Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Light, Frothy, and very Enjoyable!

Shy, well-read Laura Horsley faces unemployment when the book shop she works in closes down, but she is persuaded to help run a literary festival at a stately home in the country and is expected to entice famously reclusive Irish author Dermot Flynn out of his self-imposed isolation to attend the event. There you have the general gist of Love Letters, by Katie Fforde, but there’s more to it than that for this is a comedy of errors and misunderstandings in which Laura learns about life and love as she discovers emotions and feelings for herself, rather than acquiring knowledge through the pages of her favourite novels.

She’s an engaging heroine, whose quiet, self-contained manner contrasts with the other characters. There is Grant, her gay colleague, who is determined to make Laura live a little; feisty, uninhibited Monica, the singer in an all-girl swing trio, and Eleanora Huckleby, the outrageous, flamboyant agent. Then, of course, there is the charismatic Dermot Flynn himself, and a host of minor characters, including some snobby book group ladies who are very dismissive of Laura and her views - until they realise she has actually met the famous Irish author.

The characters are well drawn, the settings are credible and the story moves along at a cracking pace as girl meets boy, girl runs away, boy finds girl, and everyone lives happily ever after in the tradition of all good fairytales. It’s light, frothy, and very enjoyable, but there are other issues here: Laura – and some of the other characters – must decide whether to take a risk on the future, or stick with the comfort and safety of what they know.  And there are more serious problems to be considered, like unemployment, independent book shops’  struggle for survival, and the difficulty of preserving historic homes for the future.

Above all, Love Letters is well written. Romantic fiction has a bad name, and ‘serious’ bibliophiles are usually very dismissive of the genre, so all I can say is read Katie Fforde and see if she changes your mind ... please! 

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The End of the Road

Well, I’ve come to the end of Carrie K's Ireland Reading Challenge and loved every minute of it. A latecomer (I’m new to reading challenges), I read six books in seven weeks, and started out quite confident about my ability to complete the task, especially as two of my choices were re-reads. But I got distracted along the way by an unexpected last-minute holiday, embroidery, Ted Hughes, Rupert Bear and The Phantom Tollbooth.

I fell slightly behind schedule (especially with writing) and had a bit of a rush to catch up in Week Six, but I seem to have managed quite well - following a timetable focused the way I read in a more structured way. Normally I have a bit of a scatter-gun approach to reading, with several books on the go at once, and I dip in and out of them depending on my mood, and I’ve also got a tendency to go off at a tangent, researching the period in which a book is set, or learning about the author, or reading similar books.

I enjoyed the process of selecting books with an Irish connection, and trying to ensure I had some kind of variety of styles, and a balance between old favourites and authors I had never read before. It was like having my own Man Booker long list, which had to be pared down to a few final names. Fortunately, however, I’m not required to pick a winner, but if I were it would probably be Seamus Heaney.

Best of all was seeing what other people have been reading.  There were some fascinating choices, with surprisingly little duplication, and a huge variety of titles, across a range of genres: classics, chick lit, romance, short stories, children’s books, crime... It means I now have another long list of recommended ‘to be reads’ to add to the ‘possibles’ that I didn’t choose for this challenge – so perhaps my Irish ‘journey’ isn’t over yet!

Finally, a big thank you to Carrie K at  for organising the whole thing so efficiently, and for putting up with my technical ineptitude.

Flawed Judgement - or Failing Memory?

This is the final leg of my Irish reading tour for Carrie K's Ireland Reading Challenge and, sadly, things didn’t go according to plan. I wanted to read the Flann O’Brien collection, The Best of Myles, but had trouble locating a copy in time, so when I spotted The Irish RM, by Somerville and Ross, in a charity shop I bought it. I had high hopes of this.  Not quite the anarchic  humour of O’Brien which I had been looking forward to, but a gently funny account of life in rural Ireland at the end of the 19th century – or so I thought.  My view was coloured by fond memories of the roguish charms of Peter Bowles in a TV adaptation of the book back in the 1980s.  All I can say from a distance of almost 30 years is that either my memory has played me false, or else my judgement was seriously flawed.

