social media, or hand over an even larger chunk of my student loan to Blackwells in return for a book I was only going to use once.

Last Saturday, I nipped upstairs, located the Shakespeare section – which features an impressive range of DVDs to complement the books – and grabbed a copy of Measure for Measure, the fourth play in my attempt to read all the plays of Shakespeare in a year. It was in the Arden Shakespeare series, the rigorously edited, comprehensively annotated scholarly edition of choice. I was pleased to see no-one had skimped on out-of-date editions. Then I hurried back out the front, grabbed a placard protesting spending cuts and joined the crowd gathering in front of the building, clutching their favourite books in hand.

Cuts are biting hard in Cardiff, and the library service is taking the brunt. It’s usual for cuts to pinch hours and services, but Cardiff’s Central Library, one of the most handsome and best-stocked libraries in the world, has been decapitated. It’s entire top floor, with its local studies collection, has been closed off and mothballed. In addition, it’s lost the ability to open on Wednesdays, it may have to share space with social services, and staff have been warned not to discuss the cuts on social media. Bad enough, but it was the council’s decision to close and sell off seven of its local branch libraries that first mustered the people of Cardiff to gather in protest and make their voices heard. In a previous job as a bicycle courier, I got to know and visit many of those libraries, relishing the time to take a break, use the loo, and cast an appreciative eye over the fiction section. All of them were bright, busy and well-stocked, and all of them will be missed. And so I chose to celebrate an institution where I’ve spent hundreds of happy hours of my life by spending a few more rereading Measure for Measure, a classic story of hypocrisy and overbearing authority. Replace the Puritan zeal of Angelo, the ruler of Vienna, with the neo-liberal zeal of Cardiff’s city councillors, and the tale becomes very timely indeed.

It’s one of my favourite Shakespeare plays – and coincidentally enough, the first Shakespeare I ever saw in Cardiff, performed on an unusual square stage down at the Bay. I was so close to the action that the actors would come and sit in the chair beside me when they were offstage – which, given that it was a reduced company, wasn’t very often. Despite this, the nightclub staging, complete with whiskey bottles (actually cold tea – I tasted) well-reflected the play’s concerns with decadence and propriety. The way the vile hypocrisy of Angelo seeps out from behind his icy facade was aptly reflected by giving the actor the dual role of Mistress Quickly, the owner of a brothel. It was one of those performances that makes someone know and understand and like the play better as a text.

measureIt’s the kind of performance worth reliving in the mind as I make my way through the pages of the Arden edition of Measure for Measure, which was all too clearly designed for scholarly use rather than reading pleasure. The introduction runs to nearly a hundred pages, devoted variously to questions of authorship, dating and sources before finally condescending to offer a few critical notes on the play. Similarly, the footnotes appear in two columns of small print and even then can swamp as much as half the page, forever sending the reader hither and thither after renaissance plays, modern critics and classical manuals of rhetoric. If you’re reading Shakespeare in order to give yourself a cheap library education, however, it’s hard to think of a better edition you could choose. Long may it grace the shelves of Cardiff Library!

A Year in Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor

Scan 7This is an odd play to come upon at this point, only three texts into my grand project to read all the works of Shakespeare in a year. In truth, it’s the closest Shakespeare ever came to writing the Renaissance equivalent of a spin-off TV show. The story goes that Queen Elizabeth I was so delighted with Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation, Sir John Falstaff, that when he stomped off the stage at the close of Henry IV Part 2, she demanded the playwright write a sequel, bringing the fat knight to England in the modern day and giving him a love story. In some accounts, she was so impatient she only gave him a fortnight to write the play. Wisely, Shakespeare did as the Queen bid him, but – perhaps wary of the possibility of having to write new episodes of The Falstaff Show until Kingdom Come – promptly killed Falstaff off at the beginning of Henry V. But all of that is a long way in the future – somewhere in June, when I’m out of the comedies and midway through the histories.

In search of an interesting edition to read the play in, I turned to the bookshelves in the postgraduate office, ever an interesting guide to people’s interests and research topics. My colleague Calum Gardner thoughtfully allowed me to borrow a thoroughly charming early twentieth-century edition, printed in New York and previously belonging to one A. Napier. There was no date on it anywhere I could spot, but it’s dedicated to Sir Henry Irving, a famous Shakespearean actor who also employed an Irish scribbler of penny dreadfuls with the unlikely name of Bram Stoker. Irving also provides part of the introduction to the edition, in a short and a wittily sarcastic essay on the Baconian controversy. His suggestion is that Francis Bacon wrote the entire output of the Elizabethan stage, including Shakespeare, but notes that who actually wrote Bacon’s work for him remains forever a mystery. It seems as likely as any of the other conspiracy theories!

