Twilight for Stewart’s Poetry?

Twilight for Stewart’s Poetry?

Commentators have been queuing up to criticise Kristen Stewart like portly barbecue guests jostling for the last scraps of meat on the bones of the hog roast. The whey-faced Twilight actress, previously best-known for dating Robert Pattinson and having all the expressive range of a fridge-freezer, is being panned for her poem, ‘My Heart is a Wiffle Ball’.

The Guardian’s Marina Hyde jokes that the poem reads ‘like a middle-class fridge door.’ Gawker’s Lacy Donohue called it ‘shitty, embarrassing poetry.’ So far, so gruesome. Anyway, this just in – K-Stew’s penned another few lines, exclusively for the Oxford Student. Here they are:

As silent as a mirror is believed
Realities plunge in silence by . . .

I am not ready for repentance;
Nor to match regrets. For the moth
Bends no more than the still
Imploring flame. And tremorous
In the white falling flakes
Kisses are,–
The only worth all granting.

Ugh! Just like the first one. What a bunch of self-indulgent crap. This is almost as bad as when she used the word ‘kismetly’, which isn’t even a word! These lines don’t even make sense. I mean, how can a flame be ‘imploring’? Embarrassing for everyone. Right?

Right. Except for one little porky pie. The extract above is actually from ‘Legend’, a poem by Harold Hart Crane, one of the most important English-language poets of the last hundred years. Now his reputation shouldn’t have any influence on your reading of the poem – if you think it’s crap, you think it’s crap. But there are good reasons for thinking Hart Crane’s poetry is good, just like there are good reasons for thinking Stewart’s isn’t as bad as it’s cracked up to be.

Brian Kim Stefans, a poet and professor at UCLA explains better than I can why ‘My Heart is a Wiffle Ball’ isn’t exactly a skidmark on the lacy slip of the Western canon. Highlighting the delicacy of the second stanza and how the odd syntax adds energy to a poem notable for its deft manipulation of perspective, Stefans feels that ‘He’s speaking in tongues all along the pan handle’ is ‘very evocative.’

You might not agree with Stefans. But he should be applauded for refusing to be swept up in the tide of vitriol crashing against Stewart and her poetry. She’s an easy target because she’s privileged and vacant-looking, which is an unfortunate combination, but irrelevant to her poetry. And it seems pretty mean-spirited to watch her bare her soul and then roundly mock her. Let’s cut Kristen some slack.



Seamus Heaney – A Tribute

Seamus Heaney – A Tribute

For many, a return to the Sheldonian is simply a nostalgia trip evoking matriculation- emotions of joy, new friendships, and a wince of nerves. However, Sunday evening at the Sheldonian saw students, academics, University staff, and members of the public alike came together to remember an old friendship and share in active celebration and grief for one of the greatest poets writing in the English language. For the Oxford Tribute to Seamus Heaney the atmosphere poignant; Heaney’s distinctive voice and love of writings was worked through the readings, anecdotes, and discussion – a true tribute.

Dame Hermione Lee’s introduction to the evening detailed Heaney’s position as Professor of Poetry from 1989-1994 and made mention of the talks which he had held at the Sheldonian during this position and in the years following it -such as that of May 1994 with Ted Hughes and later with Paul Muldoon. In reminding the audience of these talks Lee brought to light Heaney’s extensive work within contemporary poetry and the importance of this work having taken place in his position at Oxford.  Lee later talked about the ‘The Redress of Poetry’ explaining Heaney’s conception of poetry as something that balances, which sets itself against the balance of life’s atrocities. In this Heaney’s poetic voice is a source of redress for our lives – a thought that sat us well for the evening’s readings.

Liam O’Flynn, the prominent traditional Irish musician, was present to honour the memory of his friend as his piping set the tone for the renditions of Heaney’s poetry. The two had collaborated before on an album of music and spoken poetry called ‘The Poet and the Piper’. O’Flynn’s music was a genuinely moving accompaniment to the literature. Firstly O’Flynn played ‘The Music of the Spirits’, then ‘By the River of Gems’. The piping worked spectacularly well in the setting as the music linked back to old Irish, spiritual, or bardic traditions portraying simply and beautifully the influences of Heaney’s homeland.

