Books Do Furnish A Mind, Part II

by Ibn Warraq

From New English Review, May 2015

“Someday I will go to London and revisit all the places where I housed at the time of my greatest poverty. I have not seen them for a quarter of a century or so….I see the winding way by which I went from Oxford Street, at the foot of Tottenham Court Road, to Leicester Square [i.e. along Charing Cross Road]… Dozens of my books were purchased with money which ought to have been spent upon what are called the necessaries of life. Many a time I have stood before a stall, or bookseller’s window, torn by conflict of intellectual desire and bodily need. At the very hour of dinner, when my stomach clamoured for food, I have been stopped by sight of a volume so longcoveted, and marked at so advantageous a price, that I could not let it go; yet to buy it meant pangs of famine. My Heyne’s Tibullus was grasped at such a moment. It lay on the stall of the old book-shop in Goodge Streeta stall where now and then one found an excellent thing among quantities of rubbish. Sixpence was the pricesixpence! At that time I used to eat my mid-day meal (of course my dinner) at a coffee-shop in Oxford Street, one of the real old coffee-shops, such as now, I suppose, can hardly be found. Sixpence was all I had—yes, all I had in the world; it would have sufficed to feed me for that day… But I did not dare to hope that the Tibullus would wait until the morrow, when a certain small sum fell due to me. I paced the pavement, fingering the coppers in my pocket, eyeing the stall, two appetites at combat within me. The book was bought and I went home with it… and as I made a dinner of bread and butter I gloated over the pages.

“In this Tibullus I found pencilled on the last page: “Perlegi, Oct. 4, 1792.” Who was that possessor of the book, nearly a hundred years ago? There is no other inscription. I like to imagine some poor scholar, poor and eager as I myself, who bought the volume with drops of his blood, and enjoyed the reading of it even as I did. How much that was I could not easily say. Gentle-hearted Tibullus!of whom there remains to us a poet’s portrait more delightful, I think, than anything of the kind in Roman literature.

An tacitum silvas inter reptare salubres,
Curantem quidquid dignum sapiente bonoque est? ” Horace Letter to Tibullus

Or dost thou gravely walk the healthy wood,
Considering what befits the wise and good?  Translated by Thomas Creech [1659-1700]

“So with many another book on the thronged shelves. To take them down is to recall, how vividly, a struggle and a triumph. In those days money represented nothing to me, nothing I cared to think about, but the acquisition of books. There were books of which I had passionate need, books more necessary to me than bodily nourishment. I could see them, of course, at the British Museum, but that was not at all the same thing; as having and holding them, my own property, on my own shelf. Now and then I have bought a volume of the raggedest and wretehedest aspect, dishonoured with foolish scribbling, torn, blotted—no matter, I liked better to read out of that than out of a copy that was not mine. But I was guilty at times of mere self-indulgence; a book tempted me, a book which was not one of those for which I really craved, a luxury which prudence might bid me forego. As, for instance, my Jung-Stilling [Heinrich Jung-Stilling, 1740-1817, a defender of Christianity, and a Universalist] It caught my eye in Holywell Street; the name was familiar to me in Wahrheit und Dichtung [Aus meinem Leben:Dichtung und Wahrheit (From my Life: Poetry and Truth; 1811–1833) is an autobiography by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe], and curiosity grew as I glanced over the pages. But that day I resisted; in truth, I could not afford the eighteen-pence, which means that just then I was poor indeed. Twice again did I pass, each time assuring myself that Jung-Stilling had found no purchaser. There came a day when I was in funds. I see myself hastening to Holywell Street (in those days my habitual pace was five miles an hour), I see the little grey old man with whom I transacted my businesswhat was his name ?the bookseller who had been, I believe, a Catholic priest, and still had a certain priestly dignity about him. He took the volume, opened it, mused for a moment, then, with a glance at me, said, as if thinking aloud: “Yes, I wish I had time to read it.”

“Sometimes I added the labour of a porter to my fasting endured for the sake of books. At the little shop near Portland Road Station I came upon a first edition of Gibbon, the price an absurdityI think it was a shilling a volume. To possess those clean-paged quartos I would have sold my coat. As it happened, I had not money enough with me, but sufficient at home. I was living at Islington. Having spoken with the bookseller, I walked home, took the cash, walked back again, and-—carried the tomes from the west end of Euston Road to a street in Islington far beyond the Angel. I did it in two journeys this being the only time in my life when I thought of Gibbon in avoirdupois. Twice—three times, reckoning the walk for the money-—did I descend Euston Road and climb Pentonville on that occasion. Of the season and the weather I have no recollection; my joy in the purchase I had made drove out every other thought. Except, indeed, of the weight. I had infinite energy, but not much muscular strength, and the end of the second journey saw me upon a chair, perspiring, flaccid, aching-exultant!”
                      George Gissing. The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft. 1903


