Best of Brit Lit
A look at great reads from the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. This week: tourists who hate the locals in Florence, a real guide to Knossos, and a critic’s poetry.
Foreigners in Florence
In a summer holiday season of lowered wealth and heightened carbon anxieties, it seems appropriate for the TLS to point up some of the less-attractive aspects of travel. Bernd Roeck's book, Florence 1900, is a picture of Northern European visitors to Italy who characteristically despised the locals whenever they couldn't ignore them. Cultural tourists from Germany and England liked their destination to be Dante's nursery and Michelangelo's playschool rather than a city full of living Florentines. Our critic Jonathan Keates praises Roeck's depiction of an expatriate band—from Thomas Mann to Aby Warburg—who loved everything about Florence, apart from the people to whom it belonged. The idea that their Renaissance Arcadia might be a real city with railway strikes and riots was met with “distaste, incomprehension and irritation.” There was always “that dreadful Southern vivacity” and the locals with the “conscienceless” eyes.
Travelers to Knossos in Crete will often leave that island with the certainty that they have walked through the birthplace of European civilization. In truth, the “ancient palace” of the Minoans is much more a shrine to the brazen than to the Bronze Age. The first sentence of Knossos & the Prophets of Modernism, a wonderful new book by Cathy Gere, sets out succinctly how the palace has its own dubious distinction—as “one of the first reinforced-concrete buildings ever erected on the island,” a creation of the famed early 20th-century archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans, who, like many travelers, imposed on their destination their own ideals. Evans thought that Minoan Crete, if it were to be the childhood of Europe, should ideally have been spent in peaceful play without war or other corruption. So an “invert’s paradise of female deities, cross-dressing priests, and girl athletes” was invented, as Tom Holland describes in his TLS review. This is the guide to Knossos that every tourist should take.
You and Ian Hamilton
The English poet and critic Ian Hamilton produced much more criticism than poetry. As the leading literary editor in London during the 1960s and ‘70s, he was fearless at cutting down reputations when cutting down was required. Even Robert Lowell, whose biographer he became, was guilty sometimes of “a shambles on the page.” Hamilton published his own poetry slowly and sparingly: “Fifty poems in 25 years: Not much to show for half a lifetime you might think.” Eight years after his death, the little that Hamilton released, and a little more that he did not, has been collected by the poet Alan Jenkins. TLS critic Christopher Reid discovers “espresso-sized shocks of intimate revelation.”
Peter Stothard is editor of the Times Literary Supplement. He was editor of The Times of London from 1992-2002. He writes about ancient and modern literature and is the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.