The selection chosen by the readers was a suitable tribute to Heaney’s varied and extensive career: ranging from the nostalgic childhood poems, his elegies, and images of rural Ireland. As the readings progressed it was clear that these were readers with a true grasp of poetry’s aural qualities. It was a rare atmosphere to be able to hear Heaney’s work being read by writers who have a true understanding of its capabilities and effects. It wasn’t only Heaney’s poems that were presented to the audience, but also extracts from his lectures and teachings. Christopher Ricks’ readings from ‘The Redress of Poetry’ and his other speeches were able to give an impression not only of Heaney the poet but also of Heaney the man: his sense of humour, his playful criticism, and his wisdom. With Heaney there is always a sense that there is something beyond language – a sense that was poignantly ironic during the readings, as Heaney’s eminent friends and contemporaries spoke out loud poems that investigate Heaney’s sense of inadequacy of words to wholly express the Irish past.

Geoffrey Hill in his rendition of Heaney’s Beowulf captured the alliterative rhythms of the original with powerful resonance; he fittingly opened with a passage hearkening back to the loss of an ancient king receiving glorious tribute from a mourning populace. With Hill’s famously resonant voice and the work’s dramatic power it was perhaps the best way to start the evening – with a thundering and dynamic ‘Ho!’ calling out across the literary tradition, through Heaney and beyond.

Andrew Mareillie’s reading of ‘From the Tollund Man in Springtime’ took on particular resonance as a tribute poem, it envisions Heaney returning to the ground to embrace an ancient tradition that he has always been moulded to although Heaney does not envision a morbid return to the ground. In this poem and in Jon Stallworthy’s reading of ‘In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge’ there is a pattern of the dead man turning to ‘bronze’, becoming a monument in death. With Heaney there is the constant danger of slipping and falling into the ancient past, there is no safe ground to be found in the domesticities of modern life. Poems such as The Underground and The Butterprint, read by James Fenton, exemplified the power of Heaney to transport the modern listener from a place of comfort into the mythical Orphic past, to look into the butter dish only to see ‘soft butter bearing violent cross hatch’.

Simon Armitage’s reading of  ‘Death of a Naturalist’ towards the denouement of the evening was one of the most moving. Having seen Armitage read at Keble College’s ‘Meet the Poet’ series over the weekend it was clear that his demeanour and tone had not changed at all between reading his own poetry and that of Heaney- such is his debt to him. Armitage exuded gratitude casually, his reading spot on as he lingered upon the ‘strong gauze of sound around the smell’ then placed a sort of childish joy upon the ‘slobber of frog spawn’ and the ‘sap and plop’. This honest reading encapsulated much of Heaney’s humour whilst paying tribute to a poem that ignited a curiosity in Seamus Heaney’s poetry for many a young student at school. Armitage’s reading, more so than the others, seemed to be a late, honest, and twinkling ‘Thank you’.

At the end, when all of the readers had finally given way to an empty stage, a recording of Heaney’s recital of ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ was played to the audience, the line ‘and since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,’ particularly enjoyable. His soft voice filled the whole theatre as everyone sat silently to remember the words of a great poet, proving that the evening was not merely a mourning of his absence but also a celebration of his continuing presence.

Perhaps the most memorable statement of the evening was Heaney’s declaration on writing itself: “The main thing is to write for the joy of it”, the message that these three writers, and many audience members, will take away most earnestly.

PHOTO/Eric Gillet

Demythologising Dylan: a Centenary to Rock the Boat House Legend

Demythologising Dylan: a Centenary to Rock the Boat House Legend

Dylan Thomas’ granddaughter, Hannah, admits scepticism over the ‘Dylan Myth’ amidst musings on charades and rats.

A torpedo of drunken rebellion and poetic flair ultimately ended by 18 straight whiskies splashed down his throat and across the headlines? Or sensationalised simplification so overblown as to give itself away as media make-believe?

Hannah Ellis is under no illusions about her late grandfather’s sporadic drinking habit, but stands firmly for a more balanced view of Dylan and his poetry. 2014 marks the centenary of his birth, and it is not slipping by unnoticed. Dylan Thomas 100 has set in motion a twelve-month programme of worldwide events, spanning from the unprecedented display of his teenage notebooks and Dylan-inspired jazz, to theatre, poetry conferences, and multimedia exhibitions. The variety is off the scale, and the hype is already underway in his home country.

Hannah has evidently mulled over her grandfather’s international appeal: “He was almost seen as the People’s poet in how he talked about the vulnerable”, noting even communist East Germany’s favour with their invite for Dylan to cross the Berlin Wall. Poems like ‘The Hunchback in the Park’ hint at the writer’s vast empathy, and Hannah suggests such “feeling too much” may have lain behind the drinking. Discussing his struggle to cope with the losses of his father and sister in his 39th year, Hannah concedes: “There’s every truth in that he was completely on self-destruct at the end of his life.”

