My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout – a thin version of the “only one story”

Lucy Barton looks back to the 1980s when, married with two small daughters, she had to spend nine weeks in a New York hospital owing to complications following an operation. Unexpectedly, the mother she has not seen for years flies in from rural Illinois to spend a few day with her. In the course of reminiscing about the past – generally banal gossip about neighbours without communicating in any depth – for instance, about why they hadn’t met for so long, Lucy recalls the poverty and isolation of a childhood from which she seized the opportunity of a college scholarship to escape, never to return.

Written in the first person, this is a novel of brief incidents in short, increasingly disjointed chapters, in which one is buoyed up by the awareness of being able to stop in the next page or two. The interest lies in piecing together the flotsam of details from the past. Was her father’s traumatised state, apparently the result of his wartime experiences, the root of the family’s problems? Lucy grew up not knowing how to dress or behave according to the norms of society, not understanding irony, puzzled by the cultural references that everyone else took for granted from socialising and watching television. There are hints of childhood neglect, possibly unintentional cruelty, even abuse, but Lucy comes to realise how for her parents and their three offspring, their “roots were twisted so tenaciously round one another’s hearts”.

In breaking free from her family home, unlike her mother and two siblings, is Lucy unconsciously showing the ruthlessness which a neighbour tells her all writers need to have? Yet even from a distance she is deeply affected by memories of her family and occasional communications with them, choosing to end the book with a nostalgic description of the beauty of the landscape at sunset around her parents’ small house in the autumn – a rare upbeat moment.

The style which Elizabeth Strout adopts to convey Lucy’s thoughts often seems childishly simple, with a tendency to jarring repetition. Yet it has the strength of addressing the reader directly and gives a sense of her authentic voice. At the same time, I found it hard to believe that Lucy becomes a successful writer, able to support herself without depending on her husband’s newly inherited wealth. She does not explain how she came to write and get published, nor how she finds the process of writing, although this is surely a fundamental aspect of her identity.

A clue to this may be the observation that her creative writing teacher tells her students that “there is only one story” which each author has to tell, presumably in various forms in in successive novels. Elizabeth Strout is probably expressing her own belief about writing here. So it seems likely that Lucy’s books draw on her own damaged experience, just as Elizabeth Strout’s theme is dysfunctional family relationships, how events and influences mark one for life and continually change the course of one’s existence, how family members interact, how having suffered pain at the hands of their parents, they inflict it on the children they profess to love, how perceptions of one another may alter over time.

Certainly, although briefer and more pared down than previous works like “The Burgess Boys” and “Oliver Kitteridge” which have gripped me more, this novel maintains that theme.

“Small Things Like These” by Claire Keegan – Taking the consequences

Set in the Irish town of New Ross on the River Barrow in County Wexford, this novella is set in the run up to Christmas 1985, when the economy was drifting into recession, and “the times were raw”.  The viewpoint is that of Bill Furlong, a moderately successful coal merchant and a hardworking, decent man who treats his employees well, and devotes his little free time to his possibly even more industrious wife and five daughters.  He lives in a hidebound community, where conformity is maintained by the desire to avoid being the subject of the rampant grapevine of gossip, but even more by the fear of falling foul of the Catholic hierarchy of the local convent and church.

The crystal clear, plain prose leavened with a lyrical, quirky Irish turn of phrase (a puchaun being a male goat) reveals a remarkable amount in little more than a hundred pages.  In the course of describing Furlong’s somewhat dull routine, we learn not only about the situation and values of his society, but also, through flashbacks, the details of a childhood which has invisibly set him apart and marked him for life. His mother was an unmarried domestic servant whose widowed Protestant employer, Mrs Wilson, kept retained her despite her pregnancy, ensuring that Furlong was supported sufficiently to have a chance of succeeding in life.

So when in the course of delivering coals to the convent he is confronted with positive evidence of the abuse suffered by the unmarried mothers employed at the laundry there, the moral dilemma he faces is harder for him to accept than for his pragmatic wife. At one point, she justifies the widespread philosophy of not looking after those in trouble who are “not one of ours”, by stating that Mrs Wilson was only able to choose to help his mother because she was  “one of the few women on this earth who could (afford to) do as she pleased”.

