T.J. Masters
Passionately Writing Passion

#Front Row Late

Well Read Wednesday The Lockdown Reader 5 The Featured Author List: Patrick Gale

Now we come to a very particular pile of books which I read during 2020. Yes, I’ve already covered the novels I’ve read in a previous post but I also devoured no less than twelve titles by the same author namely Patrick Gale. For those who may not know Patrick, lets take a look at the man himself first. Born on the Isle of Wight in 1962 Patrick spent his infancy at Wandsworth Prison, where his father was governor. Most of Patrick’s youth was spent living in Winchester, but he graduated in English from New College, Oxford in 1983. Patrick now lives on a farm near Land’s End, Cornwall with his partner, sculptor Aiden Hicks.  As a passionate gardener, cook, and cellist Patrick also makes time to chair the North Cornwall Book Festival each October. I first encountered Patrick as the author of the Emmy Award winning TV mini-series Man in an Orange Shirt which was first broadcast in the summer of 2017. I resolved to read some of his work but life interfered for a couple of years and the t0-be-read pile just kept growing until I saw the author in conversation with my good friend Mary Beard. Her Front Row Late, TV series had morphed into Lockdown Culture and we saw Mary in remote conversation with several cultural icons of which Patrick Gale was one. I already had one of his books in that afore mentioned pile and so I started to read A Place Called Winter.

Over subsequent months I read many of Patrick’s works and have yet to read one that I have not loved from beginning to end. It would be crazy to think that I could write a dozen or so full book reviews in one blog post so I will openly cheat by giving you book blurbs for some, with short comments for all of them from me.

1) I think that the reason I began with A Place Called Winter is that it had been shortlisted for the Costa prize soon after publication in 2015. This book sang to me. Everything that I look for in a novel was there and as such it has set a benchmark for my own writing aspirations. This is a great love story inhabited by wonderful characters who develop real relationships in gloriously detailed settings. I was also pleased to see that just like other gay writers whom I truly admire, this author had written strong female characters into the tale. I am so pleased that as I read Patrick’s other works I found that this was a positive thread through all of them.

A privileged elder son, and stammeringly shy, Harry Cane has followed convention at every step. Even the beginnings of an illicit, dangerous affair do little to shake the foundations of his muted existence – until the shock of discovery and the threat of arrest cost him everything.

Forced to abandon his wife and child, Harry signs up for emigration to the newly colonised Canadian prairies. Remote and unforgiving, his allotted homestead in a place called Winter is a world away from the golden suburbs of turn-of-the-century Edwardian England. And yet it is here, isolated in a seemingly harsh landscape, under the threat of war, madness and an evil man of undeniable magnetism that the fight for survival will reveal in Harry an inner strength and capacity for love beyond anything he has ever known before.

In this exquisite journey of self-discovery, loosely based on a real life family mystery, Patrick Gale has created an epic, intimate human drama, both brutal and breathtaking. It is a novel of secrets, sexuality and, ultimately, of great love.

2) My next foray into Patrick’s work was his most recent book, the 2018 Take Nothing With You which became his fourth Sunday Times Best Seller. This book resonated with so much from my own past with a previous long term partner who had been an organ scholar at Bristol’s Clifton College. Music plays a really important part in the author’s life and so it is a recurring theme in many of his books.

Take Nothing With You is a sad-funny comedy of resilience and survival. Fifty-something Eustace, a gay Londoner of leisure, realises in the same week that he has fallen hopelessly in love with a man he has yet to meet in the flesh, and that he has cancer of the thyroid. While being given radioactive iodine therapy, which involves spending a little over 24 hours in a lead-lined hospital suite wearing only disposable clothes and with no possessions he doesn’t mind leaving behind, he listens to hour on hour of cello music recorded for him by his best mate, Naomi. This sets his memories circling back to the 1970s and his eccentric boyhood and adolescence in his parents’ old people’s home in Weston-Super-Mare, and how his life was transfigured and his family’s stability shattered, by the decision to attend a recital by the glamorous cellist, Carla Gold.

