Keats’s Grave

I wrote this for the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association (which cares for the house in Rome where Keats died) in order to promote its new Young Romantics writing prize for teenagers:

Burying a Protestant in nineteenth-century Rome was a dangerous business. Such was the hostility to non-Catholics that the authorities insisted on their funerals taking place at night; sometimes the mourners had to be protected by soldiers. So it was before dawn on 26th February 1821 that John Keats’s body was taken through the city.

If you visit the Protestant Cemetery today, you won’t find Keats’s name on his gravestone. Despairing of recognition for his work, he asked for the simple inscription ‘Here lies one whose name was writ on water’ – though his friends added a reference to ‘a young English poet’ and his ill-treatment by his countrymen. You have to turn to the stone beside his, inscribed to Joseph Severn, ‘Devoted friend and deathbed companion of John Keats’, for a positive ID.

The grave isn’t even in the best part of the cemetery. While Shelley’s ashes are buried in a quiet, shady spot, Keats lies in an exposed corner with the noise of a main road in the background. But many of those who have visited it over the past two centuries have felt it to be – as Oscar Wilde did – ‘the holiest place in Rome’.

They’re still coming. Such is their eagerness to stand on the edge of the grave (though you can read the headstone easily enough from the path) that it has just had to be re-turfed and repaired. The dozen mourners who followed the 25-year-old poet’s coffin early on that February morning can hardly have imagined such a thing.

As for Keats, I wonder if anyone who wrote his own epitaph ever got it more completely wrong. Only, perhaps, Shelley’s Ozymandias.

Translating Tolstoy

I had an illuminating conversation last week with Rosamund Bartlett, who has almost completed a new translation of Anna Karenina. I asked her whether there was a definitive text of the original to work from, and she told me of a 90-volume edition of Tolstoy’s complete works which was published under Stalin. This is now to be superseded by a 100-volume edition – but since there is a crisis of funding in Russian academe, it has only got as far as Volume 4. Will it be completed in our lifetime?
As it happens, I’m reading Anna Karenina at the moment in Constance Garnett’s translation. (Actually, she decided to call it Anna Karenin.) I confessed to Rosamund Bartlett that I found it impossible to take Vronsky, or Anna’s love for him, seriously once I discovered that he had a moustache – but she told me that all men did in those days and I must be more broad-minded.

Mind The Gap

This is not strictly a bookish subject, but it’s one I’ve been thinking about, partly because I’m planning to draw on my own gap-year experiences for my new novel.

For parents who spent their happy-go-lucky months between school and university working in wine bars and taking the Magic Bus to Greece, the rise of the gap-year industry is a baffling phenomenon. Though many companies have taken a battering from the prolonged economic winter and the rush to beat inflated university tuition fees, there are still scores of specialists in Britain competing to send teenagers out across the world. Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, the idea of a gap is finally catching on, with up to 8 per cent of students at Ivy League universities opting for one; while the newly created American Gap Association finds its feet, many are signing up with British organisations such as Projects Abroad and Global Vision International.

With schemes that offer instruction it’s relatively easy to see what you’re getting for your money. If your brain has any spare capacity after A-levels, you can spend eight weeks learning Spanish in Havana through Cactus Language for £2,296, or 12 weeks mugging up on Mandarin in Beijing through Cesa Languages Abroad for £5,718. (Prices tend to include accommodation but not flights.) More expensive still is Art History Abroad, which gives expert tuition to small groups in Italy; it’s highly recommended, but at £8,160 for a six-week course (including travel) it’s a major investment.

It’s when the words “community”, “volunteering” and “sponsorship” start to appear that things become more opaque. Anyone paying for the privilege of building a Guatemalan school beneath the baking sun is entitled to wonder where their money is going to. “A lot of companies are reluctant to tell you how the costs break down,” says Macca Sherifi of the advisory website, “but they will if you press them.”

Travellers Worldwide, whose monkey-rehabilitation programme in Argentina caught my eye (£1,795 for four weeks), were happy to send me a pie chart showing that 6% of this constituted their profit while the rest went towards running their operation and providing support for the volunteers. The Year Out Group, an association of established gap-year companies, stresses that a donation to the local community is not generally part of the deal: they’re being helped by your unpaid labour, and what you spend on food and accommodation.

