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A biographical note on Duncan Grant (apropos one of those Facebook challenges that do the rounds occasionally)

A weapons-grade Bloomsburyist, Duncan Grant (1885-1978) spent much of his early childhood in India (natch), where his grandfather had been Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal. He ‘became interested in Japanese prints’ while still at prep school.

After attending St Paul’s, Westminster School of Art and the Slade School – interspersed with stints in Italy and France, of course – he received high-profile commissions to redecorate the Borough Poly dining room, the First Class lounge of Cunard’s RMS Queen Mary (torn out as soon as the directors saw it), and the Russell Chantry of Lincoln Cathedral, where he calmly cast his lover in the role of Jesus.

As a conscientious objector during WWI, Grant took himself off to Suffolk for a spot of fruit-farming (not a euphemism). In WWII, the War Artists’ Advisory Committee hired him to paint St Paul’s Cathedral (small picture of).

Per Bloomsbury, almost anyone who wasn’t directly related to him was having sex with him. This included Vanessa Bell (née Stephen), a woman, with whom he fathered a child and lived, fairly consistently, for more than 40 years. Their progeny, Angelica, later married David Garnett – the former lover of both her father and Vanessa’s husband Clive Bell.

A maid once told Virginia Stephen (later Woolf) “that Mr Grant gets in everywhere.” This famously included the flagship of the Home Fleet, HMS Dreadnought, when Grant, the Stephens, Horace de Vere Cole (I know, I know) et al. dressed up as Abyssinian royalty and were given an escorted tour, complete with marching band.

I’d hoped Grant might have painted Leonard Woolf. But no. So this is his ‘Self Portrait’ (1920).


Extracts from the letters of Gerald Spence Smyth, Capt., 1st South African Irish Regt., Abyssinian campaign, 1941


I am given to understand that this is the 6th day of Feb. but for the life of me I don’t know what day of the week it is. Anyhow it doesn’t make any difference here. Excuse the dirt. A.A.¹ has just spilt some tea on my pad.

The journey from the forest² to these parts was long and trying but most interesting. The first day lava and then desert. My car buried its rear portion in the sand and while we were waiting for some assistance Cyril Cochran came up, had a good laugh and took a photo which I hope to be able to send you in due course. Camels, dried white bones, and mirages cause the most fantastically beautiful marine illusions. Sometimes the dunes were converted into rocky promontories with the sea below them – just like some of those places we photographed round Cape Point – a solitary goat in the distance looks like someone bathing.

Camped for the night in the sand dunes and moved north again before dawn. Camped again in a rocky dusty area near the frontier and rested for 36 hours. Then began the most remarkable journey of my life - the advance onto our first objective through many miles of dense bush and undulating lava hills. The armoured cars went ahead and made clearings in the thorn bush and the troop carriers followed. In the early afternoon we came on open ground and got into battle formation and soon after this the fun started and by 5 p.m. we had occupied the Italian position. I rushed round with my company on the left flank to head off the fugitives but they were too quick for us. It was an extraordinary advance and we got great praise for it. The Itos were taken by surprise and no wonder because no one would have ever dreamt of a motorised force advancing through such country.

The next day, Sunday, Jimmy’s crowd (a nephew of Gerald Fayle’s) did a stunt with my company in reserve, so we saw some more fun. The fort was occupied before dark and here we are on the qui vive and having a rest. I didn’t see Jimmy but he is O.K. His unit captured some weapons and stores . . . . . . . . For some days I had attached to me two Abyssinian rebels – i.e. whom the Italians haven’t yet captured or subdued. They told the same story, the desire for revenge has become fanatical. On one occasion while we were guarding some prisoners these two birds were all for cutting the throats etc of the wounded and had to be restrained. These rebels are very much on our side. They carry Italian rifles and plenty of ammunition. They are a mixture, I think, of Arab and negro and the former strain gives them a rather noble but desperately cruel look.

