Ian Sansom

Ian Sansom is director of the Oscar Wilde Centre at Trinity College Dublin.

Everything You Know: Hoods

Ian Sansom, 3 November 2016

The​ 21st-century version of Aristotle’s Poetics – and for that matter of Cicero’s On the Orator, Robert McKee’s Story, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the entire works of Syd Field, and just about every other book ever written that pretends to reveal the ways fiction, drama or poetry ‘work’ – is tvtropes.org, the...

Banksability: Iain Banks

Ian Sansom, 5 December 2013

Except for the lucky few, the rewards for writing are meagre, if not non-existent. As a money-making enterprise, writing makes no sense. According to the UK’s official graduate careers website, prospects.ac.uk (a depressing but entirely reliable source, to which I direct my own eager students when they come to me for advice before wisely becoming arts administrators, baristas, or...

To celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009 a concert was held in Washington DC, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. ‘In the course of our history, only a handful of generations have been asked to confront challenges as serious as the ones we face right now,’ Obama said, truly, after will.i.am and Sheryl Crow had busked their way through Bob Marley’s ‘One...

David Vann’s novel – his debut, after a short story collection, Legend of a Suicide (2008), and a memoir, A Mile Down (2005) – is a book that makes Cormac McCarthy’s The Road read like a walk in the park. Compared to Caribou Island, The Road is grim-lit lite. After 200 pages of unrelenting misery, McCarthy breaks down and accepts the possibility of grace: after a long...

According to Hannibal Hamlin, in Psalm Culture and Early Modern English Literature (2004), English versions and translations of the Book of Psalms, the original book of Dave – supposedly written by King David, the Neim Z’mirot Yisrael (‘the sweet singer of Israel’) – ‘substantially shaped the culture of 16th and 17th-century England, resulting in creative...

Very like St Paul: Johnny Cash

Ian Sansom, 9 March 2006

The pleasures of piety are infinite and exquisite and probably nowhere more easily had these days than in the rock ’n’ roll business, or in Hollywood. On record, and on stage, and up there on the big screen, people are not only encouraged but also handsomely rewarded for being morbidly fascinated with themselves, with their every movement, their every utterance, with the tiniest flicker of an eyelid or the slightest suggestion of a thought – a self-regard and obsession with the self usually only available to religious novitiates, madmen or very young children. Fame, with all of its fleshly temptations and attendant despairs, is an obvious incitement to grace; thus, George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, and Rock Against Racism, and Live Aid, and Farm Aid, and Red Wedge, and Rock the Vote, and Live 8, Coldplay, U2, the late and the later John Lennon, and perhaps almost as many good causes as there are actors.

Whamming: a novel about work

Ian Sansom, 2 December 2004

Novelists are a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings, obviously. It’s a necessary part of the job, that languid repose; that successful weakening of the usual human determination to do something useful and purposeful rather than just sit around all day trying to think up amusing names for people and places that don’t exist. Trollope, renowned for his determined working habits, and often...

Every Rusty Hint: Anthony Powell

Ian Sansom, 21 October 2004

I happened to read Michael Barber’s rather off-beat and amusing biography of Anthony Powell while waiting for a delayed easyJet flight from Stansted to Belfast and enduring all the usual privations of short-haul, low-cost flying: being shunted from gate to gate, and from sky-blue-upholstered departure lounge to sky-blue-upholstered departure lounge; and being jostled, and jostling, on...

When I left school I went to work for Jesus – preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captive, testifying, as With great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus (Acts 4.33). I was also interested in restoring sight to the blind (Luke 4.19), casting out demons (Luke 9.1), cleansing lepers (Matthew 8.1-4), feeding thousands (Luke 9.10-17)...

“A marathon of self-obsession, self-pity, misery, filth, shame, loneliness, isolation, and a lot of embarrassing stuff about sex. It’s difficult to pick out the funniest bit in a book that is entirely lacking in humour, but ‘apart from language, I am French’ is pretty hard to beat. Or there’s this, written in 1963, when Fowles was in his late thirties: ‘Their minds don’t work like mine, they aren’t “free” or “authentic” in the senses I use those words.’ How true. Particularly since Fowles’s freedom and authenticity leads him to hang around the house all day watching women through a telescope . . .”

Omdamniverous: D.J. Enright

Ian Sansom, 25 September 2003

This is the end of something – although of what exactly it’s not quite clear. The death of D.J. Enright, in December 2002, makes one ask some serious questions about poets and about critics. To put it bluntly: there will be no more books from Dennis Enright. Does it matter? Should we be sad? Should we be bothered?