Among the other treasures in the old book are a scattering of early photographs of Shakespearean actors and actresses. The Merry Wives of Windsor is represented by a studio portrait of Ellen Terry as Mistress Ford; Terry was one of the most famous actresses of her day, now sadly only known for having been Dickens’s mistress. In a delightful period feature, a collection of tabs recessed into the sides of the pages make it easier to flick from play to play.

Turning to The Merry Wives, I am struck once again by the comparison to what went before – the language of Two Gentlemen of Verona was elaborate, beautiful and almost constantly in blank verse; Merry Wives is written mostly in prose, and the language is heavily spiced with Welsh and Spanish malapropisms from the two comic rivals in love, Sir Hugh Evans and Doctor Caius.

Scan 5But it’s not their play. It’s not even Falstaff’s play, though he steals every scene in which he appears. Uniquely, the heroes are two married women, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, to each of whom Falstaff sends exactly the same letter, pledging his whole heart and undying affection, and not realising that these two best friends might just get together and uncover his ruse. Together, they foster a scheme not only to humiliate Falstaff for his impudence, but to teach Mistress Ford’s needlessly suspicious husband a lesson in trust, climaxing in a night of fairytale revels that looks forward to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My favourite line in the production belongs to Mistress Page, in conversation with the jealous Mister Ford:

Ford: Well met, Mistress Page. Whither go you?

Mrs Page: Truly sir, to see your wife. Is she at home? 

Ford: Ay; and as idle as she may hang together, for want of company; I think, if your husbands were dead, you two would marry.

Mrs Page: Be sure of that, – two other husbands.

Actually, my favourite Merry Wives joke belongs not to any of the characters in the play, but to that well-known master of mirth and merriment, Kaiser Wilhelm II. It’s his only recorded joke. Due to wartime anti-German feeling, King George V issued a proclamation changing the Royal Family Name from ‘Saxe-Coburg and Gotha’ to the more English sounding ‘Windsor’. Kaiser Bill shrugged this off this snub by saying he looked forward to seeing a performance of The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

Heh. I fancy Shakespeare would have groaned as loudly as the rest of us.

A Year in Shakespeare: Two Gentlemen of Verona

I’ve always loved reading on trains. The views are great, you can do what you like, and the romance of travel always stirs something in me. This Saturday’s trip to London proved particularly pleasant, going from the grey predawn drizzle of Cardiff into the Newport sunrise, to snow on the fields of England and ever-changing January skies – very beautiful to look at while sheltered from the constant alternation of sunshine, rain and hail. It was a perfect time for the second part of my project to read the Complete Works of Shakespeare in a year.

IMG_0845After reading The Tempest in the RSC’s modern edition of the First Folio, I decided to do something different with Two Gentlemen of Verona and read it in the oldest edition Cardiff University Library still kept on loan. After a few minutes browsing the dustiest and least regarded avenues of Shakespeare Criticism, I found myself holding a 122 year-old edition published in 1893 as part of the original Cambridge Shakespeare series. A tall book printed on handmade paper with generous margins, it was clearly something of a prestige object, and the bookplates in the endpapers revealed a long working life. Originally part of the City of Cardiff Libraries Collection, it was withdrawn as duplicate stock and presented to the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, as it was then, in 1939. Now broken in the spine and largely held together by sticky tape, it still proves a pleasure to read – thScan 6e thick luxurious paper feels good under the fingers, and the whole volume exudes a strange sweet smell, like aged honey. It feels strange to be bereft of the usual cribs and glosses with which modern editors fill the margins, and to find in its place a variorum commentary in the page footer referring to the long-superseded eighteenth-century editions of Pope, Theobald, Rowe and Johnson (of which, more later in the blog) but it adds to the interest of the reading experience.

And so to Two Gentlemen of Verona, regarded by critics as being one of Shakespeare’s very first plays – an interesting comparison with The Tempest, one of his latest and finest. If you’ve heard any of it at all, it will probably be these fine lines, which Tom Stoppard borrowed for Shakespeare in Love:

What light is light, if Silvia be not seen?
What joy is joy, if Silvia be not by?
Unless it be to think that she is by,
And feed upon the shadow of perfection.
Except I be by Silvia in the night,
There is no music in the nightingale;
Unless I look on Silvia in the day,
There is no day for me look upon.

The plot bears many familiar Shakespearean comic motifs, later to be honed and finessed  in plays like Twelfth Night and As You Like It – girls dress up as boys, letters miscarry, and love affairs are pleaded by proxies with their own agendas. The eponymous Veronese gentlemen are Proteus and Valentine, who have been friends since the nursery. Proteus has long been in love with Julia, who grows to respond to his passion, but Valentine’s heart remains unencumbered until he is sent to Milan, and falls in love with Silvia, daughter of the Duke of Milan. (What, if any, relation this Duke of Milan bears to the lineage we see in The Tempest is pure speculation – but he seems more than tyrannical enough to be Antonio, Prospero’s usurper. I know, I’ll be writing fan fiction next.)