¹ Allan Arnott
² Marsabit


Tuesday(?) 11.2.41

The hiatus is due to a sudden move with little warning. Another long advance and another successful action.  “A” Company (Gerald’s¹) bumped it first and we had an anxious time for a while when we walked into something that looked innocent enough but was in fact a rather clever trap. But the Italians spoilt things for themselves by not withholding their fire long enough. It is fortunate that we were entering a fort at the time so we were able to take cover and give the other side something to go on with. When I say “we” I mean Micky Williamson with an armoured car, myself, and one platoon. We were cut off temporarily from the others. But thanks to somebody’s prayers and bad shooting on the part of the Italians you’ve nothing to worry about. Anyhow our “chance” was to come. Mickey and I spotted a lot of enemy troops crossing a ridge so we let them have it good and plenty. Yesterday I went up to the spot to have a look and they certainly left in a hurry taking their casualties with them. Allan came on their dressing station and saw the evidence. Where we opened fire on this particular formation the ground was littered with red fezes, clothing, food and ammunition. I have acquired a very nice Ito aluminium water carrier, double lined and holding about 2 gallons. It was originally a vacuum container but it became loosened and the air has got in between the linings. I have put a rubber washer on the opening and it’s grand.

The troops we are up against are Italian Somalis – not Abyssinians – with European officers. The p.c. I sent Gerald² gives a good idea. Please frame this for the boys. It was taken from a prisoner. The different Italian Colonial Infantry Regts. wear different coloured woollen waist bands like scarves. I have two, one black and white (17th Col. Inf) and one yellow (9th Col. Inf). If these ever arrive wash them (I haven’t enough water) and keep them for fun. The family group photo was discarded by some Italian Somali on the run. Just had a bit of a clean up. Had no wash or shave for four days, so I was pretty grubby . . . . . . . . There is no shortage of medals in the Ito army.

¹ Fayle’s, presumably (see first letter)
² Gerald Spence Smyth’s son, Gerald Fayle³ Preston Smyth
³ named after Gerald Fayle (see first letter, and fn. above)



. . . . . . . . We’ve all had a pretty gruelling time during the past week and at the moment we are taking things a bit quietly. There is the satisfaction at any rate of knowing that we have achieved a great measure of success in capturing an important Italian position.¹

¹ Mega fort


2nd letter 21.2.41

Just after my last letter written a week ago we had a busy and trying time. After leaving the place from which I last wrote we began an advance which culminated in a final successful attack. The hardships endured by all concerned from wind, cold and exposure were far greater I think than from enemy action. For three days and two nights we were soaked to the skin without shelter and in most cases without greatcoats or groundsheets in cold and almost continuous rain. How the men stuck it I don’t know but they deserve the highest praise for the way they carried on throughout this trial. The more experienced campaigners (chaps who were in the last war) say they haven’t seen anything like it. It’s a great tribute to the Regt. The Italians greeted us with shell fire at the beginning of the show. This went on most of the time as well as M.G. and small arms fire. We captured a large number of prisoners and guns etc. The prisoners who included some officers were anything but downcast: in fact they seemed decidedly cheery.

By this time you will have heard that Mickey¹ died of wounds. It is one of the saddest and greatest losses we could have had. He was terribly plucky up to the end.

. . . . . . . . We have acquired a fair amount of Ito food, e.g. spaghetti tinned tomato, cheese, flour, meal and a lot of tinned curried meat specially prepared for their Mahomedan troops. This morning for breakfast we had spaghetti cheese tomato and bacon. Very good too. One day all I had to eat was an army biscuit and a piece of biltong. It’s most nutritious and I always have a bit in my pocket.

Just had a most gratifying message from the C.O. to be read out of the Company thanking them for their great effort in the last show.

¹ The typescript here says: ‘(not the one of the armoured car).’ This seems an unlikely clarification for my GSS to have made to his wife, who – the general tone would otherwise suggest - probably knew all these people, at least socially. Also it seems too casual, given the remarks that follow. My suspicion – as with a couple of other bracketed asides, is that my grandmother added these when typing, for the benefit of whichever secondary reader. There seems no reason to think the amendment is incorrect, though: the man’s name is spelled differently, after all (albeit the typescript, once again, is full of typing errors).



Now that the rain has ceased for nearly a week the climate here is delightful. Cold at night and warm and bracing in the day at about 7000ft. My attack of dysentery has completely passed off and I now feel grand. We get excellent bacon from Kenya and wonderful tinned tomatoes from sunny Italy.

¹ The typescript here says: ‘(so smeared from rain I could hardly read it, it came to-day)’. Either my grandmother’s typescript has these letters in the wrong order, or in the order that they arrived in South Africa (when was ‘to-day’?), or she has misread and/or introduced a typo and the date should actually be 2.3.41. The reference to tomatoes and the rain suggest the last one, as does the altitude.

