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2010-06, 365, 366, Book Reviews, Colin Steele

‘The Oxford Guide to Literary Britain and Ireland.’ 3rd edition. Eds Daniel Hahn & Nicholas Robins: ‘In Cold Ink: On the Writers’ Tracks.’ David Robinson.

OUP 2008, 370 pp. $95

Maclean Dubois 2008, 177 pp. $29.95

THE OXFORD GUIDE TO Literary Britain and Ireland is a lavishly illustrated book which should be in every library that aims to promote and encourage the reading of literature. While the fortunes of British sport may fluctuate, there‘s no doubt that British literary quality remains a constant winner.

The Guide, which was first published in 1977, deliberately returns the literary focus to the writer and place rather than simply the text alone. It is arranged alphabetically by geographical area, covering almost 2,000 places, but a comprehensive index of writers enables textual cross-fertilisation. Some entries are relatively short, such as for Chawton and Chalfont St Giles, as they owe their fame to one author, namely Austen and Milton respectively. Photographs of their houses supplement the text. Other locations, however, such as London, Dublin, Edinburgh, Oxford and Cambridge run to many pages, with sections on London local areas ranging from Kensington to Kilburn.

The editors of the 1977 first edition, Dorothy Eagle and Hilary Carnell, noted at the time that much of their original data was supplied by clergymen and librarians but they, and second edition editor Meic Stephens, tried to visit as many places as possible. The new editors seek reader “indulgence” in their introduction for the fact that they are unable to claim comprehensiveness.

Thus anyone with local UK connections will turn to their area. In my case, Hartlepool‘s only literary claim to fame is that Compton Mackenzie was born there in 1883 in theatrical lodgings as his family were performing there! Reg Smythe‘s Andy Capp is presumably not seen as literature! More seriously, the Isle of Man has been placed in the North of England and given relatively little coverage. Jonathan Raban‘s reference in Coasting is perhaps unnecessarily quoted in the brief section on Douglas, given that local authors such as Nigel Kneale and George MacDonald Fraser are overlooked.

There are 300 writers new to this third edition including, for the first time, living authors. Thus Chesil Beach gets a mention in relation to Ian McEwan and the huge entry on Edinburgh has been expanded to include Irvine Welsh, JK Rowling and Ian Rankin. There are also 11 vignettes on authors whose work reflects a particular sense of place, such as Margaret Drabble on Thomas Hardy and Wessex, Andrew Lycett on Dylan Thomas and South Wales, and David Nokes on Jane Austen and Bath.

The depth and quirkiness of detail is impressive making this a book to dip into for both pleasure and reference. Literary trivia lovers will have enough source material for decades. Did you know that Lewis Carroll is commemorated in Llandudno by a statue of the white rabbit, and that Flora Thompson, of Lark Rise to Candleford fame, had Conan Doyle and Bernard Shaw amongst her customers at the post office in Grayshott? Baroness Orczy conceived the idea of The Scarlet Pimpernel while waiting for a train at Temple underground station in London, while Kazuo Ishiguro had a period in his gap year as a grouse-beater for the Mother at Balmoral! This may have helped him in the background for Remains of the Day.

Colour and black and white photographs illuminate the text, ranging from Mrs Conrad serving Joseph tea in his study at Orlestone, Brendan Behan drinking at the Fitzroy Tavern in London, PG Wodehouse behind the wheel outside Hunstanton Hall in Norfolk and Keats’s house in Hampstead. The Oxford Guide to Literary Britain and Ireland is the ideal book, as the editors put it, for “the literary pilgrim”. The only drawback is its weight if you want to take it on that next trip to the British Isles. An online version down the literary track would be greatly welcomed in that context.

David Robinson, the books editor of The Scotsman, traces In Cold Ink, “the blurred line between life and literature”, in 24 essays based on interviews with authors who include Ian McEwan,

William Boyd, JG Ballard, AL Kennedy, Kate Atkinson, Richard Ford, and Ali Smith. Less well known names, such as Janice Galloway, Jackie Kay, Valerie Martin and Zoe Wicomb, reflect Robinson‘s interests beyond simply literary big names.

Place is again important in these essays, reflected, for example, in Ian McEwan on Knoydart and Chesil Beach and JG Ballard in suburban Shepperton. In Kansas, Robinson meets people whose lives were impacted by Truman Capote‘s researches for In Cold Blood. In Amsterdam he seeks out Anne Frank‘s best friend and in Botswana he is on the trail of The Number One Ladies Detective Agency where he “discovered more truth than I had bargained for”.

Robinson reflects “how we [interviewers] arrive . . . with an hour or two to sum up [a] whole life, how we invariably write about writers in an odd way, forcing obtuse links between the person and the work, blind to imagination”. He concludes that interviewers should follow the observation from the “now all but forgotten author”, Stan Barstow, the author of A Kind Of Loving (1960), to “tell it like it is, lad”. Robinson certainly achieves that in admirable and informative fashion in In Cold Ink.



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