I have several mitigating facts, and one overriding reason, to explain the paucity of my collection. But before I get to those facts and that one reason I should begin with my early passion for reading, and buying books. I do not remember there being many books in our smallish apartment in Karachi, Pakistan where I grew up. I think my father had a few books in Gujarati and an enormous illustrated English dictionary that he would proudly show his friends by placing it on his bed with pillows on the left and right side, so that the pillows cradled the huge tome when opened. My father was well-readhe often translated European works into Gujarati: Balzac, for example. But I have no idea how he acquired his literary tastes and knowledge, and what happened to all his books.

I remember borrowing from a friend a long book in Urdu, The Adventures of Hatim Tai. Hatim Tai was a pre-Islamic poet who died in 578 C.E., renowned for his generosity, and the subject of many romantic fables. The book I read was very probably a translation of the romance from the Persian, Qissa-i Hatim Tai. To make up for this lack of books, my father did get me a subscription to a Urdu journal of stories for children calledkhilaunā, which in Urdu and Hindi means plaything or toy [Urdu:  کھلونا ;   Hindi : खिलोना.] 

There were a few other sources of reading material for me and my brother, who was a year older. Newspapers in Karachi in the 1950s carried cartoon strips of Tarzan, Mandrake the Magician and The Phantom, preserving the English captions but including a translation into Urdu and Gujarati. Many of my father’s friends in Karachi were Gujarati language journalists with whom he spent hours and hours. (The newspaper was very probably the Gujurati Daily Millat.)

My brother and I were happy to accompany my father on his very late night visits to the newspaper offices, for there we could read the following day’s episodes, all ready to go to the printers.

I am not sure which of the early Tarzan artists appeared in the Gujarati dailies of 1950s Karachi but I do remember Tarzan’s costume being polka-dotted.

Tarzan began appearing as a comic strip as early as 1929 drawn by Hal Foster. By 1931 Rex Maxon’s Tarzan artwork was appearing in color Sunday strips, with Hal Foster and Burne Hogarth also contributing later on. So I suspect that the artist we enjoyed was one of these illustrious pioneers of Tarzan comic strips and comics.

Mandrake the Magician and The Phantom were the creations of Lee Falk [1911-1999], who drew inspirations from legends and myths, Tarzan, and Kipling’s Jungle Book. The costumed hero, The Phantom, was probably the origin of all later costumed superheroes, though The Phantom himself did not possess any superpowers, merely using his strength and intelligence to fight such murderous cults as that of the Thugs of India. As Lee Falk once said, “ ‘The Phantom’ is a marvelous role model because he wins against evil. Evil does not triumph against the Phantom… He hates dictatorship, and is in favor of democracy. He is also opposed to any violation of human rights”[1]. Mandrake the Magician began as a daily newspaper strip in 1934.The Phantom started in 1936, followed by a color Sunday strip in 1939, and astonishingly both continue to this day in 2015. Mandrake’s best friend is Lothar, an African prince of the Seven Nations, whom he treats as an equal, and surely the first African superhero. Mandrake and The Phantomwere at first written and drawn by Falk but the art work was later taken over by Ray Moore, Phil Davis and Paul Ryan, among others.

Finally, my father used to procure Little Lulu comics by “Marge,” that is, Marjorie Henderson Buell. Little Lulu as a comic strip began in 1935, but I am fairly certain that we were reading the comic book and not a comic strip in the early 1950s. One particular scene is etched in my memory, that of Little Lulu, that little girl with the corkscrew curls and boundless energy, zooming down a snow covered hill on a snow sled; an awe inspiring exploit and something totally outside our experience and knowledge. I was equally impressed in a general way, by her remarkable toughness.


“If a book is worth reading, it is worth buying.”  John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies, Lecture I, Sesame, Of King’s Treasuries, 1865