Yet Dylan’s notoriety as a “roistering, drunken, and doomed poet” (courtesy of John Davies) clashes with tales of family charades and rat invasions. Hannah recalls her mother reminiscing with a smile: “He’d be playing the hunchback, always the best”, and gives a softer portrait of a man who would shriek and leap onto tables in the Boat House as her grandmother and mother chased off rats. Hannah has no doubt that Dylan’s children knew his writing was top priority, but his ability to put others at ease left his daughter with fond memories to pass onto her own children.

Hannah feels she met her grandfather through her uncle Colm, Dylan’s youngest son. She describes someone, by no means perfect, but as a charmer and a wonderful joker, hugely missed by his family. Colm’s ultimate withdrawal to an Italian village might have resembled a “Laugharne in Italy” to echo Dylan’s own haven on the Welsh coastline. “The whole community came out for my uncle’s funeral”, Hannah contemplates, “they adored him, just as Dylan was always one of the crowd”. Even so, she does not ascribe her grandfather’s caricature to outsiders’ distortion alone, and recollects friends’ stories of how Dylan would sip a single pint then feign swaggering intoxication on bumping into an acquaintance. Mystique prevails. Bantering with Dali and the Surrealists in 1936 saw the poet with a teapot and cup of string in tow, accosting bystanders: “Weak or strong?”. Questions certainly seem to outweigh answers in the excavation of Dylan’s own riddled personality.

Perhaps focusing the lens on ‘Dylan the person’ isn’t the way forward. Robert Lovell saw in him “a dazzling obscure writer who can be enjoyed without understanding” and indeed Dylan’s audience transcends boundaries. In a festival that stretches to Argentina, India, Canada, the US, and Australia, it seems neglectful that Oxford has yet to map itself onto the 2014 celebrations. The poet’s year spent at Holywell Ford, Magdalen College, is a noteworthy fleck in the diverse landscapes of his career. The influential Welsh ‘capel’ climate of preachers’ dogmatic boomings not only shaped Dylan’s bold, dramatic recitals, but also provoked the claustrophobia that saw him shirking a fixed post-code.

To quote Seamus Heaney, a Patron of the festival during his lifetime: “If ever there is a centenary worth celebrating, this is it.” While Dylan’s life might have been cut short, Dylan Thomas 100 is ensuring his poetic legacy need not be. True to his word, “death shall have no dominion”.

Go to for details of the festival’s 2014 events that are taking place across the UK and beyond.

Novels and Narcotics

Novels and Narcotics

When browsing pictures of Ernest Hemmingway, there is always one recurrent pose that seems to captivate the spectator: it’s the image of a man sat at his type writer, his eyes fixed on the page, and a glass of drink held carefully in one hand – as if pondering both with equal interest. In time we have come to accept an almost romantic image of the writer and his bottle of whiskey. The trials of excessive drinking and substance abuse have become strangely tangled with literature and the supposed bohemian lifestyle we associate with artists. Of course, Hemmingway isn’t the only person to have followed the mantra of “write drunk, edit sober”; for many writers the accumulation of some kind of vice has fuelled their lives and work, allegedly leading to some of their greatest achievements but also to their downfalls.

In a way it’s easy to understand how such a solitary profession as writing can lead to alcoholism. Trapped alone with your pen and your notes, sometimes a bottle of wine is welcome company.  But it isn’t always the remedy of the lonely artist; Hemmingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald used to drink together, touring the cafés of Paris in the 1920s and generating ideas as they went. For Fitzgerald, it was a recourse from depression; his failed marriage to Zelda had left him unhappy and self-destructive. But for Hemmingway it was part of the inspiration, allowing him to make “other people more interesting” and cope with the pressures of writing. In her book The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing explores the alcohol problems of many famous American writers. The title is taken from a work of literature penned by another notorious drinker: Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Brick’s line “I’m taking a trip to Echo Spring” is a euphemism for his many trips to the liquor cabinet where the character drinks to cope with depression and anxiety, just as Williams did throughout his life.