Typescript endnote: ‘All these extracts have been passed by the military censors and most of the bits about the war have appeared.’

All good things must come to an end

Some Trick: thirteen stories
by Helen DeWitt
New Directions, £22.95, pp.197

Certain American States
by Catherine Lacey
Granta, £12.99, pp.190

by Oisín Fagan
Head of Zeus, £8.99, pp.269

Notes from the Fog
by Ben Marcus
Granta, £12.99, pp.266

The Abyss and Other Stories
by Leonid Andreyev
Alma Books, £8.99, pp.315

Only Helen DeWitt would start a book with an epigraph of her own pop-culture mash-up poetry and end with an appeal to buy the writer coffee.

Author of just two previous published novels (about a multilingual child prodigy, and an encyclopaedia salesman turned sex-peddler, respectively), DeWitt keeps a pure flame, and doesn’t want to hear why others won’t.

She and her characters inhabit an intellectual, emotional, and physical triangle between New York, Berlin, and Gloucester Green bus station, Oxford. ‘It would mean a lot to me to work with [an editor] who admired Bertrand Russell,’ one of her narrators remarks… about her children’s book. Another one has ‘views on the Kaddish of Mr Leon Wieseltier’. And DeWitt’s endnotes (indeed) reference the cost of pigments in Renaissance painting, the clever-clever comics website xkcd, and a proof (non sic) found in another of her own unpublished novels, on the distinction between X and x.

Some Trick‘s abiding theme is thwarted genius – especially where that genius is female. The art world features heavily, as does the relationship between being an artist and, say, being able to feed oneself. Ditto publishing, of course, and the rest of her preoccupying passions: music, languages (she speaks or reads about a dozen), maths (stats, specifically), and, perhaps inevitably, computer programming.

In a story full of distribution graphs, a typical DeWitt sentence runs: ‘Peter had written a book of robot tales with a happy beginning which had made, as it turned out, what seemed a lot of money, and yet not enough money to mitigate contractual relations with persons who had professed to love it yet sought to remove references to ei?.’ Beneath this is a four-paragraph-long note, rolled over from the previous page, on information design.

And yet it’s all perversely readable, and entertaining. Some trick.

Catherine Lacey’s first protagonist is an ex-husband knocked for six by a short story his ex-wife just published. Another woman clears out her dead husband’s closet. A narrator cares for an unloving godfather. A businessman notes the letter firing him reads like a haiku. These Certain American States are, in the main, discomfiting and sad.

Lacey’s prose is free and full of pinpoint observations. There’s a type of shirt ‘meant to be borrowed from a man.’ WWJD? bracelets are a mug’s game, since Jesus had ‘supernatural powers… not the options the rest of us have.’ The great, flat, modern statement: ‘I wasn’t in the mood to be a person.’

But why is everyone so lost? The last thing any of these Americans are is ‘certain’. Most of them are frankly on the brink, adrift in a world where the ‘density and hue of their front lawn’ is the (admittedly brain-dead) measure of normality. One worries she’s ‘the only woman I know who swings hetero any more…. It feels unevolved.’ A second that she ‘can’t see how anything is organised.’ You can’t help wondering if they ‘feel’ too much. Is nobody at peace in that whole damn country?? To the stiff-lipped Brit, perhaps, there is a slight sowhatishness about the entire business.

Such airy ponderables do not intrude on Oisín Fagan’s Hostages.

His first long story (90 pages) is told from the perspective of a bomb. A riot breaks out in a ‘semi-rural, pre-suburban’ high school, a Lord of the Flies environment of scatalogical attacks, waterboarding and handjobs: ‘“Here lads… you can only do that for a couple of minutes, or he’ll die…”’ (the waterboarding, that is). Ahh, but ‘what is life but the promise of love?’ muses the bomb.

The other three big stories – of a plague of dead bodies, ‘Tanzanian’ diamond-mining, and a hyper-local tribal matriarchy – share this whiff of allegorical dystopian future-history, culminating in the 17-page ‘Costellos’ (my favourite), a single-paragraph, epic mock-tragedy, stretching from 1574 to 2144.