Most novels involve dramas of pain, suffering, danger, and so on, which are generally resolved with an at least partly happy ending.  Here, the build-up of tension, the sense of menace and risk is subtle, leading to Furlong’s final moral choice which forms the novella’s climax.  Yet at first, I felt a little cheated by the abrupt, inconclusive ending, even thinking that the author had evaded the challenging task of writing about what happens next. On reflection, I decided that being left to speculate was effective, giving space to consider whether Furlong was right to take his decisive, unplanned action, what its implications both immediate and long-term might be, and how much he and others might suffer from his good intentions.

So, a novel attempt to explore an issue which has shamed both the Catholic church and the Irish government subtly both inspire us to take a stand against injustice and helps us to understand why so many of us decide not to do so.

The Spider’s House by Paul Bowles: “A Novel Approach”

In 1955, former composer turned writer Paul Bowles published “The Spider’s House”, intended to be a record of daily life in the Moroccan city of Fez, a medieval throwback operating in the C20 world. The extreme unrest which broke out at the time, as French colonial rule was attacked by Istiqlal, the independence movement, whose leaders in fact wanted to modernise the country themselves, transformed the book into what he regarded as the political novel he had not meant to write. It struck me as more of an exploration of contrasting, clashing cultures, observed through the eyes of two very different individuals whose paths eventually cross by chance.

Stenham is a cynical, sophisticated, rootless American expat author, apparently modelled on Bowles himself, who has mastered Arabic and acquired a deep knowledge of traditional Moroccan life. He realises that, whoever wins, Fez will be destroyed beyond recognition, but has the further telling insight that “It did not really matter whether they worshipped Allah or carburettors… He would have liked to preserve the status quo because the décor that went with it suited his personal taste”.

On the other hand, the Arab viewpoint is conveyed through Amar, an intelligent and resourceful young Moroccan, the illiterate son of a healer who has allowed him to skip school and indoctrinated him with the traditional teaching of Allah, so that he accepts Fate, and is easily shocked and perplexed by western social habits. So he would have understood at once the quotation from the Koran which gave the book its title:

“The likeness of those who choose other patrons than Allah is as the likeness of the spider when she taketh unto herself a house, and lo! the frailest of all houses is the spider’s house, if they but knew.”

This novel is remarkable for its vivid descriptions of Fez, enabling one to experience walking through the ancient city, and to visualise the surrounding landscape: “…wandering through the Medina at night was very much like being blindfolded…. He knew just how each section of a familiar way sounded when he walked it alone at night….. The footsteps had an infinite variety of sound.…..the water was the same, following its countless courses behind the partitions of earth and stone….”.

Streets of Fez or Fes Medina - Souks Stock Photo - Image of prayer,  lantern: 135258934

Bowles also has the ability to capture the fleeting thoughts of his main characters, a particular achievement in the case of Amar. However, the tourist Polly Burroughs, who trots out the simplistic view of Moroccans as being entitled to rebel in order to live like westerners, is portrayed in a stereotyped, even sexist way, perhaps reflecting attitudes to women when the novel was written.Despite moments of high tension, the meandering plot has probably driven away many readers. Digressions into apparently minor scenes last for pages, major incidents may only be implied. It is too frequently unclear who some characters are and exactly what is happening – rather like real life. Yet the hypnotic power of the prose, the continual insights, kept me reading and thinking. I doubt whether I have ever taken so long to read a 400 page novel, because Bowles forces one to focus on his words and reflect on them. So if the book had been edited more ruthlessly, would a vital quality have been sapped in the process?

I agree that some aspects of the plot are implausible, and I understand why even admirers of the novel find the end an unsatisfactory anticlimax. At first, I assumed that plot was unimportant to Bowles, but it could be argued that he drifted between events, with occasional bursts of action, to provide the flavour of what the experiences of life felt like to the characters. Also, the carefully constructed final scene, although superficially inconclusive, can be viewed as a very powerful final comment on the attitudes and relationships between the main players.

