"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
For more information about the books of Nicholas Murray
click HERE and access his website
Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Friday, 27 July 2007

Poetry Book of the Month

My favourite recent volume of poems, published earlier this year by Melos Press, is William Palmer's The Island Rescue, a fine blend of poetic craftsmanship and strong feeling. It is highly recommended. Palmer has written six novels, the latest, The India House, published by Jonathan Cape in 2005. He has also written short stories and has just completed a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship at the University of Warwick.

The Island Rescue can be obtained from Melos Press, 38 Palewell Park, London SW14 8JG for £6.99 post free.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Alcemi: A New Welsh Fiction Imprint

Last night saw the London launch at the Francis Kyle Gallery in Mayfair of the new Welsh quality fiction imprint, Alcemi (Welsh, you might have guessed, for alchemy!) with the first two authors Chris Keil and Gee Williams reading from their new novels Liminal and Salvage. Introducing her authors at the launch, Editor, Gwen Davies, pointed out how significant independent publishers had become with half the Orange Prize shortlist being independent titles. Let's hope this new venture is the success it deserves to be. The new imprint highlights a quotation from Milan Kundera: "A novel is the product of an alchemy that turns a woman into a man, a man into a woman, sludge into gold, an anecdote into drama. That divine alchemy is what makes for the power of every novelist, the secret, the splendour of his art."

To find out more about Alcemi visit its website

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Happy Birthday, Aldous!

Thursday 26th July is the anniversary of the birth of the writer Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), author of the classic dystopia Brave New World (1932) and much else besides. As well as having the oddest first name (it came from a character in a novel by his aunt Mrs Humphry Ward) Huxley is famous for having died on the same day in 1963 as John F. Kennedy. In addition to his novels Huxley was a brilliant essayist, a social critic, a prophet, and someone who warned against many of the things that have come to characterise modern civilisation. He is well worth attending to.

Those of you who live in the catchment area of BBC Radio Cambridgeshire will have the opportunity to hear me (as his biographer) being interviewed about Huxley tomorrow morning around 9.30am.

Monday, 23 July 2007

Mad About the Boy: James Hanley

The recent reprint by One World Classics (see review by Ken Worpole) of the short novel Boy (1931) by James Hanley - the most outstanding Liverpool writer of the first half of the twentieth century - gives a chance to read again an extraordinarily powerful and disturbing work of an adolescent coming to maturity. Originally published in 1931 it was re-issued in 1934 with an injudicious cover that resulted in a prosecution for obscene libel in a Lancashire court. The jacket here is from my copy of the first unexpurgated edition in 1990. In his introduction to that edition Anthony Burgess (like William Faulkner and EM Forster an admirer of Hanley) writes that: "The geniuses who are neglected are usually the geniuses who disturb, and we do not like to be disturbed." The book, whose shock - Burgess again - "will have nothing to do with the titillations of the pornographic" , is unsparing and shocks in the sense that Kafka meant in the quote I set out in yesterday's posting . It conveys the harshness of a thirteen year old poor Liverpool boy's life, running away to sea, experiencing brutality and abuse, and ending that life quite horribly. There is no comfort in it and Hanley's uncompromising spirit is everywhere apparent in a novel he claims to have written in ten days on a typewriter given to him by Nancy Cunard to whom the book is dedicated. But Hanley was a compassionate as well as a truthful artist and by giving expression to the boy, Arthur Fearon's, life, he did what his son, Liam, claimed for him: "He gave working men and their wives and children a voice - their voice." Periodic attempts are made to refloat Hanley's reputation and it might seem even more unlikely that he will find an audience in the current "3 for 2" bookselling culture but he is well worth the effort. We can safely assume that Hanley will be absent from next year's "European Capital of Culture" celebrations in Liverpool. The picture here is from a painting by his son, Liam Hanley.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

A Thought for Today

"I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for...A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief."

"...ein Buch muss die Axt sein für das gefrorene Meer in uns. Das glaube ich."

