Mervyn Peake

I have just been re-reading bits of Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake. It is not a work noted for comedy, but I came across one sentence which made me laugh out loud:

But both the Doctor and his sister found that the Ladies Cora and Clarice had not been paying the slightest attention but had been staring at Steerpike more in the manner of a wall staring at a man than a man staring at a wall.

Definitely a “I wish I had written that” sort of sentence.

I have searched for a copyright-free picture of Peake, but I came up against what you can see in the picture above. The Wikipedia entry has a photo of him though.

Photo credit:Jonathan Riley. Used under this licence.

Dürrenmatt and a Rantette

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
1921 – 1990

It seems I have been revisiting old favourites quite a bit recently. Here is another. Friedrich Dürrenmatt was Swiss and probably best known as a playwright, but he also wrote fiction, including a few detective novels. The best of these are, in my opinion, (1) Der Richter und Sein Henker (The Judge and his Hangman), (2) Der Verdacht (Suspicion) and (3) Das Versprechen: Requiem auf den Kriminalroman (The Pledge: Requiem for the Detective Novel)

These novels are not your usual, run-of-the-mill whodunnit. For instance, the protagonist of (1) and (2), Inspector Hans Barlach is seriously ill and has been given only a year to live. In (2) he manages to track down the bad guy from his sick bed. In (3) the policeman involved resigns his post so that he can continue his investigation into the murders of three young girls. All three novels are dark, moody and peopled by grotesque characters.

Now for my little rant. I have a Penguin book containing English translations of these three and a couple of other of Dürrenmatt’s novels. I have nothing against the translation, but the blurb on the back of the book presents very brief summaries of the plot of the novels. One of the characters in (2) is called Dr Nehle. The blurb calls him Neble. The protagonist in (3) is called Matthäi. The blurb calls him Matthias. Why? Don’t people check things any more? I don’t know why I am so irritated about this, but I am.

Photo credit: Elke Wetzig. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0


e. e. cummings, 1894-1963

In 1923 the publisher Thomas Seltzer published a collection of poems by e.e. cummings entitled Tulips and Chimneys. It was the first volume dedicated entirely to cummings’s poetry and contained what is perhaps his most well-known poem buffalo bill’s.

The title cummings wanted for the collection was Tulips & Chimneys, but the publisher overruled him. Also only 86 of the original 152 poems that cummings submitted were included in the collection.

In 1925 cummings self-published some of the missing poems, together with 34 new ones, in a volume entitled &.


Although I have put this post in the Hero(in)es category, I must say that its subject seems not to have been a particularly pleasant person. I have known about A. E. Housman (1859-1936) since about 1964, when I bought a copy of his most famous work — the very copy you can see in the picture.

Housman was a brilliant Classics scholar, but he failed to take a degree at Oxford. After this setback he worked as a clerk in the Patents Office in London, while at the same time writing for scholarly journals. In 1892 he was offered the post of Professor of Latin at UCL, which he held until 1911, when he became Professor of Latin at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he remained until his death.

He self-published A Shropshire Lad in 1896. Rather strangely Housman had never visited Shropshire at that time. However, his book of poems was a great success and has been in print continuously since its first publication. I have to say it is not a happy book, but it does contain some very beautiful poetry.

Housman did not suffer fools gladly and both face to face and in print could be very, very forthright, shall we say? Here are a couple of published comments about Latin scholars he thought could have done better:

Mr. Owen’s innovations, so far as I can see, have only one merit, which certainly, in view of their character, is a merit of some magnitude: they are few.

Dr Postgate’s notes on …… appear to have been written before he knew what his text was going to be, or after he had forgotten what it was.

Housman’s time at UCL is commemorated in the name of the Academic Staff Common Room, a place where I have spent many a pleasant time over coffee after lunch in the company of my then colleagues, now passed away, including G. F. Arnold, J. R. Baldwin, D. B. Fry, A. C. Gimson, J. D. O’Connor, O. M. Tooley. Happy memories.


Gerard Hoffnung, 1925-59

Yesterday I happened to hear a few seconds of an item on BBC Radio 4’s weekly programme Pick of the Week. It featured the man you can see to the left. For those of you who don’t know of him: Hoffnung was a musician, cartoonist, wit and wonderful eccentric. He instituted a series of Hoffnung Music Festivals, which took place at the Royal Festival Hall in London. One of these featured a composition by Matthew Arnold — A Grand, Grand Overture, Op. 57, which was scored for several vaccuum cleaners and other domestic appliances. It was dedicated to the US President, Herbert Hoover.

One of Gerard Hoffnung’s most famous pieces has nothing to do with music, however. (But see comments). This is the thing I heard a tiny snippet of on the radio yesterday. It is called The Bricklayer’s Lament and is in the form of a letter from the bricklayer to his employer. If you have never heard this, you are in for a treat. If you have heard it, you are still in for treat. It is here

Tragically, Gerard Hoffnung died of a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 34.