But is the work you’re doing genuinely helpful? recently announced that it was discontinuing ten volunteer programmes at orphanages, partly because the high turnover of helpers was unsettling for the children, and partly because many of the inmates had proved not to be orphans at all – their parents had simply handed them over so that they could benefit from a Western education. ‘The majority of volunteering placements are of an extremely high standard and are extremely beneficial to a community, says Macca Sherifi – but there are exceptions, generally in the form of firms run by locals who want to make a quick buck out of backpackers. Before signing up  you should insist on being put in touch with people who have recently returned.   

Even companies that follow the letter of the law may be little more than travel agencies with a fig-leaf of philanthropy. (The offer of a ‘cultural tour’ after your stint of work is often a giveaway.) If you want to cut out middlemen, Ecoteer will put you directly in touch with some communities, meaning that you could pay as little as £50 a week. You’ll have to organise the trip yourself, without professional back-up – but then, that’s exactly the kind of challenge that a gap year ought to involve: an experience which is handed to you on a plate is not going to make you more self-reliant.

The basic rule of packages is that the longer you stay, the better value for money you get, because the lion’s share of costs – such as training, administration, visas and insurance – are the same. Thus Oyster’s marine-conservation programme in Thailand costs £1,096 for two weeks or £1,496 for a month; working in a school, orphanages, medical centre or national park in Kenya through Outreach International costs £1,200 for one month or £2,100 for three.

Some gap-year schemes can be seen as financial investments, providing a qualification which will help you find jobs through university and beyond. The Tante Marie cookery school in Woking has a four-week certificate course costing £2,995; AllTracksAcademy offers a six-week course for would-be ski-instructors in Whistler from £4,950, and Flying Fish a ten-week dinghy-sailing and windsurfing equivalent in Greece for £5,990.

Many people, of course, cannot afford these prices. Voluntary Service Overseas caters for the less affluent through the International Citizen Service, encompassing countries such as Ghana and Bolivia: no contribution is necessary, though you are asked to try to raise at least £800. There are also scholarships available: Art History Abroad has one worth £3,400, while the Royal Geographical Society offers grants of up to £4,000. Paid work can be found through websites such as

 Some parents may be feeling rather envious by this point. If so, bear in mind that 160,000 career-breakers and “grey gappers” also set out each year. Hold that Magic Bus!


Genre Bending

At Monday’s Royal Society of Literature meeting, Neil Gaiman made a remark which was grist to the Tomorrow’s Books mill. Working as a journalist in his twenties, he said, he often used to interview authors; over a drink in the pub afterwards, they would tell him about a book of theirs that hadn’t found a publisher because it was different from the work they were famous for. He said to himself, ‘That’s not going to happen to me!’ and adopted the motto, ‘Never pop out of the same hole twice.’ We salute him and all writers who enjoy the challenge of experimenting with different genres – and we look forward to bringing you some of their rebellious work

We Apologise For The Break In Transmission

This weblog has been too long in abeyance, for which I apologise: the sad fact is that writing novels and earning a living as a journalist does not leave much time for anything else. But the moment has come to re-engage with it – and where better to begin than by announcing some good news? Two of the books featured on this site have recently found publishers: Student Suppers – retitled Goodbye Cockroach Pie – is now available from Inky Paws Press, while Michael Meylac’s collection of interviews with ballet dancers is to be issued by I.B. Tauris next year. We wish them both well.

Yesterday’s Book

Is there anything sadder than a book which doesn’t stand the test of time? I have just re-read Scott FItzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, which I have long thought of as one of my favourites. Tragically, I couldn’t say that any more. Was I completely wrong about it in the first place, or am I a different person from the one who read it all those years ago?

Published in 1920, this coming-of-age novel made Fitzgerald famous overnight. It follows the life of aesthete and would-be writer Amory Blaine from his childhood in a rich Midwestern family, through his student days at Princeton, into an adult world in which he struggles – his heart broken, his inheritance largely gone. That Amory is based on Fitzgerald himself is never in any doubt.

Amory is intelligent, good-looking, precocious and conceited: in Fitzgerald’s phrase, a ‘Romantic Egotist’. To stick with the book, you have to forgive Amory a lot. The writing is self-conscious and self-indulgent, switching from prose to theatrical dialogue to long excerpts from letters and poems attributed to the characters…so you have to forgive Fitzgerald a lot too. But you can see why the world hailed him as a magnificent new talent: the supremely evocative style which reached its apotheosis in The Great Gatsby is already in plain view in his descriptions of young love and Princeton’s ‘spires and gargoyles’.