Set in the west of Ireland, the book is a series of short stories centred on  Major Sinclair Yeates , who has retired from the British Army and taken up a position asResident Magistrate (the  RM of the title). The major is, he assures us, part Irish, but despite this he spends most of his time  trying to understand the Irish and exert his authority over  his servants, neighbours, the local villagers, and the ‘villains’ who appear before him. They, however, are determined to keep him in the dark about their not quite legitimate goings-on. This conflict forms the basis of what passes for humour. For example, in the first chapter it transpires that spooky noises in the night are caused not by the ghost of Great Uncle McCarthy (the previous tenant) but by two of his relatives who have taken up residence in the attics and are selling foxes and drinking the major’s whisky...

Another yarn revolves around the major’s efforts to retrieve casks of rum from a shipwrecked vessel, while the local community concentrate their efforts on spiriting the cargo away. And so it goes on... and on... and on... Oh, yes, and there’s  lots about hunting, and racing, and horses, which is fine if you like hunting, and racing, and horses, but I don’t.

Most of the plots are sketchy in the extreme, and there is no growth in any of the characters. Indeed, from a modern perspective the portrayal of the local Irish population could be regarded as patronising since  they all seem to be ridiculous caricatures:  battle axe women, country yokels, cunning wheeler dealers and so on. Visiting dignitaries, on the other hand, are invariably English.

I think it’s fair to say that this is the sort of book which could never be written today. It was published in 1899, before the Easter Rising,  the Civil War, the creation of the Irish Free State, or the birth of the Republic of Ireland.  This is the Ireland of ‘the big house’, when the British were still in control, and people knew their place and were happy with their lot – or at least that’s how it seems in The Irish RM. In reality the nationalist movement was gaining widespread support, and  people in all walks of life were working to forge a national identity, but  you’d never know that by reading this book . Authors Edith Somerville and Martin Ross (the pen name of Violet Martin) were, presumably, harking back to an earlier time.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Poetic chains that link past and present

Can someone tell me how have I managed to miss Seamus Heaney for so long? Why didn’t I make the effort to read his poetry years ago? Now I have discovered him I can look forward to exploring – and enjoying -the rest of his work at a leisurely pace, and find out a little more about him.

Actually, if I give the impression that I’ve never read anything by Heaney that’s not strictly true, because earlier this year I studied The Burial at Thebes (based on Sophocles’ Antigone) as part of an OU course, and we looked at Heaney’s notes on how he created the play, which is informed by his own Irish heritage. At the time I thought ‘I must read more of his work’, but moved on to something else.

Then a friend sent me a copy of In Memoriam MKH, 1911-1984, from Clearances, after I told her how my non-Catholic mother attended a convent school evacuated to her home town, where she attended mass rather than peel potatoes, which reminded my friend of the lines in the poem:
“When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.”

Then I stumbled across the Ireland Reading Challenge  organised by Carrie K at, and there seemed to be a certain synchronicity in the course of events so, since synchronicity is about coincidence and links, I headed to the library and borrowed a copy of Human Chain – after all, a chain is a series of links. I’ve been reading it slowly, a poem a day, savouring every moment.

Like so many Irish writers Heaney is passionate about words and chooses his with care. For me even the title of this volume has layers of meaning – it references the twisted chains of DNA that make us human and connect us to our past, not just our immediate forebears but also our distant ancestors. Then there are the chains that bind people together; the shared relationships and experiences between husband and wife, parent and child, child and their child, friend and friend. And there’s the chain of events which takes us from past to present to future on the journey from life to death.

Additionally, there’s a kind of link, or progression, with the poems themselves, from Had I not been awake with it ‘wind that rose and whirled until the roof Pattered with quick leaves off the sycamore’ through to A Kite for Aibhín where ‘The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall’. Like the kite, Heaney is himself. He knows himself, and is able to accept life for what it is, standing a little apart as he looks back from where he is now, with love and sorrow, but no regrets.

Here are his personal memories about the journey through life. In Album we see a heartrending image of his frail father’s final days, his own feeling of inadequacy, his inability to show his love, and how ‘It took a grandson to do it properly’.

His parents are there again in Uncoupled, his mother, carrying the weighty firebox, walking to the ashpit, while his father, ashplant in one hand, is ‘Waving and calling something I cannot hear’ and ‘...his eyes leave mine and I know The pain of loss before I know the term’. The repetition of the word ash – such a simple word – echoes the ritual of the funeral service, so we are aware that his parents are dead, and share his grief.

