The next post will be on or before Sunday 1st October


Below are some sharp and poignant as well as some comically entertaining samples culled from book reviews that appeared in the August 2017 issue of my very favourite literary magazine, the Literary Review (founded 1979). Below these excerpts I give a quick resume of why it is I rate this remarkable UK literary journal quite as much as I do


‘Acting as the arbiter of West Indian culture, the BBC [in the 50s] promoted what the Dominican journalist Edward Scobie called ‘singing Nigger Minstrels, all dressed up in “massah’s clothes” and making massah laugh.’ The Black and White Minstrel Show was attracting audiences of 20 million by 1964, as Wills notes, and she might have added that it was the Queen’s favourite programme.’

And later. ‘This feeling became especially acute after the 1958 riots in Notting Hill and elsewhere in which white youths aimed to ‘get rid of these niggers’. Often the victims were blamed for the violence and [Fascist] Oswald Mosley vilified them during the election campaign the following year. A witness recorded some of his phrases: “blacks round our necks – black sweat shops – black brothels…one law for the blacks and another for the whites – forcing the blacks on us.’ He urged the deportation of many immigrants, including ‘the Maltese and Cypriots, the vice mongers. They aren’t European.’

Piers Brendon reviews Lovers and Strangers by Clair Wills



‘There were the great castrati, including Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci, who kept himself in London’s limelight…with a steady stream of rumours, scandals and sexual intrigues. Defying belief Tenducci eloped and fathered a child (by dint of a third testicle, he told an enraptured Casanova, that had miraculously escaped the fate of the other two)’

Darrin McMahon reviews The Invention of Celebrity 1750-1850 by Antoine Lilti



‘The Reverend John Williams “in the hope that European customs will very soon be introduced in the leeward stations” brought tea, sugar, tobacco and punctuality to the Society Islands. In 1841 however he at last exhausted his flock’s patience. They put an end to their trials and his mission by eating him.’

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto reviews The Hungry Empire by Lizzie Collingham.



‘After a morning’s writing [in Samoa], Stevenson would entertain himself with music particularly the flageolet which he played so badly “people fled from the sound”’

Peter Moore reviews Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa by Joseph Farrell



‘It was not easy to be the wife of Thomas Carlyle…who while probably never consummating their marriage announced at its inception “I must not and I cannot live in a house of which I am not head.”’

Catherine Peters reviews Jane Welsh Carlyle and Her Victorian World by Kathy Chamberlain



‘When I enquired how many husbands she [‘Scarlet Woman’ Lesley Blanch who died aged 102] had had, she threw her hands in the air and cried “ You mustn’t ask. I’m bad with figures.”’

Valerie Grove reviews Far to Go and Many to Love by Lesley Blanch


Up until 2001 I had two favourite literary magazines, the venerable London Magazine when it was edited with a seamlessly learned and impressive flair by the poet and travel writer Alan Ross (1922-2001) and the Literary Review which was founded by an Edinburgh academic Anne Smith in 1979. Subsequently LR was edited for 14 years by that teasing  and astringent iconoclast Auberon Waugh (1939-2001), and is currently being tended to by a tolerant and far sighted albeit fastidious Czech Canadian called Nancy Sladek. LM appeared monthly under Ross and was determinedly comprehensive in its contents with new fiction, poems, reviews, memoirs, literary essays, articles about forgotten writers, photographs, art, the lot. Years back the also monthly LR published short stories and indeed printed the first one (‘Not Whisky in the Jar’) I myself ever placed in a magazine in the December 1982 issue. For years though it has restricted itself to book reviews and little else, though with the admirable inclusion of a column about the persecution of international writers and journalists, edited by Lucy Popescu and entitled Silenced Voices.

Since Ross died the London Magazine has become much less catholic in its approach and editorially a great deal more conformist and pallid. However the Literary Review continues to print reviews that are authoritative, intelligent, often funny and nearly always imbued with the endearing if elusive flavour of the enthusiastic autodidact. This is a pleasing illusion as it happens as indeed many of its reviewers are specialist academics who, hearteningly in the liberating playground of LR, do not write with that prolix and humourless turgidity so characteristic of the greatly over-lauded London Review of Books. The LR is welcoming in part because it has an attractive typeface and layout (unlike the dreary funereal typography of the LRB) as well as tongue in cheek cartoons such as Illustrations to Unwritten Books (last month’s issue has ‘Treasure Ireland’ showing a mad leprechaun with an upraised shovel stood next to the end of a rainbow).

As a fiction writer, I am grateful for the fact that each LR issue reviews a generous number of novels and story collections and with a regular inclusion of international fiction (recall that only 1% of books bought by Brits are works in translation). Last month’s issue for example discussed 14 new novels whereas the LRB is lucky to review even one per issue. More impressive than that is that LR will often have pioneering reviews of fiction (and any other subject for that matter) brought out by tiny shoestring independent presses, a heretical approach if ever there was. So it was that when I reviewed for LR between 1997 and 2007, they would let me follow my wayward inclination which was to stick doggedly to cosmopolitan fiction exclusively and/or a new UK story writer (e.g. Jack Debney) coming out with a minuscule independent press. This unique LR integrity reflects the reality that it runs on a bit of a shoestring itself, consistent with the fact it pays its contributors, be they Nobel Winner or a 25 year old literary hopeful in a freezing bedsit, a standard modest rate that would buy you perhaps a handsome meal for 2 on a Greek island like the one I live on, which is called Kythnos.



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