The Quietus: Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

In ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish’, one of the stories that make up Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell’s best-known work, the eponymous narrator is in a taxi when he hears a song on the radio "about how everything that dies some day comes back". (The song isn’t named, but it’s Bruce Springsteen’s Atlantic City.) Popular... Continue Reading →

New Humanist: An Indifference of Birds by Richard Smyth

Every winter, white storks – so elegant in the air, so rickety on land – make the long flight south from Europe to what we assume to be ancestral wetlands in sub-Saharan Africa. At least, that’s what most of them do. These days there’s one who disdains the long-haul option, preferring to hop across from... Continue Reading →

Literary Review: Sons of the Waves by Stephen Taylor

At their peak, early in the 19th century, there were some 262,427 of them across Britain’s naval and merchant fleets. People called them Jacks, but they are nameless mostly. Or nameless to history. Even on surviving musters, their identities can be hidden behind pseudonyms. Some of these – George Million or Jacob Blackbeard, say –... Continue Reading →

The Quietus: A New Day Yesterday by Mike Barnes

It’s early 1974, British band Henry Cow is in the studio recording its second album, Unrest. One track features a 40-foot tape loop. Another is based on the Fibonacci sequence, a structural device borrowed from Karlheinz Stockhausen. The track is in 55/8 time. Henry Cow’s ethos is based on creating music it isn’t yet competent... Continue Reading →

FT: Dead Famous by Greg Jenner

On Guy Fawkes’ Night in 1709, Henry Sacheverell, an Anglican minister, preached an incediary sermon in St Paul’s against religious non-conformity in the church. It was widely interpreted as a coded attack on the then Whig government, not least by the government itself, which attempted to have Sacheverell tried for sedition. Whatever his other talents,... Continue Reading →

Living through lockdown: Julian of Norwich, TS Eliot and the life-shaped hole in our hearts

For those who don't feel inclined to watch the film I made for A Bit Lit on life during lockdown, here's a rough transcript. My name is Mathew Lyons, and I am a freelance writer and historian. In practice, that means I am lucky enough to mostly work from home. Sometimes I work on the... Continue Reading →

The life-shaped hole in our hearts: lockdown, solace and cultural memory

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to contribute a brief film to the A Bit Lit YouTube channel, created by Andy Kesson and others as a forum for thoughts on literature, history and culture during lockdown. So here I am, talking about freedom and confinement, about emotional and spiritual spaces, about monasticism and... Continue Reading →

The Author: Book Parts, edited by Dennis Duncan and Adam Smyth

In 1723 the London bookseller Thomas Graves published a 12-page pamphlet entitled The First of April. Written in praise of the author of a recent poem named Ridotto, or Downfal of Masquerades, it comprises a title page, a six-page dedicatory epistle, and The First of April itself, a three-page poem. There is an an attractive... Continue Reading →

Literary Review: Sailing School by Margaret E Schotte

On Christmas Eve, 1789, HMS Guardian found itself in the shadow of two great icebergs some 1,300 miles south-east of the Cape of Good Hope. The ship’s captain, 29-year-old Edward Riou, ordered a double watch be kept, but, engulfed in fog and with darkness falling, the Guardian struck one all the same. The collision tore... Continue Reading →

History Today: The Matter of Song in Early Modern England by Katherine R Larson

A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to hear legendary English folk singer Shirley Collins perform. One of the songs she sang was ‘Awake, Awake’, written by Thomas Deloney in 1580 but seemingly forgotten until Ralph Vaughan Williams heard it sung by an elderly Herefordshire woman in July 1909. Long dead on the... Continue Reading →

History Today: Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist by Elizabeth Goldring

It is July 1571, and Elizabeth I is sitting for a portrait in “the open ally of a goodly garden”, almost certainly at Hampton Court. The portrait is “in little” – what we would now call a watercolour miniature, although the latter term didn’t enter the English language until Sir Philip Sidney introduced it from... Continue Reading →

Renaissance Studies: Thomas Churchyard: Pen, Sword & Ego by Matthew Woodcock

If, as every self-help book will tell you, persistence really were the key to success, Thomas Churchyard would surely have been the most successful writer of the sixteenth century. Reader, he was not – but it was not for want of trying. One measure of Churchyard’s distant familiarity with fame is that Matthew Woodcock’s Thomas... Continue Reading →

History Today: Birds in the Ancient World by Jeremy Mynott

Pity the wryneck – a species of long-tongued woodpecker – in ancient Greece: it had the great misfortune to be considered an essential part of a sex toy. The poor bird was spread-eagled and bound to the four spokes of a wheel, which, when spun, whistled in a way thought sure to arouse desire in... Continue Reading →

The Stage: Ralegh: The Treason Trial

Before its run in the Sam Wanamaker Theatre beginning 24 November, Oliver Chris’ staging of Sir Walter Ralegh’s treason trial had several performances in the Great Hall in Winchester, where the trial itself was held on 17 November 1603. Ralegh had been Elizabeth I’s favourite. But he had no standing with James I, and when... Continue Reading →

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War at the British Library

King David composing the psalms, Vespasian Psalter, 8th century, Kent ©British Library MGM, at its zenith in the 1940s, used to boast that it had more stars than there are in heaven on its roster. It’s a phrase that came back to me walking round the current, jaw-droppingly good exhibition at the British Library, Anglo-Saxon... Continue Reading →

FT: White King: Charles I – Traitor, Murderer, Martyr by Leanda de Lisle

White King by Leanda de Lisle On New Year’s Day 1640, Charles I was in the Banqueting House participating in what would be the last court masque of his reign. Charles himself performed as King Philogenes, the lover of his people, who rescues his kingdom from a Fury named Discord. “All that are harsh, all... Continue Reading →

TLS: Summer’s Last Will and Testament by Thomas Nashe

  Saturday 30 September saw a unique staging of Thomas Nashe’s only extant whole-authored play, Summer’s Last Will and Testament, in the Great Hall of the Bishop’s Palace in Croydon, where it was first performed in the early autumn of 1592. The performance was a joint venture between the Edward’s Boys company, from the King... Continue Reading →

Mary, Countess of Pembroke: poetry, patronage and power

This is, more or less, the text of the talk I gave earlier this month at the Wilton History Festival. Mary, Countess of Pembroke, and her sons William and Philip, were the most influential patrons of the Elizabethan and Jacobean era. Let’s begin with a story to illustrate that assertion. For the moment, we will... Continue Reading →

Of God and Jonson: theatre history, new things and non-events

I was fortunate to be able to attend some of the superb Before Shakespeare conference at Roehampton last week. I came away with a range of thoughts and ideas, some of which I hope to pursue in one form or another. Perhaps the thing that struck me most, however, was Bill Ingram’s opening talk. Ingram... Continue Reading →

Wilton History Festival: the Countess of Pembroke and her circle

Just a brief post to say I will be speaking at Wilton History Festival on 17 September about the literary circle around Mary Sidney and the power of patronage. For those who don't know, Mary Sidney was the younger sister Philip Sidney and is the Countess of Pembroke for whom he wrote the Arcadia. However,... Continue Reading →

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