This deserves to be regarded as a classic, and to be read slowly, possibly more than once – if one has the time.

On Java Road by Lawrence Osborne – knowing where to draw the line

“If you want to know how you’ve done in life, tell your eighteen-year-old self in the mirror whether you have disappointed him or lived up to his expectations”.

For much of this novel, narrator Adrian Gyle clearly falls into the former category. After years spent in Hong Kong chasing trivial news stories, he appears cynical, unattached, often too hungover to pursue a lead as he drifts towards the inevitable point when his editor’s patience finally snaps.

It was not always so. In his youth, feeling socially out of place at Cambridge, he made an unlikely friendship with another outsider from a very different background: Jimmy Tang, son of a vastly wealthy Hong Kong business family, who inspired him to share the challenge of translating classical Chinese poetry into English.

Following the British handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese, life has changed abruptly, as the new authoritarian regime sets about dismantling democracy, sparking increasingly violent street battles as the police crack down on student demonstrators. One of these is Rebecca To, Jimmy Tang’s latest extra-marital lover, whose activities create the threat of reprisals from those in power against both her own wealthy family and his.

So this forms the basis for a topical thriller with a strong sense of place, Lawrence Osborne being a travel writer as well as a novelist. Yet it may disappoint those expecting suspense and action, since the most dramatic incidents tend to occur offstage, fail to materialise or leave the reader uncertain as to whether a particular crime has actually been committed at all. The author seems more interested in the dynamics of a long friendship between two very different men linked by a few common interests and shared memories. His aim is to explore the varied moral positions that individuals or groups take to particular issues and situations.

Having been very impressed by a recent reading of “The Forgiven”, I did not find the descriptions of Hong Kong as striking as those of Morocco, but maybe the latter simply lends itself to this. Perhaps years spent as a “nomad” observing people in different countries accounts for the distance which the author creates between us and his characters, so that one does not care too much about them. This mattered for me in the case of Jimmy Tang and Rebecca To who seem quite thinly developed. The “inverted” nature of this novel results in, for instance, Jimmy’s long-suffering wife and Rebecca’s father appearing more authentic despite being minor characters. The focus on a few exceptionally wealthy, good-looking people, with no opportunity missed to display a knowledge of fine wine gave the serious theme a shallow quality. Admittedly, the dilemma facing influential Hong Kong Chinese who have a lot to lose if they risk dissent needs to be understood.

Displaying the bones of an excellent novel, I was left disappointed when the plot slips away to a bland conclusion.

Les Pantoufles by Luc-Michel Fouassier:”Je préférais ne pas” – a fable on nonconformity

We can probably all relate to the predicament of the narrator, who in an absent-minded moment as he leaves home for a work meeting finds himself locked out, wearing a suit with a pair of tartan slippers. Very quickly, he notices how passers by react to him differently, with surprise, concern and often derision.

The “charentaises”, as these particular soft, felt-soled slippers are called in France, also alter his own behaviour, making him feel more at ease, able to slip past the office receptionists unnoticed, since his feet make no sound. His slippers often work to his advantage – in a game of tennis, the opponent who normally beats him hollow is so distracted that he loses and departs, a bad loser, “un petit côté Agassi-agaçant”. When a group of artists at a party want him to explain his wearing of slippers, he is able to play the game, likening his presentation of the slipper as an artistic object to Duchamp’s famous exhibition of a lavatory bowl.

By this point, the reader’s patience may have worn thin, for by this time he would surely have found a locksmith, rather than book into a hotel and subject himself to a succession of farcical situations. Perhaps he has been traumatised by the fact his wife has recently left him, but that plot line is not developed. So the novel’s appeal rests increasingly on the fact it is very short, and presumably provides a light, quirky couple of hours of escapism for a French reader. For others, it is quite informative, with a brief history of the charentaise slipper, some useful vocabulary for French footwear – I learned that “les santiags” are cowboy boots, and every conceivable pun and idiom to do with feet- “faire des pieds et des mains” translating as “to move heaven and earth” to achieve an objective.