3) Notes from an Exhibition (2007) was my next read and I have already posted a review about this novel in July 2019. I loved the way each chapter was indeed curated like the pictures in an art exhibition, with different character points of view in many of them. A huge attraction for me was the beautiful Cornish setting for much of the story.

When troubled artist Rachel Kelly dies raving in her attic studio in Penzance, her saintly husband and adult children have more than the usual mess to clear up. She leaves behind her paintings of genius – but she leaves also a legacy of secrets and emotional damage it will take months to unravel.

Patrick Gale’s novel is the story of a woman he has called “my most frightening mother to date”. She’s a genius, a loving wife and parent, a faithful friend but she’s also tormented by bi-polar disorder and driven by an artistic compulsion – often barely distinguishable from her mental illness – to damage all who try to love and protect her.

Notes from an Exhibition takes its title from the information cards displayed beside works of art in a gallery or museum. Each chapter in the novel begins with a different example, all of them referring Kelly’s art or possessions. We never see examples of her work but it is described in detail and a cumulative effect of the novel is the reader’s sense that they are walking around a retrospective of her art.

Each chapter reflects in some way the object or art work that the curatorial voice describes at its outset, sometimes directly, sometimes in some enigmatic way. There’s a sense that the curator’s notes give us the official version, the art gives us another and the piece of narrative that follows yet another. The messy, human truth lies somewhere in between all three.

Roughly half of the chapters are told from Rachel’s viewpoint and these form the novel’s backbone, portraying key episodes in her life that take us to Penzance , to New York and to Toronto , from an idyllic afternoon on a Cornish beach to a nightmarish spell on a psychiatric ward. Interleaved with her story, however, are the stories of her sister, her husband and her four children, each of them giving a different perspective on this extraordinary woman, each of them seen both in youth and in adulthood.

What emerges is the intensely dramatic and complex history of one woman and her almost inhuman dedication to art but also a moving portrait of her marriage to a longsuffering Quaker English teacher and a study of the way her ambiguous gifts wreck emotional havoc within her family even after her death.

Drawing on the West Cornish settings Patrick Gale knows so well, it will please fans of his earlier Cornish novel, Rough Music, not merely in its depiction of a troubled family but in the exciting way it leads its reader to play detective with the assortment of narrative evidence laid before them.

4) The quality of that novel and the mention of it following in the wake of an earlier Cornish tale then led me to read Rough Music (2000). Again the trope about growing up gay in a very straight world resonated deeply for me, as did the wonderful Cornish setting since this had also formed the backdrop of what I think of as my own “coming out years”.

For his fortieth birthday, a gay bookseller is given a holiday in a seaside cottage in North Cornwall. He takes his parents, who need the break because the mother has early onset Alzheimers, his nephews and his married lover, who just happens to be his brother-in-law.

Meanwhile, back in 1968, the forty-something governor of Wandsworth Prison also takes his wife and small boy on holiday to Cornwall full of good intentions about the quality time he intends to enjoy with them.

But then his charismatic American brother-in-law shows up with his bolshie tomboy daughter and there’s a break-out at the prison and everything goes horribly awry. As the two holidays fall apart in a welter of truth telling and bad behaviour, the stories unfold around one another, the novel builds to a double climax and we come to understand that we are seeing the same family at two different points in its history.

But what terrible thing happened back in the sixties to make them the way they are in the present? Deeply personal, Patrick’s most overtly autobiographical novel to date, Rough Music’s unsparing portrayal of the painful realities of being a gay child (at whatever age), of unrequited married love, of losing one’s mind, made this the novel with which he has found thousands of new readers.

After having devoured these four wonderful novels I then decided to do something I’d not done for many years. I definitely wanted more of this author’s work, but I also wanted to track his journey as a writer and so I started to read all of his published books in chronological order of publication. Not wanting to add several thousand more words to this blog post I am going to simply list the next eight works that I read, with a very brief word on each of them apart from the last one which has left me reeling and full of emotion about a period from my own past.