This is the cue for a lot of charmingly silly romantic games that wouldn’t be far out of place in your average playground – Julia rips Proteus’s love letter in pieces, and then has a change of heart and goes to great lengths gathering up the fragments. She stamps on and scatters all those that bear her name, tucks all that bear his name in her bosom and, where the fragment bears both, folds them over so they kiss. Silvia, the more resourceful of the two, saves a lot of labour and invention by getting Valentine to write a love letter for her, to ‘a secret unknown friend’ and then pointedly delivering it back to him – something that has to be explained to the clueless Valentine by his valet, Launce, in the usual ‘cheeky servant’ role. His wilful misunderstandings and laboured wordplay quickly become tiresome, but his selfless devotion to his dog, Crab, is equally touching and hilarious.

A darker element to the plot emerges when Proteus’s peremptory father decides to send his son to Milan after Valentine. Proteus duly says his heartfelt goodbyes to Julia, exchanging rings and pledging eternal affection, and no sooner arrives in Milan than he forgets all about her and falls wildly in love with Silvia. His machinations cause the Duke of Milan to discover Valentine’s plot to elope with Silvia, and to banish him from the realm, while Proteus, pretending to forward the suit of the Duke’s preferred husband, the foppish and cowardly Thurio, pleads his own case to Silvia in the form of a series of very Shakespearean songs and sonnets. Unknown to him, his infidelity is witnessed by Julia, who has come to Milan disguised as a male page, and found a position in Proteus’s employ.

At this point the plot, which until this point has held up pretty well, begins to unravel. The exiled Valentine is captured in the forest by a bunch of soft-hearted outlaws, the elder brothers of the Pirates of Penzance, who elect him their King with comical haste. Back in Milan, meanwhile, Silvia enlists the aid of the honest widower Sir Plot-Device in order to escape her enforced captivity in her father’s house. Sir Plot-Device, the most thankless role in the production, duly rescues her, accompanies to the forest, and then vanishes from the play without a word. The reader is left to guess whether he was secretly murdered by Proteus or if he merely knocked himself out on a low-hanging branch. His absence gives space for the disgracefully rushes final scene, a confrontation between Proteus and Silvia in the forest, while Julia wrings her hands on the sidelines in disguise and Valentine, unknown to any of them, watches from afar. Maddened by lust, Proteus resolves to rape Silvia – at which point Valentine intervenes to avert tragedy. Proteus goes down on his knees and begs forgiveness, and in a worryingly short space of time – about 20 blank verse lines – Valentine forgives him, and seems to offer him Silvia as pledge of their renewed friendship. At this point Julia faints, and her disguise is penetrated by means of the rings she and Proteus exchanged earlier; Proteus is allowed to revert to his former love with hardly a word of blame. The Duke of Milan is dragged on stage by the outlaws just in time to give Valentine’s marriage his blessing and issue a general pardon, and the play concludes in the least convincing happy ending until I get round to Measure for Measure.

It would be no exaggeration to call the resolution problematic. I caught the cinema version of last year’s RSC production, which at least attempts to inflect Valentine’s forgiveness with some doubt and consideration by filling it with very long, awkward silences. Julia’s silence in this scene irritates me in the extreme. It would surely be a good moment to tiptoe up behind Proteus with a blackjack in hand, or at the very least, make a moving speech of dissuasion – but she remains voiceless and passive, and it’s only Valentine’s appearance that saves the day. Surely, having witnessed Proteus’s behaviour in the play, her opinion of him has changed? Just a trifle? Often with Shakespeare, I find myself wondering whether the problematic bits are really that bigoted, or just there to make you think. This time, it just feels like he was writing in a hurry, and produced a rushed and ill thought out conclusion to a play that, despite its flaws, remains broadly enjoyable, and shadows forward the greater dramaturgy and the more triumphant poetry of Twelfth Night, As You Like It and The Sonnets.

A Year in Shakespeare: The Tempest

There’s something appropriate in the circularity of the fact that Shakespeare’s first play is his last: that when you open the Collected Works, the first play to meet your eye is The Tempest, traditionally and critically regarded as his final independently authored play. Whether this was a conscious artistic decision by the compilers of the First Folio, or whether they simply decided to set it first because they had a legible manuscript to hand, remains anyone’s guess. But like I say, appropriate.