It is possible to read this at a deeper level: not only as a reminder to avoid judging others too quickly by their appearance, but also as a fable on the merits of non-conformity. Here, the author may become a little pretentious in having a hotel receptionist who resembles Buster Keaton read “Bartleby”, which I cannot be the only reader not to know without looking it up, was a novel by the American Hermann Melville. Trainee lawyer Bartleby causes consternation by refusing one of his boss’s instructions, on the grounds, “I prefer not to”.

This is the kind of novel which may improve on a second reading, but I remained a little disappointed by the rather hurried and trite ending.

“Lucky Jim” by Kingsley Amis – Not to be envied!

Reading “Lucky Jim” as a teenager in the 1960s, I laughed out loud over the incident where Jim tries to conceal the holes he has accidentally burned in the sheets and rug of his fearsome hostess, wife of the hen-pecked caricature of an absent-minded professor, his Head of Department, Welch.

Returning to it for a book group more than fifty years later, the novel which was published in 1954, seems quite dated, yet perhaps interesting as a “period piece”. Many readers will be perplexed by telephone operators intervening in three minute trunk calls, and descriptions of university life almost unrecognisable today.

Apart from the fact that he is a northerner teaching at a provincial university in the south of England shortly after the Second World War, we are told little about what has shaped Jim Dixon’s frankly rather odd and unappealing character. So one cannot understand why his chosen subject is Medieval History when he finds it so boring, nor why he is so anxious to avoid having his contract terminated at the end of the year, since he seems to despise the university and many of his colleagues. Having made a huge effort to ingratiate himself with Welch, why does he indulge in a series of mean pranks which can easily be traced back to him, and why can he never resist the temptation to provoke those in a position to do him down? He often seems quite adolescent, wishing to strangle or stab everyone who irritates him, doing an ape imitation in private, or contorting his face into a series of expressions to reflect his mood: his Eskimo face, his lemon-sucking face, and so on.

He occasionally shows a flash of decency, socialising with the needy academic Margaret, about whom he feels a certain guilt, although he probably keeps going out with her through a kind of inertia. Also, he refrains from telling the one tale which would deprive Welch’s obnoxious son Bernard of Christine, the girlfriend whom Dixon begins to fancy.

The first of many novels, which won Amis a prize and was soon made into a popular film, this has what now seems a very straightforward plot, plodding in minute to the point of tedious detail through the events of a few days. The convoluted sentences peppered with oddly used words often reminded me of a precocious schoolboy experimenting with terms recently culled from the dictionary. There’s more than a whiff of misogyny in the portrayal of Margaret, manipulative and conveniently unattractive. It has been said that Jim was modelled on the author’s friend, the poet Philip Larkin, but Amis appears to have put a good deal of himself into his creation – the “Angry Young Man”, his keen observation of the world fuelled by alcohol into bitter parody.

I may have found less real humour than expected second time round, but there are a few places where brilliant writing combines with comedy, as in the passage at the end when Jim, desperate to reach a railway station in time, finds himself on a country bus held up for every conceivable reason – the kind of situation we have all experienced.

Free – Coming of Age at the End of History by Lea Ypi

Lea Ypi’s early life was spent in the last years of a Communist Albanian regime  even more ideologically  extreme than the USSR. Her charismatic teacher Nora indoctrinated her to revere Stalin as a source of inspiration for people round the world, a kindly man who loved children. Following the death of “Uncle Enver”, the anti-revisionist dictator who dominated Albania for forty years, Lea pestered her parents  to show due respect by displaying a large photograph of him. Perhaps this was to compensate for her awareness of never being able to “fit in”, because her parents were what Nora dismissively called “intellectuals”, with the wrong “Biography”.

Her father called himself Zafo, to avoid the need to apologise for having the same name as “Xhaferr”, the Axis-supporting “quisling” politician during WW2, while her maternal grandmother had lived abroad in luxury in her youth, and aroused suspicion by speaking French. It was a bizarre society in which people knew each other’s business, helped each other out with loans, but were not above informing on neighbours as reactionaries who failed to do their stint of street cleaning on Sundays or made jokes about the Party. Life revolved around queues for scarce goods, with the ritual of honouring a can or stone left to mark one’s place in the line.