It should be noted that drinking isn’t the only bad habit that has accompanied writers to their desks. As well as his alcoholism, Philip Larkin had a weakness for hard-core pornography. He even carefully filed and catalogued the magazines he collected throughout his life in a true librarian fashion. But perhaps the most common form of literary experimentation is the consumption of drugs. In the modern world, drug literature has become a genre in itself: novels such as Trainspotting and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas have taken the substance out of the writers’ lives and put it into the book’s content. Yet modern literature cannot be credited with introducing the topic of drugs into writing; if you consider the Lotus Fruit in Homer’s Odyssey to be a kind of narcotic then it’s a topic that’s fascinated writers for millennia, leading to a long tradition of addicts including S. T. Coleridge and Stephen King.

Besides these writers, there are one group that are consistently associated with drug culture: The Beat Generation. Marcus Brown’s book The Road of Excess tracks the history of drugs and literature and understandably reserves a large portion of the content to discussing Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The Beats were different from their predecessors in that, rather than just taking drugs for the experience, they used them as a symbol of rebellion. It was a method of fleeing from America and finding a psychedelic utopia in its place. But that isn’t to say that drugs didn’t play an important part in their composition; Ginsberg claims Kerouac wrote On the Road with a coffee in one hand and a joint in the other, causing him to write the novel at an incredible speed.  All through his career Ginsberg advocated the use of marijuana and even wrote an essay ‘First Manifesto to End the Bringdown’ where he defended it. Ultimately it was their lifestyle that led to the 1960s counterculture and the antics of Bob Dylan and The Beatles.

Although there’s no doubt that writers have catered for their addictions alongside their work, the question of whether it actually helped them produce great literature is questionable. Does it displace you from reality and allow you to harness your creativity, or does it simply give you the will and energy to write? From one angle it could even be considered cheating, like using steroids at the Olympics. When recounting his time studying at Oxford, Christopher Hitchens claims “one was positively expected to take wine during tutorials” – a tradition that in my experience has been sadly forgotten. I speculate as to whether the university would ever reinstate such a custom, and if so, I wonder if my essays would get any better.


Should poetry be difficult?

Should poetry be difficult?

It’s a conversation that regularly troubles arts lovers: you’re having a casual chat with someone and, after a few minutes of conventional small talk, you mention that you quite like to read poetry. At this point you are faced with the common reply, said in either a tone of regret or embarrassment: “I don’t get poetry”.

In many ways it isn’t surprising; a lot of poetry is difficult to understand and a large portion of it is intentionally complicated. Plenty of poets have deliberately composed poems so convoluted that they evade the understanding of most ordinary human beings, and this has been enough to put some of my former classmates off literature for life.

But why is it so difficult? The usual excuse for poetic difficulty is ‘artistic’ reasons such as an attempt to alienate or educate the reader, yet for me the reason is far simpler: if poetry’s objective is to express “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” as Wordsworth would have us believe, then there really are no easy methods of communication. To hope for an accessible answer to questions about love and death (a poet’s favourite fetishes) is perhaps a little optimistic.

Life, being the strange and nonsensical thing it is, rejects a straightforward interpretation, so it makes sense that poetry does the same. There are also sup- posed benefits to reading complicated poetry; for some people, it leads to an improvement in their analytical skills, forcing them to dissect language rather than merely letting it wash over them like a cheap novel.

Nevertheless, I accept that it’s an acquired taste to find difficult language attractive as well as annoying. Accusations of poetic snobbery have led various groups of poets to be described as ‘elitist’ since they prevent everyday readers from enjoying their work. In response to the output of difficult poets, certain writers have expressed the need to write poetry that mere mortals can understand as well as esteemed critics and university professors.

Strangely, one belief that seems to go hand-in-hand with literary pretentious- ness is the myth that light-hearted or comic poetry is somehow of less artistic merit than serious verse. As a matter of fact, amusing and often quite rude poetry has been around since Aristophanes, not to mention the fantastic nonsense rhymes of Spike Milligan, so there’s no reason why this type of writing should be labelled as worthless.

Even though there is a definite call for more approachable poetry that entertains as well as challenges readers, most seemed fixed in the belief that difficulty is by some means ingrained into the DNA of poetry.

Regardless, it’s always worth remembering that you don’t have to be able to write ‘The Waste Land’ to be a great poet – after all, there’s nothing wrong with the occasional limerick.



The Case for Crime Fiction

The Case for Crime Fiction

You are reading a detective story. You have spent hours following the plot of a murder case, carefully solving the hints and clues that will point towards the killer until, when you have finally endured enough investigation, the answer is revealed – it was Professor Plum with a lead pipe in the dining room.