Then, at the age of nine, I was sent to England  to a boarding school. From the parched streets of Karachi to the verdant pastures of rural Worcestershire was quite a shock but one which I seemed to have coped with quite well. At my school, St. Michael’s College,[2] founded in 1856 by Sir Frederick Arthur Gore Ouseley, Bart, I was soon reading English, and became a voracious reader. My early reading at my English prep school went on three parallel lines. On the one hand there were children’s favourites: I was hooked on Enid Blytonas many of her series that I could get hold of, from the Famous Five to Adventure Series; Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories; Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings books, from which I picked up much schoolboy slang (the boys at the boarding school coined the word “ozard.” In the late 1940s, “wizard” was used to mean “good” or “very good.” “Ozard” was derived from “Wizard of Oz” and was used to describe anything the boys disliked or had a horror of. It was also used to describe the anger of the teacher with a dreadful temper, Mr. Wilkins, which could be “ozard,” “ozard squared” and occasionally “ozard cubed”); Frank Richards’ comic tales of Billy Bunter and public school, in the British sense, life at Greyfriar’snot at all offended, pace George Orwell[3] and Salman Rushdie,[4] by Richards’ creation Huree Jamset Ram Singh,[5] “the Dusky Nabob of Bhanipur,” or simply “Inky” to his friends. On the contrary, I was rather pleasantly surprised that an Indian should figure in an English story where he is taken as the English boys’ equal despite the gentle satire on his way of talking (for example, “Inky” gives the lying, lazy, fat Billy Bunter some advice, “You could chuck up the execrable fibfulness, and try your hand at esteemed veracity!”; or again Inky’s version of the proverb ‘Better Late than Never’, “the latefulness is superior to the neverfulness.”) Then there were the adventures of Biggles, ace pilot in both World Wars, written by Capt. W.E. Johns. But at the same time, I was also absorbed by crime stories, thrillers often with lurid covers more suited to an adult reader; of writers such as Edgar Wallace, now perhaps better known as the writer of the scenario of the first King Kong movie. Wallace was very prolific, and my searching for and finding paperbacks of his The Four Just Men, The Clue of the Twisted Candle, The Crimson Circle, The Green Archer, The Ringer, and others was very exciting. Another crime writer who is now neglected and whom I read by the time I left my prep school was Richard S. Prather, whose private eye, the white-haired Shell Scott, began appearing in stories in the 1950s with titles such as Always Leave ‘Em Dying, and Darling, It’s Death (Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald came later.)

Further influences on my reading habits came from two sources: being read to by our English teacher, and the English countryside. The teacher read to us two writers in particular, Denys James Watkins-Pitchford MBE  [1905 -1990] who wrote under the pseudonym, ‘BB’; and A.E. Housman. While I have not read ‘BB’ since my school days, Housman has been my constant companion ever since.

‘BB’ wrote of the countryside in and around the village of Lamport, Northamptonshire passionately and knowledgeably. ‘BB’ studied art in Paris, and taught art at Rugby school for seventeen years, and was able to illustrate his own books, and later those of other writers: woodcuts, paintings and watercolors. We were read to extracts from Wild Lone (life of a fox), The Idle Countryman (“complete record of a year in the heart of the country…”), and The Little Grey Men (“the epic adventure of the brothers Dodder, Baldmoney, Sneezewort and Cloudberry, the last four gnomes in England”). But the story that seems to have made the deepest impression on me was Manka, The Sky Gipsy: The Story of a Wild Goose, largely because of a character called “Foxy” Fordham, who was “the most skilful poacher in the district” [of the Wash, northern East Anglia].

Going to school in rural Worcestershire, and then spending my school holidays in the Norfolk countryside meant I was naturally disposed to stories that reflected life in spinneys, woods, meadows, meres and brooks, particularly their natural history. Thus the combined influence of ‘BB’ and dreams of an English Arcadia led me on the inexorable path to classics, such as Gilbert White’s The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789), and especially the three enduring favourites Tarka the Otter,[6] Salar the Salmon, and the Peregrine Saga, by Henry Williamson, works that can still be read with pleasure for their vivid evocation of rural life: plants, trees, streams and wildlife. It so happens that many of Williamson’s books of the countryside were illustrated by someone who became one of my heroes, Charles F. Tuniciffe [1901-1979]. I was an avid bird watcher, and the sketches of British birds by Tunicliffe were my favourites.


“Build yourself a book-nest to forget the world without.” Abraham Cowley [1618 – 1667].

Here I shall digress slightly on my later covetousness for nineteenth century books on birds, particularly British birds such as those by Prideaux John Selby [1788 –1867] whose Illustrations of British Ornithology (1821-1834) were sumptuous; Thomas Bewick’s A History of British Birds [1797-1821] with Bewick’s beautiful wood-engravings; George Montagu [1753 –1815], whose Ornithological Dictionary [1802] is so important in the history of British ornithology. Unfortunately, rather naively I did not realise that these were eagerly sought after by collectors, which of course sent the prices soaring, though nothing like the $11.5 million paid for Audubon’s Birds of America at a Sotheby’s auction in 2010. In later years, I had to make do with the illustrations in the more affordable guide to Fine Bird Books 1700-1900 by Sacheverell Sitwell, first published in 1953, and Valérie Chansigaud’s Histoire de l’Ornithologie (Paris: Delachaux and Niestlé, 2007). Sitwell’s book is a very useful but perhaps not definitive guide for collectors of bird books. It is illustrated with 52 lovely colour plates, and ends with an indispensable, heavily annotated, bibliography. Chansigaud’s book is also available in English, and is very elegantly produced, illustrated with beautiful plates, portraits or photos of individual ornithologists, a timeline in colour, a bibliography and an index. While an original edition, in two volumes, of 1826  now costs $2000.00, Thomas Bewick’s, British Birds: A History of British Birds Vol 1 & 2, has been republished at a reasonable price of about $35.00 each by Cambridge University Press, who have also reissued Bewick’s charming Memoirs.