Franz Kafka

Thursday, 19 July 2007


Collecting, beyond a certain point which is quickly reached, can very easily become an obsessive form of behaviour. Some kinds of collecting, I can't help feeling, are slightly madder than others, and I'd like to think my personal obsession is less futile than some, though I can't be sure. I am not certain when it started but I became a collector of those tiny hardback 4inch by 6inch World's Classics quite a long time ago and now I have 411 of them. 619 were issued, the last (Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment) in 1973, so I still have some way to go if I want to attain the Holy Grail of a complete set. They were first published in 1901 (I have a few of those first editions now more than 100 years old) by Grant Richards and later by Oxford University Press who still use the title for their paperback World's Classics series, a few of which are still using the old texts and translations from the hardback days. Obviously, there are eccentricities if you think of this as a representative selection of the world's great writing, or even English writing, (no Hardy but bucketloads of Constance Holme for example) but it would sustain you quite well on a desert island. They are beautifully made books but it's interesting that a recent attempt to relaunch the series with the same loving standards of production petered out after 20 volumes. Perhaps the paperback has now established an invincible hegemony. But I like them. I used to pick them up for 40 pence but I have seen some commanding well over £10 each, in one case, in an antique shop in Windsor, £18. The average for a good condition second-hand volume would be around £6-8 in the UK. which makes my collection potentially worth £2-3000. But would I part with them?

If you are interested there is a dedicated website prepared by Geoffrey Milburn (who generously pretends that some of the rest of us are co-compilers but the lion's share of the work in this wonderful catalogue has been his). It can be found at www.edu.uwo.ca/worldsclassics.

On reflection...yes, it is mad, but it could have been old vacuum cleaners or beer-mats.

PS No, Madam, in answer to your question I haven't read all 411 but I am not dead yet!

No, It's Not Mussolini

The gentleman in the picture is not a dictator haranguing a pliant populace from his balcony but Christopher Isherwood biographer Peter Parker announcing the winner of the 2007 JR Ackerley Prize for autobiography at the English P.E.N. annual summer party last night in London. Held in the splendid house and garden in Kensington Church Street of publisher and author Tom Stacey the party is one of the reliable features of the London literary calendar at which the Ackerley Prize is announced (and bloggers refresh themselves). The winner this year was Brian Thompson for Keeping Mum. Parker, seen here at an upper window addressing the guests in the garden below, explained that there are no submissions for this prize. The judges call in books they want to consider and the criteria for the Ackerley (named after the famous Listener literary editor J. R. Ackerley (1896-1967)) are rather vague but the typical entrant is usually very English, a bit posh and a teeny weeny bit camp (PEN's preferred term is "outrageous"). Not having read this year's winner I cannot say whether any or all of these criteria were met this year.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Another Poem for Today

Western Wind

Western wind, when will thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!

Anonymous poem from:-

The New Oxford Book of Sixteenth Century Verse
edited by Emrys Jones, p44.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Kafka and the Women

The seventh foreign edition of my biography of Franz Kafka has just flopped through the letterbox. They have changed the title to Kafka and the Women or Kafka's Women which I suppose is fair enough given that this was an emphasis of the book (Kafka's lifelong search for a partner) but it's an interesting insight into the world of international publishing where the author doesn't always get a look in. The US edition of my biography of Aldous Huxley, which in the UK was called Aldous Huxley: an English Intellectual, became Aldous Huxley: a biography, the first I knew about it being when a boxful arrived at the door. In the latter case the word "intellectual" was probably a bit high-risk.

This reminds me of WH Auden's little rhyme (forgive me, I'm quoting this from memory): "To the man in the street whom I'm sorry to say/Is a keen observer of life/The word 'intellectual' means straightaway/A man who's untrue to his wife."

Saturday, 14 July 2007

George Orwell and (New) New Labour

The announcement on 12th July by Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, that there is to be what one newspaper called “the biggest shake-up of the secondary school curriculum for years”, triggered in many of us the usual sceptical reflexes. After all, shaking up the system (as opposed to improving its outcomes) seems to have been a constant activity in the ten years of New Labour and the announcement of a new bout of agitation so soon after Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair as Prime Minister inevitably raises the question of whether educational policy is simply going to be more of the same or whether we should expect something new. It all seemed to merit a second look.

Ken Boston certainly thinks we should expect fireworks. What drew most attention, however, was his list of key authors that school students should be expected to read. As someone who writes literary biographies for a living I was gratified to see four of my subjects (Chatwin, Arnold, Marvell, Huxley) on the list but, as with all lists, one began to wonder about the omisssions, particularly as it had been extended beyond the comfortable Eng. Lit. canon to include “writers from different cultures and traditions” (though not a single one from central or eastern Europe). To take three random favourites of mine: Paul Auster, J.M Coetzee, and John Banville I suppose their omission had to do with perceived “difficulty” in the classroom. Which brings me on to Orwell.