5) The Aerodynamics of Pork (1985) was Patrick’s first novel and was written as a way of subverting the recently launched Betty Trask prize, which was then solely for romantic fiction. The blurb on The author’s own website describes the book as:

Confident and energetic as novels can only be when the writer has no sense of a public, The Aerodynamics of Pork is now often dismissed by its author as seeming overwritten and under-edited but it remains a cult favourite with his following. 

I loved it but as someone who views his own first novel in exactly the same way, I wonder if he cringes about it as much as I do when I read mine?

6) Ease (1985) was the second novel but published in the same year. I have to say that we are dragged through the narrative at a rate of knots but as a collection of varied character studies this book is a great read.

7) Kansas in August (1987) The title is not the setting for this story but is of course a musical reference which if you are a gay man of a certain age, you will already be hearing inside your head! This was the last of Patrick’s so called Bayswater novels and revolves around the musical-obsessed Hilary Metcalfe who is abandoned by his lover Rufus on his birthday. Hilary gets drunk and on the way home he discovers a baby which he brings back to his flat above a corner shop – as you do! I found the whole thing very poignant and very funny.

8) Facing the Tank (1988) I am a great fan of stories set in chintzy Middle England and this one is a hilarious nod to those. I suspect the fictional cathedral city of Barrowcester is a reflection of Patrick’s formative years in Winchester and it is all the richer for that.

9) Little Bits of Baby (1989) This is an unashamedly romantic novel but at the same time full of the wit and dark humour that I am coming to like so much in Patrick’s writing. As for the central character Robin, I just wanted to give him a huge hug!

10) The Cat Sanctuary (1990) after facing some criticism over the predominance of gay male characters in previous novels, in this tale Patrick deftly transports us back to Cornwall and drops us into a strongly matriarchal community. This patchwork quilt of characters and their relationships is at least as well written as any previous ones and I for one found the story telling both moving and beautiful.

If the next story is anything to go by then Patrick is a consummate writer of the short story form and I really wish it were a form both encouraged and supported by more publishers.

11) Caesar’s Wife (1991) At first this story confused me because it was published under the title Secret Lives along with novels by two friends of his. It has however been reissued in 2018 in the volume Three Decades of Stories along with many other short works of his that I am now impatient to read. Caesar’s Wife is a well structured tapestry of rich characters who prove to us that the course of true love never does run easily.

Okay we have come to the last novel of Patrick’s which I read last year. if there is a novel which marks the authors coming of age in writing then this is the one for me. I found everything before this to be superbly well crafted, but this is the one which on a personal level spoke to me most loudly and clearly.

12) The Facts of Life (1995) was an astonishingly moving tale especially in the latter part where it is set so deeply in the AIDS crisis of the 80’s. As someone who lived through that wholly unforgettable time and watched friends and lovers dying around me – even in my arms, it resonated deeply. I found myself at various points either unable to stop reading, or at other times having to stop and close the book because it had moved me so much. I recognised in the story telling, the same sense of survivors guilt that I have lived with for all these years. For me the pain was eased with the onset of treatments which now mean that so many people can live long and healthy lives with the virus. I am sure that I am not the only gay man in the current crisis who has wondered why, if we can develop so many Covid vaccines in less than a year, why are we still waiting after 40 years for an effective HIV vaccine? I will leave that question out there and return to this wonderful book.

Edward Pepper is an exile, saved from Nazi Germany in the Kindertransport as a child, ostracised in England as a German Jew, then cut off still further by developing TB. He is saved, in every sense, by Sally, the doctor who becomes his wife.

Thanks to their unmarried benefactors, they set up home in The Roundel, an octagonal house always inherited by women, where she supports him as he struggles to make a living as a composer. But Sally’s strength of character cannot protect him from his past or from the predatory interest of Myra Toye, an actress he encounters while working at a film studio.

Years later Edward’s grandson and granddaughter work out a drama of their own when he falls in love and develops AIDS in one fell swoop and she feels compelled to rebuild her life around the precious years that remain of his. Patterns repeat themselves with subtle alterations and once again Edward must face the pain of a survivor’s guilt.

