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Friday 24 May 2024

Book Blogging since 2012: A Retrospective


My original reviews of books mentioned in this essay can be located by typing author and title into the search bar above.


I buy, read and review books, but not always in that order: sometimes I imagine a review then track down the book. I don’t hold library tickets so always have skin in the game, the unread books on my shelves failed investments.  The rewards are the pleasures (but also irritations) of reading and the more controllable pleasures of writing, to which is added such satisfaction as can be got from Google’s page view counter.

A review in a print journal might lead me to a book; as do footnote references and, latterly, a taste for reading and re-reading classics.  I browse in town centre bookshops but that challenges my sensibilities. It’s the wallpaper. The garish covers and lurid blurbs are the graphic design version of over-excited talk shows.  With exceptions (Penguin Classics and Modern Classics, Fitzcarraldo) the current state of book cover art is decidedly down market, comparing unfavourably with the stylish packaging of own brand goods in supermarkets

Blurbs are less reliable than small print food labels and not always to the advantage of the author. I have accumulated a selection of trade misdescriptions and reprise three here:

Faber published Alex Preston’s In Love and War (2017) and the reviewer at GQ made it onto cover telling us that it’s a book for the beach, “the perfect read to pair with that first sundowner”. I proceed to the novel: the hero Esmond dies horribly under Gestapo torture and his lover Ada dies in a concentration camp. Gin and Auschwitz? Really?

The 2018 Penguin paperback cover for Zadie Smith’s Swing Time quotes from a review in The Observer claiming that the novel “Has brilliant things to say about race, class and gender” which cuts Zadie Smith off at the ankles for a book in which dancing plays a leading part; it puts her on a level with Bernardine Evaristo. I did go to the original Observer review by Taiye Selasi, more subtle than the blurb extract, but if you want to sample the stunning prose of which Smith is capable - showing not saying - go to pages 321-30 of the paperback to find a beautifully structured and   emotionally-charged scene set in a small north London pizza joint.

In 2018 Penguin published Sally Vickers’ The Librarian and Adam Phillips was there on cover noting that “Vickers writes of relationships with undaunted clarity”. Well, I admire Adam Phillips and he sealed the purchase. The quote is actually from a review of another book by Vickers (Cousins) though as I started to read I could see how it worked for this one too:

“ ‘ What would you wish for, Sylvia?’ But he had stooped and was gathering her body to his, so she didn’t answer. “I have wanted to do that since I met you in the foundry”’

I felt like the victim of a Borat prank. Adam Phillips was writing tongue in cheek and I had bought a Mills & Swoon.



Most of us let that wonderful invention, Microsoft Word, run the writing show. There are hazards, especially for pedants.

In 2020 Princeton University Press published an academic monograph on loan words written by the British professor Richard Scholar. The cover of the book spells out its topic: ÉMIGRÉS French Words that Turned English. It’s a clever title because émigré is itself a loan word. But when I type it in lower case Microsoft automatically supplies two diacritical marks. That’s surely wrong. As an assimilated loan word emigré requires only that one diacritical mark to guide us to acceptable pronunciation: think café and naïve and compare with hotel which requires no guidance (those three words printed now as Microsoft delivered them).

Microsoft also obliges with an accent on capitalised CAFÉ though in French accents over capital letters are fairly optional. For proof, google photographs of “typical Parisian café”. In short, if someone asks whether written English uses diacritical marks, the correct answer is Yes, but sparingly, thank goodness. And in French, Yes, but the rules are a bit different for lower case and upper case. Don’t ask me to be more precise because life is short. But on such matters Microsoft can be plus royaliste que le roi. And Princeton University Press even more so with two accents on capitalised EMIGRES which do not appear when I type it. Dear Pedantic Reader, do you vote for two, one or no diacritical marks on the capitalised word made from the letters E M I G R E S?

There are real issues about the currently popular use of diacritical marks to render Roman alphabet versions of languages which don’t use the Roman alphabet. It’s a genuine question whether they undermine lazy colonialist mindsets or are themselves just a legacy of colonialism. There is a good basis for a case study in the rendering of spoken Yoruba in Oyinkan Braithwaite’s accomplished novel My Sister, The Serial Killer (2019).

But hold fire; there is an App now in common use by publishers, especially in the USA, which dumbs down texts, especially academic ones. The App may have a human incarnation as a copy editor following an inclusive rule book.

Richard Scholar’s book is an academic monograph aimed at a small audience of readers familiar with French and English literature especially of the eighteenth century.  It severely tests my own knowledge. But at page 114 I read this, “The French-speaking Genevan thinker and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) ….”.