But the poems aren’t all about death. Past and present intermingle with birth, marriage, and descriptions of life in the rural County Londonderry of Heaney’s childhood. He himself has said many of the poems are shaped by Virgil’s Aeneid and Aeneas’ journey to the Underworld. Heaney is a very learned and erudite poet, but he’s very accessible because alongside the classical allusions and the references to Irish myth, culture and history,  are observations of the commonplace things of life, all couched in the rhythms and language of ordinary speech set in older poetic forms. His love of words and his joy in language shine through – his poems sing with a life of their own, and his imagery is startling, but always apt, like In the Attic, with its boy ‘Shipshaped in the crow’s nest of a life’ now grown old and ‘ghost-footed’, which is a personal favourite.

I also loved Hermit Songs and its exploration of the writer’s craft,  linking the 21st century Heaney back to the scribes of old who left us beautiful, miraculous works, like the Book of Kells, and A Herbal, after Guillevic’s ‘Herbier de Bretagne’, with its ‘elsewhere world’ , looking at life, death and self-discovery through nature. “I had my existence. I was there. Me in place, and the place in me,” says Heaney, and it’s true, for he is of Ireland, just as WB Yeats was, held in thrall to the land, its heritage and its people as surely as if he were linked with an iron chain. 

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nice little boy named baby tuckoo...” Those opening lines from James Joyce’s  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man have to be among the most original first sentences of any novel – and they show us that here we have a writer determined to use language in a new and different way.

Words and language are an integral part of book, offering a child’s eye view of the world at the start, and evolving with the protagonist Stephen Dedalus (you really can’t call him a hero) as he grows, physically, intellectually and emotionally. By the end of the book the simple language of the early section changes, becoming as complex as the philosophical ideas expressed.

A handful of experimental writers had influenced Joyce (just as he himself influenced those who came after him), but even now, nearly a century after it was first published, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man still shocks with its ground-breaking techniques. The ‘stream of consciousness’ and internal monologue that he developed to such a high degree in Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake are evident, but to a lesser degree, and he does away with quote marks, using a dash to indicate the start of speech. It is semi-autobiographical account of Joyce’s own Catholic upbringing, but lacks a conventional hero and has no real plot or storyline, being more concerned with Stephen’s thoughts and feelings than with actions or events.

The text is peppered with fragments of rhyme and cultural references, and is suffused with the history, religion and politics of Ireland in the years leading up to the Easter uprising. Ireland has always been a divided nation, and the divisions are apparent here – not as part of the action, but simply because they exist. There’s the secular world of Parnell, the flawed leader who wanted some form of autonomy for the Irish people, and whose fall from grace split his supporters and opponents alike. Set against that is the rigid, restrictive world of the Christian Brothers, who refuse to countenance change and new ideas.

Stephen’s battle for personal freedom could be seen as an echo of his country’s fight for independence. Always something of an outsider, he’s a poet, seeking truth and beauty in his art and his life. He explores the nature of belief in God, and the form that belief takes through rituals in the Catholic Church, as well as the nature of heresy. At times it is hard to tell is Stephen is struggling to acquire faith – or struggling to escape its shackles. In the end, unable to live a lie, he rejects the conventions of the church and his upbringing and decides to leave Ireland and pursue his career pursue his career elsewhere, however uncertain and lonely the future may be.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is not as lyrical and poetic as Ulysses, but I admire the way Joyce bends language to his own ends. However, I admit I found it difficult to grasp some of the ideas discussed – partly due, perhaps, to the fact I didn’t have a religious upbringing myself, so fail to appreciate the church’s hold over people, or to fully understand the philosophies involved. I feel as if I haven’t really done it justice with this review, and need more time to reflect on the book, then read it again and re-evaluate my opinion.

By the way, in case anyone wonders, this was one of my choices for Carrie K’s  Ireland Reading Challenge  which you can find over at I have been reading, but I'm a bit behind with the blogging. Next up is Seamus Heaney - I'll post something on Friday. 

Saturday, 19 November 2011

A Classics Challenge

My mother always tells me I should finish one thing before starting another, and if I followed her advice I would post my three remaining reviews in the Ireland Reading Challenge being run by CarrieK at before committing to another reading challenge – but where’s the fun in that? I’m signing up for a new venture, even though I’ve still got two completed books to write up, and one to finish and review before the end of the month.  Anyway, the upcoming project, which involves reading seven classics (of which three can be re-reads) in 12 months, doesn’t start until January, so there’s no problem – other than that of deciding exactly what constitutes a classic, which demands more time and space than I have available today.