In 1986, my wife and I won a trip to India, and we spent three weeks in Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, and Bombay. I left, very graciously, all the purchases to my wife who bought $600 worth of clothes and pots and pans. At the last moment, the night before we took the plane back to Paris, I made just one purchase, a book, Salim Ali’s beautifully written autobiography The Fall of a Sparrow, published by Oxford University Press in 1985. Salim Moizuddin Abdul Ali [1896 – 1987] was an Indian ornithologist of international reputation, and author of another elegantly written book, which I was able to afford, and bought a few years later, The Book of Indian Birds, 1941. His magnum opus was, however, the unaffordable ten-volume Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan written with Dillon Ripley. Salim Ali was also responsible for persuading the Indian Government to create the Bharatpur bird sanctuary (Keoladeo National Park), and also to finance the Bombay Natural History Society.

Looking into the history of Ornithology in India, I learnt the influence of the East India Company in the scientific understanding of India’s fabulous fauna and flora; yet another gift of the British Empire to the peoples of India. Sticking to Ornithology in the British Empire, here is Valérie Chansigaud’s introduction to the subject, “Members of the military played a pivotal role in the formation of collections and other ornithological activities. Of the 650 members who joined the British Ornithologists’ Union from 1858 to 1908, 86 were active or retired officers in the army. They were often important collectors and were more efficient for having perfected their shooting skills. These servicemen devoted a portion of their leisure time to the hunt and often did not hesitate to collect specimens in the middle of a battle. Thus Colonel Willoughby Verner [1852-1922] recounts, in the naturalist journal that he kept from 1867 to 1890, how he was able to collect a weaver’s nest while under fire during a campaign in the Nile region.”[7]

One of the most fascinating details to emerge out of this history is that the resultant books were often illustrated by Indian artists, with the scientific text provided by the British officers. For example, Major General Thomas Hardwicke [1755-1835] was stationed in India for more than 14 years, beginning in 1777, and a pioneer in the exploration of India. He realised that it would be easier to have paintings of the birds he had collected than to have them all stuffed, and the result was a collection of more than 4500 paintings by local artists. These paintings were used later in J.E. Gray’sIllustrations of Indian Zoology (1830-1834). Other pioneers include Colonel William Henry Sykes [1790-1872], and Colonel Samuel Richard Tickell [1811-1875]. One of the most influential early works was published by Thomas Claverhill Jerdon (1811-1872), who came to India as a surgeon for the East India Company in 1835. He quickly collected and later studied, many birds, publishing many works on Indian avifauna in which he discusses 420 species. As Chansigaud concludes, “After having published the four parts of Illustrations of Indian Ornithology from 1843 to 1847, he published a major work, The Birds of India, from 1862 to 1864. This work, in which more than 1,000 species were described, would be reprinted 12 times. Jerdon was not just a desginator of species, he took it upon himself, as much as possible, to describe the habits of the birds and mammals that he studied.”[8]

Any look at Indian ornithology must examine the career of Allan Octavian Hume [1829-1912]. Hume studied medicine before arriving in India in 1849. He started a journal in Bengali, pushed for free education in India, fought against alcoholism and infanticide, and advocated the education of women, and often courageously criticised the British government when he felt it was not concerned enough about the aspirations of Indians. He was a founder member of the Indian National Congress. He was a passionate scientist who amassed a large collection of Indian birds, eventually leaving 80,000 specimens to the British Museum. Science, he wrote, “teaches men to take an interest in things outside and beyond…the gratification of the animal instinct and the sordid and selfish cares of worldly advancement; it teaches a love of truth for its own sake and leads to a purely disinterested exercise of intellectual faculties.”[9] Salim Ali called Hume the father of Indian Ornithology, for having put that discipline on a scientific footing.