What has gone wrong? The App has spotted a proper name and provided an explanatory gloss. Give it “William Shakespeare” and it would hand back “The English=speaking Stratford-upon-Avon poet and playwright …” I guess the idea is to get the book into the hands of 101 readers; but it won’t when the book is not pitched at them. And for actual readers it is just bizarre and, when repeated, reads as standardised patter which cuts across whatever personal style the author may have. The App knows nothing of prosody and never reads aloud to itself.

I can offer a hand proof that this App really is at work in Scholar’s book. At page 162, the title of a sequence of poems is given in untranslated French with no gloss that the words are those which the French-speaking painter Paul Gauguin (1848 - 1903) inscribed on his most famous painting. Now that would be useful 101 stuff. But how come the gloss isn’t there?  In the immediate vicinity of this bit of text there is no one’s name present to jolt the App into life.


Bad books get published; we all know that. But they are bad in different ways. There are the books which read like drafts of Ph.Ds. In a previous life, I was obliged to read such things; it’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it. It’s exasperating to read a printed book where the work clearly hasn’t been done. In 2011 Oxford University Press published Gerald Steinacher’s Nazis on the Run - disjointed, repetitive, and inconclusive where it needs to be decisive. The last problem was undoubtedly connected to problems of access (#openthevaticanarchives) but it also involves care in choices between modal verbs and adverbs to ensure that the text does not become simply evasive. Better to state clearly what the important question is and record that in the present state of knowledge it cannot be answered.  In a Ph D, modality matters.

Rather different is the case of the student who has received criticism, records it, and then carries on as if nothing has happened. In Emma Dabiri’s interesting Don’t Touch My Hair (2018) it happens twice. There is a long rant about cultural appropriation (pages 178ff) at the end of which the reader is offered “[Fred] Astaire is certainly worth further consideration when discussing the important distinction between appropriation and borrowing, the latter undoubtedly the basis of evolving culture” (page 190). That is a tacked-on remark which goes nowhere, just passed off as if duty done. In the second case, someone is actually quoted taking issue. The search for “Roots” (forgive the pun) is problematic because it usually stops when satisfying ones are found. Dabiri’s Africa is characterised by “wholeness” (a word which belongs in a chain which goes down all the way to wholesome and wholegrain). There isn’t much local violence in the African past which interests her and none at all in the African present. Her history remains fairly firmly in the realms of Uplifting Story, which publishers like. But she then quotes an email from Ron Eglash who tries to draw her away from the Search for Roots toward something more structural:


“The temptation is to dive into the competition over ‘who discovered it first’. But that kind of competition is a framework created for Intellectual Property rights…. Reversal never works. ‘We discovered it first’ is not a rebuke of white supremacy, it is just adopting their tactics. That is what Audre Lorde meant when she said, ‘ the master’s tools will never tear down the master’s house’ (pages 216 - 17)


These words just sit there. And the reader will no doubt go on calling out cultural appropriation and searching for roots. I’m with Audre Lorde.

Then there are books which have clearly involved a lot of googling and maybe not much else. As someone who likes to sit at home, I cannot plausibly deny it. But it’s an art and you need to do it extremely well.  Annie Ernaux and Olga Tokarczuk make it work but we lesser artists easily fail.  This is true of Tiffany Watt Smith’s very short Schadenfreude (2018) which though it has a German loan word for its title comes up in the text with “The Genealogy of Morals written by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche”. (Sound familiar?). 

But now, as a standout example of modern internet-enabled prose we have Peter Ackroyd’s cut and paste The English Soul (2024), a sort of hardback Wikipedia into which Ackroyd’s contribution is concentrated as a string of one-liners; I quote four and if you don’t like them there are others quoted in the full review of the book

On Thomas More, “The burnings [of heretics] continued, shedding fitful light on the English soul.” (page 73)

On the Authorized Version: “It might even act as a mirror of Englishness itself, and by extension the English soul” (140)

On George Herbert: “Little Gidding became, for Herbert, a vision of spirituality in the world. It became a corner of the English soul.” (147)

On William Blake: “Yet in truth his vision has never been lost. It is integral to the English soul.” (240)

Well, bless my English soul. Trot it out often enough and it becomes trite or simply vacuous.



Finally, there are translations which I do read. Nearly sixty years ago I was given L’Etranger to help improve my schoolboy French. A girlfriend who went on to become a Professor of French wanted to level me up. I thought to speed the process by setting beside it a copy of Penguin’s The Outsider, baffled to discover that the two texts didn’t seem to match up. I was unaware that I had bought Stuart Gilbert’s Variations on a Theme by Albert Camus. I have been wary ever since and when I’m going to read a book translated from French I’ll usually buy the French to put alongside. In that way, I was able to confirm that a sentence in the English translation of Annie Ernaux’s The Years which made no sense does in fact invert the order of events in the French original.