Legendary Chatto and Windus editor, Carmen Callil had suggested Patrick could at once stretch his technique with a longer literary form and indulge his fascination with intimate relationships by turning his hand to a family saga. This was the result: three generations of a family working out their loves and recriminations in a strange country house in the Cambridgeshire fens. Continuing to inhabit the dark areas that seemed to erupt into Gale’s work with The Cat Sanctuary, The Facts of Life is not without humour, but it’s a humour deeply rooted in and enriched by a knowledge of human pain. The Roundel is closely modelled on A La Ronde, an extraordinary house near Exmouth now opened to the public by the National Trust but which Patrick had the good fortune to be shown around when it was still owned by the last of the many female generations to had exclusive use of it.

Until I read The Facts of Life, my hero of the gay literary genre was most definitely Armistead Maupin. Now I have to put Patrick Gale right up there beside him and I am impatient to read the rest of the back catalogue. Of course I hope that there will be more new novels and if Man in an Orange Shirt is anything to go by lets have more TV scripts too! For full details of all of Patrick Gale’s books go to his website at https://galewarning.org/

I hope that these last five blog posts have not just shown you my personal reading habits but have introduced you to some new titles or new authors that you might take a closer look at. Lockdown is still very much with us and my  current ‘to-be-read’ pile seems bigger than ever. I will be back with more recommendations but do stay safe and keep reading!

Well Read Wednesday: The Lockdown Reader 2 The Non-fiction list.

Welcome to part 2 of this exposé on my lockdown reading habits and here as promised is a guide to the non-fiction books I’ve been reading this year to feed my life-long hunger for knowledge, skills and culture. I was surprised at the number of books which qualified and so my comments about each of them will have to be brief. The list has also been divided into three distinct groups as suggested by the image above so first of all lets take a look at the upstanding group in the middle.

1. Various Topics.

This first group vary in subject matter although I did consider a further sub-division for the ancient history books but the links were more fuzzy than that. First we have the unexpected best seller from last Christmas, Charlie Mackesy‘s runaway The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse. This beautiful volume of gentle cartoon images and their attendant words could easily have fitted in the fiction list but I found the pages to be thoughtful, inspirational but never preaching. This is surely a self help-book of the most gentle kind.

Next is Mary Beard‘s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. A comprehensive, but far from being a dry academic telling of the history of the first millennium of ancient Rome. It takes us from the mythical Romulus and Remus in the 8th Century BCE to 212 CE when Roman citizenship was given to every free inhabitant of the empire by Caracalla. SPQR stands for the phrase “Senatus Populusque Romanus”, meaning “The Senate and People of Rome.

Professor Beard was the reason that I chose the next book, on a chance visit to the London Review Bookshop just across the road from the British Museum. Four in a Bed is a small slim volume containing writings on the subject of sex from the pages of The London Review of Books. Eleven authors deal with this diverse subject matter, but for me the most heroic is the recollection by Mary Beard from her graduate student days, of her own rape. The article morphs into an analysis of rape which in Mary’s unique style does not tip-toe through the matter!

Swinging back to ancient Rome, I wanted a guide book in advance of a plan to be in Rome for the Ides of March this year. Covid put paid to that trip, but the book proved to be an excellent reminder of sites visited many years ago. I heartily recommend Strolling Through Rome by Mario Erasmo for anyone in need of a handy guide to the eternal city. Before parting from the topic of Ancient Rome lets take a look at the much vilified classical text The Twelve Caesars by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, better known simply as Suetonius, or perhaps unsurprisingly by classicists, even more simply as Suet! I had always been led to believe that this set of biographies was so much ‘fake news’. For a fuller account of how I came to change that view and see it as a peek under the petticoats of a great dynasty, take a peek at the blog post I wrote back in August .