Appropriately enough, it’s also the first Shakespeare play to really make an impression on me. I have vague memories of looking at Romeo and Juliet in Primary School, and perhaps Othello, long before I really understood the language or was fully capable of being moved by it. But I can remember the some of the kids from secondary school putting on The Tempest for us in a class assembly, (they seemed like adults, back then, huge and unknowable) and I have a vivid memory of one of them playing Caliban as Freddy Krueger in green face paint. I think they’d had one of those horrible knife-hand props lying around, and decided to throw it in to the costume mix. Less scarringly, I can remember trying out tunes for the songs under my breath in English class during my first year at Henry Beaufort, when I was well on the way to becoming one of those giants myself. So it’s a good place for me to start too.

My project for this year is to read all 38 of Shakespeare’s canonical plays, which works out roughly as reading and posting about a play every 9 days. To make things interesting, I’m going to read each play in a different edition, ranging from Renaissance quartos (or, more likely, their facsimiles) to ornate private press editions to modern critical texts. If you’d like to recommend an edition for a particular play – or still more generously, to send me one – get in touch in the comments section below.

One goal is to be able to tick off the Complete Works of Shakespeare when it makes its inevitable appearance in the list of 100 books to read before you die, instead of mumbling caveats about how I only got halfway through Richard III, and never bothered with Timon of Athens. Another is to find some pleasure in writing about great literature in an easy and relaxed manner, while I’m labouring over the stiff and formal pages of my doctoral thesis. Another is to read some unique editions in a series of unique places, and get a few good stories of my own from it.

IMG_0819For the first session though, I’ve made it easier on myself. I’m plonked down in my living room, in a rocking chair that used to belong to my grandfather, and reading The Tempest in my RSC First Folio edition. It follows the arrangement and print composition of the First Folio, the very first collected edition of Shakespeare’s work, while correcting obvious misreadings, modernising the spelling, and throwing in marginal glosses for the aid of the confused reader. It’s a student text, bought for a university course (well, strictly speaking, we were supposed to buy the Norton Edition, but I was irritated by the patronising footnotes and sans-serif font, and went my own way.) Even so, it doesn’t do much to defuse the strangeness of the opening scene. The prize for the most baffling opening speech in Renaissance Drama still goes to ‘Not marching now in fields of Thrasymene, Where Mars did mate the warlike Carthagens’ from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, but for the reader at least, the first scene is a confusion of minor characters shouting things like ‘Fall to’t yarely! Yare, yare! Tend to th’master’s whistle. Blow till thou burst thy wind, if room enough.’

On stage, it’s exciting and thrilling – a heavy storm, a ship in danger and about to be wrecked, a confusion of orders and oaths amid ‘a tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning’. On the page, it’s just a bit confusing.

This is one thing about The Tempest that marks it out as a late play – in the earlier plays, Shakespeare’s linguistic inventiveness was used to cloak a stage bare of most effects and engines. Here his stagecraft has reached its peak, and the plot progresses through a series of masques and dances, feasts and bogs for which you really need a stage, or an exceptional imagination, to bring to life. I saw it last in The Globe, standing in the yard with my father, who’d printed out a plot summary and brought it with him to make sure he knew what was going on. The plot summary was even more confusing than the play. It made it sound worse than opera. Sure, the nuances take a little sorting out, but the basic march of the plot is fairly simple.

Before the play begins, Prospero, the Duke of Milan and a formidable magician, was deposed by his brother Antonio, with the aid of Adrian, King of Naples, and set adrift with his daughter Miranda in a boat to die. They washed up on the island where the play takes place, and found two creatures to serve them – the etherial spirit Ariel, and the monstrous yet pitiable Caliban. The play begins when Prospero magics up a storm, which seems to cause the ship in which Antonio and Adrian are travelling back from a wedding to sink, and it’s passengers to be cast ashore onto the island. There are three plots to be reckoned with: a love story between Prince Ferdinand of Naples and Prospero’s daughter Miranda; a story of usurpation to mirror Prospero’s own, wherein Antonio and Sebastian, Adrian’s brother, plot to kill the King of Naples and take his crown; and finally Caliban’s doomed alliance with two drunkards, Stephano and Trinculo, in an attempt to depose Prospero and take control of the island. In the end Ferdinand is married to Miranda, all the plots against authority are foiled, and Prospero leaves the island in control of Ariel and Caliban.

It’s whose examination of the relationship between Prospero and Caliban, the coloniser and the colonised, anticipate a vast swathe of post-colonial literature, while the variety and inventiveness of the staging anticipate the capabilities of the modern theatre. Yet even after the greatest spectacles and triumphs of stagecraft, there comes a reminder from Prospero, the stage master, that life, like all great fictions, is transitory.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Such wistful notes lend emotional force to the reading that identifies Prospero with Shakespeare, and reads the play as Shakespeare’s farewell to his dramatic art.

