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 This is now to be superseded by a 100-volume edition – but since there is a crisis of funding in Russian academe, it has only got as far as Volume 4.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.