Writing in the LRB just over twenty years ago, the near-omniscient...

Happy Knack: Betjeman

Ian Sansom, 20 February 2003

Betjeman: New Fame, New Love is, then, quite a marvellous thing, and in several senses perverse. There is a lot of murk in it, because there’s an awful lot of murk in any life, if you look close enough and long enough, and poets are dirtier than most people, although with Betjeman perhaps the stains stand out more, in a public life of proverbial white-suited and baggy-trousered gentility.”

Smorgasbits: Jim Crace

Ian Sansom, 15 November 2001

According to Henry James, reviewing John Cross’s life of George Eliot,

the creations which brought her renown were of the incalculable kind, shaped themselves in mystery, in some intellectual back-shop or secret crucible, and were as little as possible implied in the aspect of her life. There is nothing more singular or striking in Mr Cross’s volumes than the absence of any...

Tony Parsons is the talented journalist who used to play Leonard Bast to Tom Paulin’s rentier intellectual on Late Review, the BBC’s weekly parade of Schlegelisms. He was the mean little man with the Estuary accent who was entitled to his views. He currently writes a column for the Mirror and his opinions spill forth also now in novels. ‘The problem these days is not getting...

There are those who like to mortise a plot, carefully and neatly, and there are those who are content simply to bang it together with panel pins and a tube or two of Gripfill. Jonathan Coe is undoubtedly the craftsman – a counter-sinking, dove-tailing, professional-finishing kind of writer. But he does get away with the occasional bodge. The framing device for his new novel, The...

Shareware: Dave Eggers

Ian Sansom, 16 November 2000

The title of Dave Eggers’s book is fair warning: it prepares the reader to put on a happy face. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius comes emulsioned with the kind of compliments and absurd little pronunciamentos that stretch credulity. ‘The force and energy of this book could power a train,’ apparently. Goodness knows what kind of vehicle you might be able to start up...

What’s this? A. Alvarez

Ian Sansom, 24 August 2000

‘Every critic,’ H.L. Mencken wrote in his notebooks,‘

Always read the acknowledgments. These preliminary matters often say more about the real, sad, self-deluding and lonely life of the writer and scholar than any number of biographies: the long-suffering husbands and wives; the neglected children; the countless hours spent on research in libraries and archives; the pathetic gratitude to agents and outside research bodies; the sabbatical leave kindly granted; the endless discussions with brilliant and understanding friends or fellow Faculty, who nonetheless bear no responsibility for any errors that remain. And then there are all those others, the unacknowledged, too numerous and too mundane to mention: the Mister Kiplings, the Messrs Cadbury and McVitie, the Jack Daniels, the Sainsburys, the Guinnesses, the Marks and the Spencers, and of course dear old Mister Gordon and his fine distillery. These many named and unnamed of the acknowledgment pages are the foundations on which a book is built: they help to determine its size and shape, its character and its content, and they deserve our attention. When Helen Vendler begins her recent book on Seamus Heaney, for example, ‘I am grateful to Seamus Heaney, first and foremost, for all the invaluable poetry and prose that he has added to the store of literature in English,’ you can be fairly sure that she’s not about to set out on a careless demolition job, and when she then goes on to thank the stock-piling Heaney for personally checking her chronology and compiling the book’s discography, you know for certain that what you are about to witness is a bit of celebratory barn-raising. And quite right too: Vendler teaches at Harvard, and so does Heaney, and you don’t, as the saying goes, shit on your own doorstep.‘

The title of this novel is a contraction (of the famous phrase from W.E. Henley’s ‘Pro Rege Nostro’, ‘What have I done for you,/England, my England’). The dust-jacket design is a steal (‘after the Our Counties Jig-Saw Puzzle, Tower Press’). The blurb is a cliché (‘As every schoolboy knows …’: Macaulay out of Auden). The central plot device is borrowed (from Clough Williams-Ellis’s terrible vision in On Trust for the Nation). The central character is a composite caricature (part Robert Maxwell, part Mohamed al-Fayed). The story is as old as the hills (love, betrayal, the search for happiness). The plot structure is both obvious and predictable (a three-parter, with the requisite climaxes and crises), the themes comforting and familiar (the meaning of memory, of nationhood and selfhood), the idiom entirely typical and self-regarding. England, England, in other words, is a book which not only poses questions about integrity and authenticity, but is itself something of a poser.‘