In 1872 Hume began publishing Stray Feathers, A Journal of Ornithology for India and Its Dependencies (which ran to eleven volumes, 1872-1888), and was the author of My scrap book: or rough notes on Indian zoology and ornithology (1869) The Nests and Eggs of Indian Birds (1883), andGame Birds of India, Burma and Ceylon (1879).

Amazingly enough, all of Hume’s works are available on line; you can find the necessary links at the bottom of the page on Hume in Wikipedia:

Even later, in 2006 when researching for my book on Orientalism, I came upon the endearing English eccentric, Edward Lear [1812–1888], and his orientalist illustrations of Egypt and the Holy Land; he is better known today as the writer of nonsense limericks, such as

  “There was an Old man of Dumbree,
      Who taught little Owls to drink Tea,
                                             For he said, ‘To eat mice
                                             Is not proper or nice’,
That amiable Man of Dumbree.”

Lear learned drawing from his sister Ann, and always regretted never having had formal training at an art school. As he matured, and decided to become a painter, Lear came across the works of Turner, whom he was to revere for the rest of his life. Lear is quoted advising a student, “to copy the works of the Almighty first and those of Turner next.”[10] Between 1828 and 1830, he began to earn a living by drawing birds. There was, at the time, a vogue for natural history books lavishly illustrated, stimulated no doubt by the return of naturalists from scientific voyages of discovery. Prideaux John Selby’s Illustrations of British Ornithology began appearing in 1821, and were to be published in 19 parts until 1834, with 222 engravings most of them hand-coloured. By the age of sixteen, Lear was working with Selby, and most certainly helped with Illustrations of Ornithology, by Selby and Sir William Jardine, published in four volumes between 1826-1843. It contained 207 hand-coloured engravings by Edward Lear, Jardine, Selby, John Gould, R. Mitford, A.F. Rolfe, James Stewart, and J. Thompson. Lear was also involved in Sir William Jardine, William Swainson, and Selby’s ambitious The Naturalist’s Library in forty volumes that appeared between 1833 and 1843. Volume V, Pigeons, was graced by 30 coloured plates by Lear and Jean Gabriel Prêtre; Volume VI, Parrots, with 30 coloured plates by Lear.

But Lear began his career as a draughtsman for the Zoological Society, and at the age of nineteen in 1830 published his Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots. For someone of his age, they are remarkable for they are “superbly observed and confidently drawn, and they gave him an immediate reputation as an ornithological draughtsman.”[11] Lear’s work was praised by no less a figure than William Swainson, who had studied under Audobon. Swainson wrote, “Sir, I received yesterday, with great pleasure the numbers of your beautiful work. To repeat my recorded opinion of it, as a whole, is unnecessary but there are two plates which more especially deserve the highest praise; they are the New Holland Palaeornis, and the red and yellow macaw. The latter is in my estimation equal to any figure ever painted by Barraband[12] or Audobon, for grace of design, perspective, or anatomical accuracy. I am so particularly pleased with these, that I should feel much gratified by possessing a duplicate copy of each. They will then be framed, as fit companions in my drawing rooms to hang by the side of a pair by my friend Audobon.”[13]

Again I was able to purchase a modern reprint of this work which, however, only reproduced some of his famous illustrations, Edward Lear, The Family of Parrots (Portland, OR: Pomegranate Publishers 1997), and there were further illustrations in Susan Hyman’s Edward Lear’s Birds.[14](Stamford, CT: Longmeadow Press, 1989).

Lear went on to illustrate Transactions of the Zoological Society, The Zoology of Captain Beechey’s Voyage, and The Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Beagle, a boat made famous by Charles Darwin. He did the drawings for Bell’s A History of British Quadrupeds, and some lithographs for Bell’sTortoises, Terrapins and Turtles.

John Gould, a self-taught zoologist, was appointed by the Zoological Society to work as a taxidermist, and prepare the hundred or so Indian bird skins. On completion of this work, he decided to produce a book. “Gould planned and wrote the book himself but almost all the beautiful drawings associated with his name are the work of other people. His first book, A Century of Birds from the Himalayan Mountains which was published in 1831, was illustrated by his wife Elizabeth, and Lear [a fact, disappointingly, not recorded in the bibliography in Sitwell’s Fine Bird Books]. But Gould apparently felt that as he had paid Lear for the drawings he could claim them as his own, and there is no mention of Lear’s name anywhere- indeed in later books, though he now acknowledged Lear’s help in drawings, he would quite happily subscribe plates ‘by J. & E. Gould’ even when Lear’s signature appeared in the drawing itself.”[15] Nonetheless, Lear continued to do some very good work for Gould, especially in The Birds of Europe[1832-1837].


