Fort Himmelfarb

A reader writes:

Dear Mr Key, I am pleased to hear you are heading abroad for a well-earned break. I would be most interested to know what you are taking with you as holiday reading.

Though I am leaving very early tomorrow morning, I have not finished packing. However, a couple of items have already found their way into my suitcase: the current issue of Fortean Times, and a new collection of essays by Gertrude Himmelfarb.



184 Today!


On the occasion of her 184th birthday, I am reminded of my long-abandoned project of concocting an entirely new corpus of works by Emily Dickinson, through the simple procedure of jumbling up lines from her poems more or less at random. Perhaps reviving this scheme will keep me occupied during my (imminent) dotage. Here is a sample:

Because I could not stop for Death
Its little Ether Hood
Between my Curtain and the Wall
Had power to mangle me


Approaching his seventieth birthday, Robert Wyatt has reportedly decided to “stop making music”. The writer Richard Williams rang him up to confirm if this was true. Wyatt responded with an anecdote

about the novelist Jean Rhys, who, after a long period of inactivity, responded to her publisher’s gentle suggestion that she might like to write another book by asking him if he’d enjoyed her last one. “Yes, of course,” he answered. “Well, read it again,” Rhys said.

Indeed. I will be taking up the invitation (the command?) to listen again to Wyatt’s extensive back catalogue. He was one of my earliest musical uberenthusiasms, from the day in the very early 1970s when my older brother came home clutching a double-album reissue of Soft Machine Volumes One and Two. (Side one of the latter remains one of my putative Desert Island Discs.)

Just as the career of the out of print pamphleteer Dobson is intertwined with his inamorata and Muse, Marigold Chew, so we must never overlook the contribution of Alfreda Benge to Wyatt’s work. I was once asked to name my favourite painting. It wasn’t an Old Master or modernist masterpiece from one of the great galleries. It was – still is – Benge’s cover for Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard (1975). (Click for huge version.)


Ten Books

I was persuaded to take part in one of those Facecloth round-robins, in which I was asked to name ten favourite books “without thinking too hard”. Here is my list (A-Z by author):

1. Watt, Samuel Beckett
2. Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead, Barbara Comyns
3. The Household Wreck, Thomas De Quincey
4. Amphigorey, Edward Gorey
5. The Falls, Peter Greenaway
6. Bartleby The Scrivener, Herman Melville
7. Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov
8. W or The Memory Of Childhood, Georges Perec
9. The Crying Of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon
10. The Purple Cloud, M P Shiel

Do not be confused by No. 5. The screenplay of Greenaway’s majestic film is (or was) available in paperback, and takes the form of a continuous piece of prose.

Doughty In Rye

Over at the indispensable Nigeness, Nige occasionally writes a postage about a fortuitous find in a secondhand bookshop. I thought I would follow his example, for yesterday I was in Rye, and in a tiny bookshop called the Tiny Bookshop I was happy to come upon a 1956 Penguin copy of Passages From Arabia Deserta by Charles Montagu Doughty, for a mere three pounds.


This is an abridged version of Doughty’s best-known work, Travels In Arabia Deserta, which was extolled by The Observer thus: “Charles Montagu Doughty was one of the great men of our day, the author of a unique prose masterpiece. For many readers it is a book so majestic, so vital, of such incomparable beauty of thought, of observation, and of diction as to occupy a place apart among their most cherished literary possessions”.

I have written about Doughty before, with particular reference to his strangely hypnotic prose. Never having had the courage to tackle the Travels in their vast entirety, I shall look forward to reading this abridgement – still over 300 pages.