But I’m talking like an academic again, hedging around the most important points. I knew it was a bad sign when, after a seminar laying out opposing critical points of view on Paradise Lost, one of my students asked me ‘What do you think?’ and I floundered. Academic reading – keeping critical arguments in mind, adducing this point or that from the text – is a very different thing to the way I’m trying to read The Tempest. I’m sitting in a rocking chair with a cup of tea at hand, running an eye across the page and allowing myself to be caught up in the interaction of the characters and the music of the verse, only pausing to read some particularly choice passage aloud and savour its feeling on the tongue. Reading this way, you sense the mood and the emotions of the play rather than deconstruct them analytically – and it’s true that I can feel, amid Shakespeare’s constant delight in language and enthusiasm for the possibilities of the staging, a wistfulness and sense of ending that creeps beneath, and gives the play a not-unpleasant bittersweetness. It’s a fine place to end, and a fine place to begin again.

2014 Blog Statistics!

My addiction to webcomics is crippling my ability to study, and I’m struggling to keep the Facebook habit under control, but my blog statistics page usually makes me feel good about myself. It’s wonderful to see how many people, and from how far away, have been led to my blog. I’m astonished that when you google a major Shakespearean character, I’m now on the first page of Google (albeit at the bottom). I have had a lot of unusual search terms, thanks mostly to my post about the York Naked Bike Ride. As the stats page also breaks down views by country, I noticed that one of the lewdest search strings coincided with my first view from Vatican City. Coincidence? I think not.

It’s hard to pick a favourite among this year’s entries, but The Drunk Samaritan was the most interesting to write, while Waterlog 7: Laugharne and Pendine Sands didn’t quite get the attention I was hoping for.

Thank you all for dropping by, subscribing, and showing your willingness to read what I write!

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,400 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Desk Angst

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign? —Albert Einstein

Writer’s desks, along with their original manuscripts and signed copies of their novels, are now part of the cult of the author, and some that are appropriately old and famous can go for fabulous prices at auction, or – if the author is really, really famous – are preserved in museums of the author’s home or birthplace. They are all singularly lifeless, soulless lumps of wood.

Take Leo Tolstoy’s desk, preserved under glass at the Tolstoy museum, with everything precisely in order – a half-finished letter laid out square to the surface – a pair of polished candlesticks and new candles, three pots of ink arranged in a marble stand – everything immaculate and in its proper place. How dull. It could be the desk of a nineteenth century bank manager. Now, by contrast, look at the recreation of his desk in The Last Station, a film about the final days of Tolstoy’s life. It looks like a pigeon’s nest, more wild and untamed even than Christopher Plummer’s impressively tangled beard. Words spill out of notebooks and letters, spilling out of pigeonholes and drawers in a cascade of ink and paper. It’s a desk you can believe was used by the author of several doorstop novels of more than a million words, embracing every aspect of Russian life. It’s a beautifully ordered mind finding its expression in a glorious chaos.

Ever since, I’ve been worrying – is my desk untidy enough? Is it untidy in the right ways?

I wrote my MA thesis on a series of tiny, rickety plywood desks with barely room enough for a keyboard and monitor. The first thing I did when I had a PhD and a decent wodge of funding to do it with, was to spend far too much money on an impressively solid, leather topped corner desk that provides an impressive amount of workspace to sprawl into, as well as a footwell large enough to contain a printer/scanner, ten volumes of diaries stretching back to 2008, an electric heater and various plugs and adaptors.

Let’s take a quick census, a map of the terrain at this moment in time. I’m writing this longhand, even though I know I’ll have to type it up later, because writing longhand relaxes me. My desk is essentially an equilateral triangle, with the point rounded or truncated. Directly ahead of me is my laptop, sitting slightly lopsidedly on its powercord and showing me a screensaver of unusual words: it’s just come up with ‘connatural’ meaning ‘belonging naturally, or innate.’ Behind it is a selected volume of Coleridge’s Notebooks, lightly annotated; behind that is a desk lamp which I never use, but keep there because it’s the sort of old-fashioned brass lamp that should sit on desks of this sort.

Along the right hand edge of the desk marches a regiment of paperbacks that have overspilled my bookshelves and begun to annex windowsills and tabletops all over the flat. One day, I will rearrange my shelves so that all the impressive, writerly things are stacked here in easy reach – the OED, Roget’s Thesaurus, the Rhyming Dictionary, the Chicago Manual of Style. For the moment it’s the usual mix of Genre Fiction, Poetry, Ancient History and Teach Yourself German in 20 Easy Lessons. Stacked up on top of the books are a mixture of notebooks, DVDs, post-its, maps and programmes; underneath them a tape measure, an orphaned Christmas card, a lump of quartz from the mountainside above Delphi, an AA battery, a pair of bicycle clips, a labyrinth of computer cables and – the oasis in this desert – a mug of earl grey and lemon on a Doctor Who coaster!