In case you’re wondering, the ‘classics challenge’ is being organised by Katherine Cox at and she aims to make it interactive, a little like a blog hop. Although participants can still write reviews on their chosen books, the idea is that Katherine will post a ‘prompt’ on the fourth day of each month. This will, she says, be general enough for everyone to answer, no matter what they are reading, or how much they have read. There will be a form for people to link to their own post and, hopefully, to see what everyone else has written.

And what will I be reading? Well, my favoured reading matter inclines towards English speaking 18th and 19th century novelists, with a few 20th century female authors, so I have tried – not entirely successfully – to move away from this.

Charles Dickens
First up is Barnaby Rudge, one of the few Charles Dickens’ novels I haven’t read, but I have a copy given to me by my mother (who seems to feature a lot in this post), which I have been saving for next year, to celebrate the bicentenary of his birth. 

Next, Castle Rackrent, by Maria Edgeworth who was, apparently, Jane Austen’s favourite author, but somehow I’ve missed reading any of her work, so I’m looking forward to catching up.  

Now for one of my own favourites: I read my original paperback copy of Middlemarch so many times it fell to pieces, and I had to buy another edition. I was going to re-read this for the Dove Grey Reader’s 2012 team read, so I’ve included it here as well, if that’s OK.  And I’m planning a kind of pilgrimage of local places with connections to George Eliot – she was brought up in and around Nuneaton and North Warwickshire, just a few miles from where I live, and I’ve always meant to explore ‘Eliot sites’ and visit ‘her’ exhibition in Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery.

Number Four is Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, which has been sitting on a book shelf for years and years and years. Like the Bible, it’s one of those iconic books I feel I know, because it has become part of our national culture. However, I’ve never read it, although I have dipped into it on odd occasions (usually when checking a reference found elsewhere).

I wanted to include one children’s classic, and this was a really difficult choice, but in the end I plumped for Huckleberry Finn, mainly because I’ve recently re-read Gone with the Wind, and Twain, whose writing I always enjoy, offers another view of slavery in the American South.
Since I was trying to broaden my horizons, and English speaking authors dominated my original ‘long list’, I decided to include Columbian novelist Gabriel García Márquez. A copy of Love in the Time of Cholera has been languishing unread on a shelf for several years, and I feel it is high time this situation was remedied.

Finally I selected Graham Green’s Brighton Rock. He’s a writer who seems to have passed me by, with the exception of Travels with my Aunt which, I gather, is unlike his other novels, so I don’t quite know what to expect here.

So there we are. Seven novels in 12 months. Easy. Just as long as I don’t get side-tracked by other books...

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Rupert Bear: A 91-year-old small boy

If you go down to the wood today – Nutwood that is – you’re in for a big surprise, because Rupert Bear is 91 today. I must admit he was never really a favourite of mine. Winnie the Pooh, yes; Teddy Robinson, yes; Paddington Bear, yes. But Rupert? No, not really. My brother and I had the odd Rupert annual at Christmas, but I didn’t hang on to them the way I did other books, or hoard pocket money to buy them myself, or beg other people to buy them for me. And, most tellingly of all perhaps, he has no voice inside my head, which may sound silly, but the characters in the books I read and loved as a child all have a voice of their own. Even now, whether they are hero or villain, I would know them if I heard them.

Anyway, whether or not I like the little white bear and his chums is immaterial, because he is still popular with thousands of children (and adults) and that’s quite an achievement. Rupert made his first appearance in a strip cartoon in the Daily Express on this day in 1920. Artist Mary Tourtel created the pictures and her husband Herbert provided the words which, unusually for a cartoon, appeared beneath the pictures, rather than in conventional ‘bubbles’. Not only that, but they appeared in verse and prose, so you could simply look at the pictures, or read the rhyming couplets (I suppose it qualifies as poetry) or read the main story line.