If  anecdotes of daily life, details of family history and explanation of the political background all seem disjointed and at times unclear, this serves to convey Lea’s sense of confusion, which was compounded when the Communist system broke down and many who had been ardent supporters of the old regime suddenly discarded their principles, and denied they had ever believed in the Party line  Even Lia’s parents were found to have been concealing their past – Xhaferr really had been a relative –  leaving Lea  to wonder whom to believe or trust.

“Communism, the society we aspired to create, where class conflict would disappear and the free abilities of each would be fully developed was gone too. It was gone not only as an ideal, not only as a system of rule, but as a category of thought.  Only one word was left: freedom”.

The freedom to travel abroad on borrowed money revealed that life in the West was not superior in every way – Lea discovered that teenagers in Athens could not identify Ulysses, but knew all about some cartoon mouse called Mickey of which she was unaware!

Lea’s family were clearly not typical in that her father eventually obtained a senior post which brought him into contact with the Prime Minister, while her mother made political speeches campaigning successfully for her husband, whom she had decided had a better chance of being elected as an MP. They appear oddly unworldly at times, hiding their money in an old coat rather than using a bank, although this proved a better option than the loss of their savings in an unwise investment.   

However, the new democracy turning out to be possibly even more corrupt and inefficient than its predecessor, the country lapsed into civil war, which Lea covers with scrappy extracts from her  teenage diary – perhaps because she was running out of time after the weeks spent writing her memoir in a Berlin cupboard during the pandemic, when she should have been home-schooling her children.

Although uneven in quality, this is a fascinating insight into a country now very topical with the focus on thousands of Albanian men, economic migrants paying smugglers to cross illegally to the UK. Ironically, Lea’s disenchantment with “freedom” may have led to her breaking a promise to her father when having insisted on studying philosophy abroad, she ended up as an academic teaching and researching Marxism – for which she makes a somewhat woolly case in the final rushed pages. One clear explanation stands out: “My family equated socialism with denial: the denial of who they wanted to be, of the right to make mistakes and learn from the, to explore the world on one’s own terms. I equated liberalism with broken promises, the destruction of solidarity, the right to inherit privilege, turning a blind eye to injustice”.

Les Possibles by Virginie Grimaldi: French hen lit

When a carelessly discarded cigarette end sets fire to his home, Jean takes it for granted that his daughter Juliane will take him in indefinitely. Her stolid husband Gaëtan tolerates the situation, five-year-old Charlie is delighted by his grandfather’s childlike antics, but Juliane is exasperated by the often implausibly eccentric and inconsiderate behaviour which in the past drove her mother to divorce Jean.

It is only when he begins to show signs of dementia, likely to advance rapidly, that Juliane begins to appreciate Jean’s zest for life, and freedom from the constraints of caring what other people think. With her own lack of self esteem, she could benefit by learning from this. So she can laugh nostalgically with her sister of the time when, to slay a child’s nightmares, he vanquished an imaginary dragon in the downstairs loo with the aid of the garden hose.

Largely “rave reviews” from readers extol this novel’s humour and “feel good” factor, while the darker aspects are airbrushed. So the last chapter (in the original French), «Stairway to Heaven» – Led Zeppelin, is a clear reference to the inevitable outcome, but Jean’s last days are completely glossed over. This milking of a potentially moving situation, with its focus on sentimentality and denial of painful reality seems superficial, even dishonest.

Published in 2015, French author Virginie Grimaldi’s first novel was an instant bestseller and by 2022 she had produced eight more, heading up the list of “the most read” novelists in France. Reading “Les Possibles” for a French book group, I gained some useful vocabulary, but the novel seems quite formulaic: eighty-two short chapters, often barely three pages in length; a string of incidents padded out with “tick box” modern issues to which readers can relate – narrator’s eating disorder, dysphasic son (who displays little evidence of this) lesbian sister and so on. The final chapters which focus on a US road trip along Route 66 are each titled with the gimmick of the name of a pop song in English, linked to the story line, such as «Little Girl Blue» – Janis Joplin, a cue for the sisters’ shared recollections of Jean from their childhood.