The other captivating quality I attributed to This Side of Paradise was a sense of energy and fun. I loved the pages devoted to a student revue called Ha-Ha Hortense! (‘Hey, ponies – how about easing up on that crap game and shaking a mean hip?’ the director exhorts his cast.) Then there was the impromptu audience participation at a local cinema, with everyone singing along to


She works in a Jam Factoree

And – that-may-be-all-right

But you can’t-fool-me

For I know – DAMN – WELL

That she DON’T-make-jam-all-night!

      Re-reading it, though, I could find only a few isolated highlights of this kind; the overall mood seemed much more subdued, tying it to the autumnal pre-war world of Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street (an Oxford novel which clearly influenced FItzgerald) rather than the Jazz Age which was about to break upon America. But the real shock was to recognise how incredibly snobbish Fitzgerald’s book was. Snobbery is an essential part of the Young Egotist’s character: Amory believes himself to be socially, aesthetically and intellectually superior to most of those around him, and Fitzgerald makes this damningly clear. The problem is that the novelist does not sufficiently distance himself from his creation. When Amory catches a train and finds himself repelled by the smell of the ‘immigrants’ around him, it is hard not to believe that Fitzgerald’s nostrils have been similarly offended. And when Amory and his Princeton friends set off penniless for the seaside and stave off hunger by cheating the local restaurateurs, it is all presented as the greatest fun – whereas Evelyn Waugh would have shown their behaviour to be hilarious but also appalling. In This Side of Paradise, the people outside Fitzgerald’s social set barely exist.

This makes me wonder about my young self: was I equally snooty, or was I so in thrall to the author of The Great Gatsby that I was prepared to swallow his view of the world whoesale? I hadn’t yet gone to university when I first read This Side of Paradise, so perhaps I was unreasoningly eager to imbible a dream of what student life could be.

In Fitzgerald’s defence, I should make it clear that Amory learns from his mistakes – and the parts of the book where he does so now strike me as the most powerful: above all, the scene in which he imagines that he glimpses the Devil. In the final pages, the self-centred patrician even debates the merits of Socialism. (This a less successful episode, and indeed few of the novel’s detailed discussions of ideas are very engrossing: I wonder whether, as we grow older, we hunger more for clear-cut revelations.) But Fitzgerald himself is still in love with high society; and if you didn’t know that he had gone on to write the book which more than any other cuts through its illusions, I very much doubt that you could have guessed.

Hilary Mantel Revisited

From time to time I find myself interviewing someone so interesting that I can fit only a fraction of what they say into my article. This was the case with Hilary Mantel, whom I wrote about recently for She has kindly given me permission to use some of her unused observations on this website, so here they are.

    She described her novel The Giant O’Brien as ‘a bookend’ to her French Revolution epic, A Place of Greater Safety, in that it examines what is it to be human and where the frontier lie of personhood lies – and for her the defining question in the French Revolution is: ‘What are human rights and who shouldhave them?’  She went on:

    ‘I’m hoping to write a little book about Stanislawska Przybyzewska [1901-1935], the Polish playwright, called The Woman Who Died of Robespierre. She locked herself away and starved herself to death and became a morphine addict in the quest to write the perfect play about
the French Revolution. This curious story I would like to use as a starting point for how we remember history, and then broaden it out into what we think we’re doing when we write historical fiction. That would be my other little bookend to A Place of Greater Safety. She seems to me like one of the widows left over from the Revolution…She’s out of time, and I’m interested in that in an occult sort of way – how people sometimes attach themselves to another time and say, “That’s really where I belong.” I thought I’d done that, till I started writing about the Tudors.’

    I asked her whether she had a favourite among her books. She replied:

    ‘In a way A Place of Greater Safety is the one which is closest to my heart, because it was the one written against the odds, as an act of faith. It was about something important. If I were to rate them I think Wolf Hall is a much better book, and my favourite is the one I’m writing now, because it’s always so – you think, “This is the one that’s going to pull things together.” ’

    Her present project is a sequel to Wolf Hall called The Mirror in the Light. When did she realise that the story demanded a second volume?

    ‘I realised quite late. I was about halfway through, and the plot and the sheer variety of characters and narratives began to look so overwhelming; then I saw that the great contest between Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell seemed to be something that in Cromwell’s life had enormous personal repercussions: it wasn’t just important politically. If I was writing from the point of view of his character, it was important at every level; and it seemed wrong to go on beyond that point [More’s execution], because that would make it just one incident on the way to many; and it seemed to me that that was a kind of high point in the narrative: after that you should break.