But what can you do when reading translations from languages you don’t know? Well, it can be contextually obvious that all is not well. Ismail Kadare’s The Concert (1988) was translated by Barbara Bray from the French translation from the Albanian. Set in Communist Albania, the version I read is peopled by Home Secretaries and Foreign Secretaries and one is surprised not to find Whitehall in Tirana. What cultural blindness blocked the use of Ministers of the Interior and Foreign Ministers? Out of the same failure of imagination we find Albanian Communists under pressure giving vent to Phew! (page 137) What a ghastly day! (139) and expressing frustration over the whole blessed evening (170). Unless I’m missing something (it happens) the register is so obviously wrong that it casts doubt on the whole translation. (Is there an Albanian reader out there who can confirm or deny?)















Wednesday 15 May 2024

Dr Keate’s Curate. A Letter from William Grant Broughton (1788 – 1853), later Bishop of Australia




In Great Britain, the technology which made possible the production of cheap, machine-made envelopes was developed in the 1840s, also the decade in which postage stamps came into general use. The habit of early stamp collectors was to tear stamps from envelopes which were then discarded. The letter enclosed might be kept but for future readers the identity of the “Dear Sir” or “Dear Mother” might be lost forever; the envelope would have answered the question instantly. By the end of the Victorian period millions of envelopes had been binned in pursuit of the most popular of the century’s many destructive hobbies.

Prior to the 1840s letters were sent as folded sheets of paper (now called entires) with the addressee’s name written on the outside. There was no stamp to tear off and, usually, no sheet to discard though sometimes a letter might be enclosed within a wrapper and might also be separated from the contents.

It requires little knowledge to conclude that the name and address on this entire letter of 31 January 1827 makes it worth looking at more closely. Dr Keate lives on in the book of records as the headmaster who on just one day succeeded in flogging eighty Etonians.. Who would write to such a man and what might they write about?

The contents are cross-written and when transcribed come to a Microsoft total of 1082 words. They begin “Dear Sir” and close “Your faithful humble servant W.G.Broughton”. He was Dr Keate’s curate in the Hampshire parish of Hartley Wespall where the letter was written.  Dr Keate was a pluralist, awarded this particular living in 1818 by the Dean and Chapter of Windsor and held until his death; he is buried inside its parish church, a prominent tomb much polished. His son succeeded as Rector.

The curate begins by reporting on the discharge of his duties:

previous to leaving home I made an adjudication of the 30 blankets and though they did not arrive until after my departure Mrs Neville distributed them according to my directions. This was before the cold weather set in and from such of the poor as I have yet had communication with I have received very grateful acknowledgements to you for your charitable consideration of their wants.

Both vicar and curate were High Church Tories who accepted that they had duties to the deserving poor. Married with two children living, Broughton also had duties to his family; he was conscious that lack of funds had obliged him to forego an Exhibitioner’s place at Cambridge in favour of a job in London with the East India Company. Only an unexpected legacy from an uncle enabled him much later to enter Pembroke College to study mathematics, graduating in 1818 at the age of thirty. In the same year he took Holy Orders and married a childhood sweetheart. He has been at Hartley Wespall since then.

But now he is leaving and the rest of the letter runs through the arrangements he is making or suggesting to Dr Keate. As for his replacement, he offers several names but concludes by recommending Mr Procter despite the fact that the Bishop (of Winchester) is against him, suspecting Evangelical tendencies, a canard which Mr Procter repudiates:

As the best mode of disproving the charge brought against him, and of undeceiving the Bishop, he is about to publish by subscription a Volume of Sermons, which will explain his real sentiments.

Mr Procter got the job but did not last and I cannot promise you that he published any Sermons. But Mr Broughton did and, more importantly, in 1826 had published a reluctant defence of the view (supported by the methods of the new German philology) that Bishop Gauden and not Charles the Martyr was the author of the EIKON BASILIKE. This impressed the equally reluctant Bishop of Winchester who then offered Broughton the curacy of the parish of Farnham, equipped with a fine residence and grounds being prepared for the bishop’s own eventual retirement. Broughton accepted and is about to leave Harley Wespall..

Farnham is just sixteen miles from Stratfield Saye and Broughton was soon introduced to the Duchess and then to the Duke of Wellington installed there by a grateful nation. Wellington was impressed by this new but no longer young curate and as Constable of the Tower of London added the chaplaincy there to Broughton’s portfolio. In 1828 Wellington – now Prime Minister – told the Colonial Office that the Reverend Broughton was just the man needed to replace the outgoing Archdeacon of Sydney. Broughton, who had never travelled farther abroad than the East India Company’s London offices, accepted. The salary of £2000 per year promised financial security for his family and offered some compensation for what would be a long and still hazardous journey. He became the first (and only) Bishop of Australia and a significant and controversial figure in the history of the colony, the subject of a full-length biography by G P Shaw (1978) – on which i have drawn - and more recent discussions focussed on his involvement in policy towards Aboriginal populations.