Former Punch illustrator Alfred Bestall took over in 1935, the year the first annual went on sale, and other artists followed him, making few concessions to changing times or fashions – Rupert still wears his trademark yellow checked trousers, matching scarf and red jumper. He goes off and has adventures, and returns to his cosy home and his loving mum and dad, just as he did all those years ago when I was a child. He lives in a fairytale world where elves, wizards and dragons exist alongside pirates and smugglers, but for me it always lacked the allure of Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, or the magical created worlds of Narnia or the Shire.

As far as I can see Rupert and his ‘chums’, who include Bill Badger, Edward Trunk, Pong-Ping the Pekingnese and Algy Pug are essentially small boys with animal heads. Mostly they seem to have human hands and feet, and they lead human lives, in human houses. I’m not sure why this bothers me, but it does. Somehow Ratty, Mole, Pooh, Paddington and a host of other literary creatures are credible as animals in a way that Rupert is not. And, I might add that the Rupert illustrations lack the charm of EH Shepard or Peggy Fortnum, but that’s a personal opinion and I’m sure others will disagree.

He still appears in the Daily Express, an annual is published each year, and there are spin-off TV shows and DVDs, as well as toys and games, while Canterbury, home of Rupert creator Mary Tourtel, has a series of plaques marking key locations, as well as a Rupert Bear Museum.  The Followers of Rupert Bear have a fascinating website which is well worth a look, whether or not you are a fan – you’ll find it at

Monday, 7 November 2011

The Brendan Voyage

It's time for Book Number Three in the Ireland Reading Challenge at organised by CarrieK at, and it’s a re-read of Tim Severin’s The Brendan Voyage. Severin and his companions sailed a leather boat across the Atlantic, in a bid to prove that St Brendan could have journeyed to America in the 6th century, and to show that the fantastical places visited by the Irish monk en route to the Isles of the Blessed really did exist.

The story of how Severin built and equipped his boat makes fascinating reading, his account of life at sea in the cramped quarters of  a small open boat is riveting, and he also gives details of the saint's voyage.  I wrote a review on this book on St Brendan's Day (May 16),  and Carrie said I can include it in the Challenge, so I've created  link for you -just click on

And, as an added extra, here's another link, to Irish singer and songwriter Christy Moore singing St Brendan’s Voyage on his album  Ordinary Man, at If you've never heard Christy Moore you've missed out, so take a listen, please.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

November: The Month of the Drowned Dog

No review today. Instead I’m posting a poem: a Ted Hughes’ poem, to mark the fact that his funeral took place today in 1998. And the poem is... November. This was one of the first Hughes poems’ I read, in a school ‘O’ Level anthology (Poets of Our Time, edited by FES Finn) and I can still remember how new and exciting his work seemed, and the shock of the opening sentence of this poem.

By coincidence it has just been announced that a memorial to Hughes will be placed in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey on December 6, at a special dedication service, with a reading by Hughes’ friend and fellow poet Seamus Heaney. There is already a memorial stone on Dartmoor.

I’m not going to attempt to analyse the poem, as I think it speaks for itself, but I’ve always thought it seems much closer to the reality of a cold, wet autumn than Keats’ season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. 


The month of the drowned dog. After long rain the land
Was sodden as the bed of an ancient lake.
Treed with iron and was bird less. In the sunk lane
The ditch – a seep silent all summer –

Made brown foam with a big voice: that, and my boots
On the lanes scrubbed stones, in the gulleyed leaves
Against the hill’s hanging silence;
Mist silvering the droplets on the bare thorns

Slower than the change of daylight.
In a let of the ditch a tramp was bundled asleep.
Face tucked down into beard, drawn in
Under his hair like a hedgehog’s. I took him for dead,

But his stillness separated from the death
From the rotting grass and the ground. The wind chilled,
And a fresh comfort tightened through him,
Each hand stuffed deeper into the other sleeve.

His ankles, bound with sacking and hairy hand,
Rubbed each other, resettling. The wind hardened;
A puff shook a glittering from the thorns,
And again the rains’ dragging grey columns

Smudged the farms. In a moment
The fields were jumping and smoking; the thorns
Quivered, riddled with the glassy verticals.
I stayed on under the welding cold

Watching the tramp’s face glisten and the drops on his coat
Slash and darken. I thought what strong trust
Slept in him- as the trickling furrows slept,
And the thorn roots in their grip on darkness;

And the buried stones taking the weight of winter;
The hill where the hare crouched with clenched teeth.
Rain plastered the land till it was shining
Like hammered lead, and I ran, and in the rushing wood

Shuttered by a black oak leaned.
The keeper’s gibbet had owls and hawks
By the neck, weasels, a gang of cats, crows:
Some stiff, weightless, twirled like dry bark bits

In the drilling rain. Some still had their shape,
Had their pride with it; hung, chins on chests,
Patient to outwait these worst days that beat
Their crowns bare and dripped from their feet.