This year my garden has been my therapist and I have read many articles on the benefits of gardening and the great outdoors for both mental and physical well-being. For me, the outstanding piece of writing on the subject this year has been Rootbound: Rewilding a Life by Alice Vincent.  This book is a touching memoir, botanical history and biography, which examines how bringing a little bit of the outside in can help us find our feet in a world spinning far too fast. It is a joy to read. Staying for a moment with the theme of self preservation, another form of therapy for me has always been cooking and in particular baking. Aside from the ubiquitous banana loaf, one of the cool bakes this year has been the sourdough loaf. For some, the kitchen is a place of mystery, but few things are more likely to reduce a baker to hushed tones that the mystery that is sourdough. In this wonderful little book (with a big title) How to Raise a Loaf and Fall in Love with Sourdough, baker Roly Allen beautifully explores the myth and magic from that alien living creature known as the starter, to the final glorious loaf.

Okay we’re down to the last two books in this group. First is Dr. Michael Mosley‘s Fast Asleep:How to Get a Really Good Night’s Rest. Another subject on which so much has been written lately. If you want a readable account of the science and a host of helpful tips on this topical subject, this is a good place to start. Finally another unexpectedly good read. All That Remains: A Life in Death, by leading professor of anatomy and forensic anthropology, Dame Sue Black. Death and dead bodies are a part of everyday life for this amazing woman. One of my Happiest memories from that magical part of this year pre Covid, was a late-night trip to BBC Broadcasting House where I was a regular attendee at the live broadcasts of Mary Beard’s Cultural chat show Front Row Late. This was the last night of the series and one of the guests was Sue Black. After the show I found myself glass in hand, sitting between the two Dames, Mary and Sue. This highly intelligent and articulate Scottish scientist turned out to also be utterly charming and friendly and I left the gathering determined that I should read her book. I am genuinely glad that I did and I urge anyone with interests in death, forensics, detective/murder stories, professional glass ceilings or even Sottish academia to do the same.

2.Reading and Writing.

The second pile covers two of my favourite subjects. The first and arguably best known of these is On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Few books have sat in my To-Be-Read pile as long as this has. The book describes King’s experiences as a writer and delivers his advice for aspiring writers. I loved reading about his experience, but reading his advice reminded me that many writers believe that their way is the right way and possibly the only way. Similarly On Writers and Writing comes from Margaret Attwood, an author who needs little introduction. Edited from a series of lectures, the author examines the role of the writer? Prophet? High Priest of Art? Court Jester? Or witness to the real world? Looking back on her own childhood and the development of her writing career, Attwood examines the metaphors which writers of fiction and poetry have used to explain, or excuse, their activities. It is an easy but very insightful read.

The next three books take an altogether more analytical look at the process of writing. In The Science of Story Telling, Will Storr  reminds us how much storytelling is an essential part of what makes us human. In this thought-provoking book, Storr demonstrates how master storytellers manipulate and compel us, leading us on a journey from the Hebrew scriptures to Mr Men, from Booker Prize-winning literature to box set TV. The author applies dazzling psychological research and cutting-edge neuroscience to the foundations of our myths and archetypes, he shows how we can use these tools to tell better stories and make sense of our chaotic modern world. I found it a really fascinating read. Next is Writing a Novel by Richard Skinner. This author believes it is the duty of a novelist to bring our whole selves to the page; to write from the gut, not the head, to find your story, not force it; to meet your reader in a spirit of openness. In this very readable book, Skinner offers up frameworks, strategies and stimuli to help you meet that duty, drawing on his deep experience as one of the UK’s leading creative writing teachers. He covers the essentials – narrators, characters and settings  with charm and rigour. This book is definitely not a set of instructions: it is a way of thinking, a conversation, a relationship in itself and I highly recommend it. The last of the three ‘how to’ books is First You Write a Sentence, by Joe Moran. To quote from the blurb, “Using minimal technical terms, First You Write a Sentence is his unpedantic but authoritative explanation of how the most ordinary words can be turned into verbal constellations of extraordinary grace. Using sources ranging from the Bible and Shakespeare to George Orwell and Maggie Nelson, and scientific studies of what can best fire the reader’s mind, he shows how we can all write in a way that is clear, compelling and alive.” I loved it and if any writer (or reader) wants one book to help them in their craft let it be this one. The final entry in this category is Power of Reading: From Socrates to Twitter by Frank Furedi. This author is a cultural and social historian who delivers an eclectic and entirely original history of reading. The very act of reading and the choice of reading material endow individuals with an identity that possesses great symbolic significance. This book explores the changing meanings attributed to the act of reading. Although it has an historical perspective, the book`s focus is very much on the culture of reading that prevails in the 21st Century. Furedi argues vigorously for the restoration of the art of reading, declaring it every bit as important as the art of writing. I could never disagree with that.