Of course, that was how crime fiction used to work, but the days of country house whodunits are mostly over and have left the gritty narrative of modern crime fiction in their place. With sales of over £90m a year in the UK alone, it has become one of the best-selling genres of book throughout the country, prompting numerous film and television adaptations, and leaving devoted admirers such as myself eager for more.  So why is it that even with such rising popularity and a loyal fan base, I still feel the need to refer to crime fiction as my ‘guilty pleasure’?

To begin with, this is due to accusations of crime fiction being non-literary; as a mainstream genre it has sometimes struggled to convince readers of its ‘scholarly’ merit or depth of narrative. Yet this has never been a problem for Ian Rankin, one of the UK’s best-selling crime writers. His latest book Saints of the Shadow Bible released late last year is a perfect example of crime fiction’s ability to blend an engaging plot with wider social issues. The novel continues his popular series of Detective Rebus novels, and deals with the aftermath of a suspicious car crash whilst simultaneously examining the history and importance of the police force. It is alluring plots such as these that maintain crime fiction’s significance through their ability to weave multiple strands and characters together.

Another feature that the genre is celebrated for is the credible settings created by the author, whether that’s the dark underbelly of Rankin’s Edinburgh or the dreary Yorkshire of Peter Robinson’s novels. Robinson’s most recent book Children of the Revolution, deals with the death of a humiliated lecturer and the series of revelations that follow. As usual, however, despite the interesting plot, it is Robinson’s protagonist Alan Banks that remains the most captivating part of the novel. Perhaps the most appealing aspect of crime fiction has always been the detectives themselves, as we marvel at their skill to solve complex puzzles and delve into the realm of their private lives which, as the plot gradually progresses, become just as problematic as the mysteries they are trying to answer.

Any doubt as to the endurance of crime fiction was quickly assuaged recently with the emergence of Scandinavian fiction. Although it has been criticised for its depiction of graphic and bloody violence, many have contested that the novels reflect the brutal nature of actual crime. Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole thrillers fit into this category, and are now some of the most popular books to have been translated. His last novel Police concerns itself with a range of rather dark and disturbing topics which other genres very rarely touch upon. Arguably that is what we have come to expect from Scandinavian writing since Stieg Larsson’s classic The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, where the character Lisbeth Salander actually kidnaps and tattoos a man in order to seek her revenge – something Miss Marple could only ever dream of.

In a way, the reason it continues to attract readers is because they know exactly what they’re buying; each story still comes down to the same basic formula: crime, investigation, resolution. As closed as this paradigm might appear, writers have managed to create countless variations over the years, and with a good crime book I still run the risk of not going to bed until the final page has been turned. When writing his own defence of crime fiction, W. H. Auden said “the reading of detective stories is an addiction like tobacco or alcohol.” I think it’s time we acknowledged this addiction and stopped shunning crime fiction as trash novels or non-literary.  They’re thought provoking, intelligent, and most of all entertaining. So I urge you to pick up a book, feel the satisfaction when loose ends get tied, and maybe you’ll get addicted too.

PHOTO/Laura Whitehouse

Review: Journey by Moonlight

As anger sparks at the recent actions of the Hungarian far right Jobbik party, whose members have erected a statue of the Nazi collaborator Miklos Horthy at a church in Budapest, it is worth remembering the voice of one of those many Hungarians persecuted under Horthy’s rule. Antal Szerb, author of the stunning Journey by Moonlight (Utas és holdvilág) was one of around half a million Hungarian Jews to be deported to concentration camps, such as Balf, where he died aged forty-three. Unsurprisingly for a writer of the time and the place in which Szerb found himself, much of Journey by Moonlight revolves around death. What makes it extraordinary is the curiosity, sensuality and generosity with which it considers life.

Roughly speaking, Journey concerns the adventures of one couple separated on their honeymoon: disparate Mihaly, tormented by nostalgia for the astonishment of youth and wracked with guilt at his inability to mature into bourgeois adulthood; and sheltered Erszi, longing to flirt with the passions of the bohemian lifestyle, but held back by her own straightjacketing respectability. Their quests of self-discovery lead them on separate flights across Italy and throughout Paris, negotiating on their way their understanding of love, sex, art and the precarious nature of civilization.

