Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain
Seamus Heaney is perhaps the major poet most interested in the power of memory since Wordsworth, so it is unsettling, as the Oxford poet and critic Peter McDonald puts it in the TLS, to find him confronting the possibility of oblivion, of letting memories go, in his new and remarkable collection, Human Chain. Here his lifelong engagement with Virgil's Aeneid comes through more strongly than ever, not least when we find ourselves on a riverbank that is both "identifiably Virgilian" and "every bit as firmly located in County Derry," remembering his father coming home "undrowned" from a near-miss incident with a tractor toppling into a river—or when Heaney recalls his friend, the artist Colin Middleton in the elegiac "Loughanure." This is a profound and beautiful volume, McDonald argues, but characteristically playful and exact in its choice of words.
The Mad, Bad Britain of the 1970s
Few Britons claim that their finest memories are from the 1970s, an unfashionable time that was, writes Sean O'Brien this week, "part joke, part nightmare, nasty, brutish and long." He is reviewing Dominic Sandbrook's State of Emergency, which covers the early part of the decade when trouble, strikes, and football hooligans stalked the land. While noting that in a Britain governed by Prime Minister Edward Heath, even the quality of TV drivel was lower than before or after, O'Brien dislikes the author's exaggerated, almost comic, distaste for Marxist influences and his innocent "middle-class assumptions" that, 40 years on, "may well prove very popular."
What did Caliban have for dinner? From crabs (apples or crustaceans) to seamews (birds or walruses), as our reviewer Elizabeth Scott-Baumann points out, his foodstuffs are "ambivalent"—but Shakespeare was by no means the only writer to put coded messages in his food. Frances Burney, made to eat cake by Dr. Johnson, saw mealtimes as moments when buried tensions were revealed; Mary Wollstonecraft wrote about the "politics of breast-milk." But then there is also Lady Juliana in the lesser-known Susan Ferrier's novel Marriage, who faints at the sight, or smell, of herring. Of three new books about food from the Renaissance to the early 19th century, it is perhaps Sarah Moss' Spilling the Beans that offers the most "bookish" insights into a mouth-watering subject.
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.