3. Queer Studies.

The final pile are the books I read in order to immerse myself in the culture of which I am very much a part. I may have lived through and experienced the coming of age of the LGBTQ+ movement but I still like to read other accounts and study other points of view relating to those times. The Velvet Rage: Growing up Gay in a Straight Man’s World by Alan Downs PhD argues that today’s gay man enjoys unprecedented, hard-won social acceptance but serious problems still exist. Substance abuse, depression, suicide, and sex addiction among gay men are at an all-time high, causing many to ask, “Are we really better off?” The book draws on contemporary research and the authors personal story to passionately describe the stages of a gay man’s journey out of shame and offers practical and inspired strategies to stop the cycle of avoidance and self-defeating behaviour. Updated to reflect the effects of the many recent social, cultural, and political changes, The Velvet Rage is an empowering book that has already changed the public discourse on gay culture and helped shape the identity of an entire generation of gay men. In a similar vein comes Matthew Todd‘s, Straight Jacket: Overcoming Society’s Legacy of Gay Shame. This is part memoir and part ground-breaking polemic, Straight Jacket looks beneath the shiny façade of contemporary gay culture and asks if gay people are as happy as they could be – and if not, why not? Even Sir Elton John declared that it should be read by every gay man on the planet!

Next is a classic book from 1996 which I chose to revisit after replacing my long lost copy. PWA: Looking AIDS in the Face, by Oscar Moore is actually a compilation of  the author’s column in the Guardian newspaper which gave us moving and informative insights into what it’s like to live with the physical deterioration that AIDS inevitably brings. Humane and witty and written with a tough-minded, dry humour, PWA (Person With AIDS) proved to be a comfort to people, whether touched by illness or not. Parts of this book and the memories it awoke reduced me to tears again.

Straight Expectations by Julie Bindel follows on in some ways from the first two books but it asks what it means to be gay in the era of same-sex marriage and equal rights? More than four decades after the start of the gay liberation movement, lesbians and gay men can legally marry, adopt children, and enjoy the same rights and respect as heterosexuals, or can they? Another great, thought provoking read. Continuing with the idea that the fight is not over, United Queerdom by Dan Glass tells us that injustice is rife and LGBT+ inequality remains. Complete LGBT+ liberation means housing rights, universal healthcare, economic freedom and so much more. Although many people believe queers are now free and should behave, assimilate and become palatable, this activist, author shows that the fight is far from over. My last look at this history came in the form of a great little book which I found when the author appeared at last year’s Hay Literary Festival while I was there. From Prejudice to Pride: A History of the LGBTQ+ Movement by Amy Lamé is a visual feast, filled with photographs documenting LGBTQ+ life from the past and present, and from around the world. Lamé looks at the rise and achievements of the LGBTQ+ movement and the different communities, pioneers and stories of heartbreak and courage that have marched alongside it.

Chance discoveries are matched only by books given as gifts by dear friends. One such was Queer Magic by Tomás Prower. Just as the cover tells us this is a tour of LGBTQ+ spirituality and culture from around the world. Not a book I might have picked up myself but I am so grateful that I was given it because it is a truly fascinating book which delivers great insights into queer relationships and spiritual practices from different historical eras and regions of the world.