The left hand side of the desk appears at first glance to be possessed by an indiscriminate mountain of paper, but which, under closer inspection, resolves itself into a copy of Christine Gerrard’s The Patriot Opposition to Walpole, open at page 72 – a bound copy of the Cardiff bus timetables – the latest copy of The Week – an A4 notepad filled with German prepositions – notes for a seminar I taught on Thomas Gray’s An Elegy Wrote in a Country Church-Yard – a postcard I bought in Florence and never sent – and a letter of complaint to Cardiff Council about the loud and intrusive ‘security announcement’ they insist on playing in the Central Library. On the far edge of my desk, a small heap of letters from my mother, my uncle Michael and my friend Suzannah, currently convalescing from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in Dresden, form the foothills to these mountains. Other notable geographical features are a pair of obsolete hearing aids (mine) in a black felt pouch, the Penguin selected essays of George Orwell and a fearfully leaky collapsible travel cup that once belonged to my grandfather.

All in all, it’s not a bad showing – but if I’m honest with myself, I know my desk could be much more untidy with only a little more effort.

On Undergraduate Essays, in Imitation of Alexander Pope

ScanFor a few months now, I’ve been working as a seminar tutor for first year English Literature students. It’s really satisfying – they’re lively, engaged, and the teaching itself appeals to my theatrical side. I love getting to shout, wave my arms, say outrageous things to spark arguments, and demonstrate why poetry and literature matter. The only bad parts of the job are the long hours dedicated to marking and essay coaching – trying to get the students to understand the difference between active and passive voice, or master the particularly recondite subtleties of Cardiff’s referencing system.

I was preparing a seminar on Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock the other week, and browsing through his Essay on Criticism, which is still the best – and funniest – introduction to his writing. Then I started wondering – what if the famous eighteenth century satirist had to write undergraduate essay advice? What would that sound like?

It was a slow weekend. The couplets sprang to mind in great profusion, and before long I had threaded them together in a coherent order and printed them out for my seminar, who were delighted. I share them here, edited for general use. If any fellow teachers stumble across this, feel free to use them and – if you have any talent for metre – adapt them to your institution’s own essay writing foibles.  Altering the list of modern critics to flatter your academic supervisor/mentor is highly recommended.



On Undergraduate Essays.

In Imitation of Alexander Pope’s Essay On Criticism.
By Thomas Tyrrell

The Essay! The invention of MONTAIGNE,
With whose familiar style the form began,
Where BACON’s scientific method rose
Among the varied beauties of his prose,
Where JOHNSON’s pen, august and lucid still,
Surveyed mankind from China to Brazil,
And ORWELL, in a plain yet brilliant style
Exposed the flaws and glories of our Isle,
While GREENBLATT, WILSON, EAGLETON, and BATE,
Are modern critics of the highest rate.
To these heights, O my seminar, aspire!
Permit no mild critique to damp thy fire,
For academic essays stand alone,
Requiring a restrained and formal tone,
That demonstrates how well you understand
The complex meanings of the text in hand.
To science students it may seem absurd,
How hard we labour over every word,
But all will be rewarded! For, in sum,
Master the basics! And the rest will come.
Lest your assessors should be justly vexed
Be sure to match the author to the text;
Answer the question that you have been tasked
And not the one you think they should have asked;
And lest you should the Stagyrite offend
Have a beginning, middle and an end.
Show no false bias, but be circumspect,
Also incisive, learned and direct;
Spelling and grammar must be quite correct.
A semi-colon in its proper place
Will bring a smile to every marker’s face;
Misplaced apostrophes and comma splices
Will be regarded as the worst of vices;
In case, before the end, the reader drops
From want of breath, be generous with full stops,
Rather than hold them as your last resort.
No sentence is marked down for being short.
To use contractions is accounted bad;
Instead of ‘they’d’ make sure you put ‘they had’;
‘I used the active voice’ should be your plea,
And not ‘The passive voice was used by me.’
In introduction to your essay, lay
Out clearly all the things you wish to say,
And having set these limits, do not stray.
But now your argument begins at last!
Now analyse, unpick, compare, contrast,
Contend, defend, explain – but chiefly THINK,
Vague generalising is a waste of ink.
So never be afraid to quote at length,
Well-analysed quotations are a strength:
Essays are weary, parching, dry and bland;
Quotation are oases in the sand.
Yet every time you quote, within the course
Of writing out your essay, give your source:
Naught is more rare, nor pleasing to the sight
Than someone who has got their footnotes right.
Citation styles there are in wide array,
Harvard, Chicago, and the MLA;
To make your essay pleasing to the view,
Hold fast to these! And they shall see you through!
So ultimately, to conclude, therefore
In summary – conclusions are a bore;
A place to say again things better said before.
If these important precepts you obey,
And breathe life into them upon the way;
If all your arguments prove firm and just,
Your grammar faultless and your style robust;
High marks in modules you may hope for then,
Nor fear the wielder of the crimson pen!