    ‘The new book takes up with the long run in to the destruction of Ann
Boleyn, and if I’d tried to put that in[to Wolf Hall] it would have made the More business seem negligible. I just came up against the problem of what one novel can contain, and I felt I’d pushed it to its limit. The Mirror in the Light takes up in the autumn of 1535 and goes on to the autumn of 1540 – Thomas Cromwell’s execution.’

    She is also planning an African novel:

    ‘I’ve written a book called A Change of Climate which is set back in the Apartheid era, but I would like to write something about Africa at the time that I lived in Botswana, which brings us to the beginning of the Eighties, just before AIDS. That was a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand, becauseBotswana was devastated by AIDS.

    ‘It gives me a creepy feeling looking back: I worked in a secondary
school and you knew that syphilis was endemic. My children would say, “Sorry I’m late – I’ve been at the hospital.” They’d been for their penicillin – I soon stopped asking. I know that many of the people I taught will have died.

    ‘You felt on the borders of knowledge. It was a boarding school, and
many of the children were very miserable and I think clinically depressed. And you sort of knew that the little girls weren’t safe – that the boys and indeed the masters were predatory; and as the only white woman on the staff I had no place to stand and say anything about this. And of course I thought the African women on the staff should do something, but to them it was just, “I went through this system, I’m all right.” My experience of teaching there was interesting but quite miserable, because you felt so powerless.’

    Exactly when she will write ‘that little novel’ she isn’t sure, as the
publication of The Mirror in the Light is likely to be followed by a year spend promoting it. But overall she is very happy with her lot.

    ‘It’s lovely for me now, because over the years I’ve done a great deal
of literary journalism and I really had to do that to keep an income flow,
because I never earned much from fiction. But now I don’t have to do it, so I’ve got that freedom again to work every day on my book, and it’s like going back to being unpublished: you don’t have those constraints any more. No one expects you to win the Booker twice, so some of the pressure’s off. It’s all working well at the moment.’

The Two Williams

A contribution to the Phoenix Ark website. You can see an illustrated version at

      Recent travels have brought to mind two poets. Several weeks ago I was in Ireland, and thought inevitably of Yeats, whose poetry illuminated my own upbringing there. A fortnight later I visited Wordsworth country, which I’ve come to know only in the past few years. What, I found myself wondering, would each of these great writers have made of the other’s milieu, had Wordsworth not died fifteen years before Yeats was born? And what would they make of their domains today?

      My Irish visit focussed on County Laois – not a region strongly associated with Yeats. But the Georgian mansion in which I stayed (now beautifully and painstakingly restored , as a hotel) was instantly evocative of his Upon a House Shaken by the Land Agitation, celebrating the virtues of gracious living:

…the sweet laughing eagle thoughts that grow
Where wings have memories of wings, and all
That comes of the best knit to the best…

      Many such houses were burned to the ground in the 1920s, and those that survived in the area have had widely different fates. Birr Castle remains the home of the Earl of Rosse, though its grounds and Victorian observatory are open to the public; Stradbally Hall is the setting for Ireland’s leading music festival, the Electric Picnic; Leap Castle (the country’s most haunted) is being restored single-handed, by a professional tin-whistle player, Sean Ryan.

      In the Lake District, I visited the village of Lorton, four miles from Cockermouth (the town in which Wordsworth spent his early childhood). Lorton’s most famous inhabitant is an ancient yew tree, to which Wordsworth devoted a short poem, including the lines

This solitary tree! A living thing
Produced too slowly ever to decay;
Of form and aspect too magnificent
To be destroyed.

      This has proved over-optimistic: the tree is only half the size it once was; but it is still an impressive sight, and the fact that Wordsworth made the pilgrimage to see it brings a small thrill.

      Wordsworth did not, to my knowledge, ever visit Ireland, nor Yeats the Lake District; the one place they had in common was London. The fact that Wordsworth, the great poet of nature, should have written the most famous of all poems in praise of the capital – Upon Westminster Bridge – has always intrigued me. It is curious too (though in keeping with the tradition of the Irish artist in exile) that Yeats’s most famous poem, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, was inspired by a shop window in the Strand:

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake waters lapping with low sounds by the shore.
When standing on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep earth’s core.

      Wordsworth might have found in this an echo of his own Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, with its gratitude for memories of nature ‘’mid the din/Of towns and cities’. But I doubt that he would have thought much of Yeats’s lake and ‘bee-loud glade’: it’s far too tame, a world away from the grandeur of the Cumbrian scenery ,which formed his own sensibility with its ‘huge and mighty Forms’. The waterfalls and seascapes which characterise Yeats’s early West of Ireland poems would have left him equally unimpressed, for all the delight of fairies dancing

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim grey sands with light…

      Yeats’s Celtic Twilight is a soft, dreamy thing which the harsh winds that blow with ‘strange utterance’ through Wordsworth’s The Prelude might rip away in a moment.

