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Writer’s Study: George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews Orwell’s early novel about the struggles of the writer

Depending on your tastes, you can blame or congratulate George Orwell for Wetherspoons. When Tim Martin founded his chain of British pubs in the late 1970s, he took as his inspiration – a sort of unofficial literary blueprint, if you will – an essay of Orwell’s, ‘The Moon under Water’, published in the London Evening Standard in 1946. To this day, a number of Wetherspoon pubs are named The Moon under Water in honour of Orwell’s think piece, including the one in my hometown, Milton Keynes.

Although principally known for his last two novels about totalitarianism, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and for his political essays about big questions surrounding nationalism, fascism, and Communism, George Orwell also wrote well about petty poverty, the writer’s life (see his ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’, also from 1946), and the English obsession with money, usually with having too little of it. Read the rest of this entry

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The Worst Poem Ever Published: Theo Marzials’ ‘A Tragedy’

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle pays tribute to a truly remarkable bad Victorian poet

William McGonagall. Julia A. Moore. Alfred Austin. Bad poetry has its own canon, a sort of dark reflection or negative of the other, more salubrious canon comprising Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson. And in its own way, the canon of bad verse is just as difficult to join as the good one: it takes a certain peculiar combination of self-belief, metrical tone-deafness, artistic ambition, and – perhaps most importantly – utter lack of self-awareness to produce a remarkable bad poet. A notably bad one, we might say. One poet who should be in the bad canon, but is often overlooked alongside McGonagall et al, is Theo Marzials (1850-1920).

Marzials was a British composer, singer, and poet who was born Théophile-Jules-Henri Marzials. As well as his musical work, he was also the author of a poetry collection, the wonderfully named The Gallery of Pigeons and Other Poems (1873). It is in The Gallery of Pigeons that we find Marzials’ masterpiece, if that is quite the word: the poem ‘A Tragedy’, which is more of a farce than a tragedy, although undoubtedly its claim to being a tragedy is rather tragic. Here is the poem, reproduced in full:

A Tragedy

Death!
Plop.
The barges down in the river flop.
Flop, plop. Read the rest of this entry

Journeying through Language: Around the World in 80 Words

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys a world tour of the English language courtesy of Paul Anthony Jones’s new book

They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but ‘they’, of course are wrong. They’re especially wrong in the case of Paul Anthony Jones’s books of language trivia, which are becoming as much of an annual event – at least at IL Towers – as Jools’s Hootenanny or eating too much Christmas dinner. Last year’s book was a year’s guide to the English language – a yearbook of forgotten words, going through the calendar from 1st January to 31st December – and sported a beautifully designed cover that made it equally ideal for putting on show on the coffee table as hiding away as a private pleasure in the smallest room. And Jones’s new book, Around the World in 80 Words: A Journey Through the English Language (Elliott and Thompson), which is a geographical rather than chronological journey through the English language, sports an equally delightful blue-and-gold cover which matches perfectly the glittering facts to be found within. Read the rest of this entry