He died on a visit to England in 1853 and is commemorated in Canterbury Cathedral with a chest tomb on which he lies as if a medieval knight at rest from his labours; an exact copy can be found in Sydney’s Anglican cathedral.



Hartley Wespall January 31st 1827

Dear Sir

The severity of the weather and the state of the roads in Kent prevented my returning hither till Saturday last and on Monday I was again on the wing to Farnham and back again yesterday. It has therefore been out of my power to reply sooner to your letters of Jan’y 6th and 27th. First of the first previous to leaving home I made an adjudication of the 30 blankets and though they did not arrive until after my departure Mrs Neville distributed them according to my directions. This was before the cold weather set in and from such of the poor as I have yet had communication with I have received very grateful acknowledgements to you for your charitable consideration of their wants. From what occurred yesterday at Farnham I have reason to think that I shall be required to be there for the first time on Sunday February 18th . Mr Procter who is to make way at Bentley for Mr Austen will take my duty here on that day and the 25th. I am quite in the dark as to Mr Hadow’s [ sp?] present intentions. In answer to the letter which arrived when you were here I sent him an exact account of the emoluments of the curacy, house & premises, duty &c (with which however I should have thought him already acquainted from having lived here with me) and in an answer to a subsequent letter I replied to his enquiries as to the probability of obtaining a supply of pupils in the neighbourhoods. Since this I have not heard from him; but you are probably by this time acquainted with his final decision. I have not the slightest knowledge of Mr Kerr or of his family As however I found from the Bishop’s communication yesterday that they are known and noticed by him I conclude they are acceptable. This however is now unimportant, as Mr Kerr writes to me that he wishes to withdraw his application thinking the house & premises too extensive for a single man. Mr Dobson some times ago told me that upon the same grounds that he should decline it even if you made him the offer. Mr Bricknell has taken the curacy at Hartley Wintney, nor do I think that there is any clergyman in the neighbourhood who could undertake regularly for the period you mention. Mr Procter, whom the late arrangements at Farnham have cast out of house and home, requests me to make you the offer of his service, for as many weeks as you desire; that is until you have got … a permanent curate or until it may be convenient to the gentleman appointed by you to enter upon the duties of the parish. His charge is 2 guineas a Sunday and he will relinquish the employment at any time at [tear in letter from when the seal was broken] week’s notice from you. I must not omit to say that the Bishop declined to license Mr P to the Curacy at Farnham. He assigned no reason of course; but the impression upon Mr Procter’s mind is that his Ldship had been persuaded that he was of the Evangelical school. This however he strenuously denies and assured me that he had a decided dislike to their tenets The circumstance which has given rise to the imputation he thinks can be only that he has in preaching a naturally energetic manner (which indeed shows itself in his conversation & ordinary deportment) and that this has attracted to church some persons who before he came went always to chapel.  As the best mode of disproving the charge brought against him, and of undeceiving the Bishop, he is about to publish by subscription a Volume of Sermons, which will explain his real sentiments. As far as a single interview to be depended on Mr Procter certainly gave me the impression that he was a man of talent & honesty. He is one of the Bye-Fellows of Peter House; and a gentleman residing in his parish spoke of him to me as exemplary in his moral character, in the discharge of all his duties and especially in his attention to the poor. I have thought it right to inform you of all I knew about him good or bad in order that you might better be able to decide whether you would avail yourself of his services or not. I shall see him again next Monday and hope in the mean time to receive your answer. It was my intention to have left Canterbury last Monday week and taken Eton on my way down to Hartley but the great fall of snow which we had in Kent, by obliging me to postpone my departure til the end of the week, frustrated this plan and as I expect tomorrow to have my two pupils with me I really am afraid it will hardly be in my power to have the pleasure of coming over at this time. If you would be so good as to make a memorandum of any further questions you wish to ask concerning the parish I will send you the best answers in my power.  Next Sunday I am to preach a Sermon for the Relief of the Manufacturers and the next day we shall collect what we can in the parish. If you have not already contributed to the full extent of your intention I should be happy to put down your name for a small sum at the head of the list. I have not yet received any communication from the lady you mention respecting her son. I beg you to be assured that I have never for one moment doubted of your inclination to serve and assist me in the matter of pupils, or in any other manner as far as circumstances would admit and my thanks I am sure are due to you for these our good wishess. There are a few fixtures here belonging to me: which the best way will be to have appraised and send to you a list of them and a valuation. They are such as my successor would most probably wish to take. I left Mrs Broughton and children quite well: I shall be very happy to hear as good an account of Mrs Keate and yours. With best remembrances to all I am Dear Sir Your faithful humble servant W: G: Broughton [he uses colons not stops after his initials]