The end of the world is seemingly always just around the corner. But Hostages is funny and cheerful for all that (‘cross-eyed with sobriety’ ranks among my all-time favourite throwaway descriptions), and Fagan renders his DayGlo-Bruegelish nightmares in a careless, cliché-free Anglo-Irish (‘the quaintness of never having a pair of shoes’), with nods to South Park, Roy Keane, Alien, ‘Cotton Eye Joe’, and a general dose of that reflexive blackness that is the birthright of every proper Irishman. As queues form at the corpse-disposal sites, a speaker says ‘“I know the ladies’ committee who’ve worked with Tidy Towns before have had similar experiences…”’

Ben Marcus is often referred to as a genius. It says so right here on the cover, amid some other strong claims. But I am new to him – and Notes from the Fog may not have been the place to start.

In (yet another) vague, bleak, technologically-distorted near-future – as much unmagic as it is unreal – a young boy threatens his parents; couples argue; people get sick. The premises are interesting, the characters comprehensible, the dialogue good. Marcus has a talent for the barbs of domestic passive aggression and the terrible cruelty of children (one doesn’t ask…), and there are some tremendous branchlines for his trains of thought (terrorism as ‘a tax on comfort’, anybody?).

As with Lacey, though, it is what’s running through his characters’ minds that is the problem. Most of these people are – or should be – medicated. Some are actually the subjects of experiments; but they are all, as the Americans would say, ‘in their heads.’ And if Marcus’s relentlessly agitated prose (there are a lot of similes) is perfect for their truly epic levels of overthinking, ‘Wasn’t every bit of motion, anywhere, an invasion?’ Well, no. During a dangerous thunderstorm, ‘The road is kind of gross.’ Who thinks, or speaks, like that? Some child wears a teacher’s skin as his ‘shirt’. Except he doesn’t, obviously. It’s all just intellectual noodling, and page by page it comes to feel like writing aimed at other writers, neither unreadable nor brilliant, just rather pointlessly obtuse.

Amid all the linguistic and psychological pyrotechnics, one repeatedly finds oneself thinking ‘What is the actual story here?’ The storylines themselves appear to teeter on the verge of craziness, so otherworldly as to relieve the reader of any obligation to commit to them. Often as not, they just sink back into whatever mental (sic) landscape they loomed out of. Not particularly beginning, not really ending either. Perhaps this works in lit mags, individually; but in book form the cumulative result is frankly hard work.

As Marcus himself writes in ‘Critique’(!), ‘It amounts to a celebration of technique, suggesting a creator slightly too satisfied by method… as if the making of something mattered more than that thing’s purpose.’ Self-knowledge, maybe. But if this is genius, I don’t stand tall enough to see it.

Novelist, playwright, and gentleman revolutionary in the 1905 go-round, Leonid Andreyev was particularly infamous for his story ‘The Abyss’, in which a scholar and his sweetheart, out walking in the woods, exchanging poems, are set upon by a gang of drunken peasants (I’m not scared,” said Tolstoy, proto-bolshily).

The rest of this collection (some of it in English for the first time) is every bit as grim and Russian as the title number. A man with toothache goes to see the Crucifixion. A provincial official goes mad. A priest wants to convert to Islam. And almost everybody dies.

Andreyev’s tales may not be as contemporary as all these other authors’; there may be a ‘fateful inevitability’ for their protagonists; and one of them – the stories – may, in fact, have caused the First World War. But at least – like all things, good and bad – they end, is all I’m saying.

For the Spectator, in a shorter edit


Of queens, Slovenes, and the birthplace of James Douglas Morrison.

For Queen Mob’s Tea House

Haiku (Sunday night now)

It’s Sunday night now,
and the whole house stinks of steak.

Frankly erotic.

The tour of Babel

Review of Gaston Dorren’s Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages.

For Geographical


Of gypsies, greys, and Copehill Down.

For Queen Mob’s Tea House


Of Zulus, Zac, and Winston Churchill (novelist).

For Queen Mob’s Tea House

This Is Just To Say – or; On a domestic argument between two writers

‘After telling my wife about Boston’s Great Molasses Flood, she accused me of putting together a fake Wikipedia page, just to mess with her.’ — Navin Weeraratne 

I had researched
that story
the Great Molasses Flood

you were clearly
I had made up

Forgive me
it was pretty unbelievable
so sweet
and so dark

Found poetry