Ken Boston observed: “You could begin with something not too taxing for some pupils, like Orwell, and then move on to more difficult works such as Thomas Hardy.” This rather pulled me up. True, Orwell writes with pellucid clarity. He is eminently readable but does this mean he is not “difficult”? Perhaps Boston only means at a very immediate level of being superficially easy to read (though Hardy isn’t exactly Gertrude Stein is he?) but I was worried about the opposition being set up here. Orwell deals with some of the most crucial issues of twentieth century politics, he teased out in his essays many of the nuances of British society from his quirkily radical Old Etonian perspective, he tackled the big issues. So did Hardy, of course, but in a much more locally rooted fashion. I can’t see why Orwell is considered “easier” than anyone else.

One of Orwell’s most brilliant essays is the 1946 “Politics and the English Language”. When I was teaching writing skills to undergraduates at Queen Mary College, University of London (a four year one-day-a-week experience that deserves a blog all of its own!) I regularly recommended this essay to students with its excellent discussion of what makes good, honest writing. But I always had a slight reservation about another of his famous assertions, in the essay “Why I Write”, that “good prose is like a window pane”. It does its job so well that one isn’t aware that it is there. One looks through the glass to the content within, the thing that allows one to grasp the meaning is irrelevant to the seizure of the meaning itself. Bad writing, on the other hand, is always getting in the way, a dirty smudge that one has to wipe away before one can see the meaning clearly. It’s a nice idea but, even without tipping out on the floor a lorryload of long-winded recent literary theory, it’s possible to argue that this isn’t quite good enough. Writing is not that simple. The form modifies the content (and vice versa) and language does have a life of its own. It isn’t a simple tool that one picks up to do a job. It is endlessly complex. In short it is “difficult” and so is Orwell. Much of this is to do with the complexity of his political and social positioning and, for contemporary teenagers, there’s a great deal of historical and political matter assumed by his writing that they may well find “difficult”. Books like 1984 or Animal Farm were written out of their particular historical moment. A lot of context is needed if one is to understand them. I would argue that this is as much if not more than is needed for Hardy (who of course was also a man deeply sensitive to the undercurrents of his time).

All this means that once one starts on the task of trying to sort the sheep from the goats one is pretty soon going to get onto tricky ground. It nearly always means making assumptions that turn out to be dubious, talking down to people, making false assertions, reducing the complexity, richness and variety of a writer’s oeuvre to some fatuous generality.

Let’s allow Orwell his complexity, his richness of content. His difficulty.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

A Poem for Today

If you like this poem and wish to know more about the published collection from which it came let me know.


These are the wide, incredulous eyes of Harpo Marx,
handed a plate which will soon be filled
with the tangled cordage of fresh spaghetti.

They speak of astonishment at such reversals
when the out-of-luck come into their own
and the least they can do is eat up.

The post-prandial concert is inevitable.
They are singing after supper their only song:
We have only our talent and our hunger to give you;

We are the century's displaced, the scuttling survivors
who seem to travel light but whose baggage
is weightier than any braced trunk deep in the hold.

Contemporary Greek Writing

For those of us who don't read Greek, translations are vital and as summer is here and we start to think of heading for the sun it's a good time to consider what's available.

Michel Faïs’s From the Same Glass, the seventh contemporary Greek title from the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham has now appeared. It’s a collection of stories translated by Jane Nisselson Assimakopoulos which won the Greek State Literature Prize when it was first published in Greek in 2000. The stories - richly varied in form and voice - reflect some new aspects of contemporary Greece such as the in-migration from the Balkans in recent years.

Although it would be wrong to say that British publishers totally neglect contemporary Greek fiction (Arcadia publish Pavlos Matesis’ The Daughter, Marion Boyars Four Walls by Vangelis Hatziyannis, Harvill the slightly more best-selling Andreas Staikos (Les Liaisons Culinaires) and Petros Markaris (The Late-Night News), as with the French there’s a bit of a disparity in the numbers of British readers who will be flocking to these countries this summer and the ones who will be even aware of what is going on in the literatures of their destination countries. Birmingham University’s series of translations is therefore to be welcomed. It has issued since the mid-1990s a couple of early twentieth century Greek classics such as Stratis Doukas, A Prisoner of War’s Story (1929) and Dimitris Hatzis The End of Our Small Town (1953; sadly now out of print) as well as recent novels like Sotiris Dimitriou May Your Name be Blessed (the best of the modern bunch).

They don’t believe in mailing lists or e-lists and you can get these books only by downloading a form from the website [www.iaa.bham.ac.uk/publications/translations.htm] but it’s worth the doggedness.