Let us return to my school days in Worcestershire: looking back, I now think it is decidedly strange that our teacher should have read to us A.E. Housman [1859 –1936], whose work is hardly suitable for children since his poetry is permeated with doom and gloom, of the hangman’s noose, of brother killing brother, of war and hardship, harshness of fate, and infidelity. I think what appealed to some of us twelve-year-olds, though we did not understand fully the sense, were the ballad-like rhythms of the poems.

Housman was born in Worcestershire, near Bromsgrove about 27 miles east from my school, and so it is surprising he does not write of a “Worcester Lad,” rather than the now famous, “Shropshire Lad.” The latter poem is full of geographical references which still touch a nostalgic chord in me: the River Teme, which flowed through the town where my school was located; the Clee Hills were clearly visible in the distance (they were about five miles away). I was later much influenced by his prose writings as well, particularly his acute observations on textual criticism which I was to quote in two of my books. [16] Here is one example:

“Interpolation is provoked by real or supposed difficulties, and is not frequently volunteered where all is plain sailing; whereas accidental alteration may happen anywhere. Every letter of every word lies exposed to it, and that is the sole reason why accidental alteration is more common.

“In a given case where either assumption is possible, the assumption of interpolation is equally probable, nay more probable; because action with a motive is more probable than action without a motive. The truth therefore is that in such a case we should be loath to assume accident and should rather assume interpolation; and the circumstance that such cases are comparatively uncommon is no reason for behaving irrationally when they occur.”[17]

    Here are a few verses from the Shropshire Lad:

“From Clee to heaven the beacon burns,
The shires have seen it plain,
From north and south the sign returns
And beacons burn again…”   Shropshire Lad, I
“In valleys of springs of rivers,
By Ony and Teme and Clun,
The country for easy livers,
                               The quietest under the sun,…” Shropshire Lad, L.


Later, in my thirties, I was able to buy and read Housman’s The Collected Poems, his biography by Richard Graves[18] (a totally inadequate account), and much later, his collected letters edited by Archie Burnett[19], and those edited by Henry Maas.[20] I also borrowed and never returned to an English friend living in a nearby village in S.W. France a copy of Housman’s Selected Prose, edited by John Carter.[21] While writing this essay, I remembered that Tom Stoppard had written a play about him, The Invention of Love (1997), so I ordered it immediately. The play broaches the subject of Housman’s homosexuality. Housman was in love with Moses Jackson, who did not reciprocate his love. Partly in order to get away from Housman, Jackson accepted the post of headmaster of a school in Karachi, India in 1887.

While Housman’s association with India, in this case Karachi, my hometown, is rather tenuous and indirect, with no significance whatsoever for his writings, it is perhaps unsurprising that some writers and scholars who have meant much to me do have an affinity for the culture and life of India, with obvious consequences for their work. Sir William Jones, Rudyard Kipling, Sir Richard Francis Burton, E.M. Forster, V.S. Naipaul, and Paul Scott, as we shall see presently, all had far more direct and profound encounters with India, writers who influenced, instructed, and gave me solace in many intangible ways. They also provided clues to my sense of identity.


Yet it is just
That here, in memory of all books which lay
Their sure foundations in the heart of man,
Whether by native prose, or numerous verse,
That in the name of all inspired souls,
From Homer the great Thunderer, from the voice
That roars along the bed of Jewish song,
And more varied and elaborate,
Those trumpet-tones of harmony that shake
Our shores in England,- from those loftiest notes
Down to the low and wren-like warblings,
’Tis just that in behalf of these, the works,
And the men that framed them, whether known
Or sleeping nameless in scattered graves,
That I should here assert their rights, attest
Their honours, and should, once and for all, pronounce
Their benediction; speak of them as Powers
For ever to be hallowed; only less
For what we are and what we may become
Than Nature’s self, which is the breath of God
Or His pure word by miracle revealed.
                            Wordsworth, Prelude, 1850


My next school, also public in the British sense, was in Dorset, which, under the name of Wessex, was the setting for the novels of Thomas Hardy. Initially, at least, Hardy’s fictional Wessex only covered that small part of Dorset where he grew up; he was born in the parish of Stinsford, near Dorchester (Dorset). Dorchester makes several appearances in his fictional world under the name of Casterbridge, particularly, of course, in The Mayor of Casterbridge. The Mayor sells his wife in a market town, called under its fictional name, Shottesford Forum, which is, in fact, Blandford Forum[22], where my school, Bryanston[23], is located. I was to read many of Hardy’s novels while at school, though I did not appreciate his poetry, where Hardy’s true originality lay, until much later. It was in Blandford Forum that I stole for the first time, a book. There was one bookshop in the sleepy market town run by two old ladies; they were quite charming and chatty which makes my crime even more unforgivable. I had reached the town on my bicycle, wearing a water-proof cape that covered the handle bars, and my hands. I kept it on when entering the bookshop, which was tiny, with overflowing bookshelves so that there were boxes of books on the floor. When I squatted down, the cape billowed out and formed a bell tent round me, always keeping my thieving hands concealed. The ladies were having some fun after the visit of two giggling girls who had asked for “a book to read.” “Such silly creatures! What else do you do with a book but read it? The whole shop is full of books and they are all for reading.” The book I stole was Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native. Outside, shaking and ashamed, I thought what if everyone did that, and my conscience replied, “Well, we would all be damned well read.”