I Jump Lights

IMG_4197I’ve been cycling to school or to work on a daily basis since I was fifteen. One year, I even held a part time job as a bicycle courier, and cycling became my work. Along the way, I’ve built up the usual set of pet hates. I can’t stand people who cycle on the pavement when there’s a perfectly useable road – especially if they’re riding those stupid chopper stunt bikes. I’ve never minded people who don’t wear bicycle helmets – I personally wear one most of the time, but there’s no law against it, and I don’t believe there should be one. On the other hand, I think people who don’t use bike lights are suicidal idiots – and if I’ve been caught out by my own absent-mindedness and the encroaching winter dusk, I’ll be sure to kick myself thoroughly before cycling carefully home.

Most controversially – and I know I will incur the ire of pedestrians and motorists by saying this – I will jump the occasional red light, where I judge it safe and convenient to do so. Such occasions include, but are not necessarily limited to: when the pedestrian crossing is in use, when it is possible to join the flow of traffic from the side without disrupting it (i.e. at a T-junction) and when there’s self-evidently no-one coming.

If there’s a crusty old pedestrian around to say ‘It’s a red light for you too, you know!’ or a taxi to honk at me – well, I’m afraid that only increases the intolerable sense of smugness that makes us cyclists so generally reviled.

Bella Bathhurst coined a wonderful term for the bicyclists of Britain – feral cyclists. Historically, we were never given much attention, or government provision – we simply got on the roads and started duking it out with the traffic on the traffic’s own terms. Anyone who’s ever had the (still occasionally terrifying) experience of being overtaken by a bus or lorry knows how unequal that engagement is – yet still, we persisted. Nowadays, there are a few more bike lanes – sometimes even dedicated bike paths – but the sensation of being an underdog persists. And as underdogs – where it be the delight of zipping past a full lane of stationary traffic, or cycling with our hands in our pockets, or jumping lights – we’ll take any advantage we get. After all, bicycles are more manoeuvrable than cars – bicyclists can see more – and if a bicyclist collides with a pedestrian, the outcome is likely to be annoyance, at worst minor injury, not fatalities. I’ve never collided with anyone yet, and don’t see it happening unless the bicyclist is being an absolute speed demon and the pedestrian isn’t looking where they’re going.

Part of the effort to cut down on bicycle fatalities is getting cyclists to assert our place on the roads – to stop cowering in the gutters, ready to be knocked silly by the first car door, and ride proudly in the middle of the road. If anyone wants to overtake us, it’s their problem, not ours. I’m careful to judge each case on it’s own merits – I’m no adrenalin junkie – but until we’ve reached the utopia of fully segregated car and bicycle systems, I will continue to jump the occasional traffic light, however much non-cyclists may look down on the practice

Short, Sweet Stories

Controversially, my local library has now relegated short stories to a section by themselves. While it’s nice to have somewhere to go if you only want to read short stories, innumerable questions arise. Will it be a multi-generic mingling of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, with Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, James Joyce’s Dubliners and Dylan Thomas’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, or do the genre works go elsewhere? What about works that were serialised as short stories, but were collected as novels, such as Asimov’s Foundation and Sax Rohmer’s The Insidious Dr Fu Manchu, both of which, later in the series, eventually morphed into novels? Shelve them apart or together?

Most of all, there’s the worrying notion that this might ghettoise the short story, which is fast following poetry into a little-bought, little-read, uncommercial sideline. Mostly Joyce’s fault, I feel, for making the short story so damned literary, together with the boom in Creative Writing for flooding the market with hundreds of early literary writers working painstakingly up from the short story collection to the semi-autobiographical novel to Ulysses! Me, I wrote my first novel at 13 (a terrible fantasy knock-off) and when I write short stories, it’s generally a horror story for reading around the campfire during a hiking trip. It may be terribly pulpy, but it’s more fun than any writing group.

I’ve decided to do my small bit to revitalise the art form and hence, I’ve collected and recommended half-a-dozen writers whose short stories are fun, pacey, and not altogether lacking in literary merit. I’ve tried to steer clear of the obvious genre writers, but even so, here you’ll find vampires, murderers, and devils a plenty, together with ‘real world’ stories just as entertaining.