The Forgiven by Lawrence Osborne: “La Bess” – “No evil” in the land of the outraged jinns

Drunk and bickering with his wife Jo,  English doctor David Henniger drives too fast on an unfamiliar road through the Moroccan desert, already late for an obscenely extravagant weekend house party thrown by a gay couple, Richard and Dally,  who have created an exotic paradise in an isolated oasis. This tense, engrossing tale reveals the aftermath of the fatal accident for which David appears to be responsible.  It  grips us with the remarkably vivid and original descriptions of  the landscape and “sense of place”, since the novelist is also  a  nomadic travel writer, which may account for the  acute, dispassionate observer’s eye which he casts on a group of generally quite unlikeable characters, although he tends to supply extenuating circumstances or redeeming features for the most flawed.

He also portrays the cultural gap between the local people and the wealthy,  hedonistic expats and visitors from Europe and the States. The former scrape a harsh living, extracting fossils from the rich supplies for which the country is famous. They  still use child labour, since, suspended on ropes, only small bodies can squeeze into the small caves in the cliffs where some of the best fossils can be found for sale at exorbitant prices. The native Moroccans are appalled by the infidels’  godless ways,  their drinking, “distasteful sexual habits” and “profligate” expenditure, but admire their wealth and rely on them to provide employment and purchase their trilobites at inflated prices.

In turn, the Westerners may admire the beauty of the young servant boys, but generally  ignore the Moroccans, despising their  apparent ignorance and  abject poverty. They are more interested in the country as a place to indulge in hedonistic pleasure, free from censure and  constraint: to become stoned on kif every night, while served “stemmed glasses with a pricked peach in each one submerged in champagne”. If their excessive consumption becomes repetitive to the point of tedium, that would appear to be the author’s intention.

Almost everyone, either side of the cultural divide, is distanced from the reader by a marked lack of natural, spontaneous emotion.  This may be explained by past misfortune or disappointment, harsh treatment,  or  the insulating effect of  an inflated sense of entitlement.

An intriguing character is Hamid, the indispensable factotum who has “insinuated” himself into the lives of the gay couple “with a subtle intuition of the ways of rich foreigners…an awareness of how to deal with men who have known little hardship”. He rises to the occasion in a major crisis, giving practical help  (“It is the police. I will put away the drinks”), but enjoying their helplessness and evident fear of Moroccans, despite not fully realising “how little liked they were by the indigènes”.  Filled with “disengaged fatalism” Hamid draws on his vast store of quirky native proverbs: “Piece by piece the camel enters the couscous”.

Minor characters often prove more insightful than the Hennigers who seem passive victims of circumstance. Take the American guest Day:  the glamorous young giraffe-like girls from his own country “made him remember that he was almost old, in that phase of pre-oldness that was curiously more alive than the preceding stages, but alive because it was ending”.

Lawrence Osborne has been called “A Modern Graham Greene”, compared to Paul Bowles of “The Sheltering Sky” fame, as well as  Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith  since he does not flinch from menace and defeat, although they are leavened by wry humour and irony. The ambition and complexity of this novel makes it more than a psychological thriller. The author is deeply concerned with issues of morality: guilt, acceptance of responsibility, retribution, making amends,  and forgiveness.  As he enters into the minds of a  wide range of characters, it is sometimes hard to know whether he is imagining their reactions, or expressing his own opinions on the state of the world.

The novel sometimes seems overlong, while the occasional  lapses in the quality of the style, a few typos and continuity errors ( the ice found at the bottom of a glass which had contained a drink served without it)  suggest a lack of editing. Too little effort was made to give an important plot development plausibility,  while  the ending left me dissatisfied, yet feeling it could not have concluded any other way. Yet over all, this is the work of a talented writer: many of the descriptions and observations repay reading more than once, and the story lingers in the mind, giving pause for reflection. I shall certainly read more of Lawrence Osborne’s work.