Szerb’s writing is preoccupied with that elusive sense of wonder – of what it means to really be alive and aware of it. His story unfurls itself in a haunting world of moonlit gardens over whose walls rise the voices of monks, in the back-alleys of Venice, in an attic of clockwork toys just dimly remembered from childhood. What all his images share is an ability to de-familiarize a world which the demands of civilized, adult life so often renders banal and bureaucratic. Journey by Moonlight reminds us what a strange and marvellous place that world can be.

This fascination with the world also comes across in Szerb’s connoisseur’s appreciation of the good life. The novel abounds in good wine, good sex and sumptuous settings. Lest this makes it sound dangerously like a forerunner of Eat, Pray, Love, however, Journey always retains too sharp an eye for reality to stray into the realms of guru-ish self-help. Szerb acknowledges the seedy side of bohemia as much as the allure; acknowledges too the futility and exhaustion of trying to feel alive all of the time. Most penetratingly, though, he sees that the converse of the desire for a meaningful life is the desire for a meaningful death – that moments of destruction can also be moments of ecstasy. This dark realization is one of the book’s central themes – and one that Julia Roberts might find harder to sell.

Journey by Moonlight invites us to remember life’s moments of rapture, while never letting us forget that they are only moments; temporary and fleeting. Affirmative but not sentimental, it treads the fine line of relishing in culture and material pleasures without becoming pretentious. When one considers the circumstances in which Szerb died this becomes a triumph – pleasure and an appreciation of the complex experience of being human is everything the Nazis tried to deny their victims. Hungarians aghast at the bold statement of the Horthy statue might take comfort in Journey’s subtler articulacy.



No flailing for Gail: Trimble plots her desert island library

No flailing for Gail: Trimble plots her desert island library

Gail Trimble hastens into Greens, armed with a laptop and an apology – tempus fugit when you’re exploring the realm of Catullus 64. Two latte-orders later, the scene switches from Ariadne’s isle of Naxos to a less foregone imaginary island. Time to discover the contents of Gail’s castaway book-bag…

Children of two scientists, Gail and her brother grew up in a home laden with piles upon piles of Usborne factual books. An early ingredient to her University Challenge success? Pair this with teeming enthusiasm for fiction (Roald Dahl, Narnia, and Greek mythology all close to the heart) and a winning formula seems at hand.

To relay back to my book-dodging little sister, I ask what Gail deems most valuable in childhood reading, and her first response: “viewpoints”. She talks of images as building-blocks in one’s head – often otherwise inaccessible vistas. I’m engrossed (hugely envying her tutees), being swept along with her lively thinking-aloud style of speaking. Gail singles out the guidance of a personality behind the pages; the classicist inside her seems fascinated by the rhetorical element of reading. “Do I trust what I’m being told? Would I do things differently?” – nothing is to be taken at face value in the Trimble household. Drawing a link between authorial manipulation and the weasel-words of politicians, Gail adds that growing up with fiction can deter from being shepherded blindly by words.

Apart from the occasional teenage verse (“as one does”) Gail has never had much drive to create fiction herself. Plots and characters sketched by others are so engaging, she says, it means that she struggles for her own inventions. Instead, she enjoys “turning what I observe into words rather than creating”, whether that be for her diary or her contribution to Corpus Christi’s Pelican Record.

While her classics degree at Corpus almost led astray onto a philosophy-future, Gail’s love of literature ultimately took the steering wheel. Her current project, a commentary on Catullus’ labyrinthine sixty-fourth poem (alongside tutoring at Trinity), surprisingly makes more room for leisurely reading than the chaos of undergrad life.

Catullus’ story within a story occupies no mean amount of her thought-space – the shape of literature is something that captivates Gail. During our coffee, one proof of this comes in the form of her energised eulogy of Cloud Atlas and its brilliantly bizarre structure. Hence my surprise at her answer as to whether plot is second to style: “no, a great story is obviously a wonderful thing.” 

So, moment of truth. Which five stories make up Gail’s literary entourage on her desert island? Voilà…

* Gaudy Night – Dorothy L. Sayers

* Persuasion – Jane Austen

* The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien

* The Complete Works of Virgil

* Little Town on the Prairie - Laura Ingalls Wilder

Sayers’ detective tale (read and reread since Gail was thirteen, and a spark behind her Oxford application), the obligatory Austen novel, a hefty bulk of Tolkien, an inevitable Latin classic, and the comfort of a childhood favourite. After our coffee convivium, I left Greens in faintly dazed awe at Gail’s blend of genius and geniality. An early Christmas present of a fully-certified and barely academic reading list gift-wrapped with insightful conversation: what’s not to love?

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