The last two books in this pile and in this blog are related to one of my areas of experience, interest and research. First is The Leathermans Protocol Handbook by John D. Weal. Much has been talked about and even fantasised about over many years regarding the protocols and the ‘Old Guard’ but it has rarely been written about. Part of the reason for this is that when Larry Townsend wrote The Leatherman’s Handbook in 1972 most people read it and thought “job done”. However good the handbook was, everyone (including Larry) knew that there were other points of view. This book was published in 2010 and here again the author tells us that it is not the bible of protocols but rather it is a document of his personal journey as a ‘collared’ boy through the latter days of the Old Guard. Much of this history has sadly been lost during the era of HIV, HEP C and Crystal Meth. This book is a fascinating and valuable part of our history recording times which have started to fade. Just a year earlier another book added to the record of those times and experiences. Ask The Man Who Owns Him: The Real Lives of Gay Masters and slaves by david stein and David Schachter (the use of upper case or not is intentional here for a reason) This book does exactly what it says and records, as interviews, the real lives of sixteen Master and slave couples from America and Canada. For those who are used to the BDSM relationships found in erotic fiction this will be a complete surprise since there are no stereotypes here! This again is not the whole story but is a damned big part of it and the book should be read by anyone seeking either the lifestyle or the truth about it.

Wow! That’s over 2.5k words I hadn’t expected to write but I am glad I did.

Next, in Part 3 I will cover the stack of general fiction read this year.



Well Read Wednesday: Wordy by Simon Schama

Sounding off on high art, low appetite and the power of memory

This episode of Well Read Wednesday is my first non-fiction selection in the series. To think of this book as a typical non-fiction read however would be to do it a massive injustice. For all lovers of books, essays, literature and above all of words, Wordy is a genuine treasure trove. Sir Simon Schama is a true renaissance man who has chosen fifty essays, mostly from his weekly articles in the Financial Times, covering a broad palette of colourful content.

I like to think that my command of the English language is quite good and that my personal lexicon allows me to find words for most occasions. With Wordy however, I challenge anyone to tumble far into its pages without firing up their preferred online dictionary. Every page is a logophiles paradise and yet Schama has a rhythmic, if rambunctious style which carries us along from one wordy nugget to the next.

Maybe I should let him tell us about the book before I get too carried away by this perambulating polymath:

Wordy is about the intoxication of writing; my sense of playful versatility; different voices for different matters: the polemical voice for political columns; the sharp-eyed descriptive take for profiles; poetic precision in grappling with the hard task of translating art into words; lyrical recall for memory pieces. And informing everything a rich sense of the human comedy and the ways it plays through historical time.

It’s also a reflection on writers who have been shamelessly gloried in verbal abundance; the performing tumble of language – those who have especially inspired me – Dickens and Melville; Joyce and Marquez.

In May of this year I made a long overdue pilgrimage to Hay-on-Wye for the annual literary festival. I was there to support Prof. Mary Beard, who was recording a live episode of BBC Two’s wonderful Front Row Late panel show. The illustrious panel included Simon Schama and a regular on the show, the historian and TV presenter David Olusoga. These three had, not long ago, delivered the extraordinary Civilisations reboot series where Schama had written and presented five of the nine episodes. I had also recently been both informed and moved by his extraordinary documentary series The Story of the Jews. Following the recording I was lucky enough to spend some time with these charming people and of course I couldn’t resist getting the great man to sign my freshly purchased copy of Wordy.

Simon Schama is indeed a polymath, equally at home writing about art, literature, politics or history. He is an art historian, social commentator, academic historian, teacher, journalist and as a columnist he writes for many of the world’s leading newspapers, magazines and periodicals. Whatever the subject, this collection of essays is incisive and thought provoking whilst always being witty and wonderfully eloquent.

One section of the book which took me by surprise was the final group of six essays on the subject of food. Is there no end to this man’s interests?

Thankfully the whole collection is divided into manageable sections, otherwise I fear there is a very real danger that the reader could be drawn into a “just one more page.” scenario which could have you drowning in an ocean of wordiness! It is a great book to visit and revisit. I will certainly return to some parts of it again. In the meanwhile I am left with the feeling that I have been duped by a very clever irony. The author’s theme throughout the book seems to be a march against a hyped up, high brow notion of art, literature and of course, words. To use his own words they are  “….not so much dithyrambically wordy as just prolix.” Of course what he actually achieves is a wonderful celebration of those very same things in his uniquely eloquent and wordy style.