      Let us turn the tables, though, and imagine Yeats visiting Wordsworth at Dove Cottage. He would certainly have approved of the domestic set-up – Mary and Dorothy Wordsworth, indulging William as he himself was indulged by his young wife Georgie. But the building itself? Surely not in keeping with Yeats’s notion of the poet’s role in society: for him the Duke of Urbino’s court or Lady Gregory’s Coole Park were where a great artist belonged, at once creating beauty and finding inspiration in beautiful things. Even the much larger Rydal Mount, to which Wordsworth moved in 1813, would hardly fit the bill.

      Perhaps Wordsworth takes him across the fells to visit the family’s old home in Cockermouth. Now owned by the National Trust, it ranks second only to Cockermouth Castle in the town. ‘That’s more like it,’ thinks Yeats; but Wordsworth has a bitter tale to tell about the aftermath of his father’s death, and the failure of John Wordsworth’s employer, a landowner on a grand scale, to repay an enormous sum owing to the family. No wonder he doesn’t share his guest’s enthusiasm for the splendid dwellings of the rich.

      He might approve, though, of the home Yeats creates for himself in later life. Thoor Ballylee in County Galway is a ruin restored

With old mill boards and sea-green slates,
And smithy work from the Gort forge…

but even after refurbishment it’s pretty uncomfortable. To Yeats its greatest importance is as a symbol from which he draws inspiration for ‘The Tower’ and other great late poems. Wordsworth is stirred by ruins, too, from those of Tintern Abbey, to the ruined cottage which symbolises a peasant family’s suffering in the eponymous poem.

      Can we picture the two men working side by side as Wordsworth did with Coleridge? Not easily. For one thing, Wordsworth likes to walk while he is composing, while for Yeats writing is ‘sedentary toil’. But from time to time he climbs to the top of the tower and looks about him. How different Galway in the 1920s is from the gentle countryside of his youth!

      In the final part of Mediations in Time of Civil War he sees phantoms of hatred sweeping across the sky in a ‘rage-driven, rage-tormented and rage-hungry troop’.

Perhaps Wordsworth accompanies him up onto the roof after dinner and they confront the tumult like a pair of King Lears, the wind blowing their white hair into haloes. But I suspect not: Wordsworth has seen enough of bloody civil strife during the French Revolution – for him such things are best considered in the light of a new day, as in Resolution and Independence:

There was a roaring in the wind all night;
The rain came heavily and fell in floods;
But now the sun is rising calm and bright;
The birds are singing in the distant woods…

      For today’s visitor to the Lake District, these lines recall the terrible floods which assailed Cockermouth and Workington last winter. I think Wordsworth would be impressed by how his birthplace has picked itself up again, and reassured that the stoicism of the local people still endures – though saddened by the way in which traditional agriculture has been eclipsed by tourism.

      As for Yeats’s homeland, it is significant that when Ireland was forced to accept the EU’s financial support a few months ago, the Irish Times quoted his September 1913 in its leader:

Was it for this…
…………that all the blood was shed,
For this Edward Fitzgerald died,
And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,
All that delirium of the brave?

      Only Yeats at his most magnificently scathing could do justice to the ignominy brought upon his country and the spectacle of picturesque landscapes lost to thousands of unfinished houses.

      It is possible that the two great poets would not have got on at all. Wordsworth was not known for his kindness to younger writers, and made a poor impression on Keats when the latter came to pay his respects. Yeats counted Wordsworth among his early heroes, but was more critical of him in middle age:

‘He strikes me as always destroying his poetic experience, which was of course of incomparable value, by his reflective power. His intellect was commonplace and unfortunately he had been taught to respect nothing else.’

      Nevertheless, roaming the countryside together, I think they would have found shared sympathies – for example, their concern for ordinary people, such as the shepherd deserted by his son in Wordsworth’s Michael, or the old pauper in Yeats’s Adam’s Curse breaking stones ‘in all kinds of weather’. Indeed, if I had to choose the poem by Yeats that brought him closest to Wordsworth, it would be his description of his ideal reader, The Fisherman:

….his sun-freckled face,
And grey Connemara cloth,
Climbing up to a place
Where stone is dark under froth,
And the down-turn of his wrist
When the flies drop in the stream;
A man who does not exist,
A man who is but a dream…