Red Shelley by Paul Foot: radical before his time

Performance poet Benjamin Zephaniah tells the anecdote of how, as a punishment at school, he was given Shelley’s famous poem, “The Mask of Anarchy”, to analyse. When he informed the teacher of his inability to understand it, she cruelly branded him “stupid”. This should have put him Shelley for life, except that years later he came across a copy of Paul Foot’s biography “Red Shelley”, which made him a great admirer of the poet overnight.

This book makes it clear that the poem was inspired by the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 in which hundreds were injured, a few even killed, as sabre-wielding mounted soldiers tried to break up a crowd of many thousands demonstrating to demand parliamentary reform, which did not commence until twenty years after Shelley’s death. As the member of a wealthy and privileged family, who had developed a keen sense of the injustice of inequality and the need to redistribute wealth from the “idle rich” to those who actually work to produce goods, Paul Foot probably felt an affinity with Shelley.

With no particular love for C19 Romantic poetry, I had failed to appreciate the serious ideas behind it in Shelley’s case, although I have to admit that his rational arguments impress me most in his written prose. Expelled from Oxford for writing a pamphlet on atheism, he wrote, “Supposing twelve men were to make an affidavit…. that they had seen in Africa a vast snake three miles long… that…eat nothing but Elephants, & that you knew from all the laws of nature, that enough Elephants cd. not exist to sustain the snake – wd. you believe them?”

Growing up against the background of the French Revolution, and coming from a wealthy Whig, anti-Tory, anti-government family probably exposed him to liberal ideas from an early age. His support for “the unfriended poor”, was based on his observation of the suffering caused by the enclosure of farmland and the squalid working conditions of the Industrial Revolution. His ideas went beyond a verbal attack on the arbitrary power of kings, and the cynical use of the Established Church as a tool of social control. He saw before many others that giving people the vote would not in itself solve the injustice of major inequality. This required “the levelling of inordinate wealth, and an agrarian distribution of the rich, uncultivated districts of the country”. Many of his ideas still seem surprisingly, and depressingly, relevant (and unachieved) today.

Shelley’s advocacy of free love also heaped opprobrium on his head. Paul Foot possibly lets him off too lightly, in underestimating the extent to which this argument was used by men as an excuse for “free sex” and treat women badly or disregard the pain that it can cause. Although Shelley genuinely seems to have supported “feminist” views, to believe in equality for women and to respect their intellects, as in the case of his second wife Mary Shelley, his abandonment of his first wife Harriet, who ultimately took her own life, is troubling.

Paul Foot admits to a certain inconsistency in Shelley. For all this radical poetry, “Let the axe/Strike at the root, the poison-tree will fall”, he was terrified by the physical violence of an angry mob. His attempts at being a political agitator in Ireland, or an agent raising money for the Tremadoc dam projects, which he imagined leading to a “perfect, idealistic society” for the workers, came to nothing. Since the latter provoked an unsuccessful assassination attempt on him (only his dressing gown was shot through with bullet holes), Shelley’s fear seems justified. At least Shelley’s “bitter satires” were read most widely amongst working class readers.

He ended up in Italy, furious over the 1819 ban on his political writing, although at least he escaped imprisonment for it, unlike some of those prepared to print his work. Isolated and often depressed, spending more time with Byron who had no interest in interfering with property and rank, than with any oppressed Italians, Shelley continued to write, producing his most famous “Ode to the West Wind” shortly before his accidental drowning.

There may be some small excuses for my previous neglect of Shelley. The late C19 saw what Paul Foot calls “an orgy of cultured Shelley-worship”, which stressed his “belief in freedom” and “lyric” poetry, censoring out all the controversial atheism, feminism and extreme views. In the 1930s, Shelley was savaged by the influential critic F.R. Leavis, for his “sloppy metaphors”, for plagiarising Shakespeare, and for his inability “to grasp something real” resulting in poetry which had “little to do with thinking”. But from what I have just seen of Shelley’s poetry, it is full of ideas and beliefs which make it worth reading, even if the language used tends to be excessive or lacking in discipline by some critical standards.