Jane Austen

Her short stories are the most overlooked works in Austen’s extraordinary oeuvre – many of those who have read her novels time and time again will never even have glanced at her Juvenilia – the unruly, mocking, anarchic works of her teenage years. The sly sense of humour that continually undercuts her writing style – and which is so often lost in the po-faced costume dramas – runs riot through these 26 (often very short) works, which are like nothing in the eighteenth century and very little in the nineteenth. The History of England… By a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant Historian anticipates 1066 and All That by more than a century; in Edgar and Emma we have Austen’s only murderess; in The Beautiful Cassandra an entire novel condensed down into a sentence or two per chapter. The invention and energy is such that by the time we reach the final item in the book, Catherine: or The Bower, which displays the mature Austen’s more sedate style, it’s almost a disappointment.

Stand Out: The innocuously titled ‘A Collection of Letters’; each one more hilarious than the last.


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 

Most famous for his peerless consulting detective, A C-D’s second best-known creation is probably Professor Challenger, who led a dinosaur hunting expedition to a plateau in South America in the Victorian Jurassic Park. His other works are mostly forgotten. The one that least deserves to be is Brigadier Gerrard, a hilariously vain, dashing and none-too-bright French Hussar, on the frontline of Napoleon’s Army during all his various campaigns. The writing is so vivid and modern, that although it was a clear inspiration to George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, it feels more like a modern rival. His two entries in the volume of Late Victorian Gothic Tales show he can tell a spine-chiller with the best of them: ‘Lot. 249’ is one of the earliest and best of the mummy stories, and ‘The Case of Lady Sannox’ is a tale of dreadful cruelty to rival Edgar Allan Poe.

Stand Out: It’s hard to choose a favourite from a writer whose work spanned detective, historical, horror and early science-fiction stories, adding something new to each. Of his isolated pieces, however, ‘The Captain of the “Pole-Star”‘ best rewards rediscovery.


Rudyard Kipling

‘Once upon a time, O best beloved…’

Those words were such an integral part of my childhood that even now they nearly bring me to tears. Where Conan-Doyle spans the genres, Kipling spans the years. The Just So Stories, The Jungle Book, Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies should be indispensable companions to any childhood. He often gets a bad press for his uncritical view of the British Empire, but he knew India backwards, and his works are full of colour and local knowledge.  ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ is a thrilling adventure story, but also a vivid tale of Imperial hubris, while ‘Lispeth’ is a tragic inditement of colonial attitudes. His horror stories, collected in Strange Tales, span continents and time-scales with ease. Despite the uneasy racism, ‘At the End of the Passage’ is a doppelgänger story to stand alongside The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Stand Out: How the Whale Became displays more than any poem Kipling ever wrote his absolute mastery of rhythm.


Dylan Thomas

Every previous writer in this list was also a poet, but for Dylan Thomas prose was obviously a second string. To be honest, that comes as a relief. Many of his tangled, intricately crafted poems can take hours of study to decode, but his short stories are a lot simpler and easy to get a handle on. The stories in his first collection, The Map of Love, came bundled with his poetry, and are a lot darker and more Gothic than the rest of his output, but still enjoyable. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog is where he really hits his stride, with a series of semi-autobiographical tales, alternating between Carmarthenshire and Swansea. All of them are filled with larger than life characters, lively turns of phrase and brilliant storytelling. Read the poems to get the sense of him as a great poet; read the short stories to get the sense of what he would be like down the pub.

Stand Out: The trip out to Rhossilli Beach in ‘Who Do You Wish Was With Us?’ captures the joy of getting outdoors together with the illusory sense of escape. It really makes you want to get on the road.


George MacKay Brown

Possibly even more bardic than Burns, G M Brown barely ever left his native Orkney, but his short stories bring every genre and every page of history to him. There are ghosts, Vikings, Faustian pacts, murders and revenges, all of them individually captured in spare, beautiful tales with no sense of indulgence to them – he can even write about the afterlife without making me want to wince. He carved out a role for himself in his community, as writer and poet, and all his work has the sense of something honed, polished, and read out many times before an ordinary audience before finally committed to the page, like something simultaneously modern and from a much older oral tradition. A true craftsman.

Stand Out: Not having a collection by me, I can’t remember titles, but everything in The Sun’s Net and Winter Tales.


Angela Carter

Insisting she wrote tales rather than short stories, Angela Carter connected her work to an older tradition of the short Gothic tale. It’s tempting to talk of her feminist perspective – she often retells the story from the woman’s point of view – but it makes her sound bowdlerised and politically correct, when she could hardly be more controversial. Her most famous work, The Bloody Chamber, retells classic fairytales as violent psycho-sexual fables – like Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes but even more bloodthirsty. Psychologically acute, twisting and drenched in detail, they’re an experience like no other.

Stand Out: The title story in The Bloody Chamber, which brings back to me all the creeping dread I first felt on hearing the tale of Bluebeard for the first time.