A memorial stone to Ted Hughes
on Dartmoor

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

A Sentimental Journey

Right, here as promised, is my second book in the Ireland Reading Challenge organised by CarrieK  at In my last post I said I was a little out of synch due to my holiday on the Isle of Man, but although I didn’t do much writing, it was a good place to read, and I managed to complete one of my ‘new’ choices – A Sentimental Journey, by Laurence Sterne.

Sterne, born in Clonmel in Ireland in 1713, is best known for the incomparable The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which is quite unlike any other book in the English language, butI knew nothing of him or his other work until I spotted this in a charity shop.

Now back home and re-connected to the internet, I’ve done a bit of research and discovered that Sterne spent his childhood moving around Ireland with his father’s regiment, but at the age of 10 was sent to relatives in Yorkshire. In 1738 he became a vicar in a village near York, where he lived for some 20 years, during which time his writing was confined largely to letters and sermons, with a little politics thrown in. He was 46 when he penned the first volume of Tristram Shandy in 1759, and his writing career was brief as he died from consumption less than a decade later.
A Sentimental Journey, envisaged as a four-volume venture, charting a trip through France and Italy, was published in only two sections in 1768, just a few weeks before Sterne’s death. It was completely different to any previous travel book, satirising the pompous descriptions of Grand Tours where authors focused on descriptions of scenery and buildings, with plenty of classical allusions and observations on local customs, religion, antiquities and so on.

Instead Sterne’s work, which purports to be written by Mr Yorick, highlights his encounters with , such as La Fleur, the cheerful but inexperienced manservant he employs in France; an elderly monk seeking donations for his convent; a down-on-his-luck Chevalier who has turned his hand to patisserie, and Monsieur Le Count de B**** who sorts out his passport problem (‘Yorick’ has travelled to France, now at war with England, without the necessary document, and fears he may end up in the Bastille).

Then there are the women he meets – Yorick (like Sterne himself) has an eye for  the ladies and obviously enjoys their company, whether they be working girls or society women – at the end of the book  he finds himself sharing an inn room with a fine lady and her maid.

Alongside that he finds time to mention the small,  idiosyncratic things that catch his eye: a dead donkey blocking their road, or a caged starling endlessly repeating the words ‘I can’t get out’  (which he sees as a reflection on his own situation should he fail to solve his passport problem).

Describing the various types of traveller he tells us he has decided to be ‘sentimental traveller’ and that his observations will be ‘altogether of a different sort’ to anyone else. He says: 
   “I have not seen the Palais royal; - nor the Luxembourg – nor the Façade of the Louvre – nor have attempted to swell the catalogues we have of pictures, statues and chuches – I conceive every fair being as a temple, and would rather enter in and see the original drawings and loose sketches hung up in it, than the transfiguration of Raphael itself."
That is a pretty accurate description of the book, which has no plot and is probably closer to the picaresque tradition than anything else, consisting of a series of loosely connected episodes. It’s difficult to know whether the book represents a true account of Sterne’s travels (he journeyed abroad in 1762-4 and again in 1765-6), whether some aspects were borrowed by the experiences of acquaintances – or whether incidents and people are totally fictitious.

It’s a very slender volume, but I found it required concentration. Stylistically it isn’t always an easy read, and language has changed over the last two and half centuries. Some words have altered their meaning, while others have fallen out of use. To some extent I suppose, A Sentimental Journey has become something of a curiosity, but it has a certain charm, not least because Sterne accepts that people are a mix of good and bad, just as he accepts the conflict between the demands of the flesh and the spirit, in himself and others.

Strangely, after his death his body was stolen by grave robbers for anatomy students, but was recognized and reburied in unmarked grave at Paddington. A skull believed to be that of Sterne (the top was sawn off, a custom carried out by medical students) was recovered in 1969, and reburied in the graveyard of St Michael's Church, Coxwold.