I was forever making reading plans. Three works were decisive in helping me choose: F. Seymour Smith’s An English Library. A Bookman’s Guide to the Classics, Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise, and The Penguin Book Catalogue.

Seymour Smith’s book was essentially an annotated list of English classics in all genres: Autobiographies and Memoirs; Biographies; Essays, Belles Lettres and Literary Criticism; Fiction; History; Philosophy and Religion; Poetry and Poetic Drama; Prose Drama; Travel, Description and Topography; A Bookman’s Reference Library. Here I was to discover titles which otherwise, perhaps, I would never have encountered. For example, there is one book which I have yet to buy, let alone read, but which stuck in my mind, and would, in fact, be of considerable use to me now in my present research and writings, namely, and I quote Seymour Smith’s entry, 

Miss Tully (fl.1780-96), LETTERS WRITTEN …AT THE COURT OF TRIPOLI (1816) ed.  by Seton Dearden,  [London:]Arthur Barker 1957, 42 shillings.

Miss Tully wrote these remarkably interesting letters to her family in England, ‘simply to relate facts as they occur, without the least embellishment’. She had accompanied her brother Richard to take up residence at the British Consulate, Court of Tripoli, for ten years, 1783-93. The letters relate in a vivid, spontaneous style, events at court of political intrigue, murder, the plague and many horrors, and have provided posterity with a picture of semi-oriental squalor in this Moorish city under the rule of Bashaw.

Seymour Smith’s guide was available in the school library but I found a secondhand paperback copy for a few shillings in a shop in the Charing Cross Road.[24] Henceforth, I was ticking off books from the eminently useful comprehensive index of titles as I triumphantly acquired yet another item on the list. The work listed approximately 2630 books, and my dream being to construct just such a complete English Library.

I do not know if most children when they begin reading start with stories, and then novels, but it was certainly still the case with me at the age of fourteen. Armed with F. Seymour Smith as my mentor, I decided to read the whole of English Literature (meaning novels) starting, logically, with all authors whose surnames began with “A.” I began reading Old Saint Paul’s: A Tale of the Plague and the Fire  by an author little read now, William Harrison Ainsworth [1805 -1882.] I do not remember finishing it. For by now, I had come under the influence of Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise,[25] which carried the unattributed epigraph: Quando sovviemmi di cotanta speme (When I remember so much hope).[26]

I certainly did not understand at that time Connolly’s distinction between the vernacular and the mandarin style, nor their definitions. What interested me was simply the list of authors who somehow defined the Modern Movement (1900-1922), such as Geoge Gissing, Baron Corvo, Norman Douglas, Edmund Gosse, James Joyce, George Moore (not the philosopher), Ronald Firbank, et al. I was to ready an extraordinary number of these authors by the time I was twenty, beginning with the writings of Aldous Huxley in his early phase: Crome Yellow [27][1921]Antic Hay [1923] and Those Barren Leaves [1925], and a little later, Brave New World [1932]. Oscar Wilde was another early obessession, further stimulated by a reading of his biography by Hesketh Pearson, and William Gaunt’s account of the aesthetic movement in Victorian England, The Aesthetic Adventure. My Pelican edition of this book, published in 1957, carries a wonderful cover in fading blue with a characteristic black and white drawing in the middle by Aubrey Beardsley. Gaunt’s work opened up further vistas, introducing me to Rossetti, Ruskin, Swinburne, Pater, Whistler, and of course, Oscar Wilde.

To be continued…


[1] Found at:

[2] Architect Henry Woodyer. The school was famous for its founder’s collection of musical manuscripts, and its choral concerts. Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan) sang there on September 29, 1856 at the dedication ceremony for the College. He was just fourteen years old. (See Arthur Jacobs. Arthur Sullivan. A Victorian Musician, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984, p,13. Jacobs incorrectly gives the address of St.Michael’s College as “Tenbury, Herefordshire”. It is, of course, in Worcestershire.)