‘I was there, I saw it’: Ted Hughes

Ian Sansom, 19 February 1998

Captain Hook, ‘cadaverous and blackavised’, ‘never more sinister than when he is most polite’, lives in fear of the crocodile who ate his arm and swallowed a clock. ‘That crocodile,’ Hook announces in Act II of Peter Pan, ‘would have had me before now, but … before he can reach me I hear the tick and bolt.’ ‘Some day,’ retorts the bespectacled boatswain Smee, ‘the clock will run down, and then he’ll get you.’ In the end, of course, time runs out for the dastardly Hook. Ted Hughes makes use of the story in his poem ‘Tick Tock Tick Tock’, from Remains of Elmet (1979), though with two important differences: the timepiece is now alarmed, and it’s Peter who’s in danger.‘


Ian Sansom, 11 December 1997

They call him Mister Bombastic: ‘Because he is well capable of rhetoric and flourish, he too often allows these two-edged gifts to deflect him from a real, vivid self into a bombastic stance’ (Eavan Boland); ‘I have found Walcott’s extravagance of poetic diction and tendency to verbosity off-putting in the past’ (Peter Porter); ‘I feel that the fuss and the language are not quite justified by the donné’ (Roy Fuller). Derek Walcott has suffered, perhaps more than any other contemporary poet writing in English, from accusations that his work is too showy. Some of the accusations stick.‘


Ian Sansom, 17 July 1997

W.H. Auden’s first published book review appeared in the Criterion in April 1930, and his first sentence cuts a dash: ‘Duality is one of the oldest of our concepts; it appears and reappears in every religion, metaphysic and code of ethics; it is reflected in (or perhaps reflects) the earliest social system of which we have knowledge – the Dual Organisation in Ancient Egypt; one of its most important projections is war.’ If one’s looking for evidence of the poetic style in the prose, it’s all here: the bobby-dazzling grand statement; the vague, adult gesture towards philosophy and religion and anthropology; the brow-furrowing reminder of war; the lolloping punctuation; the careful suggestion of wide reading and the faint twinkle of self-conscious word-play. In 1930 Auden was a 23-year-old Oxford graduate, recently returned from a year in Berlin, who had finally had his first collection of poems accepted by Faber. He was a young man beginning to make his mark on the world; he was discovering his voice, and his role. He had decided to become a teacher.’

All the Cultural Bases

Ian Sansom, 20 March 1997

This is tricky. First the facts. In 1936 W.H. Auden persuaded Faber and Faber to commission a travel book about Iceland. He spent three months in the country, part of the time travelling with his friend Louis MacNeice and a group of schoolboys and a teacher from Bryanston School. Auden and MacNeice collaborated in the writing of the book, which was published in 1937 as Letters from Iceland. It contained not only Auden’s ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, but also a number of other putative letters (to Richard Crossman and William Coldstream, for instance), MacNeice’s ‘Eclogue from Iceland’, the famously camp prose-piece ‘Hetty to Nancy’, and the joint-authored ‘Last Will and Testament’. According to Auden, MacNeice wrote about eighty of the 240 pages (the review in the TLS compared MacNeice’s contributions to ‘desolate pools unmoved beside a volcano five times in eruption’). As well as the poems and prose pieces the book includes 52 black and white photographs, all taken by Auden, appendices containing pie-charts and graphs, and a fine, coloured folding map. There is an extensive bibliography and one chapter is entirely devoted to an anthology of excerpts from other books about Iceland. The pages of the volume are thick, white unwater-marked wove paper and the whole thing – as eloquently described by Bloomfield and Mendelson, in their Auden Bibliography – is’


Ian Sansom, 7 March 1996

In a power-rhyming slap-happy parody of Thirties doom-mongering published in 1938 William Empson famously had ‘Just a Smack at Auden’:

Wayne’s World

Ian Sansom, 6 July 1995

Reading through Carol Ann Duffy’s unremarkable early pamphlet publications, one despairs of finding any sign of promise, any sign that this romantic and dreamy adolescent (‘Cast off your thighs/and irrigate the desert of my body’s europe’) would one day be hailed as our best British poet, the voice of a generation. Then one comes across the poem ‘Army’, published by the preternaturally far-sighted Howard Sergeant in the pamphlet Fleshweathercocks in 1973, when Duffy was just 18 years old. It begins:

Abecedary: Ian Sansom

James Francken, 20 May 2004

At the tail-end of 2000, Ian Sansom decided to move from London to a small town in County Down. He had half expected friends to dismiss his plan as a backwoods adventure, and was surprised when...

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Dream On: Bringing up Babies

Katha Pollitt, 11 September 2003

Rightly (conservative version) or wrongly (liberal version), the workplace is structured to suit men, preferably men with stay-at-home wives. The qualities rewarded there – self-reliance,...

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