[3] George Orwell, “Boys’ Weeklies” in Collected Essays, Journalism &Letters, Vol.1: An Age Like This. 1920-1940, edd. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, Boston: Nonpareil Books,  pp.460ff., where Orwell accuses Richards of racism.

[4] See Salman Rushdie’s comments on Billy Bunter in Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands. Essays and Criticism 1981-1991(London: Granta Books, 1991),pp. 18-19.

[5] There have been several Indian princes at English public schools such as Eton, even called Singh. Perhaps the most famous is Prince Prince Victor Albert Jay Duleep Singh [1866-1918] who was the eldest son of Maharani Bamba Müller and Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of Lahore, and of the Sikh Empire, and the grandson of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. He was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge.

[6] My downstairs neighbour in Crouch End, North London, was Barry Driscoll, a famous illustrator of Tarka the Ottter, published by the Nonesuch Press in 1964.

[7] Valérie Chansigaud. The History of Ornithology. London: New Holland Publishers, 2009 (original French edn., 2007) pp110-116.

[8] Ibid.,pp.112-113.

[9] Moulton, Edward. “The Contributions of Allan O. Hume to the Scientific Advancement of Indian Ornithology”. In J. C. Daniel and G. W. Ugra Petronia: Fifty Years of Post-Independence Ornithology in India, ed. J. C. Daniel and G. W. Ugra. Bombay Natural History Society, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, New Delhi. 2003, pp. 295-317.

[10] Susan Hyman, Edward Lear’s Birds, Stamford, CT: Longmeadow Press, 1989, p.76.

[11] Vivien Noakes, Edward Lear, London: Ariel Books, 1985 [Ist edn. 1968] p.24.

[12] Jacques Barraband [1768-1809] illustrated the works of François Levaillant [1753-1824]. See Valérie Chansigaud. The History of Ornithology. London: New Holland Publishers, 2009 (original French edn., 2007) pp110-112 for illustrations of Barraband

[13] Ibid.,p.26.

[14] See also Brian Reade. Edward Lear’s Parrots, London: Duckworth, 1949, with 12 colour plates.

[15] Vivien Noakes, Edward Lear, London: Ariel Books, 1985 [Ist edn. 1968] p.29.

[16] A.E. Housman. Selected Prose, ed. John Carter, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961, quoted in Ibn Warraq, ed. The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2000, p.42;  and Ibn Warraq, ed., What the Koran Really Says, Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2002 pp.77-78.

[17] A. E. Housman, Selected Prose, ed. John Carter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), pp.144-145.

[18] Richard P.Graves, A.E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979).

[19] The Letters of A. E. Housman, ed. Archie Burnett, Oxford: Oxford University Press, (2007).

[20] Ed. Henry Maas, The Letters of A.E.Housman. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

[21] A.E. Housman, Selected Prose, edited by John Carter, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961.

[22] The birthplace of Thomas Creech [1659- 1700], a distinguished translator of Latin Classics, such as Lucretius and Horace; also  Thomas Pitt, [1653-1726], The President of Madras, India; and Alfred George Stevens, 1817 –1875, sculptor. Edward Gibbon when on active duty and on reserve for the South Hampshire Militia had to march to Blandford, a town which he called “pleasant and hospitable” and “beloved”. See E.Gibbon.The Life and Letters of Edward Gibbon with his History of the Crusades. London and New York: Frederick Warne and Co., 1889, p.61

[23] Bryanston School was originally a house designed by Richard Norman Shaw for the second Viscount Portman. Shaw, perhaps better known as the architect of New Scotland Yard on the Embankment in London, in this case seems to have been inspired, at least for the garden front, by the Chateau Menars, as added to by Ange-Jacques Gabriel, at the request of Madame de Pompadour, in the 1760s. Menars, in the Loire valley, France, has the same “very red brick walls, strong stone dressings, and much rusticated detail [as Bryanston]” (Andrew Saint, Richard Norman Shaw, New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1976, p.327) The house was completed in 1894 , and became a school in 1928.It is still a boarding school, but, unlike, alas,during my years there, is now co-educational.

[24] F.Seymour Smith. An English Library. A Bookman’s Guide to the Classics. London: The English Language Book Society and Andre Deutsch, Revised and Enlarged Edition, 1964 [Ist pub. 1943]

[25] Cyril Connolly. Enemies of Promise. Harmondsworth: Penguin books, 1961 [Ist. Published, 1938]

[26] I had no idea who it was from until I began this essay, and was able to retrieve the source in less three minutes on the Internet: “To Silvia”, 1828,  Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837).

[27] In my Penguin edition of Enemies of Promise, Crome Yellow was incorrectly spelt on  page 55 as “Chrome Yellow”.